Winter Tide (2017) by Ruthanna Emrys

After I wrote “The Litany of Earth,” I thought I was done. I’d said what I needed to about Lovecraft and being a monster; it was time to move on. When people started asking for more, I figured it was just a nice way of saying “I liked it.” But the requests kept coming, and I started explaining to anyone who’d listen why the story didn’t need a sequel.

My second thanks, therefore, are to everyone who pushed for more of Aphra’s story until I talked myself around and figured out what else I had to say.
—Ruthanna Emrys, “Acknowledgements” in Winter Tide (2017) 363

A Cthulhu Mythos novel is difficult to write. The very first was August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945); others followed, such as Brian Lumley’s Beneath the Moors (1974) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978). Most of these early Mythos novels face the same problems and criticisms: the difficulty of maintaining a Lovecraftian narrative and atmosphere at length, and an over-reliance on Mythos tie-ins. They were basically very long pastiches, and not always good pastiche. The little tie-ins which readers thrill in during a short story can become overburdening if dwelt on at length, or if the entire story’s plot serves no other purpose than to expand on connections between parts of the Mythos. While Lovecraft could sometimes inundate readers with references, it was usually fairly brief and never to the detriment of the plot of the story he was telling. The reference to Innsmouth in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” for example, is a reference that would thrill readers of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but Lovecraft doesn’t focus on the connection, or even explain it.

Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth” is admirably self-contained in that way. While Aphra Marsh retells some of the events of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in her own words, the story is not just a retelling and commentary of Lovecraft’s story, but focuses on Aphra’s life after that tragedy. Coping and rebuilding, forming bonds and friendship, learning and learning to deal with accumulated trauma, trust issues, etc. The close of the story doesn’t cease Aphra’s narrative—she’s still alive—but neither does it beg for or immediately suggest a sequel.

Looking back at “The Litany of Earth” and Winter Tide in hindsight, it is easier to see how Emrys got from one to the other. The novel takes advantage of its length to explore a few of the themes of “Litany” in greater depth, and following that thread Aphra and her companions return to Lovecraft Country in Massachusetts, picking up on some of the wider connections between “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and the Mythos. Some of these work better than others; Pickman Sanitarium is basically an Easter egg, the Cthäat Aquadingen (originally created by Brian Lumley in “The Cyprus Shell”) a wink and a nod. The regurgitation of endless Mythos titles is the kind of thing that feels like running a finger down the laundry-list of tomes in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game; the little Mythos details are generally at their best when being creative (salt-cakes!)

While Emrys’ novel definitely isn’t pastiche, the over-reliance of tie-ins does drag a little; Miskatonic University in this incarnation looks a lot more like Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley in the sheer density and scale of the occult shenanigans. More annoyingly because some of the details given don’t line up, but without any real explanation. The founders of Innsmouth, for example, are alleged in the novel to have come from England rather than Oceania, and for reasons unspecified apparently the Deep Ones don’t have any communities off the West Coast of the United States. There might be good narrative reasons for this, but without some hint it feels like a misstep rather than a deliberate authorial choice. Those pedantic niggles are relatively rare, and not necessarily bad. For example, the Hall School for girls which Lovecraft mentioned in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is transformed into a women’s college affiliate with Miskatonic University in Winter Tide.

The issue of plot and atmosphere are different for Winter Tide than the early Mythos novels. “The Litany of Earth” never made any attempt to copy Lovecraft’s atmosphere;  Emrys has her own voice and is comfortable with it. Aphra and the other main characters are essentially already initiates into the Mythos, or become initiated quickly, so there is a lot less peeling-back-the-onion…which is fine, except that nominally the A plot is a Cold War occult spy thriller (“cloak & enchanted dagger,” or maybe “cloak & tentacle”) a la Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and “A Colder War,” Tim Powers’ Declare, or even the Delta Green Roleplaying Game, and that plot goes…essentially nowhere. Most of the book, and thus most of the interest in the novel, relies entirely on the drama generated by the interactions between the slowly expanding cast of characters.

The expansion of the cast seems less organic than it should be. While admirably diverse for a Mythos novel in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the cast is bigger than it needs to be and some of the relationships feel forced. One of the characters from “Litany” is revealed as homosexual, for example, but there’s no build-up to the revelation and ultimately no real impact on the narrative. While Emrys is keenly aware of the discrimination that various characters are subject to in the 1940s United States of America for being some combination of women, homosexual, African-American, Japanese, Jewish, and/or an Innsmouth hybrid and doesn’t shy away from how bad the “good old days” could be if you weren’t a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, she can’t give equal attention to every single character’s experience and not all of those characters have an equal contribution to the nominal plot.

The opposition to Aphra & her group are basically heterosexual white people—whether privileged Miskatonic students, sexist and sexually abusive male university professors, or racist and sexist FBI agents. The characterization isn’t inaccurate to the time period (and it is the rampant bigotry, spoken and unspoken, which unites the group of outsiders in common cause), but it does get to be a little frustrating when pretty much every single one of them refuses to learn absolutely anything from the mistakes that leave a trail of bodies and ruined lives in their wake. Maybe that’s deliberate, but it still feels like there could have been room for more nuance—or, at least, that there would have been some small moral victory in getting at least one them to step out of their headspace of thinking they know better than everyone else, or of being self-righteous about it.

Where “Litany of Earth” doesn’t demand a sequel, readers might wonder what the point of Winter Tide is. Mostly, it serves to drag Aphra back to Innsmouth, the prodigal daughter returning home to reconnect with and face the demands of her family. Many Mythos stories have focused on issues of reproduction, from Lovecraft’s miscegenation theme in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” to miscarriage and infertility (“In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens), arranged marriages and unwanted pregnancies (“Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader), to rape leading to pregnancy (“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins), to spousal abuse (“A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales), but this is one that addresses an issue both perennial and very current: family expectations to have kids, and the right to choose not to have a child.

This could honestly have been the theme of the novel in many ways; a way of confronting past and future at once…but it feels like a B-plot that is, if not completely resolved, at least resolved way too quickly. There are good reasons why Aphra (or any woman) might want to have a child and not want to have a child; replace an aging parent with an immortal, fully-transformed Deep One asking when and how you’re going to spawn and suggesting suitable mates from your immediate pool of friends is something that could be played up for both horror and laughs. Yet for a decision that doesn’t have to be made right away, it’s one that Aphra caves to after a bare minimum of self-reflection. Aphra isn’t the only one subject to this expectation—at least two or three other characters are in analogous positions, even if not all of their family have gills—and Emrys could have played with the comparison of situations a bit more there, but chose not to.

