Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Joanna Russ’s “My Boat,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 1976. Spoilers ahead.
“Al said, ‘Be careful, Jim. Look again. Always look again.’ I went back to the stern. There was the bucket that said ‘Fresh water,’ but as I looked the sun came out and I saw I’d been mistaken; it wasn’t old rusty galvanized iron with splotchy, green-painted letters. It was silver, pure silver. It was sitting in a sort of marble well built into the stern, and the letters were jade inlay. It was still full. It would always be full.”
Our screenwriter narrator Jim is lunching with his agent Milt, describing a series idea: This crazy blonde girl has withdrawn from the world after a terrible shock. She decorates her slum apartment like a fantasy world and walks around barefoot in dresses made of tie-dyed sheets. Oh, all right, lousy idea. What Jim really wants is to tell Milt—anyone—a story from his own life. Then Milt can tell Jim if he’s nuts or not.
It’s Jim’s senior year in high school on Long Island, 1952. Integration’s underway, and the school’s accepted five black students. One, Cissie Jackson, enters the same drama program as Jim and his friend Alan Coppolino. She’s a tiny, rabbit-timid fifteen-year-old who at five saw a white policeman shoot her father. She has a history of withdrawing from reality, and numerous psychiatric hospitalizations. Even now she mutes her voice to a whisper, forgets cues, wanders offstage in the middle of scenes. Jim and Alan complain to the principal—they don’t mind that Cissie’s black, just that she’s crazy. The principal says Cissie’s smarter and more talented than either of them, and details her traumatic history. Alan has a fit of empathy. He’s a bit of a nut himself, after all, addicted to weird fiction.
Cissie begins to show her genius, displaying enormous presence in roles like the Queen of Sheba. She and Alan become friends. Jim tags along. One day Cissie tells Jim, as if from a pulpit, that the main thing is belief.
Alan loans Cissie his weird books. He tells Jim about her rigid Christian upbringing and the mother who prohibits parties, dancing, makeup. Mrs. Jackson would beat Cissie for studying theater, so they all have to keep mum about that.
One day Cissie and Alan tell Jim a secret—Cissie owns a rowboat, called My Boat, docked at Silverhampton. If Jim drives, they can take it out Sunday while her mom’s away. My Boat turns out to be a leaky wooden affair with one oar, its name scrawled in orange paint on the bow. Jim bails with a leaky bucket, then notices the name is actually brass letters set into the wood. Other things change, or else he’s seen them wrong the first time. The canopy isn’t drama shop cheesecloth but striped silk. A crate becomes a luxuriously appointed cabin. Cissie wears brilliant robes, an amber-studded belt, and a crescent-shaped knife with gem-encrusted hilt; Alan looks like Francis Drake in his purple cape, silver-and-black doublet and pointed beard. Jim tells Cissie she looks like the Queen of Sheba. The Queen of Saba, she corrects him in a West Indian accent; when they meet the queen he must remember. You see, Cissie’s traveled to many ancient lands, even to Atlantis where she’ll soon learn how to sail My Boat up into the stars. Alan says he can show her other places: Celephais and Kadath and Ulthar.
Cissie tells Jim to release My Boat from its mooring. Jim descends from what’s now an ebony wood yacht. As he unties the ship, he thinks of his mundane life and plans. He looks up to see veils swim over his friends’ faces: other expressions, souls, pasts and futures. Jim doesn’t want that knowledge. He doesn’t want to go that deep.
A hand clamps his shoulder. The epitome of red-necked Southern sheriffs demands to know what’s up with that rowboat there. There isn’t any rowboat, however, nor any Cissie and Alan. The cop himself soon disappears, an illusion Cissie conjured as a joke or distraction.
Mrs. Jackson is the opposite of the “Aunt Jemima” Jim imagined: thin as Cissie and meticulously groomed in her threadbare gray suit. Jim wonders if Cissie left him behind as the fool white liberal racist he was. Mrs. Jackson thinks Alan raped and murdered her daughter, but as no sign of him or Cissie or My Boat is ever found, the case goes unsolved.
But, Jim tells Milt, he’s finally seen Alan again, the day before, still a skinny seventeen-year-old. He accompanied Alan to his old home to grab a copy of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Alan then disappeared into the subway. Jim looked back to realize Alan’s house and street no longer existed—replaced by an expressway.
And if Cissie and Alan really do explore the worlds of their imagination, if they’re not the psychiatric cases, what are Jim and Milt? Blind men?
