Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Winter Tide is the first novel in the Innsmouth Legacy series (it was preceded by a novella, The Litany of Earth). It’s one of a wave of recent books that re-imagines the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in a feminist and otherwise inclusive and progressive light.

It’s probably possible to enjoy this book without knowing anything about its inspiration, but here’s a refresher on the original Innsmouth story. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was written by H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937). Lovecraft was a creepy dude who was racist, and when I say, racist, I mean that even his contemporaries were all, “Dude, maybe dial it down.” Here is an incomplete list of people and things that Lovecraft disliked:

  1. Jewish people (except his wife, who had “assimilated” to his satisfaction)
  2. Homosexuality
  3. Anyone who didn’t fit his definition of “white,” which was most people, including the Welsh
  4. Immigrants
  5. The theory of relativity

Lovecraft had a good quality, which was that he could tell stories that were creepy in a way no one had seen before. He’s most famous for his Cthulhu mythos, which consisted of a series of stories about terrifyingly indifferent gods. In one of these stories, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the human inhabitants of Innsmouth, Massachusetts interbreed with gods of the sea to become “fish-men.” This results in “the Innsmouth look,” which involves bulging eyes, pale skin, and narrow faces. The narrator of the story reports his suspicions of human sacrifice to the authorities. Everyone who lived in Innsmouth disappears and they are rumored to be locked in internment camps. From the point of view of the story, justice is served, although for reasons I refuse to spoil, the ending is either happy or sad depending on what you make of it.

Winter Tide flips the script by making one of the inhabitants of Innsmouth the heroine of the story. In the world of Winter Tide, the Innsmouth population was indeed incarcerated in camps, some time around 1900. They were moved to deserts, where they were forbidden to read and write. Many were subject to medical experimentation and torture. They were denied the salt they loved and needed.

By 1942, almost all of the Innsmouth people have died and the camps are almost empty. Two of the last survivors in the camp are Innsmouth children Caleb and Aphra. Their parents die, along with almost everyone else, in the camp. When the American government decides to incarcerate Japanese-American citizens (an actual historical event that lasted from 1942 – 1946) they move Japanese-Americans into the almost vacant camps. A Japanese-American family takes care of Caleb and Aphra and continues to raise them after the war, along with their own children.

The main part of the story begins in 1949, when Aphra is approached by FBI Agent Ron Spector. He tells Aphra that the FBI suspects the Russians of trying to learn how to take over people’s bodies, and that they are using secrets stolen from Miskatonic University’s collection of arcane lore to do it (Miskatonic, in Lovecraft’s mythology, is a university of all things mysterious and supernatural). Aphra agrees to help Spector stop the Russians from acquiring the secret of body swapping.

That’s the plot – but most of the story involves Aphra building a team that consists almost entirely of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmares. In addition to Caleb and Aphra, the team consists of a gay bookseller and a gay FBI Agent, Aphra’s Japanese-American sister by (informal) adoption, a Yith (ancient being) in the body of an older female math professor, a young woman studying at the university, and a Black woman. I believe one of the characters makes a brief reference to being Jewish. The team progresses from tentative allies to found family (one of my favorite tropes).

The other major element of the book is Aphra and Caleb’s return to the deserted town of Innsmouth. Not all of their family lived on land. Caleb and Aphra are amphibious (“human, just a subspecies”) and will one day mature into a form that lives in the ocean. Their hope is that they may have some family still left in the Atlantic. As they struggle to reclaim their heritage, they both have to figure out how to move forward with their lives.

The pace of this book is very slow, but I loved the characters and atmosphere so much that I didn’t care. The fogs of San Francisco and the mists of the Atlantic frame the story in a beautiful Lovecraftian symmetry. There are spells and tentacles, intrigue, and a suitably creepy library at Miskatonic University. Basically, the Lovecraftian tone, the feel of the thing, is dead on, no pun intended.

This book takes the great parts of Lovecraft’s world building (general weirdness, a sense of our insignificance in the scale of the universe, tentacles, fogs, creeping horror, references to many Lovecraft stories) and uses it to work towards social justice. All of the main characters that are human have dealt directly with racism, mass incarceration, genocide, homophobia, cultural appropriation, sexism, or a combination. This makes it heavy read but also an exciting one, not because of the plot itself, although it has many exciting moments, but because there is a sense that people who have been downtrodden will rise again. Plus, at intervals there’s food and companionship and jokes and flirtations.

I am very much looking forward to further books, but I’m honestly not that wrapped up in what actually happens. I just want to hang out more with Aphra and her found family, not to mention her family under the sea. It’s a great story and a seamless subversion of Lovecraft’s most repellent views while simultaneously being a tribute to his greatest accomplishments.

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Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

April 4, 2017

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