Monday, April 03, 2017

Lovecraft Without the Horror

I started this post a couple of days ago with a bit about how I really don't like to review books I don't finish, especially review copies from Netgalley, because it feels unfair.  I mean, yeah, I'm not finishing because I don't like the book that much, but it seems wrong to judge based on less than the whole thing.

But then I finished the book.  So...I liked it more than I thought? Or at least, I found its weaknesses more interesting?  Anyway, I did finish, so no apologies; just a review.

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, comes to me at a time when I'm just discovering Lovecraft.  I've read some stories, which I liked, and some books that are influenced by him, which I've mostly also enjoyed.  There's some great horror to be had, both in his writing and in his imagery and ideas. I literally CANNOT with the racism, but I've had good luck mostly avoiding it in what I've read so far. But the eeriness, the sense of cosmic unease that he puts in the most innocuous parts of his stories--the feeling of damp that permeates everything he writes is gloriously creepy.

So I can't really figure out why this story exists. Winter Tide is what happens when you take Lovecraft's cosmology and folklore and imagine it as innocuous.  This is a world in which humanity is more frightening than the Old Ones, who are just like any other gods--distant and cosmic and pretty much not there.  Only humanity isn't actually that frightening here.  I guess government is?

 It's the story of the people of Innsmouth, the weird village near Arkham where the people worship Cthulu and the gods of the sea. I haven't read the Cthulu books, but I saw a TV movie about this once and it was amazingly creepy and freaky, a trashy delight.  The joy and terror are missing here, because it turns out that those people were misunderstood, not evil, no blood sacrifice (well, maybe they nick their own fingers when doing magic, but that's all!), no unspeakable evil.  Just good folks who turn into fish creatures when they finish with their landwalker stage and go to live in the ocean, misunderstood by us airbreathers and interned and murdered for it.

So really, the emotional heft of this story belongs to Aphra and her brother Caleb being the only survivors of their race after being interned in camps between the world wars.  Eventually, they are joined by Japanese citizens, and when the war ends and they're released, these last two survivors leave with their new adopted family.  This is about loss of legacy and trying to heal, about being out of place and trying to find your heritage. Which is a great idea, and there's so much to do with that.

But there just wasn't enough story to back it up.  Too many characters swirling around--with some great, really lovely representation, but so many that you don't get to know them.  Dawson should have her own book, but she barely gets a line here. Neko exists to show that Aphra has ties. Why is Charlie even there?  (I think because this is a sequel to a story in which Charlie features.) Audrey ends up being a main character, but darn if she didn't just feel like another pile of clothes to get in the way for the first half of the story.

Having gotten to the end, I feel confident that this would have been much better as a novella.  There was a lot of time spent telling characters things that other characters already knew, and deciding whether to tell them things that we'd just told other people.  In theory there are secrets, but everyone shares them with each other promptly (and generally in separate conversations), so they don't feel that tense.

I think this just might not be the book for me.  It could have been an exciting story about....something happening at Miskatonic University (I keep forgetting what the plot of the book is--they want to do research for what feels like a MacGuffin reason) or it could have been an intriguing character study of a person trying to figure out what it means to be connected to a world that tried to cut all your ties.  But there was just too much distance for a character story, and too much stillness for a mystery.

And...really, if you're going to make the Old Ones NOT want to destroy the world and devour humanity and set men mad on sight--why bother writing Lovecraft?  It's like making a Mission Impossible movie about those quiet moments of friendship you share with your team, not talking but just being together without any agenda.  I just didn't get it.

1 comment:

Aarti said...

I tried to read Lovecraft's Dreamquest novella but just could NOT. It was just... I mean, I read a good amount of it, but I had no idea what it was supposed to be about.

And then I read Kij Johnson's Dreamquest of Velitt Boe and it was so good! I highly recommend it, and it's quite short, and so feminist, and I think you would like it.