Okay, okay, Milt’s not buying Jim’s story. Let them go back to Milt’s series idea about a Martian who invades Earth, scoping out humanity in the form of a well-tanned blonde girl attending a rich school in Westchester. Jim can work with that because Cissie was right to leave him behind—he’s got spaghetti where his backbone should be.
Except first he has to talk to the skinny kid in cape and doublet in the next booth down. Milt doesn’t see him? Well, the light’s bad in here. Milt should just keep talking—somehow his beautiful and original ideas about the Martian blonde will waft Jim safely to the kid, to Sir Alan Coppolino, who deserves an apology….
What’s Cyclopean: You know you’re in the Dreamlands when everything is made of exciting-sounding materials: cedar and star sapphires, marble and ebony. No porphyry on this boat, alas, probably because even in dreams it’s not the most seaworthy material.
The Degenerate Dutch: Jim, in high school, was one of those liberals—very proud of his open-minded willingness to hang out with the newly integrated black kids, especially the weird ones, and willing to look the other way when his friends got into an interracial (and eventually interplanetary) romance. Jim, talking to his agent as a jaded adult, seems a lot more aware of his own BS. Joanna Russ writes straightforwardly about prejudice without participating in it—though her written-out West Indian dialect barely skirts the cringe/no-cringe line.
Mythos Making: My Boat can travel through space, and it travels through time too. When you get bored of that, it will take you to Ooth-Nargai and Celephais the Fair, and Kadath in the Cold Waste—and Ulthar, of course. No interdimensional jaunt is complete until you’ve stopped to pet a cat.
Libronomicon: If you need a guidebook, you could do worse than the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Crazy Cissie Jackson just might be the sanest person here.
I’m reading “My Boat” for the first time. I’ve read it twice now, and both times it has strongly reminded me of two favorite stories, one a fairly obvious comparable, the other a bit of a stretch. The obvious comp is King’s “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” in which a woman discovers a parallel world sandwiched or folded between the country roads of Maine. Her vehicle is a car, not a boat, but hey, it gets her there, and eventually she brings her soulmate with her while the narrator remains behind.
The stretch is Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, where voice is also a dominant feature—and what a voice, ironic and self-deprecating yet achingly sincere. Then there are the show-biz pitch sessions, pungently New York style. “Boat” is all pitch, from Jim’s first white-washed and sanitized version of his central tale to the manic despair with which he espouses Milt’s “Beautiful Menace from Mars” idea. Prominent in F and Z are the pitches producers and playwrights are always lobbing at actor Zooey, the faux-deep psychodramas and the faux-brave social commentaries. Give him something sincere, for Christ’s sake, whether it’s Peter Pan or Chekhov. Cissie loves Chekhov, too, and maybe she can believe him back to life in the internal realities she creates and then magics into external truth.
Also, I begin to ponder a version of F and Z where the book over which Franny obsesses is not The Way of a Pilgrim but the Necronomicon. Which she found on dead brother Seymour’s desk, because he was a secret sorcerer who killed himself after SEEING TOO MUCH. And now she’s losing it, too, huddled on the old family couch muttering “That is not dead that can eternal lie.”
It is midnight, and I ramble.
The narrative form of “Boat” recalls that of “Pickman’s Model”: a conversation in which the reader “hears” only one side of the exchange. Dialogue is implied; in effect, we have a monologue. Implied, too, in both “Boat” and “Model,” is the psychological distress of the narrators. Each has an auditor but remains isolated, talking in effect to himself. Trying to convince himself that he was there, and he wasn’t mad, and so IT was real.
“Model’s” narrator is concerned with the facts of his experience and their cosmic significance. Or should I say their carnal significance, not just to himself but to humanity in general. He’s blameless, unless curiosity and a macabre sensibility are sins. Whereas Jim is retrospectively concerned, and rightly so, with his own attitudes back in the day. He supposes his friendships with both Alan and Cissie were motivated by self-aggrandizement. Next to them (the actually small) he felt bigger. Condescending to them, he felt generous and good, a dutiful liberal like the adults who patted themselves on the shoulders for allowing five black kids into a school with 795 white kids. He didn’t need an alternate reality—he looked forward to attending the college of his choice as a football star, then becoming a corporation lawyer. Funny how things turned out—the imaginative life meant more to Jim than he realized on that dock in Silverhampton, and so he became a writer. Knowledge—the deep, hard apprehension of beauty and despair, mortality and compassion and pain—he rejected it then, craves it now.
