On the surface, Ruthanna Emrys’s novel Winter Tide seems to be a part of a greater trend in fantastic and horrific fiction: a work that utilizes the imagery and cosmology of H. P. Lovecraft while critiquing some of his more odious beliefs. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is another work that comes to mind that does thing; in a 2000 comic crossing over his series Planetary and The Authority, Warren Ellis featured a brief appearance from Lovecraft that led to the book’s heroes being repelled by his virulent racism. And Emrys’s novel falls firmly into the world of the Cthulhu Mythos: the events of The Shadow Over Innsmouth are part of its DNA, along with nods to some of Lovecraft’s other works. And the book’s cast features a cast of heroes who are far removed from the straight white men at the center of many of Lovecraft’s stories.
But Emrys is doing something subtler here as well: for all that this novel incorporates elements of Lovecraftian horror, the story she’s telling isn’t a fundamentally horrific one. Instead, it’s a kind of supernatural procedural—and one in which Emrys makes the subversive decision to treat figures who might have been deemed monstrous in Lovecraft’s work as the heroes, and the mysterious beings and ancient gods that were the source of so much dread as a means of transcendence.
The book’s narrator and protagonist is Aphra Marsh. (Marsh, and several of the other characters in Winter Tide, first appeared in Emrys’s novelette “The Litany of Earth.”) She grew up in Innsmouth, and is part of a human subspecies who will eventually transform into a body more suited for undersea life. For the first part of her life, she lived with her family in relative peace—something that changed in 1928.
“Someone lied about us, about what we did in our temples and on beaches such as this. The government believed them: when I was twelve they sent soldiers, and carried us away to the desert, and held us imprisoned there. So we stayed, and so we died, until they brought the Nikkei—the Japanese immigrants and their families—to the camps at the start of the war.”
The juxtaposition of the fate of Innsmouth’s residents with the very real historical crime that was the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War is one of the bigger pieces of backstory in the novel. But it also aligns Aphra with those who have been wronged by the power structures of the United States—something that becomes a running theme in the novel. Aphra has a working relationship with an FBI agent, Ron Spector, whose purview includes the occult. As Winter Tide opens in late 1948, he finds himself under scrutiny from his supervisors as well: “I got a whole interrogation about whether I was planning to leave the country, whether I considered myself an Israeli citizen,” he tells her.
Ron asks for Aphra’s help investigating the possibility that Soviet agents are researching methods of swapping bodies, the better to carry out acts of espionage. After The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” is the other major touchstone here. Though the novel opens with Aphra living a peaceful life in San Francisco, she soon crosses the country and returns to New England, delving into the question of whether spies have infiltrated another location familiar to Lovecraft readers: Miskatonic University.
Here, the mysteries increase: there are rival factions from the U.S. government making their presence felt; a group of students with a dangerous interest in the occult; and, in the nearby ocean, members of Aphra’s family who have undergone a metamorphosis and now live incredibly long lives below the surface of the water. Some of these mysteries are solved by the end of the book; others lurk in the background, running concerns that will likely make their presence felt in future books featuring Aphra and her friends and associates. The supporting cast here is particularly well-drawn: Emrys manages the subtle task of making these characters feel like they have vibrant lives when the don’t appear on the page.
In some of the scenes at Miskatonic, Emrys excels in showing how the stuff of cosmic horror in the hands of one writer can be turned into a source of comfort in the hands of another. At one point Aphra and her brother Caleb step inside the campus’s church, where they’d been advised to visit a particular shrine.
“A stone altar stood empty except for a single candle. If I let my eyes unfocus, the half-abstract carvings resolved into great tentacles reaching from the altar to enfold the little grotto. The artist, I realized, had placed those who knelt there within the god’s embrace, while making the god invisible to any who did not know to look.”
It’s a scene that, in a different Lovecraftian tale, might well lead to a moment of horror, a realization that things are not as they seem, and menacing forces are afoot. For Aphra, this space is reassuring; it’s part of the faith from which she draws strength and peace . And while there are monstrous creatures to be found in the pages of Winter Tide, they aren’t necessarily the ones that readers may expect.
That’s par for the course for this novel. Winter Tide offers a different kind of subversion of Lovecraft’s work—one that demonstrates a more hopeful worldview, even as it offers glimpses of perspectives from which a human lifespan is a small and tremulous thing. Emrys’s empathic approach to storytelling taken together with a espionage plot make for a compelling read—and one that sets the stage for more to follow.
Winter Tide is available from Tor.com Publishing.