In Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw, an eldritch abomination walks around in a human suit, playing hardboiled private detective John Persons, a monster who works against other monsters, working for its own inscrutable reasons against Lovecraftian incursions. A Song for Quiet is a standalone novella in the same setting, though a continent away and decades prior, with Persons relegated to an ambiguous supporting role as the narrative shifts to focus on rambling bluesman Deacon James.
Any more detail would give away the plot of the story, and it has little to spare.
In terms of theme and content, A Song for Quiet is a distant literary descendent of “The Music of Erich Zann,” the essential theme reworked and woven with considerable skill and imagination into a new context, a cousin to stories like “The Opera Singer” (2015) by Priya J. Sridhar and “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder—in part because music is the language and the medium by which the weirdness from Outside penetrates this reality, but because music doesn’t just happen. You need a figure on the threshold, like Erich Zann, who has the skills to play and faces the choice to do so. That places a very human conflict in the midst of what might otherwise be a very impersonal cosmic struggle. Ultimately, the musician on the threshold has to decide if to play.
Khaw’s choice to center the narrative on one such threshold-character, Deacon James, comes with advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that Khaw is a skillful writer who really gets into James’ head, and the world seen through his eyes is a part of the world in stories like The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff, and Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark—where Black people, even in a relatively unsegregated northern city like Arkham, have to step carefully, watch their words and actions, because any wrong step could mean violence and death. Jim Crow America was an ugly place with its very mundane horrors, without adding any Lovecraftian horrors to the mix.
The downside is, James knows nothing about the Lovecraftian aspect of the setting and doesn’t learn much of anything by the book’s end. Hammers on Bone worked so well in part because John Persons was an insider on the occult world of the Mythos, readers got their point of view and many things could be explained or accepted because of that. A Song for Quiet, seen mostly through the bluesman’s eyes, is like much in life a puzzle for which many pieces are missing and which will never be complete. John Persons in this book is one piece that doesn’t seem to fit (unless the reader has read Hammers on Bone at some point); he appears from nowhere, does things, explains almost nothing, and this is all perfectly in keeping with how the character might appear to James, but it’s as damnably frustrating as a poorly-played non-player character in a session of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, enigmatic to a fault.
Another piece that doesn’t quite fit is Arkham itself. As a setting, Khaw does a tremendous job of expressing the unease a Black man might feel traveling to and being in a relatively unknown northern city; used to the more openly segregated South, Deacon James is only really at ease in Black spaces. Why it features in the story is another question entirely: Arkham is the backdrop, but it could almost as easily have been Boston, New York, or even London. While an American city makes sense, since blues music is an African-American creation, by the 1940s the geographic remit of blues music and players had gone global. There’s nothing special about Arkham in this regard—it is the place name to cement a Lovecraftian connection, but Deacon James isn’t playing to an audience of hip Miskatonic University students or anything like that. So the setting feels a bit superfluous; like a film that drops a few Lovecraftian place names but doesn’t really connect to Lovecraft’s stories about those places.
This isn’t a damning criticism: many stories have only peripheral connections to the wider Mythos, and that’s fine. The first and most important thing is whether or not the story is good, the amount of Mythos lore dropped is not a primary measure of story quality. The lament here is that it could have been better. Khaw’s take on Arkham through James’ POV is intriguing, it’s something that the novella could have used more of, and if that setting had tied more strongly into the plot it would have been smashing…or perhaps it would have turned a tightly written and fast-paced novella into a bloated short novel.
There is a lot to like about this story; Khaw’s prose is alternately poetic and grounded, using music metaphors to give shape and texture to things seen and unseen, and the characters are well-defined. As another episode of the Persona Non Grata series, it expands the world of Hammers on Bone without stepping on any toes, far enough away in time and space so that the two stories can work independently, but taken together suggesting a wider, more complex world. Thematically, the ending is a strong focus on the human conflict of the musician on the threshold, but the missing pieces of the puzzle leave a bit of tension, like a chord that refuses to resolve.
When I was 6 or 7 I used to be tormented constantly with a peculiar type of recurrent nightmare in which a monstrous race of entities (called by my “Night-Gaunts”—I don’t know where I got hold of the name) used to snatch me up by the stomach (bad digestion?) and carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needlelike pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let drop—and as I gained momentum in my Icarus-like plunge I would start awake in such panic that I hated to think of sleeping again. The “night-gaunts” were black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all. Undoubtedly I derived the image from the jumbled memory of Doré’s drawings (largely the illustrations to Paradise Lost) which fascinated me in waking hours. They had no voices, and their only form of real torture was their habit of tickling my stomach (digestion again0 before snatching me up and swooping away with me. I sometimes had the vague notion that they lived in the black burrows honeycombing the pinnacle of some incredibly high mountain somewhere. they seemed to come in flocks of 25 or 50, and would sometimes fling me one to the other. Night after night I dreamed the same horror with only minor variants—but I never struck those hideous mountain peaks before waking. If I had…well, the point is that these things decreased rapidly as I grew older. Each year I believed less and less of the supernatural, and when I was 8 I began to be interested in science and cast off my last shred of religious and other superstitious belief. I do not recall many “night-gaunt” dreams after I was 8—or any after I was 10 or 11. But Yuggoth, what an impression they made on me! 34 years later I chose them as the theme of one of my Fungi….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Virgil Finlay, 24 Oct 1936, Selected Letters 5.335
A common refrain these days is to separate the art from the artist. To distinguish between an appreciation for a creator’s works from an appreciation or an agreement with the author themselves. One could, hypothetically, pick up a book by a mass murderer and enjoy it without knowing anything about the author, or admire a painting at a gallery without any awareness that the artist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan…but this implies a level of ignorance about the creator; the person approaches their work without context, without any expectation or prejudice.