Winter Tide is definitely a better written novel than The Lurker at the Threshold or Strange Eons; the characters are deeper, the interactions better, many of the embellishments on the Mythos more creative. From a Mythos perspective, it feels like it draws too much from the roleplaying game side of things; as a dramatic novel, it feels like it has too many characters and doesn’t do enough with those that are there. In comparison with “The Litany of Earth,” Winter Tide definitely doesn’t have the same focus; Emrys already made her point about providing an alternate take on “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and there’s no need to rehash it here—but neither does Emrys have quite the same twist or insight to offer on Miskatonic-focused stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and The Shadow Out of Time.

The marketing for this novel refers to it as part of the “Innsmouth Legacy” series—and it really is the focus on the bits and piece of Innsmouth culture, material and otherwise, that survive which are the best “Mythos” parts of the novel. The references to “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft are less interesting and relevant than the pieces of Innsmouth gold we see, and the meaning that they represent; the depictions of the gods (including “Shub-Nigaroth” as a substitute for “Shub-Niggurath,” probably to avoid any perceived issues with etymology); an origin story for the Deep Ones; the reference to how Innsmouth had few graveyards and that the dates on the stones were relatively young (stillbirths and childhood illnesses & accidents)…these are all good details. The kind of world-building which the book could have used more of, or have focused more on.

 It’s a great story and a seamless subversion of Lovecraft’s most repellent views while simultaneously being a tribute to his greatest accomplishments.
—Carrie S., review of Winter Tide on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (26 May 2017)

Is Winter Tide actually subverting Lovecraft? This is a question that applies to many books published around the same time which dealt with issues of race, prejudice, and the Mythos, including Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff and “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. It’s not an easy question to answer. 1949 is a different world than the one Lovecraft left in 1937, or wrote about when “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in 1931. Lovecraft himself was racist, to the point of bigotry, he was homophobic, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant; how much of that made it into “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep?”

The fantasy racism with regards to Innsmouth in Lovecraft’s fiction is inspired by the real-life racial discrimination of the United States in the 1930s, but in Lovecraft’s stories it is very specifically so much weirder than “normal” racism that the prejudices of the surrounding towns is the red herring. Unlike Winter Tide, no one in Lovecraft’s stories suspects what the people of Innsmouth actually are. That is what makes Lovecraft’s Innsmouth narrative so sensational…and what makes it so difficult to subvert.

Is it a subversion if the Deep Ones are sympathetic and not actively evil? Is it a subversion to tell a story from the perspective of a Deep One? Or to have a protagonist who openly embraces various characters without discriminating about them based on gender, sexuality, race, or religion? Not rhetorical questions; Ruthanna Emrys doesn’t carry forward many of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but neither does she invert all of them.

“The Innsmouth Legacy” is more inclusive than Lovecraft’s Mythos, but it can’t negate or even really address the substance of race and discrimination that informed Lovecraft’s writing. Or to put it another way, Winter Tide does not exist to deconstruct the ideas of race & the Cthulhu Mythos. Emrys works to turn Lovecraft’s ideas to her own usage, but in doing so never really questions the underlying fundamentals of some of those ideas—the Deep Ones (“Children of Water”) and K’n-yans (“Children of Earth”) are in several respects fundamentally different from “normal humans” (“Children of Air”), and Lovecraft’s depictions of them are treated as broadly accurate, if not universal—and they could not be otherwise, for the characters to be as they are, or the narrative to play out as it does.

In the review for “The Litany of Earth,” it was noted to make Deep Ones just a nigh-immortal, magically adept subspecies of humanity is to basically turn them into ugly versions of Tolkien’s elves. To extend a tortured metaphor, the depiction of the inhabitants of K’n-yan is basically a version of the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons. While they don’t have dark skin pigmentation, the K’n-yans are a magically adept subspecies of humanity, but one which is seen as (perhaps genetically) evil, insane, and sadistic; they are shunned by other intelligent peoples and subject to pejorative epithets (“dustblood”) and wariness, if not outright discrimination. The discovery of K’n-yan heritage fundamentally changes how a character views herself, and how she is viewed by an interacts with the other characters; this isn’t an ancestry test where the character is pleasantly surprised to see an unexpected result giving them a genetic tie that didn’t know about…and unlike at the end of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” acceptance of this unusual heritage does not equal any kind of promise of glorious transfiguration.

Which does not make Winter Tide in any sense a bad novel; a Dungeons & Dragons novel can be fine fantasy without working to subvert everything J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about elves. A book can be fresh and well-written without necessarily being revolutionary. Part of the point of a Cthulhu Mythos novel is to build on what has gone before—and add to it. Ruthanna Emrys has certainly done that.

Winter Tide was published in 2017; the Innsmouth Legacy series would continue with a sequel novel Deep Roots in 2019.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Song of Sighs” (2013) by Angela Slatter

I am hidden, but lovely, O ye daughters of darkness,
as the dreams of Great Old Ones
as the drowned houses of R’lyeth
—Angela Slatter, “The Song of Sighs” in Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth 169

The pathos of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is that the nameless narrator does not know who he is. What should be a homecoming, a prodigal son awaiting the proverbial fatted calf, the embrace of heritage and belonging, all goes terribly wrong. The various sequels to the story, written in the years and decades after, usually mark the nameless narrator as a traitor or black sheep for their unknowing betrayal, rather than the pathetic figure that they are. For those who survive in the Innsmouth diaspora, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, the loss of community, accumulated knowledge, and shared identity is as important as the actual lives destroyed and people killed.

Memory and identity thus make appropriate themes for Angela Slatter’s “The Song of Sighs.”

Lovecraft painted the Innsmouth identity in broad strokes: clannish, taciturn, inward-looking, forward-looking, religious, conscientious of appearances. The rites of the Esoteric Order of Dagon are not given in any detail, no holidays are named, no community activities described, or peculiarities of dress or cooking. The vast majority of what makes up “Innsmouth culture” or identity was built up by later writers, using what little fragments Lovecraft left in his writing. The result is somewhat stilted; imagine trying to recreate the ancient druid religion from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico: what you get is largely based on biased, partial accounts by outsiders, filled in with a great deal of extrapolation and wishful thinking. There’s little enough there that writers can do practically whatever they want with the inhabitants of Innsmouth—and have.

