First, a little recap for those who have not read H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” or Ruthanna Emrys’ “Litany of the Earth.” In 1928, the U.S. government raided the sleepy fishing village of Innsmouth, interning its citizens in the Arizona desert—a cruel choice of location, as Innsmouth’s citizens are members of an Aeonist cult who evolve into amphibious humanoids from their worship of strange aquatic deities. In 1942, the camps are expanded to intern Japanese-Americans, and when the camps close in 1945 only two Innsmouth citizens have survived: Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb. Aphra starts a new life on the West Coast with her adopted Nisei family, until she’s approached by FBI agent Ron Spector, who asks her to investigate similar cults to see if they pose a threat. Despite her reservations, that would give her the chance to contact another group of cultists…
And now Spector is back, with another request: come with him back to Massachusetts, where a Soviet agent looking for body-swapping magic is digging into the Innsmouth Collection at Miskatonic University. Aphra is still conflicted about spying on behalf of the same government that interned her, but once again, her desire to make some kind of connection with her Aeonist heritage wins out, and she collects a motley assortment of friends and colleagues to assist her. Her homecoming is a quiet one, with only her brother Caleb to welcome her, and without fail the dig into the lost books of old Innsmouth, hoping just as much to find memories of their past as they are to find the Russian agent.
What I find fascinating about Winter Tide is its place in the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft’s horror was most effective as a rebuttal to what seemed like a clear “path of progress,” the industrial boom that occurred in Lovecraft’s lifetime resulting in any number of wonders from manned flight and the Model T to television and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Instead of looking at these human achievements as precursors to a technocratic golden age, Lovecraft flipped the script: his horror is downright chilling, presenting a cold, clinical universe where human beings are insignificant nothings, mere pests lurking underfoot of ancient unknowable elder things. And these uncaring alien Others acted as a funnel for Lovecraft’s inherent racism, going hand-in-hand with his presentation of anyone not a White Anglo-Saxon protestant as a human Other, either ignorant chattel or participants in dark foreign rituals meant to summon forth monsters.
Winter Tide exists neck-deep in the mythos, and Lovecraft devotees should perk up with frequent mention of mythos ephemera: Enochian runes, or the Book of Eibon, or the great race of Yith. Heck, it’s set in Innsmouth, one of the more iconic towns in mythos lore, a town whose citizens would “evolve” to become aquatic fish-humanoids called Deep Ones. But it’s also a strict inversion of how Lovecraft presented his world—instead of being Others either apathetic to the plight of humanity or actively working to destroy it, Winter Tide looks at the mythos from the eyes of an Aeonist cultist, giving a human touch to the people of Innsmouth. Instead, it’s the government that is uncaring and intrusive into their way of life. Every group of religious extremists have their own sets of strange beliefs and customs, but did they not also have goals? Did they not share a communal heritage? Did they not work, and laugh, and love? Instead of seeing them as creepy cultists who become hybrid fish-people monsters, Winter Tide presents them as misunderstood followers of a strange mystical religion—strange people, but people nonetheless.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone tackle the mythos from the inside-out before, trying to humanize a group that Lovecraft presented as little more than creepy evil cultists who became ravenous fish monsters. And I think it’s also where some of my frustration with the novel come from. The blurb and plot follows a Cold War intrigue plotline, where the characters go to Miskatonic to stop the Soviets from stealing mythos body-swapping magic. But the main focus is on Aphra and Caleb picking up the pieces of their shattered culture, returning to their abandoned hometown and looking for glimpses of a heritage now lost to them. There’s a lot more time spent with the characters digging around in the library or dealing with Miskatonic’s college life. It’s an introspective novel with unhurried pacing, and I found it hard to stay engaged with the novel; it wasn’t until around the 35-40% mark that the book started to grab me. I wanted a bit less time spent researching in the library, a better sense that something was happening, a glimmer that the book was leading somewhere.
In Winter Tide, Emrys has remained consistent with Lovecraft’s established mythos while flipping it on its head, and the idea to reappropriate the “monsters” side of the story through a sympathetic protagonist is sheer brilliance. But I didn’t find it the most engaging novel and had to force myself through parts of it, wishing it was more like the excellent novella that introduced Aphra (“The Litany of the Earth”) which has the same sharp characterization but tighter plotting. Winter Tide is a book I liked but didn’t love, though I can see it appealing to a wide number of fantasy fans… so long as they have at least passing familiarity with the Cthulhu mythos, and can overlook its sluggish pacing.
Title: Winter Tide
Author: Ruthanna Emrys
First Published: 4 April 2017
What I Read: Tor ebook, 2017
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and Tor)
MSRP: $25.99 hc / $12.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 0765390906 / B01F20E8OQ