It becomes more difficult to separate the art from the artist when you know more about the creator in question, when the events of their lives and their other works inform various details and themes throughout their ouevre. Such is the case with Howard Phillips Lovecraft—and perhaps more than that.
As understanding of Lovecraft’s life has deepened and spread, so that the portrait of his life has become more complete, so too have the warts become more apparent. Lovecraft was generally kind, well-mannered, generous to a fault within his limited means, and gave tremendous encouragement to many writers, some of whom like Robert Bloch would go on to be amazingly influential themselves. Lovecraft was also, by his own admission, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic. Cultural syntax on these traits has shifted: readers and creators no longer want to passively acknowledge them, some of them want to actively engage with the massive underlying issues of prejudice through Lovecraft…so, contemporary works like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin, and Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee continue to engage with Lovecraft’s legend and legacy, though in a different way than previous generations.
Somewhere in between the iconic fictional Lovecrafts of the early generations of Mythos authors and the strawmen and monsters of the current generation lies Joyce Carol Oates’ character of Horace Phineas Love, Jr. from her novella “Night-Gaunts.”
H. P. Love, Jr. is, despite many similarities, patently not H. P. Lovecraft. Love is a semiotic ghost, a deliberately distorted vision of Lovecraft’s childhood, reimagined and remixed. Much of their lives have parallel: the father that died of syphilis, the grandfather’s library, the intelligent child that became a weird fiction author as an adult. Yet a great deal of it is not right, too. Lovecraft didn’t have the Scots nurses; or lost the family home; and certainly never found a copy of the Necronomicon in his grandfather’s library. Very likely, Lovecraft didn’t have congenital syphilis either, a point that has constituted an entire thread of Lovecraft scholarship from the time Winfield Townley Scott revealed the cause of Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s death down throuh Victoria Nelson’s “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies”—even though Lovecraft didn’t test positive for the disease during his final illness (see “The Shadow of Syphilis” in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).
Which kind of begs the question: if H. P. Love, Jr. is modelled on H. P. Lovecraft but also very deliberately not Lovecraft…why? What is the point? What story is Oates telling us when she writes snippets like:
A young girl-urchin, scarcely ten, opens her soiled dress—bares her white, scrawny chest—tiny breasts, with small pinpoint-nipples—twelve-year-old Horace is astonished—he has never seen anything like this except in certain of the illustrations in his grandfather’s liberary and then never of children so young. It is horrible to see, it is hideous, the aghast boy feels no sex-desire but only pity and sorrow, and fear.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense315
If this was a way for Oates to address a fictional Lovecraft-clone’s apparent asexuality or lack of sexual desire, it’s a damn weird way of doing it. In truth, “Night-Gaunts” gives no direct answers to what it is about. In broad strokes, it is a kind of ghost story, but it is a ghost story that gets a bit lost up its own internal anatomy pursuing the alternative life of very-definitely-not-H. P. Lovecraft in a way that nevertheless seems to reflect very strongly on certain interpretations of the life and characters of H. P. Lovecraft.
A clue might be the image of the birthmark which H. P. Love, Jr. and his syphilitic father H. P. Love, Jr. share; this would appear to be an homage or reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story “The Birth-Mark.” If one keeps the moral of that tale in mind, “Night-Gaunts” might be read as a message and a meditation on Lovecraft—how the focus on the mundane facts of a biography ignores the immortal essence of the legend, in a very “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” way—and that Horace Phineas Love, Jr. is, in effect both aninterpretation of the legendary Lovecraft and a kind of commentary on the same.
If this is the case, it might not be entirely successful. “Night-Gaunts” reminds a great deal of Fred Chappell’s novel Dagon (1987), where the writing is good, but the themes, plot, and characterization never seem to really come together. In weird fiction, the atmosphere and telling of the story count for more than actual plot, but for “Night-Gaunts” there is a sort of postmodern purposelessness to it all: the events of Lovecraft’s life nearly define the contours of the story (except when they don’t; H. P. Love, Jr. never marries), but the internal journey of H. P. Love, Jr. is necessarily incomplete, tasks unfinished, questions unanswered.
Not every question needs an answer—the reader can decide for themselves whether or not the night-gaunts are real—or what writhing form was glimpsed in the master bedroom—but it feels like there should have been, at least, some metafictional flicker of awareness. Something to clue Love or the reader in to what their true connection to Lovecraft was. Absent that, “Night-Gaunts” feels a bit like a love letter to a dead boyfriend…an effort not to communicate to anyone that might read it, but to work out in prose some thoughts and ideas about that semiotic echo of Lovecraft in popular culture, the recluse so many readers have dreamed Lovecraft as rather than the flesh-and-blood man who lived and died.
