“The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys

Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges, were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and is even now only beginning to shew signs of a sluggishly revived existence.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Concentration camps today are largely associated with the second World War: the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans, the Bataan death march and other horrors. The Nazi government would begin the creation of concentration camps soon after Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933…but Lovecraft would not have known about this at the time he was writing “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in Nov-Dec 1931. Lovecraft’s use of the idea would hearken back to the first World War, when the United States and other nations interned “enemy aliens”—sometimes on the basis of ethnicity and nationality, sometimes for disloyalty, real or suspected.

The reference to concentration camps in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is thus a sub rosa nod to readers, cluing them in that these people were different and perhaps held dangerous loyalties. Yet it is a message whose meaning has changed over time. Readers who have grown up in the aftermath of World War II, with a full awareness of the horrors that the Nazis would accomplish and the extremes that Americans would go to when driven by fear and prejudice—and because of this change in syntax, it has inspired different fictional interpretations, the two most notable of which are Brian McNaughton’s “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) and Ruthanna Emrys “The Litany of Earth” (2014).

We need not dust off the history of our nation’s dealings with the Indians to find examples of genocide, nor even go so far from our doorsteps as Montgomery, Alabama, to see instances of racism. Right here in our own state of Massachusetts, in February of 1928, agents of the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments perpetrated crimes worthy of Nazi Germany against a powerless minority of our citizens…
—Brian McNaughton, “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (Even More Nasty Stories 7)

McNaughton’s opening sets the scene: the events of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” are not undone, but are showcased in an entirely different light, in line with contemporary attitudes towards racial prejudice and xenophobia. The raid becomes not a protective government hand sweeping in to solve a terrible threat, but a jackbooted act of discrimination, with a reductio ad Hitlerum thrown in just in case anyone missed it. This was immensely novel at the time, and the story carries on from there in much the same vein: set in the modern day, two generations removed the end of Lovecraft’s story, Bob Smith is a descendant of Innsmouth, his grandmother being one of the few that escaped the federal raid, and apparently ignorant of the Innsmouth heritage, the religion…all of it, except what bits and fragments his senile grandmother had told him.

Part of what makes McNaughton’s story work is what is said and left unsaid. Readers who may empathize with Bob Smith and the other Innsmouth residents are subtly reminded at every turn, without being explicit, that these people are not entirely human, that their religion (“In the name of Mother Hydra!”) was real, and also that they face prejudice from being who they are and holding to their beliefs. Shades of the Holocaust, with a blending of conspiracy theory and institutional racism; but where a Jew might be called a “hymie,” the Innsmouth pejorative is “Kermie”—after Kermit the Frog, to reflect their batrachian appearance.

The twist of the story is not so much the action climax, or the revelations about Bob Smith’s extracurricular activities that follow, but that the residents of Innsmouth are at least as dangerous as Lovecraft had written them, with McNaughton’s own small embellishments on Esoteric Order of Dagon theology and ceremonies adding a rather more overtly sordid and bloody emphasis. It’s a subversion of expectations: in an era when judging people by appearance, ethnicity, and religion are all considered taboo, when the discrimination and prejudice they have suffered is shown at length and in great detail, with parallels drawn to that experienced by real-life groups…readers may well have been sympathetic for Bob Smith, until he showed his true colors.

What stops “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” from being a fable whose moral is that race prejudice is a positive thing? McNaughton was clever enough to make use of the racial allegories that can be read in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and contemporary post-WWII, post-Civil Rights era mentality, and bold enough to do a Twilight Zone-esque subversion of expectations, but the subtextual message of the story is unpleasant: that sometimes prejudices are justified. It’s doubtful McNaughton ever intended that specific reading; after all, the idea that the residents of Innsmouth are partially inhuman fish-people is normally taken for granted by Mythos authors—and that itself is part of the problem.

The idea that there is a race that is inherently considered monstrous and a threat to “regular” humans in fiction is already unpleasantly close to the stereotypes and libels applied to real-world minorities and ethnic groups. The fact that writers use that idea without examination of the underlying implications is worse—nothing McNaughton writes about Deep Ones and Innsmouth hybrids is very different than the characterization in “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader or “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens. However, because he specifically invoked tropes of institutional racism, prejudice, and hate crimes, McNaughton is taking the subtext and making it text—what could be read as a dog whistle in the first “Innsmouth” becomes blatant in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth.” The latter remains a good story, but also serves as an example for why it can be very difficult to tell stories that interact with racism in a realistic way in Lovecraft’s fiction.

In the evenings, the radio told what I had missed: an earth-spanning war, and atrocities in Europe to match and even exceed what had been done to both our peoples. We did not ask, the Kotos and I, whether our captors too would eventually be called to justice. The Japanese American community, for the most part, was trying to put the camps behind them. And it was not the way of my folk—who had grown resigned to the camps long before the Kotos’ people were sent to join us, and who no longer had a community on land—to dwell on impossibilities.
—Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth”

Emrys starts from the same place as McNaughton: the Innsmouth diaspora. In her setting, the concentration camps of 1928 faded into those set up for Japanese-Americans starting in 1942. Innsmouth is mostly gone, and after her release Aphra Marsh too tries to reclaim what bits and pieces she can of her heritage, while living with the Japanese family she had shared the camp with.