Another thing: He was afraid to sail off on My Boat because he might offend Cissie “bone-deep” and have to deal with the wrath of a powerful princess, no mere skinny little girl. And he realizes now that he’s offended her already, by asking if the god of her “dreams,” the bleeding man, the (I say) Nyarlathotep-perceived-as-Christ, was black or white. More offensive still, he assumed her mother looked like Aunt Jemima, hey, just a harmless white liberal racist preconception to add to his earlier ones that blacks were all “loose” dancers and singers prone to hanging from chandeliers.
Very little about the Dreamlands here beyond a sprinkling of names. Nor are Lovecraft’s realms the ones Cissie explored on her own—she preferred the Africa of ancient history and the mythology of lost civilizations like Atlantis. With Alan, however, she’ll have seen Kadath and Dylath-Leen, Celephais and Ulthar; together I imagine they’ll have found the links between their fantastic realities. I hope they’ve found their own sunset city. I hope, too, that Jim can use the hectoring staleness of Milt’s voice to drive him to Alan, and to what Alan must have come to offer a reality-chastened friend.
Joanna Russ, my god. Her best stuff just makes me want to fall to the ground and grovel: I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy. (I hear from old Wiscon stories that this was likely to get a pretty positive reaction, in fact.) “My Boat” is among her best, and hands-down the best Dreamlands take I’ve ever encountered. It takes the most hideous orientalist nonsense and the sappiest tropes about the innocence of childhood from Lovecraft’s original, turns them inside out and shakes off all the dust, stitches them back together with the awesome bits, and creates something sharp and beautiful and a thousand times more tempting than the White Ship.
Cissie Jackson is a Dreamer with all Randolph Carter’s power, and considerably more impressive motivation. Where Carter has adult ennui and the loss of his idyllic youth, she’s already seen the worst of the real world—and her remaining family wants to protect her from the best of it. So she finds her own way out. We learn less about Al—is he a Dreamer in his own right, or just someone Cissie finds inspiring? It’s clear the boat is her creation, but she seems willing to collaborate on the worldbuilding. Again, more than Carter ever managed. His adventures were, child-like, always pretty self-centered.
Carter starts out narrating someone else’s story, and ends up the focus of his own. In “My Boat,” returning to Lovecraftian tradition, we get Jim: a narrator who isn’t part of the central story, who can report on the mysterious disappearances of braver folk. But where Lovecraft’s usually-unnamed witnesses are merely narrative devices, participating only to report that something was really scary, Jim has a story of his own. And it’s the inverse of the usual Dreamlands story. As a child, his sense of self-confidence, and his idyllic expectations for adulthood, hold him back from adventure. It’s as a disappointed adult—disappointed in the world as well as himself—that he can understand both what Cissie rejected and what she accepted. That experience, and that jaded wisdom, open the door for him to follow her.
Jim’s witnessing narration has other purposes as well. Like Carter, he’s the authorial stand-in: a Jewish writer in New York City, immersed in all the cultures that city can offer. In 1952, Russ was 15, and it sounds like so was Jim. Long Island was a vision of suburban affluence, and everyone wanted to get their kids out there if they could. And was about as far from the city as a Jewish kid could get and be part of the “white” population being integrated into, instead of a weird outsider themselves. Teenage Jim is walking a fine line of racial unmarkedness, which I suspect Russ was aware of even if he wasn’t.
Speaking of race, could we someday read a story in which an African American character’s dad was shot by a cop and have it not be timely? Pretty please? For that matter, any day in which Russ’s anger and crystalline ability to name injustice wasn’t timely, that would be a good day.
I don’t buy Jim’s assumption that My Boat will come back to judge our world for its sexism and racism. (The best we might expect for that, if we’re fortunate, are Russ’s successor prophets.) Such a return would be too easy, too hopeful—and if there’s one thing we know about the Dreamlands, it’s that for most people the way back is even harder to navigate than the way out.
But Cissie’s doing her bit for a more just world, by making dreams that have room for people other than Lovecraft’s white-savior men of action. Just as she turns a leaky rowboat into a luxury barge, she reclaims the dross of those imperfect, inspiring narratives for everyone who might be able to make use of them. That matters, regardless of how many authors Milt convinces to bind that inspiration back into comforting dullness like “The Beautiful Menace From Mars.”
Next week, in Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” the horror that can be seen is not the true horror.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in April 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.