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 James Wade’s “The Deep Ones,” first published in August Derleth’s 1969 anthology, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 2. Spoilers ahead.
“The drug underground at Miskatonic University was a little special.”
Narrator Dorn studies ESP on starvation wages; he gratefully accepts Dr. Frederick Wilhelm’s offer of more lucrative work at his Institute for Zoological Studies near San Simeon, California. Wilhelm believes dolphins are as intelligent as humans, if not more so, and that humans can learn to communicate with them–perhaps through the telepathy they appear to practice among themselves. Dorn’s job is to hypnotize Josephine Gilman, Wilhelm’s assistant, who’s established strong rapport with captive dolphin Flip. Under posthypnotic suggestion, Gilman may be able to concentrate intensely enough on the dolphin’s mind to receive its messages.
The Institute’s low cement buildings cluster just above the waterline on a lonely dune-lined shore. Well, lonely except for the hippie colony encamped about a mile away. Dorn views them as sardonic jesters or youthful poseurs; Wilhelm’s even more contemptuous, especially of their “guru” Alonzo Waite. Waite was a psychology professor at Miskatonic University until he and his students paired arcane tomes with LSD in search of spiritual enlightenment. He wants Wilhelm to halt his experiments, for dolphins are “ancient, wickedly wise creatures,” whose “evil vibrations” he and his fellows struggle to curb with near-nightly rituals.
Dorn finds himself attracted to Gilman despite her protuberant eyes and odd-textured, mud-colored skin. When she swims with dolphin Flip in his holding pool, his attraction increases. Water’s her element, and her love of the sea is hereditary: her Navy officer father came from seafaring Innsmouth, though he warned Jo to avoid the now-decayed town. Wilhelm, too, must be attracted to Gilman, as he asked her to marry him. She declined.
Gilman proves susceptible to hypnosis and spends hours in Flip’s pool in a semi-comatose state. Flip seems to miss their playful interaction, and to resent Dorn as a rival for her attention. Gilman starts having impressions of telepathic contact, visions of a ruined city under the sea. Dorn’s skeptical. These may be pseudomemories. Wilhelm’s excited. He insists on putting Gilman in a kind of canvas harness, so she can be safely suspended in the pool around the clock. There can be no danger involved.
Until there is. One night Dorn and Wilhelm are wakened by Jo’s wild scream. Wilhelm gets to the pool building first and locks Dorn out for ten minutes. By then Wilhelm’s gotten Gilman out of the water and wrapped in robes. Dorn sees her harness is shredded, with scraps of her bathing suit tangled in the mess. Flip’s submerged, strangely still. They get the mesmerized woman to her apartment, where she speaks of Great Clooloo, Shub-Niggurah, Leng and Kadath. “You will help me, fellow breather of air, fellow holder of warmth, storer of seed for the last sowing,” she murmurs. “Y’ha-nthlei shall celebrate our nuptials…the silent strutters in darkness will welcome us with high debauch and dances upon their many-segmented legs…and we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever…”
Hysterical, Dorn thinks. No, Wilhelm says, she’s trying to communicate in English what she received from the dolphin’s mind! But he agrees to break off the experiments.
In fact, he has to, since Gilman won’t even enter the pool building now. Dorn’s disturbed to see her slip into spontaneous trances, to sleepwalk, to seemingly converse with herself — has she succumbed to schizophrenia? One night he gets a surprise visit from Alonzo Waite. Waite claims alien races colonized the young Earth. Some, the Old Ones, were imprisoned by other cosmic entities, but they only sleep, dreaming of a new reign of chaos to be ushered in by minions like the amphibious Deep Ones and the dolphins. Jo Gilman is herself of Deep One blood and will eventually return to the sea — look at her ichthyic eyes, the rough skin on her neck that hides incipient gills!
After Waite leaves, Gilman arrives. She confesses her uncle Joe from Innsmouth, a “frog-like” man, introduced her to Wilhelm’s work and helped her get the job. Now she wishes she’d said yes to Wilhelm’s marriage proposal, because since her last night in Flip’s pool she’s been pregnant. It must be Wilhelm’s child. He was alone with her for ten minutes, right? He must have taken advantage of her dazed state. Either that, or Dorn’s the one who raped her, and she doesn’t believe that.
Dorn’s shocked. Since Gilman’s now determined to marry Wilhelm, he plans to resign. Later, as the hippies howl down the beach, a storm rises. Dorn sees Gilman and Wilhelm struggle through it toward the pool building. Dorn follows. Just before the power fails, the building’s gate to the sea opens. Flip battles his way out through incoming waves, with a naked Gilman astride his back. Wilhelm’s nowhere in sight; the next day, he’s found crushed under the sea-gate, which fell when the power went out.
