There is an abundance of cephalopod — think squid or octopus — in horror, science fiction and fantasy, reminding us again and again the terrifying, thrilling (and usually phallic) nature of tentacles. Scarier, such creatures often have an intelligence that exceeds our own capabilities. We can trace these nightmares back beyond one of the most famous — the oft-parodied Cthulhu, by H.P Lovecraft — perhaps to the shockingly erotic 19th-century woodblock painting “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” which I won’t describe here, as this is a family newspaper.
Fortunately, a diverse group of authors are using the tentacle trope in new and interesting ways. Here’s a look at a few worth reading.
(Note: I Googled the history of tentacles in pop culture in the office, so this may be my last column. Never say I’m not committed.)
New release: “The City in the Middle of the Night,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Humans have settled on a harsh planet and created two opposing cities on the sunny side of the globe. In a caste-based city, Sophie is a timid college student in love with her roommate and best friend, the socialite Bianca. But when she gets involved in Bianca’s faux-revolutionary club, it is Sophie who gets caught and exiled to the harsh, nightside terrain outside the city. This would be a death sentence if it weren’t for the sentient alien Sophie befriends. Her relationship with this giant buglike creature with roving tentacles leads her on the path of true revolution. Anders has written a unique book, one that uses tropes found in old-school science fiction to comment on modern side effects of class structures: the hallmarks of a creature feature to explore colonization and the meaning of personhood; a typical rough-and-tumble bounty hunter crew to speak to cultural memory.
A classic: “Dawn,” by Octavia Butler
Butler’s exploration of colonialism and biodeterminism is a must-read for social sci-fi enthusiasts. “Dawn,” the first of her Lilith’s Brood series, is set hundreds of years after a nuclear war made Earth uninhabitable. A black woman named Lilith awakens on a spaceship and finds that she’s been captured by the Oankali, humanoid creatures with tentacle feelers that have a variety of sensory abilities. At first, she is disgusted and terrified, but she soon begins to bond with them as she learns what happened to humanity, and what the Oankali want from her.
Butler’s descriptions of the legitimately terrifying creatures require a reader to reach their imaginative limits. Just as Lilith — and the reader — struggles to process their alienness, she also starts to identify with them. The aliens’ musings over human biology and its contribution to society are illuminating: The most valuable thing about humanity, they argue, is a literal cancer on the species. Although the book was published in 1987, the theme of how power imbalances affect relationships is still fresh and relevant.
Critics loved it: “Circe,” by Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller’s hit take on Homer’s “Odyssey” is a departure from much of what we know from the source material. But the event that begins Circe’s path to sorcery — and exile — stays the same. When Circe falls in love with a fisherman, she turns him into a god so they can be together. But when his attentions wander to a beautiful sea nymph, Circe brews a poison to turn the object of his affection into the destructive, tentacled monster Scylla. Once exiled to the island of Aeaea, Circe is haunted by stories of Scylla’s exploits until, eventually, she must face the monster she created — and the death she has wrought.
I remain somewhat skeptical of most retold fairy tales and legends, but Miller gives Circe a compassionate eye and wry humor that transforms the whole tale. Circe’s emotional growth is as epic as any Greek ballad and reveals the natural strength of women — goddesses or mortals.
Everdeen Mason is The Washington Post’s audience editor and science-fiction and fantasy columnist.