Thirteen women in shadowy Innsmouth, brides of arranged marriages to the inhuman denizens of the neighboring reef, are bound by the will of their male relatives, until they pursue revenge.
—J. M. Yales, A Coven in Essex County | Prologue
“A Coven in Essex County” is a rare example of serial Mythos fiction, told in 18 monthly episodes on The Visitant. The story that develops focuses on perspective and impact—readers are presumably already initiated into the mysteries of Innsmouth, they know the big secret that the nameless protagonist in Lovecraft’s tale uncovered from the drunken lips of Zadok Allen. What Yales zeroes in on is not the terrible threat of the Deep Ones, or even the fact of their existence; not the aftermath of the story, as with Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth”, or the possible variations such as “Take Your Daughters to Work” (2007) by Livia Llewellyn or “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader—no, Yales wants to present the story of the women of Innsmouth, the wives and daughters who grow up in this strange, twisted society—and the expectations that are placed on them.
As background: there is an inherent imbalance in the gender dynamics of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Human men marry female Deep Ones, then their hybrid children—primarily women—are apparently married off. The focus of Lovecraft’s story is on the nameless narrator protagonist, whose great-grandmother is a Deep One, and whose grandmother was one of these Innsmouth brides, “married off on a trick” to an Arkham man. Lovecraft’s initial notes for the “Innsmouth” suggest a more complicated and subplot that didn’t make it into the drafts:
All opponents killed off—many women commit suicide or vanish. Things refuse wholly to leave the town. Horrible incidents—hybridisation. Marsh dares not call in outside world—Things threaten to rise in limitless numbers. Compromise reached—secret habitation, since they would prefer to avoid general war.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Notes to ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth'”, Collected Essays 5.249
Some of this never made it into the finished version of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where Lovecraft focuses on one family line. Implicit but unspoken is that regardless of the offspring the Deep Ones never stop intermarrying…and as his notes hint, these are not implied to be marriages of love and mutual attraction. Read between the lines as Yales must have, and the picture gets grim and depressing: the women of Innsmouth have been raped…and this has been going on for a long time. Long enough to have become part of the social structure of the town. Parallels might be drawn to the child brides and forced marriages of certain patriarchal religious sects, or the system of concubines in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); the disenfranchisement of the Innsmouth women, who are trapped in a system that does not recognize or reward their agency, recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). The author certainly takes the concept farther than Lovecraft ever dared to, as the women become literal commodities, bodies and lives traded away for Innsmouth gold.
In the decades since Lovecraft wrote, many gender and sexual permutations of Deep One/human relations have been explored, sometimes in pornographic detail, but the particular dynamics of those relationships—and the society that permits and encourages the relationships—is rarely explored. Ann K. Schwader’s “Mail Order Bride” (1999) makes the females the dominant sexual partner, using unsuspecting human males as essentially sperm donors and providers; the graphic novels Neonomicon (2010) and Witch Doctor, Vol. I: Under the Knife (2011) suggest that a quirk of biology is to explain for why normally only male human/female Deep One result in viable offspring.
Sex in all three cases is rarely forced: it is generally presented that the male humans are willing to have sex with female Deep Ones, just as it is generally presented that female humans aren’t willing to have sex with male Deep Ones. (Homosexual and transsexual variations on the theme, such as Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Pages found among the effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) and Monique Poireur’s “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011), are another barrel of fish entirely.) The systemic “marriage” of human women to male Deep Ones, by force or coercion, and the effects that would have on those women is largely unexplored. Many have found sympathy for the devil, but few besides Yales have looked into the hardened souls of the traumatized women of Innsmouth—an issue made more complicated because the women are yet divided by social convention and personality as well. To achieve redress, they have to overcome their differences and unite…and they have one very good reason to come together.
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me […] If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? […] The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
—Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene I
“A Coven in Essex County” is experimental fiction, and one of the most difficult and important parts is the beginning of the penultimate chapter, “A November Wedding.” Throughout the story, the character of Cora speaks in a kind of glossolalia, languages coming together in almost Joycean runs, bits of English, German, pidgin languages, R’lyehian, folding together, syllables merging, alphabets converging as they sought to express meaning…and perhaps all the better, when in this section they hit upon the inexpressible, the unnameable. The obscured climax is in its was as effective as the italicized culminating revelation of Lovecraft’s stories.
However, this is not a story about revelations, either cosmic or personal. It is about impact. Yales’ story is not so much about the act of marriage as how it impacts the women forced into these arranged unions:
Something happened after the wedding night to women of Innsmouth that erases what in other places would signify them as women. There is a gravity about them, an otherworldliness as much attributable to their exotic looks as to the fact that none of them quite focus on any one thing with their eyes. They seem always to be elsewhere, and absent the calculating intelligence of the gentler sex.
—J. M. Yales, A Coven in Essex County | A November Wedding
Just so, the last leg of the story is not on the moment of revenge as how it impacts the women who perform it. After the deed, these women’s story does not end. The society of Innsmouth was built on this system of arranged marriages, now that they have transgressed, they enter into an unfamiliar social territory. Familiar ground for many women over the last century, as the slow struggle for women’s rights and place outside the home has caused a shift in societal norms—but then, the suffragettes of Lovecraft’s era never had to deal with covenants with the Deep Ones.
Josephine Maria Yales published “A Coven in Essex County” over a period of 18 months from 2016 to 2017 on the Visitant. She has published a good deal of nonfiction pertaining to women, gender, and horror.