“Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader

Obed finally got her married off by a trick to an Arkham feller as didn’t suspect nothin’. But nobody aoutside’ll hev nothin’ to do with Innsmouth folks naow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

A significant but often understated plot point of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is the focus on a rather conservative human courtship traditions. The Deep One hybrids of Innsmouth want to spread and breed—marry and have children—and do so within the context and framework of human marriage as understood in the late-19th/early-20th century United States. Alternative arrangements like polygamy or group marriage do not appear in Lovecraft’s story; children (and sex!) out of wedlock are just not under consideration in the story itself, even if they were realities of life in the 1920s.

This focus on rather conventional human marriage brings in to Innsmouth stories an element of domestic drama, as exemplified in stories like “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales, but it also allows writers to explore this aspect of the Mythos through the permutations in human experience…all the weird ways people find to have relationships, just add Deep Ones. Except there is always more to it than that when dealing with Ann K. Schwader.

The premise of “Mail Order Bride” by Ann K. Schwader is right in the title: lonely men like George, Phil, Art, and Tony pay the Island Love Introduction Agency, hoping for quiet Filipina wives to cook and clean and keep the beer cold—but Lupe, Tia, Inez and the other women they marry are from a very different island culture. Part of the craft of the story is the Stepford Wives-esque othering of the Innsmouth brides, the subtle exaggeration of the normal difficulties experienced by couples in these situations: differences in language, culture, whether or not to have kids, staying together.

Robert M. Price in Tales out of Innsmouth and Kevin L. O’Brien in Eldritch Blue: Love and Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos both considered this story an update on the Innsmouth theme “of race-mixing, especially with Asians” (Price), referencing Captain Obed Marsh bringing home a Polynesian wife, and that “the miscegenation is still present, since the women are Deep Ones as well as Filipinos” (O’Brien). While the misidentification of the brides as Filipinas by their husbands is present, the racial politics Price and O’Brien read into the story are a red herring. The brides’ characterization as foreign is a cover for their much deeper alienation from their husbands, a layer of the mystery for the brides’ spouses to peel back, revealing a much more disturbing reality.

Procreation, which is the ultimate apparent goal of the mail-order brides in this story, is a Mythos theme examined in many stories—“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter“In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and more—but Lovecraft’s racism and views on real-world mixed race unions casts a shadow on the much weirder cosmic miscegenation which is a hallmark of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and its literary descendants. Schwader is accurate to Lovecraft’s overall themes, right down to the idea of using interracial unions as a cover for marriages between human and not-human. Unfortunately, enough old prejudices are still extant that her effort to portray a transposition in gender roles has been mistaken for a regurgitation of racial politics.

It’s gender politics at play in the story…and that goes for the Mythos aspects as well:

This is also one of the few stories where Mother Hydra occupies the stage alone rather than sharing it with Father Dagon, or for that matter being consigned to the wings as is usually the case. This reflects the feminist tone of the story, which is a departure form the way that the creation of human/Deep One hybrids are usually created. The precedent, established by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, is that human males mated with Deep One females, though it can be assumed that Deep One males got it on with human females as well. The point is that it was the males of either species which initiated the contact. While this is understandable, considering the aggressiveness of the males of both species and that both cultures tend to be male-dominated, it also reinforces the role of the female as the passive victim. In this story these roles are reversed: it is the females, led by a female deity, who initiate the contact and the men who are the passive victims.
—Robert M. Price, Strange Stars & Alien Shadows 128

This is ground that Schwanger would revisit in stories like “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003), and it adds another layer to what is already a compellingly-told role-reversal story. A subtle expansion and re-casting of the Mythos, with Mother Hydra as fertility deity, and the female Deep One hybrids as part of an all-female coven has overtones of Wicca and Goddess-worship, and the cohesiveness of the women is another point of alienation from the male characters in the story.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

 

“Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” (1938) by Vincent Starrett & “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” (2011) by Ann K. Schwader

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act 1, Scene 2.
—Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895)

The canon of The King in Yellow consists of a few fragments and tantalizing hints strung out over the first four stories of Robert W. Chamber’s strange collection. It is a play in two acts; there are at least two characters with speaking roles, Cassilda and the Stranger, and Camilla is mentioned besides, along with several odd names (Demhe, Hali, Carcosa, Yhtill, Hastur, etc.) Cassilda has a song. That is almost all.