So when readers begin the journals of Vivienne Croftmarsh, they look to seize on what they know. To place this story, this fragment of the Innsmouth Cycle, in context with the other fragments. Like scholars piecing together the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “truth” is a bit plastic: here is the evidence we have, where do the pieces fit? Are we even looking at the right puzzle? In this case, the situation is complicated by Croftmarsh’s own faulty memory: like the protagonist of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” she does not know herself. Which is as clever a way for a writer to get the readers as any other; a clever reader will path themselves on the back as Dr. Croftmarsh scratches at her neck, as she worms her way deeper into the secrets of the school she teaches at. They think they know what’s coming…because they’ve read this story before, or at least variations of it. The wayward Innsmouthian that comes to know themselves, that discovers their heritage.

Of course, if Angela Slatter was just parroting Lovecraft’s story, it wouldn’t be much of a story at all. The point of invoking the same themes is to seize on the reader’s expectations before subverting them; to give, if not a genuine surprise, than at least a bit of a shock that the reader hadn’t thought to ask the right questions before the answers were given to them. Slatter is a deft hand at this sort of writing, and the crumb-trail left for Vivienne Croftmarsh to follow, and for the readers to vicariously pick up as they read along, is just that: a way for someone to find their way back over ground they’ve covered before. It isn’t that the readers’ memories of Innsmouth are wrong, but the trail may be leading them to a different destination than they might expect.

That is the lesson which readers are sometimes long in learning: sometimes you have to forget what you think you know. Don’t anticipate. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is so familiar to many stalwart regular readers of the Mythos that it is sometimes difficult to forget that there are other ways to read and interpret the events, and that some things are, if not best forgotten, than not the pleasant reconstructions of those who like to think of the Innsmouth folk as purely victims.

“Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ’em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world arter a time. What they done to the victims it ain’t fer me to say, an’ I guess Obed wa’n’t none too sharp abaout askin’. But it was all right with the heathens, because they’d ben havin’ a hard time an’ was desp’rate abaout everything. They give a sarten number o’ young folks to the sea-things twict every year—May-Eve an’ Hallowe’en—reg’lar as cud be. Also give some o’ the carved knick-knacks they made. What the things agreed to give in return was plenty o’ fish—they druv ’em in from all over the sea—an’ a few gold-like things naow an’ then.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Caesar’s druids were a bloody-handed lot too; human sacrifice was anathema to the Romans, and for those cultures that followed the Romans, it became a familiar polemic (cf. cannibalism and Relatione del Reame di Congo (1591) by Filippo Pigafetta). The “reality” of these practices remains a key part of Innsmouth identity in many stories of the Innsmouth diaspora: Brian McNaughton in “The Doom That Came To Innsmouth” leans one way, Ruthanna Emrys in “The Litany of Earth” and her subsequent novels leans another. Fewer readers sympathize with an Innsmouth diaspora that does practice human sacrifice in some form.

There’s probably a thesis to be written on the finer philosophical details of that point. For the Innsmouth identity to have verisimilitude, there should be unpleasant or alien aspects, things that set it apart from contemporary culture at more than a superficial level. If all of the survivors of Innsmouth were virtuous, ethical, hardworking, and not hurting anybody, then they’d be a culture of Mary Sues. Angela Slatter holds the reader in suspense on that point to the end, and for good reason.

Angela Slatter’s “The Song of Sighs” was first published in Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth (2013), and has been reprinted in New Cthulhu 2 (2015), her collection Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales (2016), and Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up To No Good (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

