After the Federal raids on Innsmouth and the destruction of Deep Reef in 1928, the survivors of the Federal Government’s action against the town were rounded up and moved far away from the call of the ocean, kept purposefully apart from their elder god, slumbering in R’lyeh. Later, those survivors met new friends also sent to the same internment camps—Japanese Americans, similarly feared, and similarly locked away. After the Second World War, the survivors of those camps, both Japanese and Innsmouthers, were freed to pick up the pieces of their lives as best as they were able.
In the late 1940s, the secret esoteric knowledge of wrecked Innsmouth, now housed in the archives of Miskatonic University, may well be the latest weapons in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Aphra Marsh is called—by the very government that once imprisoned her and her relatives—to return to the forbidden town she once called home in order to stop the enemy from obtaining that dangerous intelligence. While there, Aphra and her brother Caleb also feel the pull of another call home—a call that reaches them ona level deeper than words. Deeper than bone. a call of a completely different order. A call of family.
Winter Tide is the debut novel of Ruthanna Emrys, sprung out of her short story Litany of Earth, which first introduced Aphra to readers. While reading Litany of Earth is unnecessary to understand and appreciate the novel, it does lay down some groundwork for Aphra, as well as the variations and extensions of the Mythos Emrys delves into more fully with the benefit of an expanded page count.
Readers of Lovecraft will jump on Aphra’s last name, and jump to some conclusions about her true nature. And if those conclusions are correct, the author does something that Lovecraft never quite managed to—explore the nature of a “monstrous” character who is one from the very beginning. Like Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Winter Tide provides an opportunity not to thrill at the terror of the Mythos, but to experience what it means to truly inhabit it.
This exploration of new wrinkles in Lovecraft’s work extends beyond Aphra to explore other corners of his worlds, from the Deep Ones to the Yith. Given the nature of the secrets that the Russians are suspected to be after, a large core of the novel engages with one Lovecraft more than others—the body-swapping, sorcery filled tale The Thing on the Doorstep; you need not have read that one either (though it’s certainly worth reading), but Emrys uses the incidents of its plot as an effective springboard for a dive into depths of meaning I’d never before considered, and that Lovecraft never explored.
Aphra is our sole viewpoint character on this altered American landscape. We get to know her intimately, viewing the world as she does, though a perspective simultaneously human and alien. She’s fully an inhabitant of the Mythos universe, and proud of who she is, and where she was going—yet she remains eminently relatable, her immigrant story a universal one. She’s concerned with her family’s legacy and the fragile circle of friends she’s built, and has a nuanced understanding of her role within it. When she deals with the family elders, it’s a case of “Lovecraft Family Values,” at the same time quotidian and absolutely alien.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s fiction is experiencing something of a boom, as writers of all types wrestle with, engage with, deconstruct, and extend his work. Winter Tide stands as yet another fine entry of this new cycle, and I warmly welcome it for that. Its strong engagement with Lovecraft is accessible to readers both new and well-versed in the Mythos. Her engagement with, and appreciation for these tales—an inarguable cornerstone of modern horror fantasy—enrich a story that already stand powerfully on its own, bringing brings new light to the oeuvre of one of the masters of dark fiction.