Entire plays based on Chambers’ cryptic fragments have been written; an entire corpus of “Yellow Mythos” tales have spun out from the weird, decadent, almost nihilistic fin de siècle atmosphere. As with the Lovecraft Mythos, most of the energies of subsequent generations of writers and poets has revolved back around Chambers himself. Whatever expansions, interpretations, and embellishments other writers might add, there is that small, hard core of canon: Cassilda’s song.

One of the earliest such embellishments was by the noted bookman Vincent Starrett; his poem “Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” was published in Weird Tales (Apr 1938):

The moon shines whitely; I shall take
My silk umbrella, lest the moon
Too warmly fall upon the lake
And cause my bridal flowers to swoon.

The sparrow’s sorrow is in vain,
And so does he his bridge forget.
I wed the long grass and the rain,
And seven sailors dripping wet.

And shall not you and shall not I
Keep tryst beside this silent stream,
Who thought that we should rather die
Than wed the peacock’s amber dream?

The moon shines whitely; I shall take
My silk umbrella, lest the moon
Too coldly fall upon the lake
And chill my bridal flowers too soon.

The work is subtle; Starrett was too canny a reader to go for pastiche, or overt references to Carcosa or the Hyades; there is a lake, but not specifically the Lake of Hali. He does not specify where in the play this song is placed, either in the first act or the second…or does he?

The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.
—Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations” in The King in Yellow

The “innocence” certainly seems to fit, though it may be Starrett was hinting at a connection with one Chamber’s other weird works, “The Maker of Moons” (1896). Still, it introduces a third female character—Cordelia, Cassilda, and Camilla—and by giving both Cordelia and Cassilda songs, it may suggest that Camilla has one as well.

The “missing song” is provided, at least in part, by Ann K. Schwader, whose poem “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” bears the subtitle “(Camilla’s Song),” which begins where Chambers ends:

Cassilda sings the dying twilight down
Again to me tonight from her soul’s tower
—Ann K. Schwader, “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” in Twisted in Dream 98

Schwader likely took inspiration directly from Chambers, just as Starrett did. Certainly, “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” references directly and explicitly the mythos of The King in Yellow—and builds on those cryptic hints, suggesting a lament. If Cassilda’s and Cordelia’s songs were in act 1, then Camilla’s song feels as though it might have a place in that second and final act. Perhaps the play ends with Camilla singing:

Cursed as we all are with his bitter Sign.
(ibid. 99)

—and leave the audience to decide whether she is addressing them as well.

Starrett and Schwader’s respective contributions are both inspired by “Cassilda’s Song”; it is the crucial bit of lore that both have fastened on, the well of inspiration for their respective imaginations in their individual ways—and they are not alone. It has given its name to an entire anthology of female contributors: Cassilda’s Song: Tales Inspired by Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos (2015), just as the song itself has inspired fiction such as “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.

“Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” was first published in Weird Tales (Apr 1938), and subsequently republished in The Spawn of Cthulhu (1971), and Peter Haining’s Weird Tales reprint anthology (1976, 1990).

Ann K. Schwader’s poems relating to The King in Yellow include “Postscript: The King in Yellow,” “A Phantom Walks,” “Autumn, Lake Hali,” “Stargazing, Lake Hali,” “A Lost Song of Cassilda,” “Evening Reflections, Carcosa,” “A Queen in Yellow,” and sonnets XXIV-XXVI of “In the Yaddith Time” all contained in Twisted in Dream: The Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader (2011); “The Queen’s Speech”, “At the Last of Carcosa,” “Outside the Chamber,” and “Finale, Act 2,”were collected in Dark Energies (2015). She has also written stories related to the Yellow Mythos, including “Tattered Souls” (2003) and “Dancing the Mask” (2015).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader

Most interesting of all was a glancing reference to the strange jewellery vaguely associated with Innsmouth. It had evidently impressed the whole countryside more than a little, for mention was made of specimens in the museum of Miskatonic University at Arkham, and in the display room of the Newburyport Historical Society. The fragmentary descriptions of these things were bald and prosaic, but they hinted to me an undercurrent of persistent strangeness.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

The story takes place in a desert town, far from the ocean. A lonely businessman traveling far from home, steps into an art museum to relieve a moment’s boredom. What follows is an exercise in titillation. “Gillman-Waite” is the hook; “Iä, Hydra Mother!” is the sinker, and in between is the line, reeling the reader in slowly, paragraph by paragraph.

