Catching the scent of "Bitter Perfume"

In February 2014, Silvia Moreno-Garcia announced that she and Paula R. Stiles would edit She Walks in Shadows, the first-ever anthology of Lovecraftian fiction with only female creators and concentrating on female characters. "The first?" I thought. Lovecraft himself worked with Hazel Heald and Zealia Brown Reed Bishop. The idea that female writers hadn't kept spinning the thread of Lovecraftian fiction seemed strange—not in an eldritch way, but just odd.

Assertions that women didn't write Lovecraftian are wrong not in the way of non-Euclidean geometry, but in the factually incorrect way. At Innsmouth Free Press, Silvia had edited and published no small amount of Lovecraftian fiction, much of it by women. Ellen Datlow's Lovecraft's Monsters anthology, just a few months from publication at that time, featured stories by Caitlín R. Kiernan, Gemma Files, and Elizabeth Bear, among others. This is hardly a complete list.

The problem wasn't that women weren't writing Lovecraftian. The problem was that the fact was slipping past the public consciousness.

As a writer who wanted to contribute to the anthology, I had another problem: By the time I learned of the anthology—only a day or so in, possibly less—all the famous female characters penned by Lovecraft were taken. I flipped through my favorite stories, trying to find some small character who could support a story of her own. "The Music of Erich Zann"? No women. "Pickman's Model"? No women. Then...wait, wasn't there a landlady in "Cool Air"?

Indeed there is. Though saddled with an overly phonetic Spanish accent and described as "slatternly" and "almost bearded," Mrs. Herrero made an impression on me. An immigrant and a widow with a young son, she ran a boarding house. It couldn't have been easy work, cooking and cleaning for a house full of strangers—at least one of them disdainful—but she got by. I admired her grit, and I asked Silvia if I could write about Mrs. Herrero.

Silvia agreed to read the story, but she suggested that a different setting would be welcome. It needn't be a she-said version of "Cool Air." I started thinking about Mrs. Herrero and her young son, and what they'd be like in later decades. I thought of the coldest place I've ever lived, and the smells in Dr. Muñoz's room,  and the story came together.

In addition to my usual beta readers, I had some extra help. Alex Cocilova gave useful advice on refrigeration technology, and Darin Kerr checked the vernacular and the setting. I thank them all.

"Bitter Perfume" is in She Walks in Shadows, available as an eBook ($6) and a printed volume $15) from Innsmouth Free Press.