In recent years H.P. Lovecraft and his works have become increasingly problematic. His personal views on race permeate his stories resulting in fiction that is, at best, challenging to enjoy for many readers. As a result, there currently tend to be three approaches regarding Lovecraft’s fiction: those who love it, those who hate it, and those who choose simply not to read it. But there is now a fourth group of readers that is developing: those that are fascinated with the works of authors like Ruthanna Emrys, who use Lovecraft’s mythos as jumping-off points to create incredibly thoughtful, enjoyable, and inclusive new novels. Novels like Winter Tide and Deep Roots.
“The Shadows over Innsmouth” is the only work by H.P. Lovecraft that was published as a book prior to his death in 1937. It is the story of a college student who, while touring New England, discovers a small fishing town, Innsmouth, that is in decline. Innsmouth has its secrets that, as the story progresses, become increasingly personal for the protagonist. In Winter Tide, the story of Innsmouth and its inhabitants continues. Starting on the other side of the continent in San Francisco in 1949, readers are introduced to Aphra Marsh. She and her brother Caleb are the sole survivors of the citizens of Innsmouth. In 1928, the town’s entire population was rounded up by the U.S. Government and secreted away to camps in the southwest deserts. In 1942, when the U.S. government required a place to relegate Japanese-Americans due to unfounded fears about their loyalty during World War II, it sent them to those camps as well. After their mother was removed from the camp for experimentation, Aphra and Caleb were informally adopted by a Nikkei family within the camp. Upon the release of Japanese-Americans from the camps, Aphra and Caleb went with their new family and struggled to find their place in a world that had sought to destroy them and their kind. But now the same government that destroyed her family, home, and culture needs her help. The FBI has learned that the Russians may be experimenting with the use of magical texts, some possibly from Innsmouth, to gain an upper hand in the developing Cold War, and Aphra Marsh may hold the key to uncovering what the Russians are doing and how to stop them.
While Emrys draws liberally from the Cthulhu horror mythos to establish and build a new world, Winter Tide and its sequel Deep Roots are not horror novels. Instead they are explorations of identity, culture, family, both by blood and those we create ourselves, and one’s responsibility to their ancestors. All of this is presented with a nice dose of magic and discovery, and executed with a wonderful sense of the period in which the novel is set. While there are “monsters” in the pages, they are not as monstrous as they may have once seemed during Lovecraft’s lifetime. And, repeatedly, the most heinous actions taken during the course of both books are those by humans (and tragically, often those who are acting as representatives of the U.S. Government).
Attempting to compare fictionalized racism with fictionalized races/species, and with actual documented racist actions against people of color, seems fraught with peril. This is especially true when referencing the reprehensible treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Emrys, however, deftly walks a fine line, never straying into unnecessary sensationalism nor trivializing actual historical events. In her acknowledgements she refers to the research done to portray the actual events involved with the Japanese-American internment and gives recognition to actor George Takei’s autobiography To The Stars, which includes his child’s-eye description of being taken from his home and sent to the camps (which was clearly a model for Aphra’s fictional experiences). The result is the depiction of a second, earlier internment that is told so compellingly that it all seems to compound the affronts, rather than minimizing the significance of what actually happened.
Emrys also demonstrates that although they were often unseen or ignored, the pre-Cold War US population was just as diverse as it is today, describing the extreme measures that people took to blend in or go unnoticed, often simply hiding in plain sight.
Winter Tide and Deep Roots are complex and compelling works of fantasy that help illuminate not only where we’ve been, but also where we are. While they are based on the works of a known racist, these books feature characters that are diverse and inclusive. It is entirely possible that H.P. Lovecraft would have hated them, and that could be a very good thing.
Readers interested in other contemporary novels based on the works of Lovecraft might also want to read:
“The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys, which is a short prequel to Winter Tide.
The broken hours by Jacqueline Baker
Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard
Hammers on bone by Cassandra Khaw
Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff