“We need to make blank scary again”, where blank is a classic horror villain.
We hear this all the time from those who grind their teeth over slapstick zombies and dreamy-eyed werewolves. Lovecraft is due for this treatment; a quick etsy search is all it takes to see that the Elder Gods have gone kawaii. The H.P. Hipsters are soon to follow. “The Cats of Ulthar? You’ve prolly never heard of it.”
But what was it that made Lovecraft so very scary in the first place? And does the mythos have anything to say to contemporary readers anymore? Enter The Litany of Earth, a novella by Ruthanna Emrys currently up on tor.com.
The state took Aphra away from Innsmouth. They took her history, her home, her family, her god. They tried to take the sea. Now, years later, when she is just beginning to rebuild a life, an agent of that government intrudes on her life again, with an offer she wishes she could refuse.
Firstly, this is a story which stands on its own. You don’t need to know the lore to enjoy it, though if you do, you’ll appreciate how skillfully the details of the world are worked into the narrative.
We are presented immediately with one variation from Lovecraft’s world (at least in my reading of his work). It is not tentacled aliens which make us build internment camps. No voice from the depths caused the atrocities of World War II. The author takes us out of the expected universe of musty tomes and eerie languages and brings us into a much more applicable world: one in which we are the monsters.
But those kooky old gods are still around; don’t worry. And Emrys handles them just as well.
Why were those adorable elders so terrifying to Lovecraft’s readers? I wrote a post on this a while ago, and it seems to me that the concepts in his work — that great and powerful forces exist which are either indifferent towards us or actively want us dead, that there is no benevolent God to protect us — must have been pretty creeptastic to certain readers back in the day. But why are they scary now?
Here the author presents to us a post-Innsmouth worldview, in the form of semi-religious magic and ritual. This world will die. You will die. Maybe some stories of humanity will live on. None of it means anything. And that’s OK.
The protagonist describes this as “cosmic humility”, a phrase which I will be citing as often as I can.
This ain’t no fan-fic. This story is a re-evaluation of HPL’s canon from a contemporary viewpoint, deftly handled by the author. So go read it!