The Truth Is Out There
—X Files, “Pilot,” 10 September 1993
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was created in 1908, when H. P. Lovecraft was eighteen years old. In his youth, he had formed a detective agency with his friends, inspired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and similar private companies. The Secret Service was the arm of the U. S. Treasury department, set up to crack counterfeiting rings and protect the president; the Black Chamber, forerunner of the National Security Agency, wouldn’t be formed until 1919.
Lovecraft had grown up in a world without G-men. With the passage of the Volstead Act and Prohibition, that would change. Hardboiled pulp crime magazines demanded more than just Sherlock Holmes-style consulting detectives, police detectives, Texas Rangers, federal marshals, or Pinkertons, though all of those characters had their place in the pages of magazines like Black Mask. Dashiell Hammett cut his teeth with The Continental Op, who worked for a fictional Continental Detective Agency modeled after the Pinkertons that Hammett himself would work for. Yet it was the rise of organized crime that came with Prohibition, and the personage of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the new Bureau of Investigation, that put their stamp on the idea of government agents in pulp fiction.
During the winter of 1927–28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting—under suitable precautions—of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.
H. P. Lovecraft didn’t invent the idea that governments conceal certain things from the public; the Great War impressed on the whole nation the importance of some things remaining secret. Yet it is important to place “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in that context of the rise of the G-men, of government agencies concerned with finding secrets and keeping them…and to understand that the roots of spy fiction in the Mythos, the whole cloak-and-tentacle business in Bruce Sterling’s “The Unthinkable” (1991), Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” (1994), Delta Green (1997), Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” (2000) and The Atrocity Archives (2004), “The Star that is Not a Star” (2016) by Lucy Brady—they’re all part of a continuing tradition, born out of changes in the United States government, world affairs, and the semiotic impact on an American culture that knows that its government is hiding things from it.
Which leads also to flavors and trends in spy fiction. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is flashy, emotionally damaged, fighting secret wars against terrorists with next-generation gadgetry; Len Deighton’s unnamed protagonist of The IPCRESS FILE is faced with something no less fantastic, but the syntax is different—James Bond doesn’t deal with paperwork and bureaucracy. Spy fiction tends to vacillate between the glamorous fantasy and the grungy reality. The staid George Smiley of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the psychologically damaged one-man-army of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, but they’re two sides of the same fictional coin, different iterations of the concept of the government agent, the finders and keepers of secrets.
Which is all background to set Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland in it’s proper context: the here-and-now of 2015, with a hazy secret history that extends out of knowing into past and future alike. The post-Cold War zeitgeist married the pre-war concept of G-men with the burgeoning fields of Ufology, the Shaver Mystery, Men in Black and Black Helicopters, and the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pulp fiction jumped the semiotic shark when conspiracy fantasies like Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum became more or less indistinguishable from the actual conspiracy theories being peddled in Fate Magazine. When The X-Files hit in 1993, based on the 70s journalistic exploits of Kolchak, the Night Stalker, it was a spike driven straight into the vein of the American collective unconscious.
People want to believe the truth really is out there…and that the government knows and is hiding it.
Post-X Files fiction in this vein is rife, everything from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), and Paul (2011) to graphic novels like Groom Lake(2009). Some are played straight, others for laughs—the bigger the cover-up, the more people and resources at play, the more it stretches the suspension of disbelief that any government agency can keep a lid on anything for any period of time.
Yet at the same time, everyone accepts that governments do successfully cover up things all the time. Documents are unclassified over time and reveal the details of events that happened in the shadows…and we know there are files still sealed. Secret histories under lock and seal. Anything might be in there—and that’s the attraction of the government conspiracy mindset. The imagination can populate those locked binders with any secrets—never mind that most of them are probably mundane things, like the sexual escapades of past presidents now safely dead, or the schematics for encryption machines rusting away in some government warehouse.
While his parents sleep, the boy is treated to Ray Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, and, finally, English director James Whale’s little-known and once-believed-lost The Star Maiden (1934).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland (2017), 48
Agents of Dreamland is the first in her Tinfoil Dossier series, which will probably be compared to Charles Stross’s Laundry series by default: both involve the Men-in-Black end of a government cover up, agencies working behind the scenes to investigate and contain the Mythos. The two bodies of work are distinctly different beasts, however. Kiernan’s point-of-view character the Signalman is on the ragged end of a career out on the edge of the spook world, a veteran of too many horrors. Not the smartest or the most clever, no Jason Bourne-style action scenes, just a bone-weary tiredness and a looming sense of desperation hovering over all.
That’s the mood. This is a war that can’t be won, because the people fighting it don’t realize it is a war yet.
The lore is stripped down; this isn’t a roleplaying game supplement about the Men in Black and their valiant secret war against the Cthulhu Mythos. This is grungier, grittier, more homely and with an air of inevitability. There are scenes and themes reminiscent of Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Lovecraft, for all that he created, was working within a late-19th/early-20th century frame of scientific understanding—and science has dug up some much stranger things since 1937.
