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).

HPL 1920 (2020) by Nick O’Gorman & Tales from the Cthulhuverse #1 (2020) by Zee Romero & Luca Cicognola

I repeat to you, gentlemen, that your inquisition is fruitless. Detain me here forever if you will; confine or execute me if you must have a victim to propitiate the illusion you call justice; but I can say no more than I have said already. Everything that I can remember, I have told with perfect candour. Nothing has been distorted or concealed, and if anything remains vague, it is only because of the dark cloud which has come over my mind—that cloud and the nebulous nature of the horrors which brought it upon me.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920)

The Lovecraft Mythos was written in a particular cultural syntax. H. P. Lovecraft never tells the reader, for example, that the characters in “The Statement of Randolph Carter” are white. Caucasian heterosexual male was the default state for pulp fiction, and for much of the popular fiction of the 20th century. Once a writer or artist realizes that this is the framework in which the Mythos was set during the time of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, it is easier to imagine how those same stories might look differently within a different context. So it is that adaptation can often remain relatively faithful to the original story in term of plot, characters, narrative, and dialogue, and yet add to the story by providing a different context which changes how the story is read and understood.

In comic books, two examples of this kind of adaptation are Nick O’Gorman’s HPL 1920 (2020) and Tales of the Cthulhuverse #1-3 (2020, Mythx Media). Both are indie horror comics that adapt three stories from H. P. Lovecraft—O’Gorman was specifically adapting stories from 1920, to be published on their centenary, while Tales of the Cthulhuverse aimed for more of an update on the classic Lovecraft tales by setting them in the 21st century. In both cases, the authors remained very faithful overall to the original story—but in both cases simple, subtle changes to presentation can drastically affect how the story is read and understood.

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HPL 1920 adapts “The Statement of Randolph Carter”—except now Randolph Carter isn’t an older white male, he’s an African-American teenager. This puts an entirely different perspective on talking with the police in any contemporary American context, and yet it doesn’t require any substantial change to how the story works—two people, searchers after horror, go into a graveyard and one descends while the other waits behind. The basic idea of “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is not particular to any particular race or culture; curiosity and breaking taboos are universal human traits. What changes the story is how we receive it when the person relating it is someone other than “the default”—African-American teenagers are subject to systemic bias by the justice system in the United States, which adds a layer of tension to the story…and O’Gorman plays with that, at least a little bit:

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Does a white male Randolph Carter in this exact same situation affect the reader in the same way—or is there a part of the story unspoken here, just in these two panels, because people of today can fill in the unwritten details? How would this scene have played out differently if it wasn’t two white cops? We can ask these questions because we’ve stepped outside of the cultural syntax which Lovecraft was writing in…and there are more possibilities to explore the Lovecraft Mythos than just changing up race.

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer. At first I shall be called a madman—madder than the man I shot in his cell at the Arkham Sanitarium.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

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Where HPL 1920 changes the race of the principal characters, Tales of the Cthulhuverse #1 changes the gender. Daniel Upton becomes Danielle, Edward Derby becomes Eve, Asenath Waite becomes Asa—there are a few other changes, since the setting is now contemporary Massachusetts (2020s) and the Danielle & Eve are college roommates of a similar age and unmarried; the plot is condensed down considerably—but the main change is simply a what if scenario:

How would “The Thing on the Doorstep” have changed if the genders had been reversed?

As with “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and HPL 1920, the initial response would be: not by much. Lovecraft’s original story already involves gender change due to body-swapping; in a literary shell game, it is largely irrelevant what the writer uses for shells, as long as the same relationships are in place. So it is in Tales of the Cthulhuverse #1, where much the same events as Lovecraft’s story play out despite changing the genders of the main characters. If that was all there was too it, the adaptation would be boring.

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Lovecraft’s frame for “The Thing on the Doorstep” is minimal: it’s a statement, but unlike “The Statement of Randolph Carter” it’s not to any particular party. Daniel Upton isn’t explicitly talking to the police; Danielle Upton in Tales of the Cthulhuverse #1 is. So like HPL 1920, there’s a specific dynamic of interaction being invoked—the police procedural dynamic, only this time a little more sympathetic. After all, Danielle Upton is a white woman…and so was Eve Derby.

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Domestic violence is not usually the first thing that springs to mind when reading Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”—not because men aren’t subject to domestic violence and abuse, but because the audience is generally not used to thinking about his marriage in that context. Because Daniel Upton wasn’t talking to the police, they weren’t trying to fit two dead bodies and a bad romantic relationship into a context they understood in Lovecraft’s narrative. Change the genders, though, and suddenly this becomes a much more logical leap for the cops to make…and maybe another one.

Daniel Upton has a weird angle in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.” He is Edward Derby’s closest male friend, and Derby then marries Asenath, so Derby is caught between Daniel and Asenath. It isn’t explicitly a lover’s triangle because there are no indications that Daniel is homosexual (and if he is, being married and with a son indicates he’s at least in the closet), but the close relationships between men in some of Lovecraft’s stories have inspired homosexual interpretations of those stories (as explored in depth in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).

