Welcome to the Round Table for TALES OF THE AL-AZIF by myself, Matthew Davenport, David Niall Wilson, David Hambling, and David J. West. This is a discussion between the authors about what they thought while writing the book, what inspired them, and what they thought about everyone else's contributions.
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!
Note: I've worked with the author and his publishing house but these are my honest thoughts as best I could make them. Consider yourself forewarned.
THE CALL OF DISTANT SHORES is a homage to the works of H.P. Lovecraft with a twist. David Niall Wilson is a author I have very much enjoyed the writings of ranging from his work for licensed properties like STAR TREK, VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE, and STARGATE SG-1 to his original stories like GIDEON'S CURSE as well as the DECHANCE CHRONICLES.
As a huge H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu Mythos fan, however, I was skeptical of him bringing anything new to the table. Many people have chosen to write in HPL's style and few people manage to become anything more than a pale imitation. The people who actually succeed in adding something new to the Mythos are those people who take the Man from Providence's work as an inspiration then do their own thing with it.
I'm pleased to say that David Niall Wilson is one of the latter rather than the former. The big thing he brings to the Cthulhu Mythos is humor. You can tell that DNW is a man who doesn't entirely take the creeping, looming, and gnawing horror of the universe all that seriously. It's not so much that man isn't irrelevant in this universe but that such things don't actually scare your average citizen. They know they're cogs in a wheel and the existence of ancient gods beyond the horizon doesn't do much to change the price of your gas bill.
The majority of protagonists in this book are various shades of idiot, working class hero, or average joe versus the nebbish scholars which serve as the prototypical Lovecraftian hero. "Are you looking for Herb?" has an obnoxious set of travelers venture off the roads into the backwoods and miss all the signs they've found themselves among people who are best left undisturbed.
"Cockroach Suckers" is my favorite of the stories here as it's a tale of people who find a horrifying eldritch entity and decide to build a freakshow around it. The superintendent of a building discovers a mad artist building unnatural grotesques that may be summoning SOMETHING horrifying but he's too distracted by the man's daughter's boobs to make much sense of it.
The book isn't entirely limited to humor, though, and contains a variety of takes on the Mythos that other authors don't necessarily touch on. For example, aside from Stuart Gordon, not many people ever explore the sexier side of the Mythos. There's just not much appealing in matings between human women and fishmen or Yog-Sogoth. Here, however, there's two stories that are a bit on the steamier side.
I also appreciated the "Call of Distant Shores" itself, which is more akin to a ghost story than a traditional Lovecraftian tale. Indeed, it's actually a tribute to Clark Ashton Smith (another member of the Lovecraft Circle). It does, however, have many themes of inherited guilt and the unfathomable otherworldly power embodied by the sea. Horror fans should enjoy the story simply because it's great fiction rather than its similarity to the work of Howard Phillips, however. I could easily see this expanded to a Stephen King BAG OF BONES-esque novel as David really manages to nail small-town life.
Another great treat in the story is a Sherlock Holmes encounter with an unnatural horror that was co-written with another author. THE SHADOW OVER BAKER STREET is one of the best anthologies ever written, in my humble opinion, and something everyone should pick up. This was the story included there and reflects the fact he's written for (in his own words) a lot of Lovecraft anthologies. At heart, David Niall Wilson gets the heart of HPL isn't tentacles or specific monsters but ideas that rattle the soul.
There's some serious and even haunting stories in this work but the sense of humor the author brings to his collection is what I give him the most props for. I also love how he tweaked the formula of so many pastiches by adding elements which the original author never touched on (romance for one). If you're looking for a short story collection that doesn't blandly copy the work of the artist formerly immortalized as the World Fantasy Awards then this is definitely a place to do your shopping.