I’ll admit that when I first put out the call for submissions, Cthulhurotica seemed to most people like it would be a collection of literary tentacle porn. I got stories that introduced a lovely setting but spent the next two thousand words having sex all over it. I got writers who wanted to take a gory horror story they’d written for something else, slap “Innsmouth” over the town’s “Welcome to . . .” sign, and call it Lovecraftian. I got potential readers telling me they couldn’t imagine “Lovecraft” and “Erotica” in the same sentence, and never (ever!) wanted to see my book in print.
—Carrie Cuinn, introduction to Cthulhurotica (2010) 5
The arrival of Cthulhurotica (2010, Dagan Books) shook a few foundations. The Cthulhu Mythos was no stranger to erotic fiction; individual stories and novels had appeared sporadically since at least The Erotic Spectacles (1971), and there are numerous examples of pornographic comics and erotic artwork dealing with the Mythos. Collected works had been attempted, The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994) and Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos (2004, Lindsfarne Press). Cthulhu Sex magazine (1998-2006) had a provacative title, though it had little actual Cthulhu sex in its pages.
What set Cthulhurotica apart from the rest was a matter of approach. It was not the staid combination of sexually explicit (and mostly heterosexual) pastiche where pieces were buttressed by explanations and analysis, not an exercise in gross-out gore or cheap titillation along the lines of the Hot Blood series. Cthulhurotica is sex-positive erotic fiction which runs the gamut from Mythos-flavored sex comedy to erotic Lovecraftian horror; the writers and their point of view characters run the spectrum of gender and sexuality. Such diversity in a Mythos anthology was, and to a degree is, atypical.
The compilation and publishing of Cthulhurotica is testament to the hard work and vision of editor Carrie Cuinn. Since she is best able to speak as to her motivations and how Cthulhurotica came about, she has been kind enough to answer some questions about herself as a Mythos writer and her experience editing Cthulhurotica:
How did you get into Lovecraft and the Mythos?
Carrie Cuinn: I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. My mom loved horror and we both loved the library; I was probably too young when I started reading Stephen King, but by the time I was in middle school I was spending hours in the stacks each week, looking for new (to me) writers. I found Lovecraft and from there Derleth and Bloch and Howard and then into pulp fiction magazines which got me into science fiction… His stories helped introduce me to the greater world of genre fiction that still captivates me today.
How do you feel that being you (female, bisexual, deaf, a mother) has shaped your understanding of Lovecraft and approach to the Mythos?
CC: The most obvious thing that struck me as a kid was seeing all the ways I wasn’t in Lovecraft’s stories. Even in classic science fiction stories where “men were men” and women were mostly decorative, there were a few characters I could identify with. Heinlein has a ton of flaws and his female characters aren’t usually well-rounded, but at least he seemed to actually like women, you know? Lovecraft saw a very specific type of straight white male as the protagonist for his stories, usually reacting to both cosmic horror and the horror of living in a world where immigrants had jobs and women had opinions. I didn’t get the impression he would have considered me anything other than background scenery, if he noticed me at all.
As I got older, it only got worse: if I’d been quiet, straight, unhappily married but mostly consigned to keeping my head down and doing housework, Lovecraft might have only considered me ugly and useless. Everything I ended up being as an adult? I’d have been a minor monster in his eyes. But like so many readers who grow up not seeing themselves in the books they read, I had to learn to appreciate fiction in pieces, knowing if I stuck to only Lovecraft’s interpretation there wouldn’t be a place for me there.
What made you decide to edit an anthology of Mythos fiction?
CC: I wanted more of Lovecraft’s kind of fiction, where humans react to the immensity of finding out the unimaginable was both real and uncaring, but without the racism and misogyny. I wanted what he started, just more of the world he built, not less. Luckily, in addition to being a writer I was also a big gamer. I started playing D&D in 6th grade and fell in love. It was a different kind of storytelling, where you could make a place for yourself no matter who you were. Being yourself wasn’t subversive, it was encouraged. That was the point of role-playing games! You decide who you are within the structure of that fictional universe.
When I was about 19, I got a chance to play Call of Cthulhu with some friends. Finally, I could see people like me considering the possibilities of a Mythos with us in it. If Innsmouth were a real place, of course there’d be complex and interesting women living there. Queer people and people of color would be living their lives, working, struggling, loving, and being a part of the community. They’d all have to be affected by the monstrous events taking place around them too. I wanted to tell their stories.
Why focus on sex and sexuality in the Mythos, though?
CC: I thought about doing something like this anthology for about 15 years. I’d previously worked on an erotic fiction magazine when I was living in San Francisco, and I’d even drawn up an outline for a collection of Mythos-related fiction as an author, but the feedback I got wasn’t encouraging. I wanted to write stories where sex was good, everyone enjoyed themselves, and the characters were both a) adults, and b) fully consenting. For some reason, guys I knew who considered themselves hardcore Lovecraft fans didn’t want to see those kinds of stories… I put the idea aside, but I never forgot it.
If we all deserve a chance to exist in the world—which seems obvious to me but is still a point of contention for too many folks—then we also all deserve a chance to be healthy and happy. I get that it’s an appropriate topic for exploration in horror and that’s fine with me but sex is a nuanced part of many people’s lives; if it’s only a punishment, or an act of horror, for the women and queer people in your stories, then the story isn’t really inclusive. I wanted to see it alongside the horror, instead of only victimizing people.
