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How author Ruthanna Emrys is subverting Lovecraft’s tropes with her own cosmic horror series

Earlier this year, I picked up Ruthanna Emrys’ debut novel, Winter Tide, a tale based on the exhaustively canvassed cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Along with a previous novelette called The Litany of Earth, it subverts Lovecraft’s notorious racism by making his monsters — which were often thinly veiled stand-ins for people of color — sympathetic protagonists. In the 1920s, the US government locks ancient Deep Ones in internment camps, including the series’ protagonist Aphra Marsha. Once Aphra is released after World War II, she goes into hiding — until an FBI agent recruits her to track down a cult.

Next summer, Emrys will release the second novel in her Innsmouth Legacy series: Deep Roots. After coming to terms with helping the US government, Aphra has begun rebuilding her life and community, only to find that people have begun going missing. In order to help preserve her community, she has to unravel the mystery behind the disappearances.

Tor has provided us with a first look at the cover for the upcoming novel, with art by John Jude Palencar, who did the art for Winter Tide. I recently spoke with Emrys about her series and its place in Lovecraft’s legacy.


Image: Tor Books

Where we left off with Winter Tide, Aphra and her friends have helped thwart a plot helping the US government: where do we find them with Deep Roots?

At the end of Winter Tide, they were settling down to try and rebuild Innsmouth. But the Innsmouth of Aphra’s childhood is gone—its people destroyed by that same government. Deep Roots finds her in New York City, trying to track down people with a trace of Deep One blood who might be willing to join their tiny new community. However, one of those people has recently gone missing–under circumstances of great interest to Aphra’s discomfiting government allies, and possibly to the entire planet.

You can find ten of everything in New York, including a few people not originally from Earth. And they’re looking for something in the city as well…

In “Litany of Earth” and Winter Tide, you introduced readers to a Lovecraftian world in which the traditional monsters are the sympathetic part of the story, rather than humans. What does Deep Roots do to continue this?

Lovecraft didn’t much distinguish his “traditional monsters” from his human ones. He uses the same language to describe Deep Ones in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Jewish immigrant New Yorkers in private letters. Cthulhu’s dark cults just happen to include all brown people everywhere. Mi-Go will stick your brain in a jar and bring it to Pluto, but the worst thing about them is that they’re “cosmopolitan.”

Setting a story in New York was irresistible, because I could bring in that full range of monsters. In some ways they’re as frightening to Aphra as they were to Lovecraft. She grew up in fairly provincial town where everyone spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods, and now she has to come to terms with the fact that the new Innsmouth, if it survives, will have to be much more cosmopolitan. On the other hand, she’s a lot more inclined than Lovecraft to reach out to people who are different. Even the ones with tentacles where their eyes ought to be.

I was really interested in how you brought in the interred Japanese in both of those works: what prompted you to include them?

Originally, it was pure logic. In early 1928, Lovecraft tells us, the U.S. government threw the population of Innsmouth into a concentration camp. Of course the government would want to put that camp far from the Atlantic, ideally far from any ocean at all—so probably somewhere in the Southwestern desert. Cut to 1942, and suddenly the government decides they urgently need internment camps. And there’s one sitting right there, fully constructed and mostly empty. It’d be criminal to waste it.

That connection turned “Litany” from a raw, furious concept—that if someone mentions concentration camps, your sympathy should damn well be with the people in the camps—into an actual story. What happens when two mistreated peoples get together? What do they find in common? What can they do together, that they couldn’t do alone? Aphra’s relationship with the Kotos has always been at the heart of her series, even when she’s investigating cults or trying to stop a war.

Lovecraft’s reputation has taken a hit, as of late. But despite some of the real issues with his fiction, it seems that his works remain popular. What is the appeal of his take on fantasy and horror?

For me, the appeal and the issues are tangled together: I’m terrified of people who think I’m a monster. Lovecraft gives me a window into what that looks like, and yet he has these moments of empathic writing in spite of himself. For all that he demonizes everyone who isn’t a rich Anglo-descended white guy, his characters are constantly being forced to see things from the Other’s point of view. It’s supposed to be horrible, but their points of view remain real and rich and vivid.

Lovecraft provides only tantalizing glimpses of those Others before running away. I want to give them voices.

The other thing that appeals to me, weirdly, is his optimism. The cosmic horror universe may not care about humanity. It might kill you without even noticing your existence–but something even cooler than you will come along to take your place. If you can deal with the vertigo of being trivial, you get a cosmos full of weird intelligences and ancient civilizations and wild variations of physics. The idea that life and civilization flourish everywhere, from the universe’s birth to its burnt-out end, is deeply appealing.

I’ve found it interesting how versatile Lovecraft’s creations are: how did you approach subverting some of his tropes with your characters?

That optimism, which Lovecraft didn’t consider optimism at all, is one of the subversions running through the Innsmouth Legacy series. Aeonists, people who worship Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep and Hydra et al., tend to find the scope of the cosmos relative to humanity–or whatever species they belong to, it’s a very ecumenical religion—inspiring and comforting. Aphra says things like: well, eventually humanity’s going to be extinct and there will be a race of sapient beetle people living here instead, so really my problems aren’t all that important. Except for lately, when the exact timing of humanity’s extinction is one of her immediate problems.

Racism and the plight of Aphra’s people are at the forefront of these stories. The stories are set in the middle of the century, but are you finding that you’re drawing inspiration from the present?

Inspiration is one word for it, yes. The fact that I write about problems we face now—overweening bigotry, broken communities, existential threats to human existence—gives me strength to keep writing in the face of overweening bigotry, broken communities, and existential threats to human existence. But I need the prism that fantasy provides. Go back seventy years, and add ancient undersea civilizations and snarky aliens, and everything’s just different enough to give a little perspective to the hazards of the present.

These problems—the big walls humanity builds itself to climb over—have always been my narrative obsessions. I don’t usually try to write my way to solutions. For so many of our modern/ancient problems, we know the solutions, we just need the endurance to fight like hell to get there—over decades, lifetimes, sometimes centuries and millennia. But by writing characters who take the long view, who see themselves as part of a project of generations, I’m trying to write my way to the attitude, the psychology we need to keep up the fight.

Deep Roots will hit bookstores on July 10th, 2018.


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