A (kind of) review of Ruthanna Emrys’ novel Winter Tide while pleading with board game designers to take note and listen up!
For anyone unfamiliar with H. P. Lovecraft’s work, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is arguably one of his best pieces of prose. In it, a student finds himself isolated overnight in the strange town of Innsmouth and is witness to many bizarre events and, SPOILER ALERT, barely manages to escape with his life. Innsmouth is home to a group of people who worship the cosmic entity Cthulhu, evolve into fish like creatures known as Deep Ones at some point in their lives and can live for centuries under the sea. These Deep Ones are depicted by Lovecraft as terrifying and monstrous as they round up and sacrifice human beings in their rituals to their gods.
Ruthanna Emrys’ first novel, Winter Tide is a historical fantasy novel that borrows from, but more importantly, adds to, the cosmic canon of the occult created by H. P. Lovecraft. The book answers the question of what the U.S government would do if they knew that creatures such as the Deep Ones lived on American soil. Emrys expertly intertwines the fate of Innsmouth with that of the American Japanese people who were interned during and after World War two. In an attempt to understand the magic of the Deep Ones, the American government all but wipe them out. Aphra Marsh is the main character of Winter Tide and is one of the last remaining survivors of Innsmouth.
Throughout the book, the reader gets to know Aphra and her family of both blood and bond, what her childhood was like, what tastes and smells are nostalgic for her and what her cultural rituals and practices look like from the perspective of someone who reveres and respects them. She is initially painted as tragic and much empathy is felt for her as she tries to reclaim what is left of her people and their ways after a near complete genocide.
As a big fan of Lovecraft’s work, I have found myself perturbed and saddened, at times, to discover the racist and xenophobic views he held while living. I have questioned whether to separate the person from the art. I have done this on occasion. I loved Ender’s Game but refused to continue reading the series once I found out that Orson Scott Card is openly homophobic and advocates against equal rights for the LGBTQ community. However, I do still find myself revisiting and reading Lovecraft and have told myself he is an unfortunate product of his time but, it can still be uncomfortable to read some of his stories and their xenophobic undercurrents.
I was therefore overjoyed to discover Emrys’ novel as it contained within it characters once believed to be monsters. Lovecraftian “creatures” that were actually people, that were human. I could read this book and pore over its canonical detail and its references to Cthulhu and the Yith without wondering if there was any backhanded and racist allegory at play. This novel is a gift to anyone who loves the mythological sandbox that Lovecraft has created but is at odds with the man himself.
This is where I shall put a call out to board game designers! There are more than just a few board games out there playing within the aforementioned Lovecraftian sandbox. I ask you to reconsider characters and their motives. I ask you to empathize with “the other.” I ask you to make something new with what has been provided to you. Create a game where a character like Aphra can lead the narrative and protect herself and her family from those that would do them harm. How fun it would be to pray to the cosmic gods rather than cower in fear of them.
I know there are at least a couple of board games out there that have you on the side of the occult rather than fighting against it. Both Fate of the Elder Gods and Kingsport Festival have you donning the robes of cultists in an effort to summon forth the Ancient Ones and Elder gods. While this is an interesting departure from always being on the side of Good, the cultists are still bland and one dimensional, evil caricatures that are attempting to bring about the end of the world. They are not being discriminated against for practicing their human right of religious freedom, they are trying to destroy the planet and everyone on it!
There’s a great scenario in Fantasy Flight’s Mansions of Madness (2nd ed.) board game based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth. *SPOILER ALERT* Players find themselves trapped in a hotel room in Innsmouth with locals banging on the door to get in and threatening to harm or kill them. In a simple reversal, what if you were playing as the character that was banging on the door? Doesn’t it make sense that the locals would not want outsiders escaping with knowledge of their cultural practices and ways? That, if word were to get to the government, their community and way of life would be completely in jeopardy? It makes sense then, that there is a mob trying to round up the human investigators and that Deep Ones are lunging out of the water to impede their escape. They know who the real monsters are.