The exact same dynamic still applies in the Tales of the Cthulhuverse adaptation, and Zee Romero plays it as straight as can be (no pun intended)—there’s no explicit idea given that Danielle Upton is a lesbian or in love with Eve Derby in any kind of romantic sense. The story can be read as a perfectly platonic tale of shooting the bastard that stole the body of your best friend. That said, there’s also definitely enough subtext here to read it as a genuine lover’s triangle too—unlike Lovecraft, who gave Daniel a wife and baby to at least imply a heterosexual relationship, Romero doesn’t give Danielle any romantic interests at all. It is definitely an interesting way to re-imagine Lovecraft’s story…and that’s before the final revelations come out.

Ultimately, HPL 1920 and Tales of the Cthulhuverse are two parallel approaches with the same aim: contemporary writers and artists seeking to remain faithful to the core of Lovecraft’s narratives while also finding new things to say about those narratives in the way they present them. By and large they both succeed. If there’s a flaw in these comics, it’s not the approach, but sometimes the execution. Indie comics can’t always afford the most polished art, and it shows—the production values aren’t bad on either of these, but for Tales of the Cthulhuverse in particular the lack of detail in the gore and nudity feels like a misstep, or at least a missed opportunity. O’Gorman and Cicognola definitely know their material, because there are little allusions to the Gate sigil from the Simon Necronomicon and August Derleth’s version of the Elder Sign as popularized by the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, but a lot more could have been done with these same scripts if Jacen Burrows, Kelly Jones, or Laci had been handling the material.

HPL 1920 was written, drawn, and colored by Nick O’Gorman, and funded through Kickstarter. Copies of the comic are available through his Etsy shop.

Tales of the Cthulhuverse #1 was written by Zee Romero, pencils and inks by Luca Cicognola, colored by Sean Burres, with a cover by Jeff Chapman, and published by Mythx Media. They are currently available for purchase on Comixology.


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

“Ancient Astronauts” (2019) by Cynthia Ward

The movie missed some stuff. It didn’t mention the Old Ones or Cthulhu or the shoggoths. You hardly ever see Maine in books, unless they’re Stephen King books.
—Cynthia Ward, “Ancient Astronauts” in Weirdbook Annual 2: Cthulhu24

Meddling kids didn’t show up much in the pages of Weird Tales. The period of extended adolescence which would define “teenagers” as separate from children was just beginning in the 1920s and 30s, when the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew made their debut. It was and is something of a rare Mythos story to focus on the younger point of view, such as Arthur Machen’s “The White People” (1904), Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (1951), “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins, and “Lilloth” (2006) by Susan McAdam.

The teenage perspective is an interesting one for a Mythos tale. They are innocent of the world, although not necessarily in all the ways that grown-ups think. Cynthia Ward’s Joanna, Mike, and Bradley are boiling over with hormones, insecure about their place in the world, trapped in their small town lives, limited in their ability to go and do anything.

Ward’s kids can be gullible and insightful, precocious and hard-headed. They sit out at night listening to the horror-host on the radio, talking about ancient astronauts and how nothing ever happens in Maine, Joanna waiting for Mike to get a clue and see her as more than “Just one of the guys.” But there are stranger things afoot than unrequited crushes.

Technically, “Ancient Astronauts” is a much-delayed sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Things are moving again in Maine, decades after Ephraim/Asenath Waite finally shuffled bodies one time too many and was pushed off this mortal coil. Old white men in robes, up at the standing stones in gray robes and waving daggers, and the kids are there to meddle with it. Yet—there’s a little more to it than that. Joanna and Mike only have their limited perspective; they don’t understand half of what they see, and what they do see they interpret through their own lens.

For Joanna, it’s “Ancient Astronauts.” Which is rather fitting. Lovecraft placed the standing stones atop Sentinel Hill in “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” long before Erich von Däniken wrote Chariots of the Gods? (1968); which ignited the contemporary phase of the whole “ancient astronauts” line of thought. Jason Colavito actually traced Däniken’s thesis back to Lovecraft in The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (2005). More soberly, Dave Goudsward goes back to Lovecraft and examines his inspiration for putting ancient American megaliths in the Mythos in Lovecraft and the Great Altar Stones of New England (2016).

Which all runs into a familiar problem: Joanna knows about Old Ones and shoggoths, ancient astronauts and Stephen King; how can she live in a world which doesn’t seem very different than our own if so much of it must be different? Her world is a setting where Lovecraft and his fiction existed, but none of the fiction was fictional—there really is or was an Innsmouth, and people that come from there are different. There really is a pit up in Maine, with stairs descending into the lightless depths…and at the bottom? Well, no-one’s come back. So how did Lovecraft know, to write it in his story?

This isn’t a plot hole, at least not more so than any other story which puts Lovecraft’s fiction and his Mythos together. It is how Cynthia Ward frames the story: through the eyes of meddling kids who have grown up on a diet of ancient astronauts and Stephen King. That is how they see things. It is only the readers, as more widely-read adults, who recognize the different things that are going on in the story—both in terms of Mythos shenanigans and teenage crushes.


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