Ann K. Schwader is a poet laureate of the Mythos, but her fiction receives relatively little attention. In stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) she offers a quiet, but distinct, embellishment on the Deep Ones. Both stories focus on the oft-neglected feminine side of their life and worship, but both are also written so that the narrative viewpoint is that of a male human, and this point-of-view character’s relationship with the Mythos in the story is complicated by their relationship with women. The alien nature of the Deep One hybrids is never apparent on the surface, because they find women themselves alien and incomprehensible. Yet chauvinism is far from their only or worst sin, as the protagonist of  “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” recalls:

The strain and twist of muscles under slick cold skin, almost slipping from his grasp as she struggled…

A past episode of sexual violence tends to evaporate any good will the reader has toward a protagonist, but even this is a cue that Schwader plays with. Rape is an act of domination, a show of power and physical strength against someone weaker rather than an expression of lust—and the protagonist even recalls “he did what he’d done in anger”—but his victim’s response emasculates him (figuratively), and there hovers over the story the question of who, exactly was (and is) in control. That anxiety as much as anything drives the mood of story.

Mechanically, Schwader astutely utilizes several familiar devices from Lovecraftian storytelling. The structure of the story thus takes on two parallel narratives: the nameless protagonist viewing the exhibit in the museum, and the flashbacks of the same protagonist to a drunken night in a college town in Massachusetts and the secret shame of what he did there. This is a common track in much Lovecraftian fiction, where the events of the current day are one level of the narrative, and the uncovered history (biographical, genealogical, etc.) forms a secondary narrative, both progressing toward a common conclusion; compare to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where present-day exploration of the town is juxtaposed with the story of how it came to its current condition, and the author’s own story and that of his family are intertwined in the narrative of both.

The story sets a steady pace: marked not by the number of the exhibits but by the protagonist’s growing sense of dread, and the completeness of the memory of the night he wants to forget. In many Mythos stories the climax of the plot or action, and the climactic revelation are often two separate events—the latter typically occurring, in Lovecraft, at the very end of the story, sometimes as the final line of the story. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for example the climax is the raid on Innsmouth by federal authorities and the torpedoing of Devil’s Reef, but the climactic revelation is when the protagonist discovers their own Innsmouth heritage—and embraces it. In this story however, the climax and revelation occur essentially simultaneously, coming together naturally at the end of the tour with the final exhibit, past memory merging with terrifying present. Schwader also uses a familiar trick of Lovecraft’s where an aesthetic element slowly grows throughout the piece to set the pace; in this case, the humidity grows steadily throughout, a marked contrast from the dry desert air of the opening that takes on sinister connotations by the time the protagonist reaches the final exhibit.

To call “Objects in the Gilman-Waite Collection”  an embellishment is to recognize that the story, while it can stand on its own, is really building off of something larger than itself. Schwader doesn’t recap the whole history of Innsmouth here; she doesn’t need to. No explanation is ever given regarding Cthulhu, Mother Hydra, or the Deep Ones, and the author does not try to cram in any new Mythos entity or large chunk of exposition explaining some aspect of Mythos lore or carving out some unique corner of Lovecraft Country. What it does do is successfully gild the lily.

All in the band of the faithful—Order o’ Dagon—an’ the children shud never die, but go back to the Mother Hydra an’ Father Dagon what we all come from onct—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn—”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Mother Hydra is mentioned only once in Lovecraft’s fiction: a single throwaway line in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” as a sort of Eve figure or mother-goddess, her character, worship, and cult are never explored or expanded upon by the Providence gentleman. It’s not much to work with, but rather than writing paragraphs of exposition to expand on Mother Hydra, Schwader does it subtly. The little expansion on Mother Hydra during the climax and revelation at the end of the story serves the plot, not the other way around…and in the end, there are still things left unexplained, mysteries for the reader to make up their own mind about, and perhaps explore.

