Lovecraft Country caught my eye because a series of based off of it will be premiering on HBO on August 16 of this year. The series is partially brought to us by Jordan Peele (squee!). The original novel was published in 2016 and, incredibly, was optioned for a series only a year after its publication.
What I unearthed in Lovecraft Country was high strangeness, immersive adventure, atrocities of history, and a LOT of thoughts about the horror genre’s relationship with race.
It is 1954, and young Atticus Turner has just returned as a black veteran of the Korean War. Unlike his white peers, Atticus has apparently just traded one war zone for another—he’s as much a target in white America as he was overseas.
Atticus comes home to Chicago, where his father and uncle run a travel publication agency for African Americans—a vital resource in Jim Crow America (modeled after the historic Negro Motorist Greenbook).
Atticus has a strong kinship with his uncle George, as they share a love of science fiction and horror books. They also share, of course, the unease of loving a genre that captures the imagination yet largely does not remain open enough for accepting nonwhites like them. They collect Edgar Rice Burroughs’ works yet cringe at the sprinkled racism in John Carter or Tarzan.
That unease is a part of what keeps Atticus and his father, Montrose, from having a stronger relationship. Montrose is ever of a battle-beleaguered mindset against all things related to white supremacy, and glares down any fellow people of color who seem to blend lines with the oppressor. The book highlights a scene from Atticus’s childhood, where Monstrose seems proud to watch young Atticus’s heart break when it’s revealed that the boy’s beloved author, H.P. Lovecraft, wrote the vile “On the Creation of Niggers.”
Upon returning home, Atticus discovers that his father is missing. Monstrose was last seen in the company of the mysterious Braithwhite family of Massachusetts. Because where ELSE but New England are you going to find a stupidly rich, absurdly secretive clan of white people who are totally doing dark rituals in the basement?
Soon, Atticus and his family find themselves pulled into the terrors and surreality of Lovecraft Country itself.
Thus the Turner family must fight to survive cosmic horror in addition to the every day threats and siege of being black in 1950s America.
In short: “Well, shit.”
The novel’s structure is a series of vignettes focusing on a different member of the Turner family enduring a variety of supernatural dangers and escapades. The vignettes are all tied to the same overarching plot generated by the schemes of the Braithwhites and their (also very white, also very into shady magic shit) ilk.
This book does not flinch about the absolute horror-show of Jim Crow America. Each chapter specifically references historic artefacts like eyewitness testimony from the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 or text from the Chicago Real Estate Board’s racial covenants. (Oh by the by, some jackass in our nation’s capitol is freewheeling talk of getting rid of protections against that kind of bullshit. VOTE IN NOVEMBER.)
If the core of horror is a loss of control, what greater everyday horror is there than being black in America? Author Matt Ruff hits on this concept, hard. As he said in one interview, “…the dread a Lovecraft character might feel exploring R’lyeh isn’t all that different from the dread of a black motorist passing through a sundown town after dark.”
In that way, much of white America perfectly encompasses Lovecraftian monsters: figures who have no mercy for others.
What I Loved About “Lovecraft Country”
(Yep. Yep that’s my header. Deal with it.)
Who else really, REALLY needs some book to fall into during all the nonsense going on outside? I needed that, and this book gifted me what I needed.
Fast-moving plot, great characters, ensnaring visuals, suspense and adventure, it’s all here in Lovecraft Country. The book is an interesting meld of escapism but also not-escapism, hitting on real historic racism while also literally taking you to other worlds.
The book’s structure of vignettes tied to one central plot is criticized by some, but I loved it. Partially because I suspect author Matt Ruff really likes tabletop games. The book as a whole, to me, read like a tabletop campaign’s plot made up of interwoven adventures.
Seriously, this book is like nerd catnip. You want big mansions with creepy cults in the basement? You got ‘em! You want racists getting defeated by ghosts? Got it! You want cursed dolls? You got ‘em! You want observatories with secrets in the middle of Wisconsin cornfields? Yes! They are all here in the wilds of Lovecraft Country!
The entire Turner family is unique, interesting, and compelling—a difficult feat to pull off in a large cast of characters within only 7 chapters. But you come to be enamored with brave and clever Atticus, flatly sarcastic Montrose, aspiring Hippolyta, artistic Horace, gutsy Letitia, and the rest.
This book is innovative in its concept, execution, and characters. Honestly, I usually don’t find books that are genuinely this consistently entertaining. And there are fewer works that can support a broad cast of unforgettable, unique protagonists. And even fewer have plot seemingly effortlessly interweaving horror both the fantastical and real.
Where Sh*t Got Complicated
(and this review tripled in size)
Lovecraft Country in its text and in its treatment by the horror community speaks in many layers about race and its interaction with horror’s genre, fans, and community.
All I knew about this book when I picked it up was the following: it completely meshed white supremacy/terrorism in the 1950s and Lovecraftian horror as threats against a black family.
