I’d always thought Alan was pretty much a fruitcake himself—remember, Milty, this is 1952—because he used to read all that crazy stuff, The Cult of Cthulhu, Dagon Calls, The Horror Men of Leng—yeah, I remember that H. P. Lovecraft flick you got ten percent on for Hollywood and TV and reruns—but what did we know?
—Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 360
The trick of “My Boat” is that Joanna Russ is not telling the same story. The frame is a kind of confession, Hollywood pitch-patter, cynical and jaded and full of bad taste. The confession itself opens as a kind of bildungsroman, focused on the integration of a handful of black teenagers into a rich, all-white highschool, and one drama club kid tagging along. Then there’s the twist, with the title-drop, into straight fantasy; shades of magical realism, skirting the edges of the Dreamlands—but the narrator isn’t ready. Scoot ahead twenty years, 1972, and it’s a story about regret, missed opportunities realized at last—and the frame comes back around around, past catching up to the present.
It’s a story about lost youth. Intimately, if not directly, it’s a story about H. P. Lovecraft.
H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was never published during his lifetime. Lovecraft who was inspired by his dreams to write some of his most famous stories. Who took inspiration from Lord Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” and built up his own cycle of stories set in a mythical Dreamlands—”The Cats of Ulthar,” “Celephaïs,” “The White Ship,” etc.—which tied back around and into his “Arkham Cycle,” stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and At the Mountains of Madness. Yet there is a sequel to “Idle Days on the Yann,” which is echoed in Lovecraft as well:
For I thought never again to see the tide of Yann, but when I gave up politics not long ago the wings of my fancy strengthened, though they had erstwhile drooped, and I had hopes of coming behind the East once more where Yann like a proud white war-horse goes through the Lands of Dream. Yet I had forgotten the way to those little cottages on the edge of the fields we know whose upper windows, though dim with antique cobwebs, look out on the fields we know not and are the starting-point of all adventure in all the Lands of Dream.
—Lord Dunsany, “A Shop in Go-By Street”
When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”
“My Boat” is a sequel to the idea of those stories, Lovecraft and Dunsany. Like Russ’ earlier story “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) it is also self-referential. Lovecraft lived, wrote some fiction, and died. The characters are familiar with his works, at least in passing. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is just a weird novel, to a kid in 1952. A fantasy. A dream that teenagers grow out of… and that grown people might try to reclaim, once they’re older and wise enough to realize what they’d missed.
I think Cissie knew what I expected her mamma to be and what a damned fool I was, even considering your run-of-the-mill, seventeen-year-old white liberal racist, and that’s why she didn’t take me along.
—Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 369
Russ was a woman and a feminist; she was a science fiction fan and writer in a period when the majority of the writers, audience, and editors were white men—and for good measure, most of the protagonists too; their love-interests tended to blonde, whether Terran or Martian. She was a perceptive enough critic to know that, and to be able to use it. The race and gender of her small cast of characters says a lot about them, with no apologies.
Jim, the narrator, is a cutting depiction of a young white man who isn’t aware enough of his own prejudices to know that stereotypes aren’t true; Cecilia “Cessie” Jackson doesn’t have that luxury. We don’t get to see Jim grow up, exactly, but hearing his 37-year-old self talk about his 17-year-old self, we see the older Jim is wise enough to be honest and cynical about how wrong he was then. And we get to see a young black woman, mentally scarred by the traumatic murder of her father, not needing any white man to help or heal her.
This is a story that would have been difficult to write before the death of August Derleth in 1970. It’s not just that it references the integration of schools, segregation being officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965. It’s a Mythos story that lives in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, but which looks back at an earlier decade with jaded eyes, looking for what it missed the first time around.
In a Lovecraftian sense, Cessie Jackson is a very different kind of dreamer. Randolph Carter lost the key to the Dreamlands; Dunsany’s unnamed narrator could no longer sail on the River Yann. They both became too mired in mundane life and reality—but not her. Jim is the Lovecraftian protagonist, and Cessie Jackson initiates him into a world he had not even guessed at…and then she makes the transition that Jim is afraid to make. That’s the key and the catalyst to the plot, what drives the older Jim in the final act. How vapid and empty is the agent’s pitch for the “beautiful blonde girl Martian” compared to the strange reality that was Cessie Jackson, the plain-looking black girl with natural hair?
It took fourteen years for “My Boat” to find its way into a Mythos anthology, the revised edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990). That is perhaps less surprising when you look at the kinds of Mythos anthologies being published—up until Derleth’s death, Arkham House had an effective monopoly, interspersing Lovecraft stories with contemporary works, pastiches, posthumous collaborations, culminating in the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969). “My Boat” is an odd fit if filed next to 1930s pulp reprints or pastiches of the same; forty years on Joanna Russ’ still feels relevant and timely today.
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)