So if Lovecraftian cults ever launched a crusade, what would it look like? In CREATURES OF WANT AND RUIN by Molly Tanzer, the answer — logical given Lovecraft’s own loathing of immigrants — is that they’d preach against immigrants ruining society with their filthy unAmerican immigrant ways (yes, this could also be seen as relevant to current politics). The result is an offbeat variation on Lovecraftian horror (the horror comes off primarily as variation on Color Out of Space though I don’t know that was actually Tanzer’s inspiration); it’s also a good example of how to write women in a historical fantasy who don’t conform to their era’s rules.
The story is set on Long Island in the 1920s or possibly early 1930s (seriously, would it have killed Tanzer to set a definite date? I hate having to guess!). Ellie is a local, selling moonshine brewed a local woman to pay for her brother to go to college and medical school. Fin is a socialite vacationing with her husband and friends on Long Island for the summer. Hunter, a local preacher, has made a pact with a demon (this is the second of three novels set in Tanzer’s world of demons and summoners) which he believes will purge Long Island of immigrants and restore the good old days; suffice to say, this is not the demon’s agenda.
As I’ve mentioned before, historical fantasies showing women resisting sexism often fall flat for me. Fin and Ellie work. They’re opposed to the status quo, but their opposition is active, not just simply wishing they could challenge gender norms. That works much better.
Ellie’s become the breadwinner in her family since her father came back from the war with an injury and PTSD. She’s polyamorous and currently involved with a guy who gets off on her sleeping with other men. It’s all presented as a choice, not the result of anyone being messed up. To Hunter, and to Ellie’s father once he joins the crusade, she’s the embodiment of the problems caused by drink and by rebellious women refusing to fulfill their subordinate role.
Fin’s even more radical. A one-time birth control activist (which would have been a radical thing back then) she’s now married and comfortable, and she’s coming to hate it. When the problems on Long Island become obvious, her friends want to sail off to Europe; Fin wants to stay and fight and does so.
It’s a well-done job. I look forward to reading more by Tanzer down the road.
#SFWApro. Cover by Eduardo Recife, all rights to image remain with current holder.