1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself. You're an author and reviewer of Lovecraft fiction on Tor's website, correct?
I’m the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, Winter Tide and Deep Roots. I also write short stories, some Lovecraftian and others… really not. My latest, “The Word of Flesh and Soul,” is about a woman trying to get a graduate degree in the Language That Drives Men Mad, dealing with departmental politics and body horror. It’s up on Tor.com, which is where most of my stuff ends up lately.
The Lovecraft Reread is a collaboration with Anne M. Pillsworth, who writes Lovecraftian YA. We started with Lovecraft’s own stories, and have expanded to cover weird fiction from the 1890s through about last week. Following Jo Walton’s distinction, a review analyses what people might like or dislike about a story, while a reread is more about personal reactions. So sometimes we’re doing something that looks suspiciously like a review, and sometimes my personal reaction is a mini-story from the point of view of a shoggoth. We talk about the things that are problematic, but we also get very squeeful about our favorite tropes, and count how many times the word “cyclopean” shows up in each story.
2. Can you describe your relationship with H.P. Lovecraft's fiction and creatures/characters?
We have screaming, pot-hurling fights that end in passionate make-up fiction.
3. How did you come up with the concept of the Innsmouth Legacy series?
I came to Lovecraft sideways: my college friends played call of Cthulhu, had plush elder gods, read the Illuminatus Trilogy. So I knew all the jokes and references, and eventually decided I should read the original stories. My wife started reading a “Best of” collection aloud while I made dinner every night. We’d comment on the stories as we went through them, snarking about the language and speculating about the cosmic histories. I’d known going in that Lovecraft was a bigot, but I hadn’t realized the full scope of it. For a lot of stories it was just another thing we made fun of—the “degenerate Dutch,” really?—but “Shadow Over Innsmouth” left me open-mouthed. I thought I knew the whole story by osmosis, but no. It starts with the government raiding Innsmouth and sending everyone to concentration camps. And it starts with the premise that this is a good thing.
For some obscure reason, if you put characters in concentration camps, I’m likely to assume they’re the good guys.
4. Can you tell us about the novels in the series (Litany of the Earth, Winter's Tide, and Deep Roots)?
The series follows Aphra Marsh, one of the last survivors of the Deep One internment camps, as she tries to rebuild her life. “The Litany of Earth” is the first piece, a novelette that’s available for free on (you guessed it) Tor.com. It takes place shortly after she’s gotten out and is living with a Japanese-American family who essentially adopted her when they arrived in the camp during World War II. A federal agent asks for her help investigating a cult, and she agrees largely because she wants to be around people who worship her gods again. But the cultists don’t necessarily have a great understanding of what magic can and can’t do…
In Winter Tide, Aphra goes to Massachusetts to try and reclaim Innsmouth’s books from the library at Miskatonic University. Along the way she gathers found family, connects with some very old blood family, and tries to track down a body-shifting Russian spy who may or may not exist.
Deep Roots brings Aphra and her friends to New York looking for long-lost cousins, and puts them in conflict with the alien Mi-Go.
The series as a whole plays with the whole set of assumptions behind cosmic horror. It’s not a “nice” version of Lovecraft’s world—the universe is still an unimaginably vast, uncaring place, full of forces that may destroy you and your civilization without even noticing. But it’s a version where those terrifying forces include other humans, where everyone (including the abominations) has their own goals and perspectives, and where the protagonists react to the uncaring universe with something more thoughtful than either xenophobia or nihilism.
5. Please describe Aphra Marsh for us. What makes her tick?
Aphra lost most of her family-on-land in the internment camp, and she’s driven by the desire to preserve her remaining family, and to build a new community to replace the one she’s lost. She has a very strong sense of duty as the surviving “eldest on land,” and sometimes wants to protect people even when they don’t want to be protected—her brother Caleb, for example, often has very different ideas about what his own duty entails. They were both raised in the worship of the elder gods, but he lost his faith in the camp while she still gets a lot of comfort from it.
She’s very rewarding to write because she has a Thing about turning her back on antagonists—it feels dangerous, so she’s constantly running toward danger because she thinks it’s the safest option. She’s also very willing to stand up to authorities even when she respects them, and has no compunctions about telling a centuries-old Deep One elder or a billion-year-old librarian that she thinks they’ve got the wrong end of the stick. She’s very serious about everything, though, so I have to surround her with people who’ll fill in the snark gap.
