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.
This week, we’re reading Alyssa Wong’s “What My Mother Left Me,” first published in Ellen Datlow’s 2018 anthology The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea. Spoilers ahead (but well worth reading first if you can get a hold of it).
“But instead of bearing the fish back into the ocean, the water tugs gently at its body, and then, one fluid moment, the fish’s skin rips like a soggy piece of toilet paper, parting along the dorsal fin and peeling away in a single ugly, awful curl.”
Narrator Emma and girlfriend Gina have driven to Nag’s Head, North Carolina. Their destination: Emma’s parents’ beach house. Their purpose: Not spring vacation, unfortunately. Emma’s mother died three weeks ago, and Emma’s come to see to what she left behind. Adding to Emma’s emotional overload, she just broke up with boyfriend Clayton, who responded by punching a hole in the wall. His nonstop texts punctuate an already-stressful trip.
In the house dust coats her mother’s carvings of seabirds. Upstairs, water has seeped through a cracked window, damaging the hall. Emma grimaces—this house was her mother’s haven, the one place she came vibrantly alive. To Emma’s relief the master bedroom’s fine: the rose-pink bedspread and painting of gulls are as Mom left them.
That night Gina marvels again that Emma wanted to visit the beach house alone. She needs to rely more on others, on Gina. I’ll try, Emma promises.
Next day they begin clean-up, but a smell of rotten fish drives them out to the beach. Gina, commenting on Clayton’s texts, urges Emma to delete his number. He doesn’t love her. He wants to own her, whereas Gina really cares about her. They quarrel but make up quickly. Emma reflects that, unlike Clayton, Gina forgives more quickly than she deserves.
Their spirits fall again when they find dying fish carpeting the beach. As the women watch, skins peel back and spines seem to pull themselves from their casements. The stench reminds Emma of Mom’s smell before she died. They run back to the house, where the AC has failed to clear the stink. Emma traces it to the master bedroom, now a mess of seawater-soaked carpet, torn wallpaper and mattress gutted on her father’s side. Something skitters behind her; she turns as an empty semi-humanoid skin launches itself into her. Gray hide rasps Emma like tiny teeth. Its hands paw her face, acrylic-nailed fingers partly fused into fins.
Emma screams for Gina, who beats the skin off with a chair. It lies still, stunned or dead. They scrape it into the closet. Emma sees a familiar birthmark on its forearm—her mother’s.
They retreat to the kitchen and a bottle of whiskey. Gina reminds Emma that her mother’s body was cremated. They need to leave now, figure things out on the road. Certain of the skin’s identity, Emma refuses to abandon the terrible mystery to others. Gina refuses to abandon Emma—people who love each other don’t do that.
They look for clues among the beach house books but find no Necronomicons, only bird and shell guides. They steel themselves to search the master bedroom, where Emma finds a photo of Mom gazing wistfully out to sea. Dad wouldn’t let Mom go swimming, claiming it would damage her skin. Gina finds Dad’s old hunting knife, bent wildly. Acrylic nails scratch at the closet door; they decide to sleep in the car.
Emma dreams she’s on the porch watching Mom’s skin carve a bird. It points to the ocean where a young couple, her parents pre-marriage, splash. Farther out breach massive, long-necked, sharp-finned creatures. They are Mom’s pod, toward which she yearns, skin rippling and graying, body expanding powerfully. But before she can swim away Dad stabs her with his hunting knife, peels off her skin, extracts from the bleeding mess a raw-fleshed girl-shape too like the skinned fish Emma saw earlier. Meanwhile Mom’s skin lies trapped between beast and woman. Dad drags skin and body to the house while Mom’s family wails.
Run away, Mom-skin warns Emma.
Instead Emma leaves Gina in the car and frees Mom from the closet. She remembers how Mom used to sing in a language Dad claimed was Korean and forbid, of undersea wonders she’d grown up exploring. Outside, Clayton bangs on the door.
Emma escapes out the window with mom and drops to the ground, knocking herself breathless. Clayton finds her, carrying a knife: her Dad’s explained how Clayton can keep Emma. For their future together, he must do it.
Before he can try, Mom-skin attacks. Gina arrives and brains Clayton with a tire iron. Run, she shouts. Emma limps to the sea carrying Mom and wades into surf. Pain pierces her back—Gina has stabbed her with Dad’s hunting knife! See, Gina sobs, she had the dream too and knows what she must do to keep them together.
She peels Emma from her skin. Mind reeling, Emma hears ancient voices commanding her to wake, sees a pod of sinuous animals. Suddenly Mom, half-transformed into a giant fish, surges out of the water knocking Gina aside. She guides flayed Emma back into her skin, tells her to swim.
