At long last, my work on my Kickstarter is mostly complete. There’s still a bunch of data entry to do and I have to manage my freelancers, but while that can be time consuming, it doesn’t drain focus the way writing stat blocks or assembling maps does. That means that focus is freed up for reading books and then writing snarky blog posts about them, so Threadbare is back! When last we left our heroes, they were investigating a vaguely Lovecraftian cult that is super into having sex with sea food, something which our protagonists never fail to comment upon as weird and creepy, which leaves me wondering why the author felt the need to actually include it if he was going to put so much effort into distancing himself from it. It’s not like it’s a requirement of the genre or anything.
Pastor Elpy Hatecraft lingered for a moment more, dwelling on the artifacts of an antediluvian nature retrieved from the very depths of what in aeons past had been a submarinic trench. The local peasantry had mistaken it for a mere lake, and more ignoramuses they, for it was clearly a hoary relic from a bygone age, when squamous tentacles reached forth deep from umbral places beneath the earth, to rend and manipulate the soil and the geography about them. Lake? Bah! The brobdingnagian body of water the quaint and curious locals referred to as Lake Marsh deserved a far more Sesquipedalian surname. He had a few in mind, but he’d been waiting until the engraver got back to him with quotes, for changing all the signposts.
This spoof of Lovecraft’s writing is pretty good, though. There’s some pretty archaic words in there, but the author actually knows how to use them, so it doesn’t come across as thesaurus abuse. Well, not as much, at least. The juxtaposition between the brooding cosmic horror and waiting on quotes from the engraver is funny, too.
Hatecraft is having his deep one lackey load up the boat with the treasury he’s amassed soaking the townspeople for all they’re worth.
“Load faster! Make haste!” He commanded the beast, and it muttered and grumbled, in its loathsome way. The barbels on its cheeks twitched in time with its irritable susurration, its very existence evidence of an uncaring cosmos full of helpless gods, a form that offended the reasonable man’s eye and raked at the very sanity of all logical onlookers.
Though, the effect was somewhat spoiled by its pants.
The brethren and sistren had put their foot down about that, they wanted YGlnargle’blah’s envoy to wear pants when he wasn’t engaging in blasphemous rites. Which was absurdity of the first order, but they HAD insisted, and so the herald of the octopodlian apocalypse, the evidence irrefutable of the truth of YGlnargle’blah, and the prominent celebrity in the rite of blasphemous conception now had to wear canvas shorts when he was off duty, as it were.
So Hatecraft is super racist against fish people, like how Lovecraft used his stories about fish people to express his racism for regular people. This is not a bad angle, but the details of the execution come across like a missed opportunity. If you’re going to make a character a direct critique of a real, actual person, you need to make sure that the character reasonably resembles them in more than just the specific aspects you want to critique. I brought up in the last post that having Hatecraft be an investigator rather than a cultist would be a better fit, and that is triply true if the character is meant to be a criticism of Lovecraft’s work and ideology.
Rather then a cultist exploiting the town (something Lovecraft never did), Hatecraft would be an investigator who just kind of assumes that the fish children are evil, the townsfolk who get it on with the fish man are deranged lunatics, and everything is being done according to the will of a hideous elder god, but then it turns out that no, the local townsfolk just find this fishman super charming, his betentacled sea god religion caught on because of his popularity, and that religion doesn’t have any norms against polyamory so he’s had kids with a bunch of women around town. You could still hit most of the same beats just by having the party encounter Hatecraft before the townspeople. Threadbare and company accidentally awaken an elder god early causing a revolt against the king’s garrison, the party goes to the church to investigate the “evil rites” and end up having a tea party with fish children, they go to the library to figure out what’s up. The cultists can still show up to take Annie Mata to meet their deep one herald of the abyss, and then the deep one just takes her on a candlelit dinner and tries to sweep her off her feet, and when asexual Threadbare running Annie Mata expresses no interest throughout, the deep one, understanding but dejected, goes home to listen to sad Taylor Swift music. And then Hatecraft’s investigations bring in
the US military Darth Villainous’ stormtroopers.
That’s not what we’ve got, though, we’ve got Hatecraft the cult leader, and his cultists have brought Annie Mata to him. Which is kind of a problem for him, because he’s looting the cult treasury right now.
“Ascend the stairs forthwith,” he told them. “I can ensure that the treasury is moved to an infinitely more secure location myself, and I must communicate with the blessed messengers that are afflicting Miss Mata’s mentality in an insalubrious manner.”
Daav turned to Phred. “Wot’d he say?”
“He’s just moving the stash. And he wants to talk to the lady alone.”
“Aw, I wanted to watch,” Mhorty sighed.
“Psh, don’t get greedy, it’s not even Saturday. And she might say no. And no means no, that’s the first rule of the rite. Come on, let’s get going then. Bye Pastor!”