Kiernan doles out the information from the black dossier in measured doses, switching point of view and time between chapters, balancing exposition and description. The idea isn’t to give the reader too much at once, to let the reader form their own connections, to feel the people that are in these places at these times. It’s a spy story written like a Cthulhu Mythos story, and by the time the reader finds out the truth about TheStar Maiden, puts the pieces together and think they have a clue about where this is going…
After I wrote “The Litany of Earth,” I thought I was done. I’d said what I needed to about Lovecraft and being a monster; it was time to move on. When people started asking for more, I figured it was just a nice way of saying “I liked it.” But the requests kept coming, and I started explaining to anyone who’d listen why the story didn’t need a sequel.
My second thanks, therefore, are to everyone who pushed for more of Aphra’s story until I talked myself around and figured out what else I had to say.
—Ruthanna Emrys, “Acknowledgements” in Winter Tide (2017) 363
A Cthulhu Mythos novel is difficult to write. The very first was August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945); others followed, such as Brian Lumley’s Beneath the Moors (1974) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978). Most of these early Mythos novels face the same problems and criticisms: the difficulty of maintaining a Lovecraftian narrative and atmosphere at length, and an over-reliance on Mythos tie-ins. They were basically very long pastiches, and not always good pastiche. The little tie-ins which readers thrill in during a short story can become overburdening if dwelt on at length, or if the entire story’s plot serves no other purpose than to expand on connections between parts of the Mythos. While Lovecraft could sometimes inundate readers with references, it was usually fairly brief and never to the detriment of the plot of the story he was telling. The reference to Innsmouth in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” for example, is a reference that would thrill readers of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but Lovecraft doesn’t focus on the connection, or even explain it.
Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth” is admirably self-contained in that way. While Aphra Marsh retells some of the events of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in her own words, the story is not just a retelling and commentary of Lovecraft’s story, but focuses on Aphra’s life after that tragedy. Coping and rebuilding, forming bonds and friendship, learning and learning to deal with accumulated trauma, trust issues, etc. The close of the story doesn’t cease Aphra’s narrative—she’s still alive—but neither does it beg for or immediately suggest a sequel.
Looking back at “The Litany of Earth” and Winter Tide in hindsight, it is easier to see how Emrys got from one to the other. The novel takes advantage of its length to explore a few of the themes of “Litany” in greater depth, and following that thread Aphra and her companions return to Lovecraft Country in Massachusetts, picking up on some of the wider connections between “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and the Mythos. Some of these work better than others; Pickman Sanitarium is basically an Easter egg, the Cthäat Aquadingen (originally created by Brian Lumley in “The Cyprus Shell”) a wink and a nod. The regurgitation of endless Mythos titles is the kind of thing that feels like running a finger down the laundry-list of tomes in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game; the little Mythos details are generally at their best when being creative (salt-cakes!)
While Emrys’ novel definitely isn’t pastiche, the over-reliance of tie-ins does drag a little; Miskatonic University in this incarnation looks a lot more like Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley in the sheer density and scale of the occult shenanigans. More annoyingly because some of the details given don’t line up, but without any real explanation. The founders of Innsmouth, for example, are alleged in the novel to have come from England rather than Oceania, and for reasons unspecified apparently the Deep Ones don’t have any communities off the West Coast of the United States. There might be good narrative reasons for this, but without some hint it feels like a misstep rather than a deliberate authorial choice. Those pedantic niggles are relatively rare, and not necessarily bad. For example, the Hall School for girls which Lovecraft mentioned in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is transformed into a women’s college affiliate with Miskatonic University in Winter Tide.
The issue of plot and atmosphere are different for Winter Tide than the early Mythos novels. “The Litany of Earth” never made any attempt to copy Lovecraft’s atmosphere; Emrys has her own voice and is comfortable with it. Aphra and the other main characters are essentially already initiates into the Mythos, or become initiated quickly, so there is a lot less peeling-back-the-onion…which is fine, except that nominally the A plot is a Cold War occult spy thriller (“cloak & enchanted dagger,” or maybe “cloak & tentacle”) a la Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and “A Colder War,” Tim Powers’ Declare, or even the Delta Green Roleplaying Game, and that plot goes…essentially nowhere. Most of the book, and thus most of the interest in the novel, relies entirely on the drama generated by the interactions between the slowly expanding cast of characters.
The expansion of the cast seems less organic than it should be. While admirably diverse for a Mythos novel in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the cast is bigger than it needs to be and some of the relationships feel forced. One of the characters from “Litany” is revealed as homosexual, for example, but there’s no build-up to the revelation and ultimately no real impact on the narrative. While Emrys is keenly aware of the discrimination that various characters are subject to in the 1940s United States of America for being some combination of women, homosexual, African-American, Japanese, Jewish, and/or an Innsmouth hybrid and doesn’t shy away from how bad the “good old days” could be if you weren’t a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, she can’t give equal attention to every single character’s experience and not all of those characters have an equal contribution to the nominal plot.
The opposition to Aphra & her group are basically heterosexual white people—whether privileged Miskatonic students, sexist and sexually abusive male university professors, or racist and sexist FBI agents. The characterization isn’t inaccurate to the time period (and it is the rampant bigotry, spoken and unspoken, which unites the group of outsiders in common cause), but it does get to be a little frustrating when pretty much every single one of them refuses to learn absolutely anything from the mistakes that leave a trail of bodies and ruined lives in their wake. Maybe that’s deliberate, but it still feels like there could have been room for more nuance—or, at least, that there would have been some small moral victory in getting at least one them to step out of their headspace of thinking they know better than everyone else, or of being self-righteous about it.