6. H.P. Lovecraft is both a hugely influential author and someone with problematic elements in his work. Do you think he's still relevant? If so, how do we deal with these contradictions?
So many problematic elements. I find him fascinating because his bigotry is so deeply embedded in everything he wrote, even the good stuff that’s rightfully influential.
Alas, the bigotry doesn’t make his work less relevant these days. But it does increase the challenge of engaging with his work. You can certainly use Lovecraftian tropes without that engagement, and many people have done that to good effect. But because his fears are so deeply embedded in those tropes, it’s hard to leverage their full visceral power without facing down the prejudices that originally birthed them. I like turning his ideas inside out and using them to understand the horror not of the things he was afraid of, but of his fear. For a lot of us, other humans’ fear is one of the biggest existential threats out there. Lovecraft was terrified of New Yorkers walking down the street speaking languages he didn’t understand; I’m terrified of what people do when they find different cultures threatening.
7. Why do you like Deep Ones so much versus, say, ghouls or Mi-Go?
I honestly love all these species and sub-species that Lovecraft came up with—his worldbuilding is so intriguing and I always want to fill in the gaps and turn the perspective upside down. The Deep Ones work as a focus because the raid—the fact that they’re hurt so badly—provides a great starting point for plot and characterization.
Ghouls and Mi-Go both feature prominently in Deep Roots. The Mi-Go basically encapsulated Lovecraft’s terror of multicultural society. In “Whisperer in Darkness” they describe themselves as cosmopolitan, which is still a word that gets used to insult urban communities. The fear behind that story is that if you hang around with people of other cultures then everything that makes your culture special will vanish, and everything that makes you able to go out and act on the world—you might as well be a brain in a jar! Which is of course bullshit. But the Mi-Go also offer a genuinely terrifying trade-off, where you can see the universe and learn all its secrets, at the cost of having any ability to take action on your own. Aphra is very in touch with her own body and very attached to specific places, so they make a good foil for her. I also loved writing the interactions among the brain-in-jar people, who have sort of online meeting-of-minds relationships with each other in the midst of this alien situation.
Ghouls are just fun. How many allies will tell you, “It’s dangerous out there, take this,” and hand you a random fingerbone?
8. Does it bother you Aphra Marsh tends to be portrayed as conventionally attractive on the covers of your books or would you prefer her to look more like the Deep Ones of Lovecraft's writings? Or are you arguing the narrator's prejudices may have made him think worse of the Deep One's looks?
I would love to get an illustration of Aphra as she looks in my head—I tend to think that Lovecraft’s narrator described them accurately, albeit rudely. But then, people of the air look pretty creepy to people of the water, with their tiny eyes and necks that look like they’ll snap if they turn their heads too fast.
However, I do in fact respect the desire of my publisher and cover artist (the brilliant John Jude Palencar) not to use a portrait of someone whose face is basically in the uncanny valley, given that the failure mode (and possibly the success mode) is that it looks like Palencar has forgotten how to draw faces, and then we don’t sell any books.
It does exasperate me that whenever I search for “Innsmouth look” as a visual reference, the men look about right and the women look like pin-up models with bulgy eyes. I’d like, just once, a good picture of a pre-metamorphosis female Deep One that isn’t all about the sexy.
9. How do you handle the Cthulhu Mythos in your world? Are they just misunderstood aliens or are they flawed in their own way? Or is it just the Deep Ones are as human as humanity?
The Deep Ones are as human as any person of the air, and as prone to grace and horror as anyone else. (The people of the rock—the K’n-yan—have gone down a particularly toxic road in terms of culture and power sources, and are more prone to horror than some. Of course, that never happens anywhere else…)
Lovecraft’s gods—when he wrote about Them, They were the big scary thing, and so They were real and solid (or gaseous, in some cases) and very interventionist. Since I’m writing from the point of view of Their worshippers, the scary thing is that They’re just as distant, and just as unlikely to protect Their chosen people from destruction, as any other pantheon humans have worshipped.