On screen, a cavern beneath the black Amazonian lake, glycerine mist and rifle smoke, and the creature’s gills rise and fall, struggling for breath; its bulging eyes are as blank and empty as the glass eyes of a taxidermied fish. —Caitlín R. Kiernan, “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth 170
There both continuity and a disconnect between H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1936) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Disconnect, because according to all the official histories, Lovecraft’s pulp story was not an inspiration for the film; the Gilman Hotel did not give rise to the Gill-Man.  Continuity because fans and subsequent creators did draw comparisons, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit. When viewers today see Abe Sapien in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics and related media, there are obvious echoes of Lovecraftian elements in “Ichthyo Sapien.” The Shape of Water (2017), director Guillermo del Toro’s homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, also draws on Abe Sapien’s image in the creature design—in part because actor Doug Jones played the amphibian in both 2017 and in del Toro’s two Hellboy films. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill directly connect the creature and the Deep Ones in Nemo: River of Ghosts (2015)…and the list could go on. Caitlín R. Kiernan went a step further.
Her twenty-fifth birthday, the stormy day in early July when Lacey Morrow found the Innsmouth fossil, working late and alone in the basement of the Pratt Museum. (ibid., 174)
“‘From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6’ probably started taking shape in 1996,” recalls the author, “after David J. Schow sent me a beautiful reproduction of the Devonian-aged fossil hand shown in the opening scenes of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dave has the most awesome collection of Creature memorabilia anywhere on earth, I suspect. I sat the model atop a bookshelf in my office, and from time to time I’d think about its plausibility as an actual fossil, about coming across it in some museum drawer somewhere, forgotten and dusty with an all but indecipherable label, and what implications to our ideas of vertebrae evolution such a fossil would have. […] Anyway, the two things came together—the “fossil” hand of the Creature, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’—and I stopped working on the novel just long enough to write this story. I borrowed Dr. Solomon Monalisa from one of my earlier stories, ‘Onion.’ —Caitlín R. Kiernan, Afterword in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth 287
There’s a dedication to the secret history of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in this story that has all the care of a good hoax. It is told in bits and pieces; lengthy quotes from books that don’t exist but could easily have, variations of anecdotes that today’s readers could get off wikipedia. There is a kind of irony too—readers of Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, where the story first appeared, would be expected to pick up on the bits related to Lovecraft’s tale, but in the 2000s and beyond—how many monster fans have actually seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon in action? Everyone knows the Gill-Man, but like plush Cthulhus, often at third- or fourth-hand, watered-down derivations, jokes, cartoons, a discarded juice carton in The Monster Squad (1987), one more familiar figure in the old line-up of Universal Horror monsters—and unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy, not one that ever got an update by Hammer in the ’70s, that largely avoided exploitation and cheesy effects in the ’90s. The 79-minute original 1954 film is considered a classic, but with fewer sequels and fewer imitators. The Gill-Man, in its original incarnation, is humanoid but alien; ancient, inhuman, yet akin to humanity. A bit like King Kong (1933) in that respect; beauty killed that beast as well…though why these creatures should go for human women is left unspoken in the films, movie-goers knew why. Kiernan’s timeline in the story is disjointed; she starts at the end, then delves into the beginning, and cuts back and forth. Nonlinear storytellling, masterfully done: when a reader goes to the last word on the last page, they want to turn back to the beginning to find out what it means…and reading the story again, after you know everything, bits and pieces click into place. Lacey Morrow isn’t quite the unnamed protagonist of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or the nubile fishbait Kay Lawrence in her custom white swimsuit, but borrows a bit of both. Sometimes the unfortunate victim, more often the intrepid investigator bumbling into deeper waters. Nor does Kiernan tell the reader everything. There’s a sketch of what happened between the events of Lovecraft’s story and the filming of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but only the sketch. Readers can fill in the details with their imagination. If this had been that story of the filming, it might have been something closer to James Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima (2009)—and maybe someone will write that someday, and talk a little bit more about Milicent Patrick, The Lady from the Black Lagoon who sculpted the models for the original Gill-Man suits, and how she fits into the Innsmouth diaspora. James Goho in Caitlín R. Kiernan: A Critical Study of Her Dark Fiction (2020) files “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” under chapter 5: “Warnings to the Curious,” subsection “The Danger in Fossils,” and observes in her work:
Our world may not be as we normally designate it. It is weirder, stranger and more hostile than we can imagine. (78)
For Goho, the story illustrates something of the essential paradox of scientists: to challenge new hypotheses and new interpretations for proof, and yet to be open to such viewpoints if they can be proven. The dogmatic scientist that is too conservative to change or challenge convention can find nothing new, the radical who proposes new theories endlessly but cannot support them is a crank. The wonder of discovery, the possibility of upsetting the established conventions with new evidence, to study and preserve it—is Morrow’s main motivation in the story. Against this she pushes into a secret history, where some things cannot be published, some orthodoxies cannot be challenged—and there’s a great deal of frustration and sadness wrapped up in that. While few stories of the Innsmouth diaspora touch on this attitude in so many words, there are elements of this theme in many of them. Something happened in the winter of 1927-1928, and the public part of it is not the whole of the story…and those who find a piece of it, who descend from the old families, or are drawn into the web of secrecy through curiosity have to face the challenges that come with knowing too much. A conspiracy of silence, and the question has to be asked: who holds those secrets, and why? Why are they secrets, and who benefits from keeping the public from knowing what really happened? Every writer who sits down to write a tale of the Innsmouth diaspora is, in effect, that nameless narrator at the beginning of Lovecraft’s story who claims:
But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified raiders at Innsmouth. Besides, what was found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe deeper. —H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”
May they dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” was first published in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005), and has since been reprinted in her collections Two Worlds and In Between (2011) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales (2018).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019) by Mathieu Sapin & Patrick Pion

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This is how you open a comic set in space.

When H. P. Lovecraft was writing science fiction in the 1930s, space was the province of rocket-men in slipstream vehicles that sailed from planet to planet, fighting wars between the stars with strange and terrible weapons from their clean, futuristic vessels of tomorrow…or they were cast onto some barbaric planet, to fight for their lives with sword and blaster, a la Robert E. Howard’s Almuric (1939) Lovecraft & Kenneth Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1936). It was only the rare pulpster like Clark Ashton Smith in his Martian tales or C. L. Moore in her Northwest Smith stories that showed space as a little…grubby. A bit closer to the Wild West, where fortunes could be won and death was around every corner, where the “heroes” could be rogues and outcasts that shot first without conscience, and “civilization” and the associated laws, norms, and mores could be far away. Out on the borderlands of what is known, where things could get properly horrific.

The grimy, gritty, “lived in” nature of space opera is one of the hallmarks of Alien (1979). Space works very well for Mythos stories, and shown in “Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins“The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff & “In The Yaddith Time” (2007) by Ann K. Schwader, and the “Boojumverse” of Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette: “Boojum” (2008), “Mongoose” (2009), and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012). All of these are original works, pushing the Mythos beyond the present into a hypothetical future where humanity has at least begun to explore and colonize beyond their own planet. Extrapolating out past what Lovecraft & his contemporaries would have known of the universe.

La Planète aux Cauchemars (“The Planet of Nightmares,” 2019) is a bit different: it is a direct adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” only set entirely in space. This is a new dimension for Lovecraft country; the young woman trying to catch a cheap spaceflight to Arkham Beta takes a vessel from Newburyport through a planetary colony called Innsmüt, which has a bad reputation…

Mathieu Sapin wrote the adaptation (from Maxime le Dain’s translation of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”); Patrick Pion provided the artwork, Walter Pezzali the vivid colors, Jean-Luc Ruault the letters. As an adaptation, readers are basically familiar with the outlines of the story, and it’s not the plot that draws readers in—we know basically what’s going to happen, there are few surprises here on a strictly narrative level—it’s seeing what Sapin, Pion, & co. do with the idea. What does Innsmüt look like as a spaceport? How does that change the original story? What does that do to how our protagonist Agent Eva Orne interprets what she sees?

The cosmetic influence of the Alien franchise is there. Newburyport isn’t some pristine future. People worry about money, there’s dirt and grime, steam, rising up from vents before neon Japanese signs like a set-piece from Blade Runner, huge cables and tubes dominate the less-traveled sections, reminding us that space stations are, after all, mostly plumbing. Innsmüt itself is a dusty colony on the edge of a salty sea…a rundown future, a bare outpost of humanity (except the Innsmüt folk don’t look very human). Starscapes, stark and beautiful mark the transitions, and the panel layouts skew as Eva Orne drops down through the clouds to Innsmüt, where the Gilman hotel waits…and there are entire pages where not a word is needed to convey the action, because the silence works to the advantage here, letting the readers drink in the details and colors. The far towers of the Ordre de Dagon, the teeth on the dead fish washed up on the shores of the sea…Sapin knows not to drown a panel in paragraphs of descriptive text, that he can let Pion get on with the business of showing rather than telling.