Wilhelm left Dorn a confessional letter. He admits to planting sex-drive-stimulating electrodes in Flip’s brain, which he activated the night of Gilman’s “accident.” It’s his fault Flip attacked and impregnated Gilman, whom they’ve both loved. Well, she was changing anyway, and Wilhelm must let her return to her own. Don’t believe it? Listen to the attached tape, automatically recorded during the attack.
What Dorn hears is a repeat of Gilman’s mesmerized rant about getting out to unify the forces, about celebrating nuptials in Y’ha-nthlei and dwelling amidst wonder and glory forever. Only it’s not in Gilman’s voice. No, it’s in the “quacking, bleating, inhuman tones that are the unmistakable voice of the dolphin itself, alien servant of still more alien masters“!
What’s Cyclopean: In thoroughly traditional form, Jo’s family are described as “batrachian.” Less traditionally, the hippies on the beach engage in a “glutinous chant.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Jo can’t really be beautiful because her skin is too swarthy. Also, LA parks are full of “predatory homosexuals, drug derelicts, and demented fanatics of all kinds.”
Mythos Making: The titular Deep Ones (along with their wicked delphine allies) invoke R’lyeh, Leng, and Kadath, Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath. Flip promises that “Y’ha-nthlei will celebrate our nuptials.” Since they’re leaving from the California coast, that’s gonna be a long swim.
Libronomicon: Dolphins quote Yeats. Ex-Miskatonic-professors quote the Necronomicon.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The park denizens described above are like “patients in the garden of Dr. Caligari’s madhouse.”
I’m not sure this story could be any more prototypically ’60s if it tried. Research on dolphin intelligence? Check. ESP studies? Check. College drop-out hippies? Check. Cities as wretched hives of scum, villainy, and gay hook-ups? Check. Outdated attitudes toward gender? Check. (Please, please, let them stay outdated.)
In spite of my irritation with the gender stuff—seriously, there are more interesting things to do with an ABD Deep One oceanographer than stick her in a love quadrangle with two dudes and a dolphin—this stuff all comes together pretty well. Some of that may be nostalgia. I have fond memories of reading Lilly’s lay books as a kid, and trying my hand with a set of Rhine institute cards. (For the record, my telepathic abilities are essentially nil.)
More recent observers have noticed that, far from the enlightened aquarians imagined by Lilly’s followers, dolphins can be serious jerks. In the open ocean they tend toward animal cruelty and infanticide; in the lab the males often harass female researchers regardless of mutual interest. Wade’s ahead of his time in that respect. So trying to raise Cthulhu and destroy landbound civilizations? Sure, why not? Especially when 60s research protocols involve implanting electrodes and locking delphine research subjects alone in tiny pools. (Solitary confinement is, if anything, worse for dolphins than for humans.)
I’m particularly delighted with the unnatural hybridization of drop-out hippy culture with the existence of Miskatonic University. Man, I cannot imagine that hallucinogens mix well with the Necronomicon. On the other hand, reading it sober never seems to work out well. There are probably worse reactions than sitting on a California beach holding hands, singing “Kumbaya,” and chanting in Enochian. “In R’lyeh, in deep R’lyeh, Cthulhu sleeps tonight…” Plus orgies. It’s 1969, so they have to have orgies; it’s a rule.
Normally I’m a hard sell on Deep Ones as Always Chaotic Evil. Actually, I’m a hard sell on any race/species as Always Chaotic Evil. Somehow this one works for me. The premise is intriguing enough to distract, and Innsmouth looks more nuanced through the twin lenses of Jo’s recollected rumors and hippy counterculture. It also helps that dolphins aren’t usually in the top ten for Always Chaotic Evil, and I’d really like to know more about the relationship between the two species.
The gender stuff, though. It’s absolutely normal for the story’s time, but still cringeworthy. Where shall I start? Least obnoxiously, the only-named-woman oceanographer, fully trained but without her doctorate, gets referred to as a “girl” throughout. And everyone is attracted to her, in spite of her carefully-enumerated un-beautiful qualities, because that’s what only-named-women are for. Personally, when I’m attracted to a woman I’m usually willing to call her “beautiful,” but maybe that’s just me. Then again, no one has ever left me for a dolphin, so maybe I’m onto something.
This being 1969, it’s possible to sleep with people without becoming too attached. If you get pregnant, though, the only responsible thing to do is marry the guy, even if you were in no position to say “no” when he slept with you. Flip is actually a better choice than Wilhelm under these circumstances: he’s been courting Jo the whole time, but never forced himself on her until himself forced by Wilhelm’s intervention. They’re both victims, and Wilhelm’s guilt is entirely appropriate.
Still, I have trouble believing their relationship will be all smooth sailing (so to speak), even after Jo finishes her metamorphosis. Their time in the lab just doesn’t seem like an ideal foundation. I hope they have marriage counselors in Y’ha-nthlei.
