Welcome back to The Sinister Reader and to continue celebrating the world of books, I bring you the next book in my February is for Love(craft) ranked list! For book three, we’re taking a turn into some different territory when it comes to Lovecraft, even by this list’s standards. Most of the tales that we cover here in relation to Lovecraft are horrific in nature because that’s what he did best and that was his money maker when it came to his stories. Unless an author goes more into the tales of the Dreamlands, they don’t always lend themselves to the world of fantasy very easily unless, like my honorable mention, you’re going down the realm of dark fantasy. Even that book and most like it end up working with more of a horror edge to it so it’s a bit refreshing to see when someone takes this genre and makes something new out of it. And this one tackles that and a whole lot more.
My number three book for this list is Winter Tide, the first of the Innsmouth Legacy series by Ruthanna Emrys. Released in April of 2017, this is one that slipped under my radar initially as I didn’t really hear a lot of buzz about it. That’s not to say that it’s not well regarded. Most of the reviews that I’ve read about it are positive and this one is going to be no exception. There aren’t the usual horror names, however, singing its praises. Part of that could be from the fact that, as implied above, it takes a bit of a hard left out of Lovecraft’s usual depths of horror and being terrified and driven completely insane by their discoveries. No, instead we are treated to a fantasy tale that still has those dark elements but the magic and elder gods on display here are less menacing than the human beings. That might sound like it could be disappointing but, much like other books that we’re going to see on this list, there’s a lot to be said about how the cruelty of human nature can rival any monster. In fact, this book does a lot to really look hatred and the aftermath of it quite directly and that alone could be a pretty bleak tale. Because it is linked with some pretty serious periods in history and some black eyes that aren’t often commented on, this book might even seem a little bit heavy for a fantasy novel but fear not because that’s a huge part of why you should be reading this book.
Because I know a wide variety of book people, I am aware that there are some for whom the word fantasy will immediately perk them up and others for whom that word will instantly give them hives. In an effort to not lose anyone already, let me unpack a bit more of what’s going on in this book so as not to drive any of those people into fits of reaching for the Benadryl. If the genre here is giving you the impression of Hobbits and magic resurrection lions that battle witches and kids on broomsticks playing a more violent version of soccer, for one, let’s get out of the United Kingdom. This fantasy novel is set and is very much married to American life and history. Next, we’re going to drop the whimsy because we’re not talking about children’s fantasy schools nor are we going on a trip to idyllic cozy cottages buried in the beautiful English countryside of the Shire. We’re going to the McCarthy era of the Cold War and we’re riding on the back of a survivor of an internment camp. But before we go there, let’s give some context to where this story actually comes from in Lovecraftian terms.
For those of you who aren’t in the know about what this story is based on, Winter Tide is essentially a sequel of sorts to the story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. For those of you who aren’t up on your Lovecraft, you can rest assured that this isn’t essential reading to get this week’s book but, much like with other books on this list, you might benefit from having a bit more background information at your disposal. I have said it before and until I’m proven wrong, I will put it out there that I am of the belief that no one does less for Lovecraft’s work than Lovecraft himself and I’m almost certain that this is because he was paid by the word for his stories. And because of this, the prose gets a nice purple tinge sometimes and tends to get a bit on the verbose and annoying side, thus a lot of people these days aren’t really that keen to read a small novella just to get the good parts for a different book. Since that may well be the case here, I’ll provide you with a quick rundown of the plot to get you by. Basically, the gist is that typical Lovecraftian narrator (ie. clueless dork) is going on a tour of New England to research some vague elements of history and his ancestry. In trying to be as cheap as possible in his travels, our narrator recounts how he was warned profusely about not going here but still hits upon this less than stellar seaport called Innsmouth. As is completely unexpected in a Lovecraft story, evil doings are afoot and our narrator discovers through a single kid working a grocery story and a drunken old man that there is a cult (shocker) operating in the port that conducts human sacrifices (what a twist) and worships fish entities called The Deep Ones (okay so he gets some original points for this one). The Deep Ones initially wanted more of the sacrifices but when that started to get more complicated because the population couldn’t keep up and kids don’t grow that fast, there was the alternative of mating with the people of Innsmouth and you end up with half fish people who aren’t too keen on having anyone know about them. You can read more if you like but ultimately, if you’ve read a lot of Lovecraft, you already know where this is going. That said, the twist at the end, though if feels like it was tacked on and relies on a very very stupid leap of logic as far as I’m concerned, is actually kind of neat. The reason this is notable here, other than to give context to this book, is that this is one of the important contributing stories in regards to the Cthulhu mythos.
While there is some connection to the elder gods in Winter Tide, the main star of this book is actually not Cthulhu but rather The Deep Ones. And what’s more interesting is what this author chose to do and how she decided to highlight the details of the story this is based on. There have been many authors who have taken to the mythos the same way that Lovecraft did, that being to send some clueless dork of a man into the unknown and watch as it has fun with his clueless ass until he finally dies or becomes mad from all the things he’s seen. In this case, the story is not only from a woman’s perspective but also from the perspective of a survivor of the shit that went down in the original story. At the beginning of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the narrator casually mentions that upon his return from the port, he got in touch with the authorities and babbled at them until they investigated and raided the seaport. There’s even a throwaway line or two about how there were arrests and the people of the port were detained and put in special camps and prisons. Winter Tide comes directly from the aftermath of what became of those raids.
