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Three Important Re-Tellings of Lovecraft

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A.J. O'Connell

Staff Writer

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books, and so, is constantly writing at least one novel. She holds an MFA in creative fiction, but despite the best efforts of her teachers at Fairfield University's low-residency program, remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She is a journalist and has taught journalism to college students. She blogs about feminism, the writing life, and whatever else comes into her head at Blog: A.J. O'Connell Twitter: @ann_oconnell

Authors love to reinterpret H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Book Riot has written about awesome Lovecraftian-inspired work before.

2016, though, is feeling especially tentacular.

Case in point: this year brings not one, but two reimaginings of Lovecraft’s tales: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, a retelling of The Horror at Red Hook, and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a re-imagining of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath out in August.

There’s also a funny — and disturbing — murder mystery about the Lovecraft fandom, I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas, due out in August, and Hammers on Bone, a Lovecraftian noir by Cassandra Khaw, coming out in October. And if we want to cheat a little, Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide, a follow-up to her novelette The Litany of Earth, (a re-imagining of The Shadow Over Innsmouth) will be out just after this year ends, in January 2017.

Dude, that’s a lot of Elder Things.

The re-imaginings speak to me most most strongly, particularly when you look at the authors doing the re-telling. It’s important that people of color and women, who were respectively demonized and ignored in Lovecraft’s work, present their own takes on ol’ Howie’s canon.

How do the retellings stand up to the originals? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a look at Black Tom, Vellitt Boe, and Litany of Earth, as well as the original stories they’re drawn from.

(WARNING: If you haven’t read the original Lovecraft stories, here be spoilers.)

The Ballad of Black Tom, a retelling of The Horror At Red Hook

The original:

The Horror At Red Hook

The Horror at Red Hook: A New York City detective, Malone, has been investigating the mental health of a rich man named Robert Suydam, who has been hanging out with the immigrants of Red Hood. (Oh no!) Suydam clears his name, however, and everything seems fine until he moves to Red Hook to live with the immigrants. Kids start disappearing, and then Suydam shows up, looking suspiciously younger. Blue-eyed children keep disappearing, and an army of dark-skinned immigrants appear in Red Hook. Suydam is clearly leading this army in some infernal task, and Malone is going to get to the bottom of it.

The retelling:

ballad of black tomThe Ballad of Black Tom: Charles Thomas Tester is a 20-year-old  living in Harlem. He’s approached by a strange old white man named Robert Suydam, who asks him to play guitar at a party. Suydam introduces Tom to the Cthulu mythos, telling him that Cthulu will help the oppressed people of the Earth. Suydam’s plan is to wake the Elder Ones and rule his dark-skinned army as a king, but Tom knows better than to trust him.
This book not only gives Tom, who isn’t mentioned in the original story (because none of Lovecraft’s POC ever had identities or agency), a voice and a face, but LaValle also gives the people of Red Hook their humanity back. Yes, the crowd that follows Suydam is rough and villainous, but the people who live in Red Hook are being used and brutalized, both by Suydam and the police. Malone, meanwhile, is well-meaning, but clueless and bigoted, and there’s even a Lovecraft cameo.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a re-imagining of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The original:

The Dream-Quest of Unknown KadathThe Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath: Randolph Carter has twice dreamed of a marvelous city only to have the vision snatched away from him. As an experienced dreamer, he decides to go into the dreamworld consciously to find his city. His quest takes him to Ulthar, a town filled with cats, to the forest of the zoogs, the underground city of the gugs, and to the Leng plateau where the gods have mated with the local population. But he can’t find the gods anywhere. He begins to fear they’ve snatched his beautiful city from him so they can live in it themselves.

The retelling:

the dream-quest of vellitt boe

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The stakes are somewhat higher in this tour through the dreamworld. Vellitt Boe is a middle-aged professor at a women’s college in Ulthar, one of very few women who live in the dreamworld. She was a traveler in her youth, and is forced back on the road when one of her students elopes with a man from the waking world.
Vellitt needs to bring the girl home before terrible things happen to the women’s college (which could lose its funding) or Ulthar (which could be razed by the gods). Vellitt, like Tom, is not mentioned in Unknown Kadath, but as a young woman she traveled with Carter and had a relationship with him.
It’s refreshing to read a protagonist who is not only a woman, but who is an older woman. It’s also refreshing to read about the perils of the road from a woman’s perspective. It’s mentioned in the book that when she was a young traveler, Vellitt was raped, but it didn’t stop her from traveling. In our culture, we’re conditioned to think of rape as something that “breaks” the victim somehow. Vellitt isn’t broken. She acknowledges this happened to her, and moves on.

The Litany of Earth, a reimagining of The Shadow Over Innsmouth

The original:

The Shadow OVer InnsmouthThe Shadow Over Innsmouth: The U.S. Government has begun a secret investigation of Innsmouth, Mass., a ruined fishing village. Why? Because Robert Olmstead, a young scholar, stumbled over the isolated village in his tour of New England.
Olmstead is first intrigued by the village’s history — they have some beautiful treasures there —but becomes more and more alarmed the longer he stays there. The villagers all look fish-like, and are secretive. After a conversation with the  town drunk, he learns that the most of the villagers are half-humans (oh the horror!); they begin life as normal people, but turn into amphibious creatures called Deep Ones as they age. They practice human sacrifice and magic, and worship ancient gods in awful temples. Increasingly horrified, Olmstead fears for his life.


The Litany of EarthThe retelling:

The Litany of Earth: It’s just after WWII. Aphra Marsh is 30 years old and — like the Japanese-American she rooms with in San Francisco — she has been recently released from the prison camp she spent most of her life in.
Aphra is a native of Innsmouth, removed from that town when the U.S. Government destroyed it. She’s lost her home, her family, her culture, and her religion. She’s working in a bookstore when she’s approached by a federal agent who wants her help in tracking down other worshippers of Cthulu. He says they are dangerous. She doesn’t know what to believe.
It’s easy to see the monsters in Lovecraft’s work as abominations, as he so often paints them. Emrys treats the amphibious people of Innsmouth with compassion; in her work they are just another people demonized and imprisoned by a paranoid and ignorant public.