Emma’s body explodes into a giant shape with thick-muscled neck, rough skin, and serrated teeth. Her reflection is monstrous, beautiful. For the first time, she feels whole. Gina looks at her with terror and awe, just before falling to her jaws. Gina must scream, but the roar of the ocean and her own blood fills Emma’s ears. She follows Mom, diving into the deep expanse humans can’t touch.
What’s Cyclopean: Describing body-horror self-deboning fish for a web-search turns out to be challenging.
The Degenerate Dutch: Emma’s dad masks speciesism as racism, forbidding Mom from speaking Korean to her because he doesn’t speak it. (Spoiler: Mom is indeed not speaking Korean. It’s kind of interesting that Dad doesn’t expect Emma to figure that out—maybe all non-English languages sound the same to him, and sound equally frightening.)
Mythos Making: Go to little towns by the ocean, learn family secrets, achieve wonder and glory… it’s a traditional (and still delicious) recipe.
Libronomicon: If you can’t find a copy of the Necronomicon in your family beach house, you’re stuck with Google—but there are some things for which a modern search engine is just no substitute for the Misk U library.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Clayton and Emma’s dad both seem like excellent illustrations of the lack of relationship between mental illness and assholery.
There’s a particularly sort of dark chocolate truffle of a story: guts and pain and transformation, and a blurring of the monstrous and wondrous, where women claiming power is the most terrifyingly joyous thing possible. I can recognize the mix in stories I loved as a child and now prefer remembering to reading—stories from the perspective of those who fear monstrous women, where the joy must be inferred and appreciated by the reader, because it’ll be punished in the story itself.
Wong’s story is very much on the side of claiming your power, regardless of what it costs. But the path to that claiming is dark and complicated, and the cost is high. It’s not just fear of her own power that Emma has to overcome, but the apparent monstrousness of her own mother. The reader must overcome that same thing—the jump scare of the boneless body in the torn-apart bedroom felt straight out of Emma’s dad’s paperback thrillers, especially following the lead-up of the self-deboning butterfish. My first guess was some inverse version of Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” skin wandering off on its own and summoning other people’s epidermi away from the constraints of their bones. Eek! It takes a while to recognize what’s actually going on.
Selkie pelts, after all, are normally sleek, and selkies in their ocean-going form cute and comprehensible—even if you wouldn’t care to get up close and personal with a leopard seal selkie. But Emma’s family, with their serpentine necks and shark-rough skin, are to traditional Selkies as Mira Grant’s mermaids are to pretty fish-ladies combing their hair. (They might have some relation to Nibedita Sen’s sirens as well, or at least hunt in the same waters. There’s a whole ecology of stories, down there in the crushing cold.) Wong’s selkie-ish sea monsters don’t leave their skins draped over rocks for convenient, bloodless theft. Someone who wants to capture them needs to be more determined—monstrously so.
And a lot of people, unfortunately, are eager to capture Emma and tame her monstrousness. Clayton is the least surprising. From the start, we know that he’s the sort to break things when thwarted, and to feel entitled to control over “his” girlfriend. Emma’s father all too predictable as well. After all, he did the same to her mother; why wouldn’t he provide instruction to his frat-brother? Nor would he be the first (or thousandth) father to help an abusive boyfriend overcome a “misunderstanding” and reclaim his daughter.
Gina, though… is more shocking, and I think more complicated. Clayton provides enough contrast to distract from her red flags early in the story, but they’re present in plenty as I flip back through the pages. From her desire to turn an estate salvaging trip into a honeymoon, to her “insistence” that Emma rely on her, to her rushing Emma into a relationship immediately following (or before?) the Clayton-dump, her possessiveness is less overt but not much more respectful. I suspect she interprets that back-story dream through deep-fogged filters. And I suspect she sees Emma’s monstrous potential as yet another thing from which she needs to be rescued.
Unlike Clayton, at least, Gina recognizes her mistake at the end, enough to deserve getting eaten by a sea monster rather than the less-dignified option of getting beaten over the head with a tire iron. And enough to be awed by the thing that’s going to eat her. Maybe that moment of fatal awe is what distinguishes the very best monsters—the ones with joy and freedom at their hearts rather than possessiveness—from the mere Claytons.
