Winter Tide walks in the footsteps of Howard Philip Lovecraft. This reclusive writer, mostly ignored in his life, is a giant who can only be compared to Poe or J. R. R. Tolkien in his impact on modern culture. He was the one to introduce cosmic horror into fiction. The concept of the unforgiving, uncaring cosmos, inhabited by completely alien creatures that are much more powerful than mankind comes from him. It came back in countless movies, games, and books. (Without him, Stephen King would have written very different novels and definitely not It; we would have no Dark City, so not Matrix trilogy; huge franchises like Alien or Predator also grew on the same soil.)
Building on this work is no small undertaking — especially with the intention of doing more than simple plagiarism and writing cheap horror. It requires discipline, humility and a certain level of artistic quality. Ruthanna Emrys definitely does not fail. However, she builds so strongly on the sources material, that it really made me wonder how much value her book has to anyone who does not know Lovecraft’s work. I do think it would be something similar than hearing only one side of a vigorous and exciting debate. For Emrys, Lovecraft is not mere inspiration: she challenges him on the interpretation of his own mythos.
The novel (and it’s prequel, a short story which is also included in this volume) takes up the story where Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth left it. The military raids Innsmouth; its inhabitants are being deported into a concentration camp. But the author decides to reinterpret the original story — its narrator is unreliable and the citizens of the small, isolated city are not monsters. They are just different kind of humans, and their isolation does not cover any sinister intent — they just want to be left alone. Lovecraft’s point of view is supposed to be a misunderstanding, and their internment is a gross overreaction.
Fifteen years later the few survivors are being joined by Japanese American citizens, who were interned during World War II. Five years later, the only two survivors are Aphra, now working in a bookshop in San Francisco, and her brother, Caleb, who is trying to salvage and get back what is remained of their inheritance. The FBI asks them to help them out with their expertise in the supernatural during an investigation in Arkham (a fictional city frequently appearing in Lovecraft’s stories).
What I very much enjoyed in the novel is that new approach to the Cthulhu Mythos really works. The starting point of Lovecraft was that humanity is too ignorant to understand the real nature of the universe and to comprehend the power of the ancient gods and the likewise ancient civilizations, cultures following them. Ruthanna Emrys’ greatest achievement is that she can put more emotion and empathy into this world without changing this premise. Showing the story from the monsters’ point of view enables her to show the tragedy behind humanity’s ignorance toward the real nature of the universe. Our short lifespan, our narrow point of view on spacetime, our competitive nature blocks us from understanding the true value of knowledge, the importance of knowing ourselves before trying to understand the world. Set in 1948, the atomic bomb is a frequent topic of discussion; it also highlights the level of our impatience and intolerance — which is counterbalanced by the “monsters” attitude, who want knowledge for knowledge itself.
The other important topic of the novel, largely independent from the Lovecraftian theme, is the tragedy of irreparable loss. Built on the historical event of the internment of Japanese citizens, several of the protagonists have a grim background which very much shapes their personality. They have been injured by forcibly cut from their roots, by taking away their identity and being humiliated on a regular basis, just for being different. The flashbacks taking place in the internment camp are the most powerful pieces of the story. These not only provide a key to understanding the main plot but also adds depth to and explains the narrator (the protagonist) emphatic and vulnerable personality.
The book starts off as a spy novel, but this is merely a way to pull together the characters into the same place. Once it is done, the focus of the novel is understanding. The obvious stakes of the story are mostly kept very low; the real excitements are coming from understanding the world, exploring the interpersonal relationships of people with very different background and exploring exciting philosophical and moral dilemmas. Similarly to Lovecraft, this is a very intimate story, mostly revolving around the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Dissimilar to him, it is not about her isolation, but her attempts to build and re-build her connections with others in a time of personal crisis.
Having a female narrator who has the Innsmouth look (for those who are not Lovecraft fans it means that she has a long neck, a receding hairline and bulging eyes — so by no means a conventional beauty) is also a gesture of defying Lovecraft whose cast of protagonists is exclusively male. It is really refreshing how diverse the story i from a gender perspective: while the male-female dichotomy is also one of the underlying themes, nobody is a stereotype. This is what makes the novel’s complex web of interpersonal relationships (and subverting some reader expectations) possible.
A fair warning: Winter Tide is definitely not flawless. There is a bit too much coming and going in the plot: the characters always seem to move one place to another and sometimes are engaged in very repetitive activities. Lovecraft himself was very good at avoiding these pitfalls: with him, time flows just as he wants it. We can skip hours, days or weeks in a few short sentences, and we can spend pages on a single moment. In Winter Tide, we do have to follow through the routine of every single day. If the party is moving from Arkham to Kingsport, we must hear how they discuss this decision, we must see how they sit into the car and we must follow through them on the way there and back. Weather is always described as something relevant, while in most of the cases, it isn’t. Every meal is being prepared in front of our eyes. This can be very trying after a while.
If you are willing to overlook these, one thing is guaranteed. Reading Lovecraft will not be the same ever again.
(This is the text of my review posted on Amazon.)