Fri
May 30 2014 11:00am

The Editor Speaks: Why I Bought “The Litany of Earth”

Tor.com recently published “The Litany of Earth,” a Lovecraftian novelette by Ruthanna Emrys. As Jo Walton mentioned in her blush-inducing article, it was both the story that qualified Ruthanna for professional status in the eyes of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the first story I acquired, pulled from the vast expanses of the Tor.com slush pile. Since it was my first acquisition, I knew that it was my chance to prove that this ridiculous faith on the part of my gracious boss Irene Gallo wasn’t totally misplaced. Unsurprisingly, I put a lot of work into editing this story. Somewhat more surprisingly, I almost didn’t buy “The Litany of Earth” at all.

In the weeks leading up to the acquisition, I staged a drawn-out battle with myself. The part of me that loved the story was at war with my certainty that Howard Phillips Lovecraft, on whose work “Litany” is based, wrote his racism and sexism into the deepest fabric of his Mythos. His body of fiction, and most of the work that has built on it, is a barefaced expression of terror of the other. Daniel José Older, whose cockroach-driven nightmare-fuel story “Anyway: Angie” I later acquired for Tor.com, wrote an excellent essay on the deep, dark, weird and insidious terror that poisoned Lovecraft’s life and seeped into his work. It’s more than worth a read.

Now, I’ve read my share of Lovecraft, and engaged with his fiction on a number of levels. I remember trudging all the way through “At the Mountains of Madness” in ninth grade and pawing through “The Call of Cthulhu” in the front of the RPG sourcebook of the same name. Just this spring I concluded a two year long Call of Cthulhu campaign that dragged my mostly-upper-class party of investigators through trials and tribulations both Lovecraftian and Wodehousian. But throughout that time I was acutely aware that I was propagating the brainchild of an author who I could not agree with on something as fundamental as how to deal with difference in another human being. I struggled with the idea of making my first professional contribution to the field I love so much another iteration of Lovecraft’s world.

But as I went over this story in my mind, and read it over and over, I became convinced that I’d been blinding myself. “The Litany of Earth” does not parrot Lovecraft, or praise him through homage. It condemns his terrors while pulling forward into the present his best ideas, letting us inhabit the humanity of those he viewed as monsters. Ruthanna Emrys’ protagonist is Aphra Marsh, a woman from Innsmouth of monstrous descent. She has been kidnapped, disenfranchised, imprisoned, tortured, and orphaned by the government. Her world was destroyed by Lovecraft’s plucky, rich, white, anglo protagonists. She’s not interested in furthering their work, thanks very much.

Lovecraft’s rich but crippling imagination created a universe so vast and expansive that it enforces insignificance, a universe of unknowable malevolence, making dark gods to fill the space between the stars and transforming those he did not understand into agents of the destruction of understanding. That terrible, evil emptiness is what has made Lovecraft such a potent and influential author, to the extent that he can get inside an otherwise mainstream HBO miniseries. “The Litany of Earth” shouts into the monstrous silence Lovecraft created, rails against the erasure of the voices of those he feared, and reclaims the beauty and wonder of a magical universe beyond our understanding. “What our religion tells us,” Aphra says, “is that the gods created life to try and make meaning. It’s ultimately hopeless, and even gods die, but the effort is real. Will always have been real, even when everything is over and no one remembers.”

How different, how much more hopeful that is than Lovecraft’s beautiful and tragic couplet:

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.

I have never regretted taking the plunge and acquiring “The Litany of Earth.” I am proud to be defined by it.


Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant for Tor.com, where he acquires and edits original fiction, rereads the Stormlight Archive, and serves as a bucket-of-last resort. You can follow him on Twitter here.

2 comments
Wes S.
2. Wes S.
I was blown away by "The Litany of Earth," and said as much in the discussion thread to the story. I'd love to see Emrys turn this into a series. I found the story a really cool inversion (subversion?) of the Cthulhu Mythos with a touch of alternate history; in "Litany" Emrys used the Mythos to rewrite the thirties and forties the way Larry Correia recast the Great Depression in steampunk/magical terms with his "Grimnoir" series.

That said: Without "the terror of the Other" trope you'd have a lot less sci-fi and fantasy and no horror to speak of, would you not? Even when layered/alloyed with a sense of wonder at the unknown, the fear is always going to be present. In that sense, even if HPL took it to extremes, I have to think that the bigoted old SOB got it right. (I also find myself thinking that HPL had a point about there being some things man was never meant to know, given the frequent disconnect between science and ethics.)

Still, what makes "Litany" truly haunting to the reader - to me, at any rate - is that even though Emrys' interpretation of the Mythos is a more "hopeful" emptiness than the dark, terrifying, unknowable gulfs of HPL, it's still a void. When Aphra says "It's ultimately hopeless, and even gods die, but the effort is real," she's basically saying that we're all - Aphra herself, her real and adopted families, Charlie, you, me and Cthulhu his bad old self -are just candle flames guttering in the dark, raging against the dying of the light.

I find that even creepier than Lovecraft's dark vision, actually.

Well done, Ruthanna Emrys.

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