The art for a lot of the bande dessinée is deliberately toned down—realistic in proportions, carefully planned and drawn, but the tones are flat, muted, the shapes largely sharply defined—until Orne dreams. Then the digital coloring makes a splash, the whole tone and lighting shifts to this dark quicksilver-tinted look, and the sharp inking give way to these beautiful painted pages that are gorgeous and hyper-real compared to the waking world. The shift is so abrupt that it makes the return to the waking pages jarring…but at the same time, if the whole book were done in that dream-like style, it would have not had the same impact. Keeping the shift in style to the dream sequence was the right choice. One of many good choices in this book, where Orne borrows more of her characterization from Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise than from Lovecraft’s nameless protagonist.

The best lettering is what isn’t confined to the word balloons; I suspect this might be more of an issue where the creators were looking ahead toward potential translations, because there is plenty of space in the speech bubbles for the text, but it is mostly cramped and fairly prosaic. There are exceptions where the balloons convey the agitation and emotion of the speaker’s voice, but for the most part the dialogue comes across as very affect-less and probably the text is smaller than it needs to be. Easy to read, but doesn’t convey any emotion outside of one or two scenes, while the text written outside of the word balloons are very active and emotive sound effects—critch critch KLANG! FRRROUSHH!!! BOM BOM BOM—which are fantastic.

La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019, Rue de Sèvres) is a wonderful adaptation that really makes the most of its premise in a relatively brief 60 pages, and there are surprises there. It is only available in French at the moment, but I would be surprised if it didn’t end up translated before too long; unfortunately, not all the great bande dessinée works make it to the United States, but Dark Horse has done translations of Sherlock Holmes and the Necronomicon (2015) and Ablaze is currently translating Glénat’s Conan adaptations as The Cimmerian (2021), so perhaps English-speaking audiences in the US might get a chance to read this, which they should.

Mathieu Sapin and Patrick Pion previously collaborated on Les Rêves dans la Maison de la Sorcière (2016, Rue de Sèvres), an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House.”


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“From the Cold Dark Sea” (2016) by Storm Constantine

“Book title Marvels of the Deeps,” she began. “Dimensions approximately 30 centimeters width, 40 centimeters height. Thickness 8 centimeters.”

“How very forensic,” murmured Mrs. De La Mere.
—Storm Constantine, “From the Cold Dark Sea” in Dreams From the Witch House 278

Bibliophilia has been descried as “the gentle madness,” and is one of the more respectable sorts of mental illness for both fans and characters of the Mythos to fall into. Ever since Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon and Robert E. Howard’s history of Nameless Cults in “The Black Stone”, the various tomes and texts of the Mythos have attracted the love of readers. Sometimes this extends to full catalogs of pseudobiblia, including Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley and The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014) edited by Nade Pedersen. Sometimes too, it provides an entry into a story through the antiquarian book trade: collectors, sellers, forgers, book detectives like Corso in The Club Dumas (2006) by Arturo Perez-Reverte…and, in the case of Storm Constantine’s “From the Cold, Dark Sea,” a book-restorer named Cara Milltop.

It’s a fish out of water story, pun very much intended. The shadow of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” hangs over it, as it does with many other stories, though Constantine makes no explicit mention of either Innsmouth or the Deep Ones. This is a Mythos story in construction and inference; Cara Milltop never hears any calls to Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, or great Cthulhu. Yet there is enough indisputably there that Mythos aficionados can slip into the feel of this story like putting on an old glove; the pace and texture of it almost tells itself—but Constantine knows what she is doing, and if you don’t question the plot there’s more than enough embroidery on the Deep Ones lore to satisfy, with some lovely imagery to the description of the woodcuts and the dreams that they bring.

What really sets “From the Cold, Dark Sea” apart from stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader is that there is no confirmation. Cara Milltop remains a hired hand, an outsider. Knowledge does not bring initiation, nor does Constantine provide a final proof to any mystery. The unreadable words on the page remain unread, the actual truth remains unconfirmed. Readers are left to wonder if it really is just all in Cara’s head, an overactive imagination from working to restore an old book, exacerbated by staying in a spooky old house full of women.

There are no male characters in the story. Something that might sneak up on readers, but one of those nice details that dovetails with the frisson of unknowing in the story. Is it just coincidence, or is there something more to it? The legend, as Cara interprets it, is a female rite of passage, starkly in contrast to the patriarchal approach of the Esoteric Order of Dagon in, say, “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales. Not so much a rebuttal to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but an alternative. Maybe the Deep Ones don’t marry, as such.

Of course, if every child survived there would be far too many of them. How cruel, though, how barbaric. Yet, little different from the way baby turtles started life, Cara thought. Just the cruel barbarism of Nature herself.
—Storm Constantine, “From the Cold Dark Sea” in Dreams From the Witch House 294

Bibliophilia is a gentle madness. Cara Milltop never gets violent, never says outright what she thinks she knows—or suspects. The Marvels of the Deep can slide onto the shelf next to The R’lyeh Text and the Cthäat Aquadingen, squeezed between the Codex Dagonesis and Invocations to Dagon, and it would not be out of place. What she is left with in the end is not horror, or awe, but disappointment. To have come that close to something so magical, or almost-magical, and yet be unable to know if what she suspects is true, no invitation to take part. In the end, she doesn’t even have the book; she was only there to restore it, as she did. Money is a poor coin in a Mythos story, because so rarely can it buy what the characters—and the readers—really want.

“From the Cold, Dark Sea” was first published in Dreams From the Witch House (2016), and was reprinted in Storm Constantine’s collection Mythumbra (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Somewhere To Belong” (2020) by Yolanda Sfetsos

The thing was like something out of a Lovecraft story.
—Yolanda Sfetsos, “Somewhere To Belong”
in Under Her Black Wings: 2020 Women of Horror Anthology Volume One

His name was Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Invoke it at your peril.

One of the side-effects of the rising awareness of H. P. Lovecraft is an increased number of references to the man and his work. What might have started out as a geeky in-joke or homage, such as “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ or “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff, would go on to become a deliberate effort to conjure associations with the man and his work, to inform a story by mentioning Lovecraft without necessarily drawing any tangible link to the Lovecraft Mythos into the narrative. This can be seen in works as wide apart as Brian McNaughton’s “To My Dear Friend Hommy-Beg” (1994) to the discreet use of a copy of The Shadow over Innsmouth as a prop in Aquaman (2019).

