Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Essentially a subversive take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the book is told from the perspective of one of his “monsters”, and I’d always been intrigued by the description. Now that I’ve wrapped up this story, I’m incredibly disappointed in myself for having waited so long to try it out. It certainly wasn’t the story I was expecting when I initially started reading, but the story I got is one of the absolute best I’ve read this year, and it’s a tale that I imagine will stick with me in the coming months.
I guess it was the fact that it takes place in a world where Lovecraft’s stories are canon (of a sort) that led me to erroneously believe that this would be a horror story when I started it. The fact that it was being told from the perspective of Aphra Marsh, originally an Innsmouth resident and one of the last two living and unchanged Deep Ones (along with her brother Caleb), made it more likely to draw the curtains and reveal the “horror” for what it really was, but I still thought that something so grounded in tales that left me quaking would…well, leave me quaking again. I was wrong about that, as this book sets out to chill the reader in other ways, more mundane and yet more deeply disturbing for that very mundanity.
Readers of Lovecraft, by this point, must make their forays into his work with eyes open and with the understanding that the man behind the words was a monster in his own right. Deeply xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, even for the woeful standards of his time, Lovecraft channeled his fears of the other and anger at those who “wouldn’t mind their place” into works of seething atmospheric dread and unknowable terrors. It is impossible to extricate the man and his abhorrent beliefs from the monsters and stories he wrote into existence, as it was those very beliefs that gave him such an insight into the dark and dreadful recesses of humanity. I think this is why we see so many novels that make an attempt to “reclaim” or “rewrite” his works, twisting them on their head and showing him for what he was.
It is no accident, then, that Winter Tide is as sincere a refutation of those mores and ideas as I’ve found to date. The decision to accept that the old stories are canon, but canon as set down by men like Lovecraft himself, and show those stories and ideas for how twisted and wrong they are is incredibly powerful. Emrys draws parallels between the treatment of the Innsmouth folk in internment camps and the treatment of other indigenous peoples as a way of showing that rather than horrific monsters to be feared, the Men of the Water are simply that – human. When you consider how the United States government treated the native peoples of the Americas, and how they were viewed by the common populace as barbaric monsters at the time, it is easy to see in subsequent reads of the original tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth how the perceptions of the “hero” of the story could be twisted by a lack of understanding, or a lack of desire to understand.
It’s not just the big ideas that Emrys refutes, either. Everything in the novel, down to the occasional use of overwrought prose to make a call back to Lovecraft’s less than stellar narrative voice (using the word vertiginous rather than dizzying, as one example of many) was planned and executed fantastically. The specific use of Asenath Waite from The Thing on the Doorstep is another example of her twisting of Lovecraft’s original less-than-savory intent, as is the choice to change the spelling of the name of one of the elder gods from Shub-Niggurath to Shub-Nigarath. It’s a small thing but changes the way the name is said internally from one that was clearly using a racial epithet to make something feel dark and dangerous, to one that simply sounds strange and distant.
That being said, all the best intentions and refutations of humanity’s darker nature in the world won’t help a book if the story and writing are off, of course, but Emrys shines here as well. I said earlier in this review that the story I received is not the one I expected, and the story I got was stellar. An adventurous mystery romp through the Miskatonic Bay region with a diverse and interesting cast of characters was a really pleasant surprise once I realized that was what I was reading. Each of the characters is developed well and written superbly, and every story beat and emotional reveal was handled deftly and sympathetically. My only complaint is that the main driving force of the mystery takes a hard detour and turns out to be something of a mcguffin, but the real mystery and plot that replaces it was far more interesting in the end, and as such I have a hard time faulting the book for it.
Winter Tide was fantastic, fun, meaningful, painful, and expansive. I loved the full cast of protagonists and loved rooting against the entire cast of antagonists, though in the end there aren’t really any “bad guys” per se, simply people with different ideas on how things should be done and not enough information on why things shouldn’t be done that way. Ruthanna Emrys has a fantastic voice as an author and I cannot wait to start the second book in the series, Deep Roots, released in June of this year.
Rating: Winter Tide – 9.5/10