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Winter Tide subverts Lovecraft’s legacy with sympathetic monsters and terrible humans

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A relevant novel that addresses the horrors of discrimination and hatred

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

In recent years, the reputation of horror author H.P. Lovecraft has come under fire. On one hand, he’s responsible for an entire branch of cosmic horror that remains extraordinarily influential with writers and filmmakers today. On the other hand, he was emphatically, vocally racist and anti-Semitic, which has given some contemporary fans pause when honoring his legacy. Ruthanna Emrys found a different way to draw on Lovecraft’s legacy: in her debut novel, Winter Tide, she makes humans the real monsters.

In 2014, Emrys introduced Aphra Marsh in her Tor.com novelette The Litany of Earth. It’s helpful to read before Winter Tide; it provides a bit of context for the world, and for Aphra’s situation. It’s free online, and included in the ebook edition.

In this alternate history, Lovecraft’s Deep Ones and other creatures are real, and the U.S. government has taken notice. Aphra and her people appear human early in life, before transforming to live in the oceans. In 1928, the government locks her and her family up because of their otherworldly qualities and beliefs. They’re imprisoned in the desert, far away from the seas where they lived. When the Second World War breaks out, they’re joined by Japanese-American citizens interred after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Aphra and her brother are released after the war, the only remaining survivors from Innsmouth. In The Litany of Earth, Aphra meets FBI agent Ron Spector, who enlists her help to track down a cult, and in Winter Tide, the pair are reunited when it becomes clear that the Soviet Union is looking into dark magic to gain an edge in the early days of the Cold War.

Tor.com

While Aphra is extremely reluctant to help the agent, given her history, she’s persuaded that Spector represents a new attitude toward her people, and an opportunity to return home. Along with her brother and a couple of friends, she sets off for Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, and begins to look into the Soviets’ research. Meanwhile, Aphra and Caleb contend with the loss of their community and their place in the country.

Emrys plots out an impressive book that updates Lovecraft’s creations with added nuance and empathy. While the plot is engaging, her attention to the characters is what makes Winter Tide stand out amid decades of Cthulhu-mythos works. She blends in real history, such as the internment of Japanese citizens and the casual racism of the 1940s. Her book is as much about systemic prejudice as it is about Cold War politics. For instance, FBI members deeply distrust Aphra and her companions, having conflated their differences with the dangers facing America.

There’s a great exchange in the book that highlights the attitudes of one of the FBI agents, Barlow.

Out in the hall, he turned to me. “Miss Marsh. You’re from Innsmouth.” A statement, not a question.
I swallowed the fear that welled up at his words; it was hardly a secret he could use against me. “I’m certain my files say as much.”
“And it was Ephraim Waite’s old case that brought us out here in the first place. Your people knew the body snatching trick— and even if the raid in ’28 was an overreaction, you were never exactly loyal Americans. The Waites and the Marshes… pretty closely related, right?”

What stands out in this conversation is the ingrained assumptions of guilt, purely by racial and family association. Ephraim Waite (another familiar Lovecraft character) might be distantly related to Aphra’s family, but the association is enough to make Barlow deeply suspicious of her motives, even though she’s working toward the same goals he is. The racism here is palpable, and it creates sympathy for Aphra that would have been alien to Lovecraft.

Winter Tide joins a small group of books that have been inverting Lovecraft’s tropes and legacy recently. Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean directly addresses his racism. In other cases, books such as Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence, and Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom all use familiar elements from Lovecraft’s stories, but reframe them in such a way that the people he hated the most are the sympathetic parties. These books owe a great deal to Lovecraft, but reject his beliefs.

The takeaway is that while Lovecraft is known for his fantastic, unspeakable evils and anxieties lurking at the ends of the world, there are other dangers out there: humans themselves. In flipping the viewpoint here, Emrys addresses the horrors of discrimination and hatred within the context of a world created by an author who perpetrated such attitudes. Winter Tide bridges the gap between honoring a truly great shared world, and delivering an ironic comeuppance.