When Yolanda Sfetsos invokes Lovecraft in “Somewhere To Belong,” it tells the audience things, both explicitly and implicitly. That the story is set in a world where Lovecraft wrote and published his fiction; that the narrator (Enid), has read Lovecraft; and that, connection established, the reader should be primed for more subtle references. In this instance, the last bit is probably the primary point. The story would be Lovecraftian without any explicit reference to Lovecraft, but invoking Lovecraft sets the reader to look for the themes and parallels.

A good point of comparison might be “She Flows” by Takeuchi Yoshikazu (竹内義和). Both stories have a similar mood, and some common elements—the rain, children, a supernatural transformation, friendship and loneliness. Takeuchi’s story is more subtle in execution; Sfetsos’ more explicit, but they’re playing around with some of the same themes and building blocks. Water, childhood, transformation. The ghost of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” hangs over both stories, even if they never mention Innsmouth or anything explicitly connected to it. Sfetsos, by invoking Lovecraft, establishes a connection in the mind of the reader while keeping it out of the narrative itself. Enid doesn’t make the connection between the entity of Mother and Lovecraft’s Mother Hydra. The burden of such connections is placed on the reader.

We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

The ending of Lovecraft’s story is either horrific or wondrous, depending on your interpretation. A loss of self or a finding of ones true self, a true family. Somewhere to belong. Y’ha-nthlei is in that sense a promise of things to come, and for those who are lonely in their life—and there are few that have not felt like outsiders—finding such a place might be worth a few sacrifices. Loneliness is definitely one of the quieter sub-themes in many of Lovecraft’s stories, including “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” The protagonists tend to have few friends, to be disconnected from those around them. The nameless narrator wanders through the streets of Innsmouth, a stranger in a strange land, and yet he already has the Innsmouth Look…he already belongs there. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Enid’s journey in “Somewhere To Belong” focuses on that theme of loneliness and belonging, on a smaller, more personal scale. Enid thought about getting a dog or a cat, but she really needed was a friend…and got one. Yet this is not a bittersweet reflection on Mother Hydra’s promise, as in “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe. Sfetsos’ maintains the horror of it all, the loss. A bit more visceral and metaphysical than Lovecraft, because tentacles can squirm inside brains and souls can be plucked out. There’s not much beauty in it, but that might be the whole point. Sometimes we don’t feel we belong anywhere beautiful, and as Milton says in Paradise Lost:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

“Somewhere To Belong” by Yolanda Sfetsos was published in Under Her Black Wings: 2020 Women of Horror Anthology Volume One.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Down into Silence” (2018) by Storm Constantine

We know the secrets of Innsmouth, or what the alleged witnesses told us were true so long ago. Nearly a hundred years has passed. […] Maybe none of it was true. The surviving records sound like witch trials to me, more imagination than fact. Yet standing here on the bridge over the tumbling River Manuxet, gazing out to sea, I wonder. The fact is, I want it to be true, all of it.
—Storm Constantine, “Down into Silence” in 
What October Brings: A Lovecraftian Celebration of Halloween 19

Salem, Massachusetts proudly advertises itself today as Witch Country. The 1692 trials have become fodder for tourists, something for the ancient city to hang its hat on. Sightseers gawk at Gallows Hill, take pictures of the Witch House to post on the internet. Lovecraft did some of that himself, nearly a hundred years ago, and it’s only gotten more commercial, more elaborate.

What if that happened to Innsmouth?

Kenneth Hite in his essay “Cthulhu’s Polymorphous Perversity” in Cthulhurotica commented on the advent of Cthulhu kitsch:

But Cthulhu is not unique in this. Everything that can be sold in the modern age will be sold, and in every form possible. Count Dracula, after all, not content with great movies, novels, mediocre movies, nonfiction tie-ins to novels, debunkings of non-fiction tie-ins to novels, worse movies, superb comic books, and the entire Romanian tourist industry, appears thinly disguised as a fictional children’s rabbit (Bunnicula) and a molar-corroding breakfast cereal (Count Chocula). There are bobble-heads, and illiterate T-shirts, and clever board-games, and plastic toys, and ridiculous cameo appearances devoted to Dracula, and James Bond, and Batman, and every other figure of modern myth. (You can also get a plush Cthulhu dresses as Dracula or James Bond.) (291-292)

We live in the now of Cthulhu kitsch; 3D-printed idols and plushies, action figures and posters, cereals and soda and beer. But we do not live in a world with a real Innsmouth, where the Gilman Hotel has been refurbished and dressed with Hallowe’en decor for the kind of guests that like seeing strands of dried corn and pumpkins strewn about the lobby for that Authentic Old New England™ flavor. How would that work, exactly, if you could read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and then go drive to Arkham and Innsmouth in your car? If Robert Olmstead, instead of living forever in glory, died of a brain tumor in a sanitarium after publishing his narrative?

This is the kind of mood that Storm Constantine explores in “Down into Silence.” The desire for something real, something dark and magical, and being sold instead the licensed, authorized version of the experience. It is in many ways something of the other side of “The Nyarlathotep Experience™” (2019) by Miguel Fliguer, where we see someone trying to craft that kind of experience for others.

At the same time, it is also an interpretation of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—and not necessarily a cynical one. What if there was some truth to the story? Not everything, not nearly everything. What would Innsmouth be like, if it had been a real place, a small town with an Esoteric Order of Dagon and a Devil’s Reef, and the g-men had come and there had been blood in the streets? What would it look like, if the town had survived that, and bore the scar proudly, and charged people to take photographs of it?

“If it hadn’t been him, then it would have been someone else, Kezia. Innsmouth couldn’t have stayed hidden for ever. The modern world doesn’t allow that. If Innsmouth had—or has—an enemy it is time, the changes in society, not merely the word of one man.”

“He was bitter,” Kezia says, in a voice craving for vengeance. “He wanted to be here, he was one of them, but he ruined it. They chased him out and then, like a mean little boy, he told tales.”
—Storm Constantine, What October Brings 32

Is Storm Constantine’s Innsmouth your father and mother’s Innsmouth? No. It’s a mark of a more mature phase of Lovecraftiana. You need a certain hit of commercialization and nostalgia, like Hallowe’en itself has become, to appreciate what she’s driving at. Before you could have “Down into Silence,” you needed the Cthulhu kitsch zeitgeist. So it has, and so here she is.