This could honestly have been the theme of the novel in many ways; a way of confronting past and future at once…but it feels like a B-plot that is, if not completely resolved, at least resolved way too quickly. There are good reasons why Aphra (or any woman) might want to have a child and not want to have a child; replace an aging parent with an immortal, fully-transformed Deep One asking when and how you’re going to spawn and suggesting suitable mates from your immediate pool of friends is something that could be played up for both horror and laughs. Yet for a decision that doesn’t have to be made right away, it’s one that Aphra caves to after a bare minimum of self-reflection. Aphra isn’t the only one subject to this expectation—at least two or three other characters are in analogous positions, even if not all of their family have gills—and Emrys could have played with the comparison of situations a bit more there, but chose not to.
Winter Tide is definitely a better written novel than The Lurker at the Threshold or Strange Eons; the characters are deeper, the interactions better, many of the embellishments on the Mythos more creative. From a Mythos perspective, it feels like it draws too much from the roleplaying game side of things; as a dramatic novel, it feels like it has too many characters and doesn’t do enough with those that are there. In comparison with “The Litany of Earth,” Winter Tide definitely doesn’t have the same focus; Emrys already made her point about providing an alternate take on “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and there’s no need to rehash it here—but neither does Emrys have quite the same twist or insight to offer on Miskatonic-focused stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and The Shadow Out of Time.
The marketing for this novel refers to it as part of the “Innsmouth Legacy” series—and it really is the focus on the bits and piece of Innsmouth culture, material and otherwise, that survive which are the best “Mythos” parts of the novel. The references to “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft are less interesting and relevant than the pieces of Innsmouth gold we see, and the meaning that they represent; the depictions of the gods (including “Shub-Nigaroth” as a substitute for “Shub-Niggurath,” probably to avoid any perceived issues with etymology); an origin story for the Deep Ones; the reference to how Innsmouth had few graveyards and that the dates on the stones were relatively young (stillbirths and childhood illnesses & accidents)…these are all good details. The kind of world-building which the book could have used more of, or have focused more on.
Is Winter Tide actually subverting Lovecraft? This is a question that applies to many books published around the same time which dealt with issues of race, prejudice, and the Mythos, including Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff and “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. It’s not an easy question to answer. 1949 is a different world than the one Lovecraft left in 1937, or wrote about when “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in 1931. Lovecraft himself was racist, to the point of bigotry, he was homophobic, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant; how much of that made it into “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep?”
The fantasy racism with regards to Innsmouth in Lovecraft’s fiction is inspired by the real-life racial discrimination of the United States in the 1930s, but in Lovecraft’s stories it is very specifically so much weirder than “normal” racism that the prejudices of the surrounding towns is the red herring. Unlike Winter Tide, no one in Lovecraft’s stories suspects what the people of Innsmouth actually are. That is what makes Lovecraft’s Innsmouth narrative so sensational…and what makes it so difficult to subvert.
Is it a subversion if the Deep Ones are sympathetic and not actively evil? Is it a subversion to tell a story from the perspective of a Deep One? Or to have a protagonist who openly embraces various characters without discriminating about them based on gender, sexuality, race, or religion? Not rhetorical questions; Ruthanna Emrys doesn’t carry forward many of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but neither does she invert all of them.
“The Innsmouth Legacy” is more inclusive than Lovecraft’s Mythos, but it can’t negate or even really address the substance of race and discrimination that informed Lovecraft’s writing. Or to put it another way, Winter Tide does not exist to deconstruct the ideas of race & the Cthulhu Mythos. Emrys works to turn Lovecraft’s ideas to her own usage, but in doing so never really questions the underlying fundamentals of some of those ideas—the Deep Ones (“Children of Water”) and K’n-yans (“Children of Earth”) are in several respects fundamentally different from “normal humans” (“Children of Air”), and Lovecraft’s depictions of them are treated as broadly accurate, if not universal—and they could not be otherwise, for the characters to be as they are, or the narrative to play out as it does.
In the review for “The Litany of Earth,” it was noted to make Deep Ones just a nigh-immortal, magically adept subspecies of humanity is to basically turn them into ugly versions of Tolkien’s elves. To extend a tortured metaphor, the depiction of the inhabitants of K’n-yan is basically a version of the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons. While they don’t have dark skin pigmentation, the K’n-yans are a magically adept subspecies of humanity, but one which is seen as (perhaps genetically) evil, insane, and sadistic; they are shunned by other intelligent peoples and subject to pejorative epithets (“dustblood”) and wariness, if not outright discrimination. The discovery of K’n-yan heritage fundamentally changes how a character views herself, and how she is viewed by an interacts with the other characters; this isn’t an ancestry test where the character is pleasantly surprised to see an unexpected result giving them a genetic tie that didn’t know about…and unlike at the end of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” acceptance of this unusual heritage does not equal any kind of promise of glorious transfiguration.
Which does not make Winter Tide in any sense a bad novel; a Dungeons & Dragons novel can be fine fantasy without working to subvert everything J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about elves. A book can be fresh and well-written without necessarily being revolutionary. Part of the point of a Cthulhu Mythos novel is to build on what has gone before—and add to it. Ruthanna Emrys has certainly done that.