The plot of the book follows Aphra Marsh in a first person narrative. She and her brother are the only two surviving members of the Deep Ones, a race of water people who could live on land but would eventually mature and rejoin their elders in their natural habitat of the sea. Unlike the monsters that they were portrayed as in the original story, the community were living in Innsmouth which just happened to be near their spawning grounds. Their temples were to their own gods which include some pretty familiar ones if you’re at all in the know about Lovecraft’s pantheon. Alas, after the original narrator successfully scared the shit out of authorities, Aphra and her family were rounded up in a violent raid and taken out to a desert camp far away from their homes and the ocean on which they depended. In the coming years, as the Deep Ones died off, the camp was repurposed and a whole new set of Japanese prisoners were introduced. This is how Aphra was brought together with her new family, the Kotos, who had also been taken prisoner during World War II. We meet our narrator a few years after she’s been released from the camp, still living with her adoptive family and working with a trusted friend and bookstore owner named Charlie Day. Aphra embodies a lot of grief and the slow, careful processing of trauma in her approach to her life while her brother, Caleb, embodies the livid anger and futile personal wars of one who has been deeply wounded and will fight anything and anyone to get back their lost innocence. Or, in their case, their lost libraries and lore, all of which has been slurped up by Miskatonic University.
The chance to finally get to even touch their precious books and the fragments of their past lives comes in the form of a government agent who arrives to talk to Aphra about some of the lore and the abilities that Deep Ones were supposed to have had. Rumors had been circulating that a Russian spy was trying to get a hold of one of their ancient spells that would allow them to switch out of bodies and exchange with unwilling participants. Together with the government agent, her brother, her adoptive sister and a few others along the way, Aphra must return to Innsmouth, the place of a lot of memories but also a lot of trauma in order to help stop someone from using her past and her culture to create a future that might kill them all.
One thing I want to start off saying about this book is that this is very much a slow burn. I have read a few other reviews that are a bit put off by the pace of this book but I think that if you know ahead of time what you’re in for, you will definitely see the brilliance of Winter Tide and appreciate it for what it actually is. If you are here for a breakneck race against the clock to stop a criminal body switcher, you are likely not going to be a happy camper. This book still deals with these things but more important are the characters. Aphra is only a few years freed from her ordeal after losing not only her family but entire community. Even though her brother is still alive, Caleb is very angry and difficult to be close to. So much so that he lives across the country from her initially. As I said, their grief is processed differently and shows the deep wounds that both of them live with. This is the real star of the show here as we see Aphra trying to reconnect to who she was, who she is now and what it means to be able to even be one of the last remaining Deep Ones. It also highlights the real pain and the lasting stigma of being the victim of such intense hatred as a lot of the tension in this novel comes from the fear that their freedom is still tenuous at best.
I have to give a lot of praise to Emrys for what she did with the original source material because it is very clear that she knew her stuff on this. Moreover, by completely moving away from the horror genre, she was able to make this book far more rich and these characters are moving and have a great depth to them as a result. She casts new light on what the original narrator saw and how his hysterics might have painted the impression that he had of the community. What’s even more impressive is that her attention to details acts almost to marry to two accounts of the stories. All those blank spots that Lovecraft’s original tale left were filled nicely by Aphra’s story and though it’s heartbreaking in some places, it really is kind of beautiful to see her expand on this story in this way. And it’s also refreshing to see the elder gods as just entities like you might find in any other religion. Stripping them of this sense of the foreign and the sinister, it casts the entire mythos as something beautiful, like seeing someone horrible in the dark but seeing it in full when you turn on the light.
I know that for some this doesn’t sound like it’s going to scratch their Lovecraftian itch but if you can set aside the fact that it’s not a horror in the sense that you’re used to, this is an excellent book and well worth the time you are going to take to read it. The story is in turn beautiful and heartbreaking and it does have all the things that I love about a good slow burn that builds to something bigger than itself. The creative decision to use Lovecraft’s own racial stand in with The Deep Ones as the narrator was already an interesting take but to link it to the internment of the Japanese living in America during the second World War was a bold move. This is a horrifying period of history that rarely gets any mention and the fact that this is not only a major plot point but also factors in the aftermath of what it was to be an American one day and a traitor to the country the next after having done nothing wrong operates on a whole new level of scary. For a fantasy novel, it’s pretty dark and even darker is that it’s still relevant. What’s more is that it levels the playing field throughout the narrative because the Deep Ones are no more immune to the horrors of human hatred than any other people of the story. Given that it takes place in the McCarthy period where paranoid was king, you have the makings of something that might not be horror but it’s definitely something that can give you a very different feeling of dread. For this alone, it has more than earned its number three spot on my list and deserves to be on your reading pile.
Thank you all for joining me again for my February is for Love(craft) read of the week! Join me next week on Wednesday for book number two on my list and see where it takes us. Alternatively, if you’d like to read something that isn’t Lovecraft related, why not show up on Monday and check out my serial story Hello Dolly and the current tale running on that one, Young Bucks? And if you’re in the mood for more monsters but are wanting to get out of the sea and looking for some other critters, join me on Friday for another Friday Nightmare Review, this month featuring movies all about cryptids! If waiting is just not your thing and all this is coming about far too slowly for you, considering donating to my Patreon wherein you will be able to partake of all of this content early and even get a few extras thrown your way depending on what tier you join at. Regardless of who you are, contributing or not, I appreciate you joining me here and I hope to see you all again next week on The Sinister Reader!