In the sense that Innsmouth is a real place—in the sphere of human ideas, not the physical world—it took a Lovecraft to mark it on the map. Once, perhaps, it was a bit of a secret. Fans of weird fiction were few, they shared their pleasure of discovery with each other…and word got out. Now everyone knows about Innsmouth, it seems. There are comics and erotica, entire anthologies dedicated to Innsmouth and its diaspora. Like a tattoo that fades in time, but keeps getting re-inked, the memories of the old lines distorted but still there like a shadow, adding depth. Innsmouth is in the now, constantly re-discovered, re-invented, re-visited—and the Mythos needs that to stay relevant, to grow and change rather than stagnate and sink into decay. Fans need not fear the tourists, the new readers attracted by films like Dagon or Innsmouth. New blood, new ideas, new media to keep the old concepts alive for another generation. Just so that one more crop of visitors can find Innsmouth, and leave wanting more of that strange town with its weird shadows and furtive mysteries.

“Down into Silence” was published in What October Brings: A Lovecraftian Celebration of Halloween (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier

In ’forty-six Cap’n Obed took a second wife that nobody in the taown never see—some says he didn’t want to, but was made to by them as he’d called in—had three children by her—two as disappeared young, but one gal as looked like anybody else an’ was eddicated in Europe. Obed finally got her married off by a trick to an Arkham feller as didn’t suspect nothin’.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Shadow over Innsmouth

The undeniable fact of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is that a great deal of sex has occurred. That is true in pretty much every town; human beings do not spontaneously pop into existence, but are the end result of a typically long and somewhat agreeably messy process of conception, gestation, birth. Within the specific parameters of Lovecraft’s plot, Innsmouth itself has hosted a lot of sexual liaisons with the Deep Ones, and this has fired imaginations in many strange ways because unlike with stories such as “The Call of Cthulhu,” sex is essentially the driving engine of the plot. The central horror of the story isn’t just the revelation that Deep Ones exist, but that they are breeding with humans.

Most of the sequels, prequels, and miscellaneous episodes inspired by Lovecraft’s story deal with the subject in one form or another, examining the gender and sexual politics, the vast possible permutations of marriage, lineage, growing up with or without “the Innsmouth Look.” Most of them don’t get into erotic details. Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton does, a little; “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan broaches some new territory; “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales hints at nuptial horrors…

…but does Innsmouth sex have to be horrific?

Fans of horror are no stranger to teratophilia, the love of monsters. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Cthulhu Mythos erotica has been with us nearly as long as we have conceived of Cthulhu, the sexualization of “monstrous” entities has been and is and will be an ongoing aspect of reader interaction. It was not long after Carmilla or Dracula’s wives appeared on the page that “sexy vampires” became a thing, and artists and writers have, in their own way and in their own time, broached the subject of a sexy Deep One or Deep One hybrid.

The psychology of why is varied and individual. The Innsmouth Porno VHS (2014) focuses on a fascination with the different, the monstrous, the alien, the deformed. There’s a certain jaded sensibility expressed where “normal” is no longer arousing. “Under the Keeper of the Key” by Jaap Boekestein in Lovecraft After Dark (2015) uses the Innsmouth transformation as the ultimate physical expression of the mental and spiritual changes experienced during BDSM.

Monique Poirier is more sex-positive. What if a young couple just really hit it off and try something a bit different and end up liking it?

I’d never so much as seen Octavia’s unclothed ankle, never laid a hand upon her thigh for more than the barest moment before she demurely removed it. She had always been most perfectly modest and coy. In the echoing distance, thunder rolled, and another volley of sleet pelted the windows with a smooth hiss. Lightning flashed, and I saw it reflect in her eyes with a ravenous light.
—Monique Poirier, “The Flower of Innsmouth” in Whispers in Darkness

It’s fun. There’s no blood and gore, no hand-wringing or guilt, no rape or regret. All those things have their place, and there are absolutely flavors of Innsmouth fiction that will give them to you. Yet it has to be remembered that the Victorians, for all their straitlaced propriety, produced and consumed a vast amount of pornography as well. Just because sex is taboo doesn’t mean people didn’t do it.

Frankly, it makes you wonder why someone else didn’t do try to write a story like this before.

Plotwise, “The Flower of Innsmouth” is technically a prequel to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” showing how the youngest daughter of Captain Marsh’s got “married off by a trick.” The setup was right there in Lovecraft’s own story. If one wants to get technical, there’s room to nitpick: Poirier uses “Obadiah” instead of “Obed,” “Octavia” instead of “Eliza,” the marriage should have been in 1867 instead of 1870—but there’s room to gloss that kind of detail. However, most readers will probably be more interested in the kind of bedroom scene that Lovecraft did not and would not write:

Something hot and slick probed between my buttocks in insistent exploration. I think I made a noise of protest then, and certainly tensed at the intrusion, but Octavia chose that moment to tighten her nether muscles in a paroxysm around my manhood, as if she meant to draw it up into her body entirely and the whole of me with it. (ibid.)

There is a bit of a delight in the language involved. It is probably closer to Edwardian than Victorian; reminiscent of The Way of a Man with a Maid (1908), but in the confluence between historical erotica and historical Mythos fiction, Poirier manages to get the message across without losing contemporary audiences entirely. She hits a lot of tropes—”I’m not like other girls”—but tropes aren’t a sin if used well. Nor does the story overstay its welcome; there is a plot, there is a scene, and the finale is a single sentence—but that’s really all you need for a story like this. As a brief episode of Innsmouth history, this works. As a brief erotic episode, this also works.

“The Flower of Innsmouth” by Monique Poirier was first published in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011, Circlet Press); it has since been reprinted in her own collection This World Between: Erotic Stories (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

And you stood up, then. You stood, taller than I recalled because you have grown longer, and the moon flashed across the glistening scales below your small breasts, your nipples as erect and sharp as barnacles, thorns grown from the sea, and I took a step back, despite myself.

Do not retreat.
Do not retreat from me.