Winter Tide was published in 2017; the Innsmouth Legacy series would continue with a sequel novel Deep Roots in 2019.
The cats of Ulthar steal across my dreams
On paws of softest fur and blure the seams
Of my subconscious with their purrs and eyes
Of molten gold that twinkle and that gleam
Like Beacon lights toward where their kingdom lies.
—Opening stanza of “On A Dreamland’s Moon” by Ashley Dioses, Diary of a Sorceress (2017), 120
“On A Dreamland’s Moon” takes its most direct inspiration from Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but the object of this dreamer’s quest is not the hidden gods of dream, but Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos. In language and imagery, however, the influence of Clark Ashton Smith is more evident, echoing some of his narrative poems such as “The Nightmare Tarn.” The purpose for which the narrator seeks out the soul and messenger of the Other Gods is revealed in such lines as:
Hail Nitokris, my patron, grant me skill
In amorous endeavors so the thrill
Of His enchantment will coil round my soul!
—”On A Dreamland’s Moon,” Diary of a Sorceress 121
Again, very much in the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, whose work so often dealt with love, sorcery, and death. The carnality by contemporary standards is subdued and artistic; erotic fantasies are better hinted at for the imagination to paint than spelled out explicitly, and there is always beauty in it, nothing as gritty as “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” (1998) by Katherine Morel.
One thing that jumps out in this work is the clever expansion of the role of Nitocris in the Mythos from her original appearances in both Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and “Under the Pyramids” (as “Nitokris”). A relatively minor character, seldom-used by other Mythos writers (Brian Lumley’s “The Mirror of Nitocris” comes to mind), the idea of the ghoul-queen as a spiritual patron—someone to model yourself after—is both entirely appropriate and offers interesting possibilities. Dioses expands on the character further in the subsequent poem, titled simply “Nitokris.”
Diary of a Sorceressis based after the Sorceress in the poem. This is her diary.
—Ashley Dioses, “Afterword” in Diary of a Sorceress 166
For context, within the book itself “On A Dreamland’s Moon” is sandwiched between the poems “Nyarlathotep” and “Nitokris” in the fourth section of the book. The three poems together form a thematic unit, but not a narrative one, in that they share characters and can be seen to speak about the same setting, but are not linear entries in the same story. The same in general could be said for the book as a whole: this is a collection, and there is a thread of a narrative that binds some of the poems together, but it is not a case that every poem is an integral part of the eponymous sorceress’ descent, and most can be enjoyed on their own.
What is interesting in considering “On A Dreamland’s Moon” in the context of the collection is how the Sorceress in her dreams is drawn by dark attraction to seek an inevitable yet destructive meeting. This puts the shoe on the other foot compared to how she initially responded to the love letter in the waking world, where she herself was the object of attraction…and the consummation and dissolution that the Sorceress faces in dream perhaps foreshadows what is to come, in the diary’s final entries.
“On A Dreamland’s Moon” was first published in Black Wings VI: New Tales of Lovecraftian Terror(2017), and then collected in Diary of a Sorceress. Ashley Dioses has published a good deal of weird and Lovecraftian poetry in places such as Weirdbook, Vasterian, Necronomicum, Skelos, Hinnom, and Infernal Ink.
“Chin up and all that,” she muttered to herself. “How is this any worse than marrying a man older than my father and bearing him children?”
—Michelle D. Sonnier, “The Sisters Derleth” in EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness 58
Growing up is about facing adult fears. This applies to Mythos fiction as much as in human life: the talk of elder gods and strange creatures older than humanity have the timeless quality of a good fable, suitable for all ages. Not quite the same as the foreign markets tanking your father’s investments and now being a young woman stuck in a small town in Massachusetts, unable to make the rent, and the only thing to possibly barter a better life with being what’s between your legs.
Which is more literal than Edith Athney expects when she meets the Sisters Derleth.
The delayed adolescence of Edith is mimicked in the style of narration as well as the events of the story. The flowery, quasi-Brontë prose at the beginning gives way swiftly to a more natural, faster-paced flow of dialogue, back and forth. Trapped between forces she can barely comprehend, the protagonist of Sonnier’s tale nevertheless makes the heroically pragmatic choice—and if she bargains away her innocence, at least she strikes her own bargain on terms she sets, rather than being forced into an arranged marriage. The final sign of her coming-of-age is a very literal and bloody deflowering, though not the one she might have hoped for.
The issue of financial anxiety tied to marriageability is absent from the bulk of Mythos fiction. It is a very human, mundane, adult fear which relies on social conventions and expectations, and it is a rare writer that makes such fears the opening or centerpiece of a Mythos story. “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens broaches the issue of reproductive horror, “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales focuses on how women feel when reduced to wombs for barter, “Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter touches on marriage fertility anxieties, but Sonnier focuses on the fear of the future: of being an old maid, of the consequences of not marrying well. Marrying for love isn’t even on the table: this is a horror story, and Edith loses such romantic ideas fairly early.
Why Derleth? The eponymous sisters of the story have no direct connection to Lovecraft’s friend and hagiographer, August Derleth; nor does it appear to be a reference to the Comte d’Erlette, the author of Cultes des Goules. It just is, a name to conjure by, an empty association. As much a lure to draw the reader in as the Sisters’ invitation to Edith brought them into their garden…and if the readers are left wondering where exactly the Sisters fit in to the grand scheme of the Mythos, that is not a fault. In Mythos fiction especially, less is sometimes more, and a bit of mystery is preferable to absolute certainty.