“Objects from the Gilman-Waite Collection” first appeared in Ann K. Schwader’s collection Strange Stars & Alien Shadows: the Dark Fiction of Ann K. Schwader (2003) and the limited edition (100 copies) Cthulhu’s Creatures (2007), and was reprinted in Ross E. Lockhart’s anthology The Book of Cthulhu II (2012). Why the story hasn’t been reprinted more broadly is hard to say—there’s been no shortage of Innsmouth-themed anthologies since 2003—and what little critical appraisal it has received is in the brief notes in Strange Stars & Alien Shadows.  Editor Kevin O’Brien notes a “feminist tone” in her story “Mail Order Bride,” expanding:

Though the protagonist is male, the agents of the Deep Ones are female and their patron is not Dagon but Hydra. The tone was obvious throughout, yet it wasn’t blatant. The story was not a diatribe against men, and it even managed to make me sympathize with the otherwise unsympathetic male caricature. Yet almost from the beginning it was clear that the women were in control, and their control only became stronger with time.
—Kevin O’Brien, introduction to Strange Stars & Alien Shadows ix-x

The same basic observation can be applied to “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection”—but there’s a weird assumption there. Why would a feminist Cthulhu Mythos story be “a diatribe against men?” Joanna Russ, more noted for her feminist fiction, didn’t exactly write a “diatribe” in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964); Irvin Rubin is a caricature of a certain type of socially awkward male fan, but not all men. The answer might be supplied in part by Robert M. Price’s notes to the story:

Perhaps because of the patriarchal nature of the Mythos, we rarely see women involved in cultic activities, except as sacrificial victims. They are almost certainly involved, among the nameless and faceless crowd of worshippers, but we almost never see them. […] In this story Ann gives us a glimpse of an exclusively female cult dedicated to Mother Hydra, one in which the only service a man might provide is as the sacrifice. Disturbing perhaps; after all, it’s based on the radical feminist idea that, aside from fathering children, men are practically worthless in a society dominated by women. But what’s sauce for the goose….
—Robert M. Price, Strange Shadows & Alien Stars 199

There’s a political angle to both O’Brien and Price’s interpretations of Schwader, and a subcurrent of that is, for all their praise of her work, a negative association of feminism. The implicit idea that female empowerment is somehow a threat to the power, authority, or position of men: that there is a balance of power between the sexes, and if women gain power men must lose power.

As Price notes, the treatment of women in the Cthulhu Mythos is not very pretty. Lovecraft never employed the “virgin sacrifice,” but there are female rape victims in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Curse of Yig,” and hinted at in the notes to “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; the ape princess in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” ends up stuffed and mounted, Lavinia Whateley births two monstrous children in “The Dunwich Horror,” for which willing or unwilling service she is blocked from the rites and eventually disappeared. Aside from pregnancy and implied sexual violence, this is no worse than the fates of Lovecraft’s male characters—who often end up dead or occasionally worse—but in the wider Mythos, the female sacrifice is a not uncommon trope. Molly Tanzer even invoked it in “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer.

The idea of this negative drawback to female empowerment or emphasis is a real part of the horror of the stories—to male readers, at least. Just as Tina L. Jens played with uniquely female horrors of reproduction in “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens, here Schwader may be playing on a uniquely male horror: the loss of privilege afforded by their gender…or maybe that horror is just the natural result of Schwader following her own voice, as an independent female Mythos writer:

Women in the Mythos—why there aren’t more of us, why there are as many of us as there are, or even why we’re here to begin with—have become quite a topic in Lovecraftian circles. […] After spending the last couple of years trying to formulate answers, I’ve come to only one conclusion. One little secret to share about women in the Lovecraftian Mythos.

We were there from the start.

[…] Like all Lovecraftians, I’m interested in the past. In traditions. Women have their own literary tradition to reclaim in the Mythos, and I hope to see more of us doing so in future anthologies and collections.
—Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition” vii-viii


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)