James Wade (1930-1983) served in the Army during the Korean War and later settled in Seoul for a time. According to his brief biography in Derleth’s Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (Vol. II), he advised the Korean government on its information program. He was also a composer, music professor, and journalist. You know, another one of those annoying people good at lots of things, including fantastic fiction. I’m not sure when “The Deep Ones” was written; Derleth published it in 1969, which makes me wonder if Wade knew about the famous/infamous dolphin experiments that NASA funded earlier in the decade.
See, there really was a young woman who lived with a dolphin, trying to establish cross-species communication. In 1963, Margaret Lowe Howatt heard about a research lab on St. Thomas, overseen by Gregory Bateson and neuroscientist John Lilly. She started observing the captive dolphins, kept in a sea pool fed and cleaned by openings to the tide. In 1965, she outdid Jo Gilman by isolating herself 24/6 with the young male dolphin Peter in rooms flooded to accommodate him. Luckier than Gilman, she got a dry sleeping platform and a suspended desk to write at. Peter worked hard at learning to speak (or at least mimic) English through his blowhole, but he was also interested in Lovatt’s odd human anatomy — like, how in the ocean did her KNEES work? Eventually (being a typical adolescent male), he fell in love with his teacher. His first advances got him sent back to the big tank with the older and more dominant female dolphins. That, however, disrupted lessons, so Howatt eventually, um, just scratched Peter’s itches and got on with her work.
Poor Peter didn’t carry her off to eternal glory, as Flip does Gilman. Lilly (unlike our friend Dr. Wilhelm) switched his main interest from dolphin-speak to LSD (which he’d found to his disgruntlement didn’t affect dolphins.) Parted from Lovatt and sent to less congenial quarters in Miami, Peter appears to have committed suicide by drowning. Just sinking and not coming up for breath again. Whoa.
Delphinophilia, I learn, is a thing amongst us humans. For the dolphin, I guess the term would be anthropophilia? And it’s an ancient thing, because Dr. Wilhelm’s urn is far from the only classical depiction of dolphin-human love—hundreds may be summoned by a simple Google image search. More recently there’s a novel or fictionalized memoir called (unfortunately to my taste) Wet Goddess. Author Malcolm Brenner claims to have had an affair with captive dolphin Dolly, with Dolly the initial aggressor. “What is repulsive about a relationship where both partners feel and express love for each other?” Brenner asked.
Well, Howard’s old sinners the Puritans found bestiality so repulsive they’d hang both the human and animal participants. Belief in Divell-sent familiars and monstrous hybrid births must have fueled their aversion. Modern animal rights advocates argue that it endangers the animals’ health and social structure. At base there’s the question of whether any nonverbal nonhuman can really give explicit consent to sex. Don’t humans have enough problems with consent/coercion issues among themselves?
My own answer to opponents of same-sex marriage who fretted about how we’d slide down the slope to marrying our dogs was always: Um, no, because dogs can’t say “I do.” Because, no, tail-wagging doesn’t legally equate to explicit consent.
But what about dolphins?
Or Deep Ones?
It’s interesting that Wade has Flip fall for a Deep One hybrid rather than an actual human. Does that make Jo and Flip’s relationship okay? Are Deep One/dolphin hitch-ups no big deal in Y’ha-nthlei? There’s certainly an interspecies alliance in this story. I think of Lovecraft’s dolphins in the proto-Deep One tale, “The Temple,” also associated with sea-dwelling humanoids. I think, of course, of his Deep Ones, who are fond of (shudder) interbreeding with their land relations. Can the reward (to the hybrid offspring) of eternal life and glory be worth the (shudder) shame?
In the end, Lovecraft’s narrator thinks so. Wade’s narrator, not so much. He seems to have bought into Waite’s view of the dolphins as evil servants of evil Old Ones, malevolent, toothy-smiling hypocrites. Well, he does lose the girl to a dolphin, so sour grapes must be expected. But Wilhelm loses Jo Gilman, too, with better grace. He seems to have known from the start what she was, via his connection to her Innsmouth uncle. Certainly he decides to let her go to her briny destiny with no lasting resentment of victor Flip. If anything, his envy of their coming glory makes him try to follow them, though he must know that’s a doomed effort even before the sea-gate sunders him (with nice symbolism) from his desire.
A parting ponder: I’m intrigued by “guru” Waite’s last name. Sure, Jo’s a Gilman. The Gilmans are one of Innsmouth’s ruling families, along with the Marshes and—hey, the Waites! You know, like Asenath! Plus he taught at Miskatonic! Alonzo may be a more thorough-going rebel than I originally thought, embracing rebellion not only against strait-laced American values but the esoteric values of his ancestors. You know, like worshipping Dagon and Hydra and Cthulhu. What a renegade!
Next week, join us for a slightly disturbing dinner out in Cherie Priest’s “Bad Sushi.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the 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 on April 4, 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.