10. Who are your next favorite characters after Aphra?
Really, I love all of them. The ones who fill the “snark gap” I mentioned above are particularly fun to write. The Yith possessing Professor Trumbull is constantly impatient with humans for being too slow or too focused on trivialities, and she was also convenient because every time I realized I’d screwed up my historical research, I could just let her talk about DNA or whatever else hadn’t been discovered yet. Time travelers are great; I really missed having one in the second book. But then I got to write Shelean. Shelean is culturally a mad scientist, so even when she’s saying something very sensible, she sounds like she’s about to break out into maniacal laughter.
11. Do you have any other Neo-Lovecraftian authors you'd recommend the work of (you've certainly read enough)?
I was completely blown away by Sonya Taaffe’s “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts,” which is far and away my favorite modern take on the Deep Ones. That’s in Dreams From the Witch House, which is an absolutely brilliant anthology. I love Livia Llewelyn’s stuff as well: visceral and terrifying and not the least bit safe for work. I also highly recommend Sarah Monette’s Kyle Murchison Booth stories, which add deep psychological realism to the standard Lovecraftian protagonist, and the Lovecraftian space operas that she writes with Elizabeth Bear.
12. What would you like readers to take from your books?
Normally my answer to this type of question would be that if I must tell readers what they should be getting, I’ve failed as an author. But in general, I’d like readers to take from my books the worth of looking at perspectives other than their own—and the fact that some types of willful ignorance and bigotry are wrong regardless of perspective. I also want to share a sort of hope, a willingness to act in the face of an uncaring universe and uncaring fellow humanity, without having to claim that the universe is on our side in order to act.
13. What can we expect from you next?
Imperfect Commentaries, my first short story collection, is coming from Lethe Press in July. It’s got all my Neo-Lovecraftian stuff, including my very first published story which was about why the elder gods want to eat the world. Plus miscellaneous deleted scenes, poems, and secret story origins.
I’m currently working on a near-future science fiction novel tentatively titled The Fifth Power, about the people finally solving climate change having to deal with a crisis they’re completely unprepared for—the arrival of aliens who want to rescue humanity from Earth, by force if necessary. It has very little in common with the Innsmouth Legacy books except for lots of queer found family, an obsession with water, snarky aliens, and a serious hopepunk aesthetic. So basically the same except that it takes place 70 years in the future instead of 70 years in the past, and everyone is Jewish instead of Aeonist. If all goes well and I manage to meet my deadlines, that should be out sometime in 2020.
Thank you for your answers!
Michael ‘sits’ down for an interview with Brian Lee Durfee, author of the upcoming epic fantasy, The Blackest Heart.
Fantastic news, folks! We've got an interview with M.L. Spencer about her awesome finale to the RHENWARS SAGA. I've reviewed every book in the series and loved them all.
So tell us about the RHENWARS SAGA. What's it about?
The Rhenwars Saga is about an overpowered mage--the last of his kind--who is tasked with the job of defending a Western-type society called the Rhen from an invasion of an “Enemy” horde from the Northern “Black Lands”, an intentionally Mordor-esque region on the map. The mage, Darien Lauchlin, commits terrible atrocities in order to defend his homeland. But then, in a turn of events, he is taken to the Black Lands, where he discovers the Enemy are a people living in perpetual darkness, who will die without a means of escape. Darien switches sides and soon begins using his appalling power to help the Black Landers invade the Western nations he had formally sworn to protect, committing more atrocities in the process.
What is the set up in DARKFALL?
By the time we get to Darkfall, we have seen Darien’s character go through a tremendous transformation from hero to a haunted man driven by desperation. He has now become a demon, tasked with fighting for the other side against his former allies. This has caused him tremendous mental anguish. However, Darien has now resolved this inner struggle, and he is committed 100% to his new cause.
Can you tell us about Darien and Kyel?
Kyel Archer was Darien’s acolyte, who has become the mage Darien had always wanted to be. Of the two, he is the more traditional hero-type character. He sees both sides of the war as equally human and deserving of protection, while Darien swings from 100% support of one side to 100% support of the other. In Darkfall, Kyel stands against Darien and resists him as much as he is able, while keeping his oaths, morals, and integrity intact—which is no easy thing to do.
Who are the villains in the book?