Much of the Mythos elements and tropes at play in the story verge on trite: Sonnier isn’t seeking to expand the Mythos substantially or score points with the more hardcore fan scholars by making excessive tie-ins to other works. If “The Sisters Derleth” plays fast and loose, inspired more by the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game and its sanity-draining eldritch tomes than Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ original fiction, it is because it can do so—and is little different in that regard than “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer.
Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether are are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. […] All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934 Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel & Nils Frome (2016) 65-67
Harlem Unbound is a roleplaying game supplement published by Darker Hue Studios for use with The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (Chaosium), and compatible with the GUMSHOE system used by Lovecraftian roleplaying games like Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane Press). The brainchild of Chris Spivey and a multiracial group of writers, artists, editors, etc., it has the distinction of being the first Lovecraftian roleplaying product to focus on the black experience during the 1920s in the United States—a period of legal segregation, jazz and blues, the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. Yet to appreciate what Harlem Unbound is and why it is important, it is necessary to look back on what Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying is and where it came from.
Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974, and initiated the popularization of roleplaying games as a hobby and the roleplaying game book as a form of literature. Heavily inspired by pulp fiction, Lovecraft and other Weird Tales favorites appear in “Appendix N: Inspirational and Education Reading” in the AD&DDungeon Master’s Guide (1979), and Cthulhu Mythos made an appearance in the 1980 supplement Deities & Demigods—but quickly discovered that another company, Chaosium, had acquired license to adapt Lovecraft’s works for roleplaying game purposes. They published the first edition of The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981; almost forty years later, the game is on it’s 7th edition, and has spawned innumerable spin-offs and third-party supplements: Delta Green, Achtung! Cthulhu, The Laundry, Trail of Cthulhu, etc.
The conceit of Call of Cthulhu is that the player’s characters are investigators; one takes the role of the Keeper to guide the game, adjudicate rules, and act as referee and storyteller. By default the action is set during the 1920s-1930s period (though other settings have since expanded the scope of the game and its various spin-offs). There is a heavy simulationist element to the game—vehicles, weapons, and other equipment are adapted primarily from what would have been available in real life, with prices for goods taken from contemporary catalogs; contemporary fashions and events like World War I, the Great Depression, and Prohibition often feature in the setting materials; and historical individuals like Duke Ellington, Al Capone, and Aleister Crowley are included alongside fictional characters. Real history blends with the fictional background of stories by Lovecraft and others.
The endemic racism, misogyny, and nativism of the period is a bit of a sticking point, and not one that Chaosium and various other companies and writers have handled well. There is a conflict in writing Call of Cthulhu material between catering to contemporary sensibilities and the accurate depiction of hard realities of what African-Americans and other people of color experienced during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and in his fiction. There are few black or ethnic characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, and those that do exist are not generally portrayed positively; the Cthulhu Mythos fiction generated by Lovecraft’s contemporaries such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth are not much better in this regard. To adapt the material of the Cthulhu Mythos to the purposes of play the writers have to balance accurate portrayal of the material versus contemporary knowledge and acceptable use.
It can be a difficult balance to strike. The horror evoked by Lovecraft when he presented Marceline Bedard from “Medusa’s Coil” as being mixed-race reflected the horror of white people to the idea of people of color that could “pass.” Today the “revelation” is downright offensive to contemporary audiences; a straight adaptation of Marceline that focused on her black ancestry would be accurate to the source material, but unacceptably tone-deaf. Yet one of the issues faced by Call of Cthulhu products is meeting these very challenges…and failing. Charles Saunders wrote of a similar issue in fantasy fiction in his essay “Die, Black Dog!”, where contemporary writers were repeating the characterization of pulpsters from the 1930s:
[…] in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism.
The latter has been especially true for supplements set in Africa such as The Cairo Guidebook, Secrets of the Congo, Secrets of Kenya, Secrets of Morocco, Mysteries of Sudan and the Achtung! Cthulhu Guide to North Africa; or Asia such as Myseries of the Raj, Secrets of Japan, and Secrets of Tibet;and to a lesser extant in supplements dedicated to cities with large multiracial populations, such as Secrets of New York and the New Orleans Guidebook. Most supplements to the game frankly ignore race, or if it is an issue deal with it curtly and perfunctorily. Long-time players will probably be familiar with the scenario “Dead Man Stomp” and its “Special Comments”:
Race is important in this adventure. Identify the race of each investigator before play begins. Choice of race brings no penalty, but a questioner’s race can determine the accessibility of information. Read this adventure before presenting it: if all the investigators are African-American, for instance, rather than a racial cross-section, or are all white, or are all Asian-Americans, the keeper must devise some patches. The scenario presumes that the investigators are white.
—The Call of Cthulhu (2005, 6th edition) 270
For most Call of Cthulhu products, “presumes that the investigators are white” is the default. Just as it is in Lovecraft’s fiction. When the writers, editors, and audience are all largely white themselves, the “presumption” often goes unnoticed, unquestioned, and un-examined. Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying, as an extension of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, ultimately faces many of the same issues regarding race, and for the same reasons.
