“My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ

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 Lengyeah, 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 Dreamlandsbut the narrator isn’t ready. Scoot ahead twenty years, 1972, and it’s a story about regret, missed opportunities realized at lastand 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 menand 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 realitybut 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 publishedup 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)

“I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ

Before the story begins, before the very first word, Lovecraft fans will recognize the title as the the climactic revelation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” (1926). The title is the hook to reel the reader in, and the import of that one line doesn’t hit the reader until the penultimate sentence. Despite the fact that “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1964, it would not appear in a Mythos anthology until Cthulhu 2000 (1995)… and it hasn’t been reprinted in a Mythos anthology since.

This might seem odd, considering that Joanna Russ might be the first female prose writer who contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft himself collaborated with “Elizabeth Berkeley” (Winifred Virginia Jackson) on “The Green Meadow” (1918-1919) and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921), Anna Helen Crofts on “Poetry and the Gods” (1920), and his future wife Sonia Haft Green on “The Horror at St. Martin’s Beach” and “Four O’Clock” (1922). None of these are Mythos tales per se, although “The Crawling Chaos” became a sobriquet for Nyarlathotep. Later, working as a revisionist, Lovecraft ghost-wrote tales for  female clients including “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929-1930), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930) for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop; “The Horror in the Museum” (1932), “Winged Death” (1932), “The Man of Stone” (1932), “Out of the Aeons” (1933), and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground” (1933-1934). HPL also “collaborated” with Catherine L. Moore insofar as both contributed sections to the round-robin “The Challenge from Beyond” (1935); Moore herself never appears to have written a Mythos story.

From Lovecraft’s death until 1964, when Russ’ “I Had…” was published, the sub-genre of Mythos fiction appears quite bare of female writers—although it is hard to say this with utmost certainty, given the prevalence of the fanpress (for example, Virginia “Nanek” Anderson contributed the poem “Shadow Over Innsmouth” to The Acolyte Winter 1942). Certainly the first edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969) was all-male, as were several anthologies that followed. Russ finally made it in to the revised version of Tales, the 1990 edition, with her second and final Mythos story “My Boat” (1976).

The problem for editors and anthologists is that “I Had…” was way ahead of its time. It is a reference to H. P. Lovecraft and his Mythos, but it isn’t a Mythos story in itself, does not use or expand the mythology. August Derleth, if he had been in a litigious mood, could hardly have found anything to issue a cease & desist about except the title. The crux of the story is that if you recognize the title, if you pick up the story to read it, if you go in there expecting another pastiche or sequel to “Pickman’s Model”… then you the reader have taken the bait.

Which is all the more apt when you consider that the story is almost cruelly accurate portrait of a certain segment of fandom itself; the socially awkward nerd, the obsessive Lovecraft fan which is a Western prototype of the otaku. Even today the caricature of Irvin Rubin she sketches cuts precisely because fannish collectors not only knows something of the type, but if they’re reading the story then they probably identify at least a little bit with that dark side of fandom. Rubin is the bookish kid with no friends who grew up to be a bookish adult with no friends, no lovers, no real life but a long delayed adolescence. There but for grace may have gone us all. For many such fans starved of human companionship, the possibility of real interaction is enticing as it is abnormal…so it is when Rubin meets a woman.

On a technical level, Russ is playing a stranger game than even the premise of the story. In format, it is not quite a Lovecraftian pastiche; Rubin is the vaguely Lovecraftian protagonist, but the story itself is told through two narrators—the good-hearted, older Miss June Kramer he works with, and a nameless narrator who provides the final piece of the story. Kramer’s narrative gives a view of Rubin by someone who is at once wiser and sympathetic, though we see little enough of her: the Miss suggests a woman who never married or divorced, rather than a widow; her age is somewhere north of 40, putting at least 12 years between her and Rubin; she has sufficient regular social interaction to have a group of ladies over for bridge and to share a story over a cup of coffee in the company cafeteria—and who is moved enough by Rubin to leave her bridge game and go to his cold room, just to prove that he does have at least one friend. The nameless narrator we never see; Kramer’s narrative serves to get us to the anticlimax, where Rubin is about to be married. The nameless narrator carries the story through the last part, which Miss Kramer never saw—perhaps because Russ didn’t want her to see it, wanted her to preserve the innocence of knowing what really happened to Irvin Rubin. Yet Russ definitely wants the reader to know what happened to him…

It is the reader that completes this story. If you haven’t read “Pickman’s Model,” if you aren’t familiar with Lovecraft and that certain type of obsessive and lonely fan, then the story is a fine weird tale, but nothing special. Maybe even a little hokey, because like M. R. James it leaves a great deal unsaid, unexplained; the meaning is implied between the lines. The catch requires recognition, and a very different use of Lovecraft than almost any other author has ever used. Arguably, Russ didn’t have to use Lovecraft for the story—but who else would she use, in 1964? Lovecraft already had the legend for it, the myth built up around himself and his writings.

Once you read the story, once you get the cruel joke, you may never read it again. The prose is not beautiful, the essence of the story a one-note tragedy. That couldn’t have helped it with the anthologists either: many fans want pastiches, stories that celebrate and expand on Lovecraft & co.’s artificial mythology, and many writers want that too. It’s fun, it’s part of the game. “I Had…” is ultimately more adult and demanding—a story with insight, which demands a moment’s reflection. One you may be glad to have read, if only because it is so different from what most people consider a “Lovecraftian” story.


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