There really are no true villains in the Rhenwars Saga, at least none that exist in that state permanently. Villains become allies and protagonists become antagonists fluidly throughout the course of the series. The main “villain” in Darkfall is Zavier Renquist, an ancient mage whose goal is the protection of magic. He wants to go about doing this by releasing the equivalent of Iblis (think of Satan-but-not-really) from the Netherworld. To most people, this solution sounds worse than the problem. But not to Renquist, who sees magic as worth any price.
How did you subvert traditional fantasy expectations?
The first book in the series is written to resemble a very typical Lord of the Rings setup, where you have the beautiful Western civilization filled with white people who are resisting an invading horde of evil creatures from some dark area on a map (these creatures being evil because, well, evil.) You have all the typical fantasy tropes: a dashing, powerful hero with a broken heart. His noble fellow-adventurer who trails after him like a faithful puppy-dog. And the beautiful love interest who remains steadfastly by his side through it all. This should end as expected, right? Boy falls for girl and they share a never-ending true love. Our hero repulses the invading horde with the help of his faithful Samwise-type friend. Good triumphs and Evil is vanquished. And they all live happily ever after in the Great White West.
Nope. Not in this world.
It turns out the invading horde are very human, with a very real and dire problem. They are not white, but brown. They are not invaders, but refugees. Not evil, just desperate. Our Western society is not as good and pure as we thought, but rather barbaric and sanctimonious. Our hero is a damaged man capable of atrocity. Romances devolve into betrayal and heartbreak. Friends and allies become enemies, oaths and loyalties are shattered, and there is no Happily Ever After for anyone. The Rhenwars Saga de-fantasizes the fantastic and brings it crashing into reality.
Can you describe the Westerners and the Darklanders?
The people of the Rhen are the typical people we are used to meeting when we open a fantasy novel. The Rhen resembles Western Europe, filled with kingdoms, towns, temples, and all the usual trappings.
The people of Malikar (The Black Lands) are based on a Middle Eastern society, both Bedouin in the outlying areas and the Ottoman Sultanate in the northern region. They have a strict code of honor, a rich culture that has adapted to the lightless conditions they have been forced to suffer, and are highly disciplined.
What were you going for in your epic? Themes and ideas behind it?
The Rhenwars Saga is an allegory for the modern-day relationship between the West and the Middle East. Rhenwars was conceived after 9/11, when I was still trying to wrap my mind around why anyone would want to fly an aircraft into a building (or three). So I started trying to understand the conflict between the West and the Middle East from both sides of the War on Terrorism. After learning a bit about the area’s history with the West, cultural climate, religious perspectives, etc., I was able to get a better understanding of both sides of the picture, and how each side believes they are morally justified in employing sometimes atrocious tactics in order to advance their political agendas. It’s really a very fascinating topic, how two sides can view themselves as justified and morally righteous, while labelling the other side as malevolent and morally bankrupt. It all comes down to a perspective shift.
How has response been to the books?
Mixed. I get a lot of reviews on Book One complaining that it is very generic. Unfortunately, some people don’t go on to Book 2, where you find out the “point” of the entire series. With the launch of my Box Set, more people are reading through, and the response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I’m getting a lot of fantastic feedback from readers who say they love the direction the Saga goes in, and that it is wonderfully different from any fantasy series they’ve ever read before. There seems to be a great deal of excitement over it.
Any advice for self-publishers?
Advertise your book. And do so in ways that get you the best return for your advertising dollar. Above all, don’t try to sell your book to other authors. Sell it to readers.
Is it true there's a collection available and on sale?
Yes! The entire Rhenwars Saga is available as a box set for only $0.99 right now, which is a steal!
What's next for you?
Right now, I am committed to helping a fellow author who passed away finish his series, so I will be helping to ghostwrite that over the next several months. After that… Well, that’s where it gets complicated. I had a new series in a different world planned, world-built, and ready to go. But then I started getting a lot of feedback from my readers that they really wanted another Rhenwars series. So I am now writing a spinoff series that takes place roughly 20 years after the Rhenwars Saga.
Can you recommend any other authors and their work?
Absolutely! I love the works of C.T. Phipps, Richard Nell, Eric T. Knight, JA Andrews, Jesse Teller, Frank Dorrian, Rob Hayes, and Sean Hinn.
Pick up your copy of the series here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07KLXCH5X/