Only my thoughts, not yours. I will not now be so conceited as to believe I could ever know your thoughts. Not after what she has done with you, or you have done with her. Mother Hydra has held you tight to her bosom in the lightless places at the bottom of the world, and she has accepted all your gifts, all those human parts you were forever trying to cast aside. The old flesh.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pages Found Among The Effects of Miss Edith M. Tiller” in Frog Toes and Tentacles (2005), 13

Monsters have a particular fascination in a transgender context. The act of transformation, however violent or painful, gives results. What you were is gone, and you have become something else—perhaps who you were meant to be. Body dysmorphic disorder is real, and the fantasy of such transformations that do not require months or years of hormone replacement therapy and surgery is real.

There is a sexual component to such transformation fantasies. Consider the ending to The Shape of Water, blood erupting in clouds from the vertical scars in her neck as the gills finally come in, as a visual metaphor for losing her virginity all over again. To become a woman…and more than that, to cast her old life behind. Such transformations are one-way, like puberty. You can’t go back again.

In the various sequels to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a great deal of focus is given to the transformation itself, its implications and effects. “The Gathering” (2017) by Brian Lumley and “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe both look at what happens when the change does not come, and how those who cannot go down beneath the waves to live in glory forever and ever deal with that. Caitlín R. Kiernan, by contrast, looks at a heretic. Someone who has refused the call.

And her lover.

Innsmouth-related erotica is not exactly rare; Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton is an entire novel exploring it, and one could easily fill a fairly decent anthology of short stories including such pearls as “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier or “Madeline Marsh’s Midlife Crisis” (2015) by K. Z. Morano. Yet it is rare to find stories that focus on the characters involved, their complex motivations and emotions, as much as the sexual action itself. In stories like “The Innsmouth Porno VHS” (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, the characters involved are consciously skeezy and the fetish is teratophilia; they don’t have any emotional investment in the transformation or the people transformed, much like folks fetishize transgender sex workers, seeing them not as individuals but as commodities.

Not so with Caitlín R. Kiernan.

She wants you to feel the reunion of these two lovers, one of whom took the plunge (literally), and the other who would not. Wants that taste of real horror as the act begins, and the clothes are shredded “making of them ribbons for a mermaid’s hair.” Edith’s lover Samaritana did not come back as she had known her…and there are surprises in store.

I stopped struggling (I had been; I can say that now, because I know I ama a heretic) and lay entirely still while those tendrils worked their way quickly between my legs, those strong tendrils or arms sprouting from the hairless mound where your sex had been, twisting back upon themselves, flexing, searching like blind, unfed serpents. What is it the old stories say? Cut off one, and two will sprout in its stead? (ibid., 21)

There is much unsaid in the story. The text has the quality of Edwardian prose, at once explicit and poetic. This is not sexploitation, no actors mugging for the camera and faking orgasms. Elaborations on the Mother Hydra mythos are hinted at but not elaborated upon, and the relationship, like many of the relationships in her fiction, does not have a happy ending. The subtitle for this story is:

Dead by her own hand, Janury 7th, 1905
Danvers State Insane Asylum, Mass.

Which is how it should be. Not every story, even an erotic story, has a happy ending. Transgender folks know that better than most. The struggle of whether or not to transition is real, and takes its toll both physically and psychologically. There is more to unpack in this story…and that probably says more to its quality than anything else.

“Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” was first published in Frog Toes and Tentacles (2005).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“Oh,” Annie said and sat down on the rug, grateful for something between her and the concrete. “Where are you from, anyway?”

The loose flap of cloth falling back in place, once again concealing the crack, and “Massachusetts,” Elise replied, “but no place you’ve probably ever heard of.”
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 93

Music, lesbians, a muggy Georgia summer, and white blind things in the dark. “Paedomorphosis” is a story of mood and affect, intimation almost to the point of deliberately hiding things. If it wasn’t published in a Mythos anthology…if it wasn’t published by Caitlín R. Kiernan…there are certain connections which might not be made at all. Like “She Flows” by Takeuchi Yoshikazu (竹内義和) the story lives in that liminal space between telling and showing and knowing. It’s not a horror story by any stretch, but there are the bones of horror story technique there: the way the story and characters are built up, like fossils emerging from dry rock of an ancient river bed, and there are only a few people that can read those old bones and reconstruct something of what happened.

To a degree, all stories are reflections of their authors. We read about Lovecraft’s life and we look for the echoes of events and ideas in his fiction; as his life becomes more well-known through biographies, Lovecraft himself has become a kind of character in the fictional universe, fragments of his life and thought cropping up here and there in stories, some more explicit than others.

With “Paedomorphosis,” readers may well ask how much of Kiernan herself is reflected in the story. The setting of Athens, Georgia, where she lived. Elise-from-Massachusetts with her interest in paleontology; Kiernan herself a paleontologist. The imagery of drowning, repeated in some stories, especially her later novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (2012). The lesbian characters and her own sexuality.

“I thought dykes were supposed to be all tough and fearless and shit,” she said.

Annie shook her head, swallowed before she spoke. “Big ol’ misconception. right up there with the ones about us all wanting dicks and pickup trucks.”
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 93

The story has the feel of something cribbled together from bits of life; people and places known rather than imagined. A bit of sexual longing, fulfilled. Drugs and rock and roll. And it takes Annie…and the audience…somewhere they never expected, gives them a glimpse of a world they never imagined might exist, those strange caverns measureless to man, the porous world spoken of so cryptically in “Machines Are Digging” (2009) by Reza Negarestani.

The title is never explained; look up the definition on your own time. The story ends with, of all things, a quote from Tolkien:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains…
—J. R. R. Tolkien, quoted in “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 98

But not the whole of it:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains: fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again, while their eyes grew bigger and bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness; also there are other things more slimy than fish. Even in the tunnels and caves the goblins have made for themselves there are other things living unbeknown to them that have sneaked in from outside to lie up in the dark.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter V “Riddles in the Dark”

The story captures a mood, but the mood itself is almost inexpressible in anything less than the story. There are things to think about, long after the last page is turned. What might have happened, if Annie had been fearless enough to take the plunge? Who is the subject of paedomorphosis in the story? These are questions that Kiernan doesn’t answer in this story…but in some of her other stories, we catch hints of what might have happened, in love affairs that lasted a little longer and got a little weirder.

“Paedomorphosis” was first published in The Urbanite #10 (1998), it has been reprinted in Kiernan’s collection Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000, 2002, & 2008); Song of Cthulhu (2001); and Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction & Fantasy (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).