Harlem Unbound is something else. The book itself is written very typically for Call of Cthulhu supplements: roughly the first half is dedicated to background materials, systems, character options, scenario hooks, and non-player characters for a game set in Harlem, while the back half contains a handful of scenarios for the Harlem setting. The books aren’t so standardized that they write themselves, but there’s a clear goal for every book written in a real-life historical setting after the advent of the World Wide Web: be better than the equivalent Wikipedia page, provide enough hooks for roleplayers to build stories off of.
Harlem Unbound easily does that: the writing is crisp, informed, and focused. Tangents like the Harlem Hellfighters, the Harlem Race Riot of 1935, and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan are relegated to sidebars. The Mythos elements are generally slight in the first half of the book, but given the dearth of Mythos fiction set in Harlem, the writers didn’t have much raw material to work with. The game presents character creation rules for Harlemites using both Call of Cthulhu‘s Basic Roleplaying System and the GUMSHOE system; from a game design standpoint it’s a professional product, with little touches of flavor in the new occupations made available for players, like Conjure Woman and Hellfighter. The production values are very high, especially considering this is the first product from an independent studio: the vivid use of red against the white page and black text stands out well, and extends into much of the artwork, making for a striking visual aesthetic that’s easy to read.
The very best section, and worth the price of the whole book, is the chapter on storytelling. This is traditionally an area which Call of Cthulhu fails to provide much if any useful guidance, and almost never with regards to racism and racial appropriation. The approach is hard-hitting and to the point:
When playing someone of a different race, there must be sensitivity to avoid any form of cultural appropriation. It is possible to honor and interact with the culture on more than just an aesthetic level. Blackface? Just don’t. Don’t try to talk with a “black” accent. Don’t try to have “black” mannerisms or fall into any of the countless stereotypes.
These are real issues for players to deal with. While it might be laudable in a period drama to depict the realities of life and language of discrimination that people of color lived under daily, in a casual roleplaying game environment the realistic depiction by gamers of 1920s racism is generally not acceptable—players do not want to be discriminated against in-game for the race or gender of their characters, nor should the casual racism of the period be accepted as something for players to perform “in character.” If you are going to incorporate racial discrimination as part of the game setting, it needs to be front and center, part of the social contract that players enter into when they agree to game—and there need to be limits.
Case in point, in a film or television program, the N-word will be weighed in the script long before an actor ever utters it, the impact and meaning judged according to the needs of the plot and the characterization of the players—roleplaying gamers cannot be expected to evaluate that kind of context on the fly, nor should they be encouraged to use it without restraint simply because it was in common use in the 1920s. Casual racism, even in “fun”, should not be encouraged. As Spivey puts it:
CAN I USE THE N-WORD IN MY GAME? Short answer? No.
It is never okay for a non-black Keeper to use it, and even black Keepers should be wary of it. “Wait, what? It’s just a game…” is possibly the thought going through your mind.
Let’s assume that everyone who would want to say that word in the game is not racist or bigoted (that laughing you hear is my internal cynic). Even if all of that remains true, what does using the word really bring to a scene? Is it impact or shock you’re looking for? If so, that can be conveyed by the actions of your antagonists.
The last half of the book mostly consists of five scenarios (“Harlem Hellfighters Never Die,” “Harlem (K)Nights,” “The Contender: A Love Story,” and “Dreams and Broken Wings”). This is followed by “Souls of Harlem,” a guide to the Harlemites with important focuses on issues like LGBTQ, the Italian and Jewish communities, Nelia Larsen’s novel Passing, the all-black 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and Beta Israel; and brief appendices with a guide to period slang, a timeline of major events, recommended media, etc.
Harlem Unbound is a very solid Call of Cthulhu supplement. Like many CoC products, the writers focus on setting and verisimilitude first, and if Mythos material seems lacking, the material integrates well with other CoC products: Keepers can drop in NPCs or locations from Secrets of New York without a problem, or borrow the Voodoo rules from The New Orleans Guidebook to give root doctors and Hoodoo practitioners more bite, for example. Gumby’s Bookstore could serve as the focal point for a Bookhounds of London-style campaign set in Harlem (Bookhounds is a Trail of Cthulhu expansion using the GUMSHOE system). The 369th Infantry regiment, the famous Harlem Hellfighters, saw service in World War II, and could easily fit into an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign.
The straightforward approach to difficult subjects like racism, language, segregation, and roleplaying are all appreciated. Harlem Unbound provides something new to Call of Cthulhu that isn’t yet another avatar of Nyarlathotep or one more sinister cult or terrible tome: a game that doesn’t presume players or their characters are white.
I backed the Kickstarter for the publication of Harlem Unbound on faith; I haven’t read any of Chris Spivey’s work on Cthulhu Confidential, or seen anything of the work of the other writers Bob Heist, Ruth Tillman, Alex Mayo, Sarah Hood, and Neall Raemonn Price, but I liked the look of the samples and I’m glad to have backed the project and received the finish product. As a genre, Cthulhu Mythos roleplay has been so stuck in a rut for so long, we need books like this to really shine a light on how little attention most works for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu and related games devote to the portrayal and experience of people of color, either as characters within the game as as players and Keepers.