Heartfelt stories about beach houses and female-centered reunions are staple summertime reads. You can see the cover, can’t you? Two or more women strolling through sugar-white sand toward a sea of limitless azure and mild breakers, their backs to the viewer, their gauzy coverups afloat on the tender breeze. Maybe there’s a nice still-life of Adirondack chairs and beach totes and frosty margaritas in the foreground. Seagulls overhead, of course, maybe sandpipers dancing along the silvery margin. Throw in a dog, preferably a Lab or Golden retriever. A breaching dolphin pod if you must, but no sharks or anomalous sea-beasts need apply, I don’t care how simultaneously monstrous and beautiful the latter may be.
Alyssa Wong gives us the beach house and a pair of female relationships, the young lovers, the mother and daughter. She adds a couple of trouble-making males, no problem there—trouble-making males are classic tropes of the subgenre, as is the family secret that must be dealt with before the heroines can move on with their lives. Where she overturns your lounger into a not-so-sugar-white scree of razor-edged shells, slimy seaweed and horseshoe crab spikes is when she starts decorating her Nag’s Head strand with the most horrifying fish carcasses I’ve encountered either in fiction and (thank gods) in real life. I mean, one reeking marine corpse can harsh your beach stroll. A major kill-off can drive you back to the hotel pool and away from that clam-shack you planned to dine at later.
Wong’s dead (and worse, still living-but-flayed) fish disturbed the hell out me. I’m no thalassophobe like our Howard—the opposite, in fact, a Pisces to the bone. Not a naked centipede-legs-quivering spine-bone, however. All the perfumes of Araby can’t sweeten that image from my brain. What happened to those miserable creatures? Google can only assure Emma and Gina that “peeling” and “dissolving” is no natural phenomenon among butterfish. Did a school run into a toxic spill? A poisonous algae bloom? Sadistic predators? Skin-undermining microbes? A sudden catastrophic though local rise in seawater temperature, to the boiling point? Highly acidic shoggoth waste?
Ultimately the precise cause of the butterfish die-off doesn’t matter. The image itself is all, the horror it evokes as ill-omen, the way it foreshadows Emma’s dream of Mom’s flaying—and how she herself will be flayed by one of the two people who claim to love her. More immediately, it foreshadows Mom-skin, who has earlier tainted the beach house with the stench of rotten fish.
I was still twitching from the fish die-off when Wong sprung Mom-skin from behind the master bedroom door. Hardened horror aficionado that I am (or at least should be by now), this scene shocked and shook me, particularly when Emma spotted that birthmark and so sealed her fate: She could not run away with Gina once she knew the monster was her mother. It was Mom she’d come to find in the things Mom left behind. Never mind pink bedspreads and even bird carvings. What could be more intimate and telling than Mom’s true skin, the one capable of metamorphosis?
Of change. No, of the Change from the restrictions of land life to the glories and freedom of the water, the Mother Ocean. Thalassophobic as he was, Lovecraft acknowledged the allure of the Sea-Change in “Shadow over Innsmouth”; Wong acknowledges the connection of her story to his by mentioning the Necronomicon as a book that could have illuminated Emma’s mystery. We’ve read many Sea-Change stories for this blog. The majority (as I recall) deal with actual Deep Ones, the children of Dagon and Hydra, generally resident in Y’ha-nthlei or R’lyeh. Wong’s story doesn’t deal with that piscean-batrachian-humanoid people, although it doesn’t rule out their existence either. Wong’s ocean-dwellers have rough hides, as if armored with the placoid scales or dermal denticles of sharks. In size and overall conformation, they seem more like cetaceans than fish, specifically the larger toothed whales. Yet they have long necks, which makes them sound more reptilian, like the plesiosaurs.
It would be cool if Mom and Emma’s people were plesiosaur-like beasts communicating with the sophistication of cetaceans, intelligent, shape-shifting at least during part of their lives. According to her songs, Mom grew up undersea, then took on human form to live on land. She retains the ability to return to her marine form, as long as she keeps her original skin. Her original skin, by the way, has a life of its own, an enduring vitality released with the death of her human “innards”? I don’t know. I don’t mind not knowing—to speculate is part of the fun of stories like this.
What’s not a matter of speculation is that Emma has terrible luck with her human lovers, just as Mom did. All of them—Dad and Clayton and Gina—are the real monsters, of selfishness. Yes, even Gina, which only half-surprised me given how subtly but effectively Wong hints at her possessive nature.
Humans, man. Can’t live with them but gotta live with them after they steal your skin! There are implications in that deep as the crushing cold into which Emma and Mom dive as preferable to any airy warmth.
Next week, we move from underwater disturbances to underground ones, guided by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas’s “T’la-Yub’s Head.” You can find it in She Walks in Shadows.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.