So I picked it up at my local library and curled up with it. Picture me: white 30-something lady, ensconced in my horror lair, reading away and marking pages with post-its. Thinking: “This is perfect for my Black Horror Writers series.”
And then, idiot that I am, I bothered to actually look at the back cover with the photo of the author, Matt Ruff. …the quite white author, Matt Ruff.
Remember kids: bother to do the most basic of Google searches before making assumptions about the race/gender/etc of your author. Try to be a professional. …unlike Your Intrepid Host.
This put a whole new skepticism on the work I was reading—and with good reason. There are too many examples of white authors approaching nonwhite characters like “oh no, I got this” and failing.
And I don’t mean to say that white authors should never write about race or feature non-white protagonists. We cannot diversify content by telling everyone “stay in your predetermined lane.” But we need to be candid about all the notorious failings of white authors to write outside of their racial experience.
A good sign throughout was that there was not a single #NotAllWhitePeople character tossed in. Every white person you encounter in this book has their own agenda and does not see any of the black characters as an equal. They are not all literal mustache twirling vil-ains, but between genuine human-faced monsters there are the more mundane tones or gestures that whites reserve for when encountering people of color.
Across the board, Ruff seems to have been an active listener and enthusiastic creator when it came to writing these black characters. He has receipts. He cites two esteemed Africana Studies professors of Cornell University (Joseph Scantlebury and James Turner) as major inspirations who greatly helped him step out of his own experience. Other inspirations included Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen and Pam Noles’ essay Shame.
Lovecraft Country was published just after the World Fantasy Award (finally) (fucking) retired using H.P. Lovecraft’s bust as the trophy’s form. The mixed feelings experienced by past award winners like Nnedi Okorafor very closely mirror those described in Ruff’s black scifi-loving protagonists.
Based on interviews, particularly one with Rise Up Daily and another with The Barnes & Noble Review, Matt Ruff gives insight into his process to write beyond the ‘white gaze.’ He seems to have approached this project with a humble heart, an open mind, a dedicated empathy, and an energized spirit. I won’t regurgitate these interviews in their entirety—but I would if I could. They are strongly recommended reading.
Interestingly, Ruff says that the greatest source of concern regarding his choice to focus on nonwhite protagonists came from other white people. White people were the ones who saw the project as overly burdensome or just too hard to do well. As if nonwhite people are as strange as the otherworldly aliens that Lovecraft Country’s protagonists battle against.
Ruff makes excellent observations into why white authors don’t write nonwhite characters or do so poorly. Simply put: many white creators are uninterested and unwilling to do the necessary. When instead, stepping out of your own racial experience could be a difficult but worthy project to approach with zeal.
Frankly, Tor.com’s reviewer Alex Brown says it best: “That whole ‘write what you know’ adage has always been nonsense, but Ruff proves that here.”
To be a responsible white reviewer, I wanted to see what black reviewers thought of the piece.
But it’s primarily horror-centered media that publishes reviews of horror books. And who works/writes for those realms? Uh…white people.
Due to its content, Lovecraft Country also caught the attention of social justice centered media and bloggers. …which were also written by white people. #Choices
I don’t mean to say I couldn’t find any reviews by black reviewers. But they were hard to find and were overshadowed by articles written by white reviewers via bigger media outlets. Hell, it got obnoxious seeing white writer after white writer opine about how Ruff totally captured the black experience.
Granted: it speaks volumes that Jordan Peele and Misha Green jumped on this book to make an HBO series out of it so quickly. But it would be disingenuous to say “Well, Jordan Peele is turning this into a series, and he speaks for all black horror, so we’re good.”
Yet I genuinely couldn’t locate hardcore criticism of Matt Ruff’s book.
If anything, I just found some spare comments here and there by white people doing the eyeroll-worthy bemoaning of “meh, Lovecraft was a product of his time” or “meh, why do white people have to always look bad in media nowadays.” AKA: every holiday dinner I never wanted to attend in the first place.
Reviewers of color (ROC?) Alex Brown and Edward Austin Hall wrote absolutely glowing reviews. This book spoke to them, entertained them, and moved them.
Check out this conversation between Matt Ruff and black horror author Victor LaValle (whose work will be reviewed in an upcoming post). You’ll get to read two great creative horror-genre minds discuss Lovecraft, race, and more. They even reminisce about being students under those same Africana studies professors.
As a white reader and reviewer of horror genre hoping to make the genre more justice-oriented, I think my responsibilities are to keep listening and asking thoughtful (not defensive) questions.
But if the horror community—or the literary community in general—does not make enough room for nonwhite voices in their reviews, there will be no one to listen to and nowhere to ask questions. The lack of prominent diverse reviews about Lovecraft Country somewhat proves how far this genre still needs to go.
Get Lovecraft Country in your hands, in your Kindle, in your wherever if you are looking for a fun yet very relevant read while in lock-down.