Saturday, May 21, 2016

Henrietta Seeks Her Fortune

by Jean Roberta

When I was growing up, my mother read me bedtime stories, chapter by chapter. I didn’t understand Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass (I was a preschooler at the time), but later on, I loved Pippi Longstocking, the strongest little girl in the world. She was the heroine of three books, originally written in Swedish (1945-48) by Astrid Lindgren for her own little girl. Pippi is the daughter of a sea captain who has been stranded on a South Sea island, where he becomes king of the natives. (The imperialist implications of this apparently escaped most white readers at the time.) He eventually finds his way back to Sweden to find his daughter, and take her on adventures at sea, but she prefers to return to the house he bought her, where she has made friends with the neighbor children. The Pippi books were eventually translated into 70 languages.

For little girls growing up in male-dominated cultures, Pippi is the ideal fantasy character. She doesn’t have much formal education and no “manners,” as adults tell her, but she is cheerful, competent, open-hearted, and loyal to her friends. She loves animals. She tells tall tales to entertain her listeners, but she understands the difference between fantasy and reality, and will tell the truth if pressed.

Many of the female characters in my own stories could be seen as descendants of Pippi, even if they are no longer children and don’t have superhuman physical strength. My favorite character is usually the most recent one.

Several months ago, two editor/publishers posted a call for submissions for “Inclusive Cthulhu.” This concept was apparently cooked up by a group of writers at Balticon, the annual fantasy con in Baltimore, Maryland. Story submissions were to be “based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but which would offend Lovecraft, who was racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist.”

The editors added: "Sex, violence okay if they fit the story -- nothing gratuitous."

The challenge of this call appealed to me. Thus was born an adventurous young woman character who tells her own story. She is a “colored girl” who grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, during Lovecraft’s lifetime. She wants to be a schoolteacher because this is one of the few (perhaps the only) respectable professions available to her. She gets the offer of a lifetime from a mysterious old lady to teach the semi-human children of a town named Innsmouth. Her widowed mother and the parents of her fiancé are alarmed, and tell her she can’t go. Henrietta dreams about her late father, who was apparently killed during the Great War, and he encourages her to seize the opportunity. (Henrietta has a sex life with her fiance, Abraham, but it's not explicitly described. The climax of her story is elsewhere.)

Here eight-year-old Henrietta’s daddy teaches her about Cthulhu:

My Daddy would not like me to write about all the things that happened after I set out to be a schoolteacher. Not a bit. He always told me to keep my business to myself, and especially not tell white folks anything they could use against me. I loved Daddy when he was alive, and I still feel him with me, but it’s my story to tell. The colored have been keeping their mouths shut since the first Africans were brought to this country, and it hasn’t ever kept us safe.

I was named Henrietta because Daddy’s name was Henry, and my Mama told me I took after him. She also told me a good colored man is hard to find, and that was why I should always honor my father. When Daddy told us Geechee stories passed down from his grandmamma and her granddaddy before her, I knew Mama didn’t believe them, but she said she respected them. I knew Mama wanted to believe Daddy’s farthest-back ancestors lived in great empires in Africa, where they wore rich robes and gold jewelry, and Jim Crow laws weren’t even thought of. The stories Daddy told were like the ones in the Bible, according to Mama, meaning there were lessons in them but they weren’t really true to life.

My brother Cyrus was always too busy getting into trouble to sit still and listen to Daddy’s stories, so he mostly told them to me. I heard all about the Old Ones in the ocean that we all came from in the beginning, and how they can hear us when we stand on the shore and call to them, even though they lie at the bottom of the ocean in a trance, like Sleeping Beauty. Daddy taught me a kind of prayer to their king, Cthulhu, and I learned to recite it by heart:

Ph-nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

When I asked Daddy if that was in Egyptian or Zulu or something else, he said it was in the sea-language that no one ever spoke on land, and it’s supposed to sound like waves moving through water. He told me it means this: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

The first time Daddy told me this, I thought he must have remembered it wrong, because I couldn’t see how some old sea-god could be dead and alive at the same time.

“Honey,” said Daddy, “think about all the colored people in America. We were great in the time before slavery, and we will be again, but we’ve been beat down like the Israelites in Egypt. This is our waiting-time, when we have to build our strength and dream about our future so we can be leaders and artists and scientists and healers again when the time is right. Sometimes we have to hide our powers to keep safe, but our powers have ways of coming out, like bubbles rising up through the water. Cthulhu is like us, like all of us together. He’s like Jesus too. You know how Jesus rose up and showed himself to the faithful after he died on the cross? Cthulhu will come back too, when we’re ready to meet him.”

“Did slave traders steal him out of Africa, Daddy?” I wanted to know.

“No, Hetty. He’s even older than Africa. He lived in the sea before the land rose up into different continents. We’re all his children, and he wants to know us, but we drove him away with our ignorance. He looks like other things that live in the sea, and most folks are scared of everything they’re not used to.”

Daddy held his hands near his face and wiggled them. “Cthulhu has baby octopus arms like this on his face, and he has skin like a snake, and wings like a bat.” Daddy looked so funny that I broke out laughing.

“Henry,” said Mama.

“Liza, we got ourselves a brave girl. She needs to know how to carry herself when she meets something she never saw before. Honey, even when you feel scared, you got to stand your ground and be respectful. You say: ‘How do you dooo, Sir or Ma’am? I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.’”

Later on, grown-up Henrietta has a chance to follow her father’s advice.

After I sent this story, “Innsmouth Blues,” to the editors, I waited for weeks. Several days ago, I sent a message to them, asking if any decisions had been made. (The original call said that the anthology would be launched at Balticon 2016, which is scheduled to start in a week!)

Yesterday I got a response, saying that the selection process took so long (delayed by unforeseen events, which tends to happen) that the book won’t be ready to be launched at this year’s Balticon. However, my story was “conditionally accepted,” and I will hear more from the editors very soon.

I am thrilled, and I look forward to seeing how other writers have interpreted the concept of “inclusive Cthulhu.” I want to meet the characters that would offend Lovecraft while living in his imaginary world.


  1. I love the idea of using Lovecraft's world for stories that would offend him. Now I'm trying to think of other authors one could posthumously offend in this way as effectively, but I'm drawing a blank--maybe because it's about midnight, and I'm about asleep. Or maybe I'm suppressing thoughts of authors I've enjoyed in spite of the fact that they would be offended by inserting strong women and/or minority characters into their imagined worlds.

  2. Congrats on the acceptance. Sounds like a fun project, mimicking an author to embarrass them.

  3. I absolutely love this premise (and indeed, the premise of the anthology)! Can't wait to read it!

  4. Thanks for commenting, Sacchi, Daddy X and Lisabet.

    Sacchi, there is a lot of ridiculously sexist and racist material from the past (esp. pre-World War I) that really needs to be satirized. Now, while there are articles on-line about the use of non-Asian actors to play Asian characters in Hollywood movies, someone needs to make fun of the books about a fictional Chinese villain named Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer (sp?). This stuff was part of a specifically anti-Chinese wave of propaganda that coincided with discriminatory immigration policies in the U.S. and Canada (possibly also in the UK). Debra Hyde's first "Charlotte Olmes" mystery, set in NYC in the late 19th century, deals respectfully with actual Chinese immigrant culture of the time and refers to the bigotry.

  5. Wow, congratulations! This is super exciting! Henrietta sounds awesome, and I definitely want to read this book when it comes out! :)


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