What is markedly different between the two stories is tone. “The Litany of Earth” is a not a horror story, but a dark fantasy. There is no subtle hinting; the Cthulhu Mythos is real to Aphra, a part of her old life before the government shut her away and what she hopes to get back. While race is still a point of discrimination, Emrys focuses on religion and the eradication of history and culture:

In ’26, the whole religion were declared enemies of the state, and we started looking out for anyone who said the wrong names on Sunday night, or had the wrong statues in their churches. You know where it goes from there.

Contrasting with Aphra is FBI Agent Spector: an agent of the government that imprisoned her, a German immigrant of Jewish descent. Almost a literal “Good German.” Their shared experience of discrimination provides at least a slight thawing of relations, though not instant rapport. After all, he needs her help.

“And every religion has its fanatics, who are willing to do terrible things in the name of their god. No one is immune.” His lips quirked. “It’s a failing of humanity, not of any particular sect.”

The focus on religion cuts away from some of the less pleasant aspects of Lovecraft’s concentration camp victims. Aphra Marsh and her folk are a people apart, but a sharp delineation is made between the cultists of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” less of race and more in understanding and approach: in Agent Spector’s plea for cooperation, it is the extremists with their blood sacrifices that are the bad guys. Even among those there are poseurs, con-artists, the desperate and deluded.

Yet Aphra Marsh sticks to Lovecraft’s script that the Deep Ones are a different race of people, and that their attributes are not those of homo sapiens. Biological immortality, an ancient culture and eldritch lore, an attachment to aspects of nature—the Deep Ones in “The Litany of Earth” are the second cousins of Tolkien’s Sea Elves from The Lord of the Rings. As in Tolkien’s work, there is a pettiness to some humans, a clash over the limited lifespan compared to those of the elder folk. The same essential conflict, only with Lovecraftian trappings.

Thus, “The Litany of Earth” shares some of the same problems as “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth.” The central falseness of racism and racialism is that humans are, for better or for worse, all basically the same. Races are a social construct, not a biological one. Different populations may exhibit common features due to shared ancestry, but homo sapiens is one species. The Deep Ones are different. They may look human, when young; they may interbreed with humans, yet they are fundamentally other. In the fantasy setting of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Deep Ones embody the Nazi conception of a race apart far more than the Jews ever did.

When the lines between allegory and exposition are erased, you’re not looking at racism as was understood and practiced by Lovecraft, or in the concentration camps of World War II. If the subject of fantastic racism actually is alien, the dynamic shifts and the old arguments used to oppose it have to shift as well. The trappings are the same, but you’re not dealing with human-on-human racism, but something akin to destroying the natural habitat of apes and cetaceans and keeping them in captivity—and whether or not the detainees have human-level intelligence, or what constitutes “human” as far as rights, become part of the conversation. Or at least it should.

Neither McNaughton or Emrys really want to explore that direction in these stories; their narratives depend on Deep Ones that are human enough to face prejudice and be sympathetic, and alien enough to provide a core of real insurmountable difference with actual humans. Both McNaughton and Emrys also hedge away from miscegenation and immigration, arguably the most prominent themes regarding race in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” There’s no real discussion in either story of the Deep Ones having come to Innsmouth from somewhere else and absorbing or displacing the population; the threat to humanity is never existential as far as Deep Ones irrevocably contaminating the human gene pool or culture. The protagonists in each story are members of an embattled minority, almost an endangered species, at least on land.

Genocide is the shadow that hangs over both McNaughton and Emrys’ versions of Innsmouth. The purpose of concentration camps when Lovecraft wrote “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was internment, at least in the United States; yet it lead inexorably to the effort to exterminate entire peoples by the Nazis. In “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth,” the effort is ongoing, albeit less direct; in “The Litany of Earth,” the FBI’s focus has shifted to cultists, but it took WWII for them to begin to face their mistakes. In both cases, families were broken up, generations lost. McNaughton and Emyrs looked, with the wizened eyes of those who have seen the outcome of the Holocaust, past the end that Lovecraft wrote at the consequences which he did not, could not fully predict.

Complaints from many liberal organisations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to coöperate with the government in the end.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Brian McNaughton got his start as a writer in the fan-scene of the 1950s; worked as a newspaperman, and eventually spent over a decade writing pornographic novels and stories for adult magazines, before crossing back over into horror and weird fiction in the 1980s, where he won acclaim, including a World Fantasy Award in 1997. He wrote a number of Cthulhu Mythos stories, with a penchant for outrageousness, sexuality, and black humor. His best short horror fiction is collected in Nasty Stories (2000) and Even More Nasty Stories (2002), and he wrote several novels of the Cthulhu Mythos—including a pornographic novel involving another Innsmouth survivor, Tide of Desire (1982) under the name Sheena Clayton. He died in 2004.

Ruthanna Emrys continues the story of Aphra Marsh in her series The Innsmouth Legacy, currently consisting of Winter Tide (2017) and Deep Roots (2018). Her Lovecraftian short fiction includes “Those Who Watch” (2016), and with Ann M. Pillsworth she is part of Tor.com’s series The Lovecraft Reread.

“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