What made you think the world was ready for Cthulhurotica? Do you think it found an audience?
CC: Fast forward to 2010, and I’d just started writing fiction again after a lot of changes in my life. I went to college, had my son, moved across the country. I joined Twitter, and found myself in this community of writers who were starting to explore the overlap between sex and horror in interesting ways. I even wrote for an anthology of zombie sex stories. There was still far too much straight-male-fantasy sexual violence, and a lot of the really intriguing ideas were reduced to joking tweets, but at least the field was expanding. Readers were looking for new perspectives. Suddenly this idea I’d had forever seemed possible. So I jumped on it.
Initially people treated Cthulhurotica like a bit of a joke too—it was even featured on Geek & Sundry’s Vaginal Fantasy show, which mostly reviewed books they thought (from the cover and description) would be ridiculous. Instead, they actually liked a lot of the stories, and readers took it from there.
Did you do any research and reading into previous works like Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos or Cthulhu Sex Magazine before starting your own anthology?
CC: I looked into both of those, and a whole lot of fanfiction. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. It turns out that before Cthulhurotica, when time you put “sex” and “Mythos” together, you usually got stories of (at best) straight men saving white women from monsters and then getting sex, or (far too often) monsters raping women. That wasn’t my idea of a good time.
I know we all have different tastes when it comes to a complex idea like erotica, so I didn’t want to replace those works, and I’m not suggesting there’s nothing of value in what came before Cthulhurotica. I wanted to give readers more options.
Cthulhurotica has a relatively high percentage of female authors, some of the stories include homosexual or bisexual views, and most of the authors were relatively unknown. As an editor, did you specifically seek out different voices than typical for Mythos anthologies at this time?
CC: The goal of the anthology was to show the Mythos through the lens of those who were left out of the original. This meant actively seeking stories where the women were strong and useful and good, queer people and people of color weren’t the monsters but the protagonists. And of course, satisfying sex, because we all deserve that. I was open to submissions from any author, but as it happens, most of the writers who understood what I was looking for were women.
Was it difficult to find writers and stories that struck the right tone of Lovecraftian erotic horror or did you have more submissions than you could use?
CC: It was definitely harder than I expected. At least 90% of the submissions misunderstood “erotica” as simply “sex.” Erotica certainly includes all kinds of sex acts, but the goal of it is to excite you into imagining that sort of fun for yourself. Simply putting sex on the page doesn’t make it erotica. I said over and over again in the submission guidelines, in interviews, that I wanted stories where the characters involved were enjoying what they were doing, and still, most writers gave me horrifying sexual violence, almost always inflicted on women. Some writers would take my notes on their first rejection, reply to tell me how wrong I was to reject them, and then send me a second story which had the exact same problems.
It’s hard not to generalize when you’re looking at an inbox full of the same story told over and over again, by authors who were self-described straight white guys, but after a while you realize the worst offenders either genuinely couldn’t see why their story was outside the submission guidelines, or they were getting off on forcing me to read something they knew I didn’t want. That whole experience, which didn’t get any better when I started reading for the sequel, is largely why there wasn’t a Cthulhurotica 2.
Did the anthology achieve what you wanted it to? Is there anything you regret about the book or the process?
CC: I’m proud of the fact that I even got this book published, honestly. It exists in the world now, in the Mythos, and no one can take that away from us.
Where it fell short of my hopes has more to do with my inexperience than anything else. This was my first anthology as an editor, and there were definitely people who preyed on that. I got a lot of bad advice from someone passing themselves off as an industry pro (including ridiculous things like “never spend more than $50 on a cover” which I’m very glad I ignored). There was no particular author I was hoping to get, but there are one or two pieces I regret including. I felt pressure to take work I didn’t love in order to hit a minimum word count, and to include stories that fell outside of my scope to “appeal to a wider audience.” I think it detracted from the overall anthology slightly, and confused some readers about what we were trying to do.
I learned so much from the few years I spent in small press publishing, and even though it wasn’t all good, Cthulhurotica is the reason I had those opportunities. People still ask me about it, and years later, I’m still glad I did it.
Do you feel the Mythos fiction scene has changed since Cthulhurotica came out?
CC: Not really. There were a few more creative anthologies trying to push the envelope in different ways, but they were all small-press publications. (She Walks in Shadows edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles might be the best of these.) And I think you’re more likely to find bylines by authors who aren’t men now, which was not very common before 2010, but that’s again due to Moreno-Garcia as much (if not more) as it is because of me. When you look at recent anthologies by Chaosium and PS Publishing for example, they’re more in line with past collections. Which isn’t a criticism, especially since I’ve written stories for both those companies that are among my best-reviewed and favorite pieces! But the edges of the scene are still mostly defined by individual authors and editors.
Unfortunately, Lovecraft appeals to exactly the same sort of people who gatekeep video games and comic books, and every time we make progress, they double down on the hate. There’s a lot of push back about the idea of making the Mythos more inclusive; too many self-described “Lovecraft scholars” who actively look for anything outside of their limited preferences to attack it. It’s sad when a big creative idea like the Mythos loses some of its potential to people who never learned to share as a child, but despite them, writers were breaking off pieces of it for themselves long before me and will continue to do so. We just don’t always call it “Mythos” anymore, even if all the moving parts look the same.
Thank you Carrie Cuinn answering these questions, and for the look behind the curtain.