I am sympathetic to wanting to establish that the cult’s blasphemous rites are consensual, but I’m pretty sure being a bit more implicit would’ve worked just as well. Like, make the response “eh, she’ll probably turn him down anyway. She don’t look like the type wot’s into fish folk.” Like, sure, it’s not completely clear, but it still heavily implies that if the lady turns the fish gentleman down, there’s no show. On the other hand, people use the miscegenation tropes from Lovecraft stories for some really edgy bullshit regularly enough that I understand the need to make it inescapably clear that no, we’re not going there.
Threadbare informs Hatecraft that Zuula is showing the townsfolk his diary, which, as is the case in so many naive works of fiction, instantly dispels their belief in his cult:
Hatecraft’s mouth snapped shut. He looked up at the wooden ceiling above, noting for the first time the creaking of footsteps on the church floor above. Many footsteps. And just audible above them, a low, ugly muttering. The sort of muttering simple rural fisherfolk do when they find out that their savior and prophet is just a pathetic basement-dwelling ‘nice guy’ with some kinks involving calamari.
There’s two problems here. The first is the aforementioned naivete. Cultural practices do not actually spring from their moral or religious justifications. That actually goes the other way, the moral and religious justifications exist to justify the importance of the cultural practice (depending on how dickish the culture is, perhaps also to justify making the practice mandatory). If people like their rituals and you explain to them that their justifications for those rituals are clearly filthy lies, they will be super pissed at you, because they’ll take it as an attack on the ritual, which is what they actually cared about.
The second problem is that the ‘nice guy’ label is being thrown out apropos of pretty much absolutely nothing? What about Hatecraft’s behavior has anything in common with someone who’s polite and helpful to women only in hopes of being rewarded with sex, and who becomes angry and resentful when that doesn’t happen? This is basically just random application of vaguely related shaming tactics, and it’s coming across as really mean-spirited. And Threadbare really doesn’t have the high ground on the issue of racism to begin with, considering its depiction of Afro-Caribbean people and all, so trying to draw a direct line from “wrote racist things” to “pathetic, hateful loser in all ways” is pretty self-condemning. Especially since, in the ensuing fracas between Hatecraft and our heroes, the fishman is a villain.
Threadbare’s stunning record on racism so far is 1) depicting Afro-Caribbean culture as inherently non-human and also psychopathically anti-social, and 2) repurposing Lovecraft’s miscegenation metaphor as a dumb brute who does whatever his exploitative white master tells him to despite there not actually being massive and massively racist institutions to back Hatecraft up. Hatecraft is seriously just a dude, there’s no racist police or judges or anything to bring down on the fishman should said fishman tell Hatecraft to go pound sand. But the fishman’s an obedient lackey anyway, and it’s not like he’s even treated as particularly a victim in all this. Threadbare’s party straight up murders him without offering mercy or making any effort to convince him to change sides. And they offer Hatecraft a chance to surrender! Threadbare and his team have 100% bought into Hatecraft’s racist hierarchy, and so has the (unnamed!) fishman. And when Threadbare unlocks a new “swinger” skill, we get this charming passage:
Threadbare stared [at the level up notifications], sitting down hard. “My goodness. Wait, swinger? Is swinging good?”
The women around the fishman’s corpse cried harder, for some reason. “This is neither the time nor the place, okay?” Marva said.
It really doesn’t help that this book was released like a month after the Shape of Water.
But wait, it gets worse! After killing him, Threadbare speaks with the fast-fading spirit of the fishman:
“You’re not Hatecraft.” Threadbare frowned.
“Who? Oh, the weird little mean guy? Naw, dude, naw.”
On the bright side, the fishman is at least speaking. On the downside, he’s being coded African American, so if the overt references to Shadow Over Innsmouth weren’t enough to make the racism analogy clear, this pretty much seals it.
But hey, maybe the fishman (still unnamed!) has actual reasons for doing what Hatecraft told him to?
“Why did you help the evil cultist hurt all these people?” Fluffbear said.
“Was that what he was doing? Didn’t look like it to me,” The fishman said, poking his head up from the water where he’d been resting his ectoplasm. “It was hard to tell with that guy. He was intense. And I never learned the language, so I didn’t really know what his deal was.”
Nope. Unable to understand the white man, the African fish apparently just defaults to fucking servitude.
We’re still not done yet! Remember how earlier the narrative went out of its way to make it extremely explicit that the sex ritual was consensual?
“So why you making fish babies?” Zuula asked. “You horny or somet’ing?”
“Gh. Yuk. Don’t remind me.” The fishman sighed. “That little weird dude insisted I get it on with half this freaking village. Those, urk, smooth bodies, and ulp, hair everywhere… Blrp… mf. Man, I guess I’m glad ghosts can’t vomit but I kind of want to, y’know? At least he started letting me have a bag I could put over their heads. I think he convinced them it was part of a ritual or something. And he kept summoning tentacles and things while I was trying to get it over with. Some messed up stuff, I tell you.”