H.P. Source? Lovecraft Country Reviewed

Misha Green’s thrilling adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, Lovecraft Country could hardly have arrived at a more apposite moment, finds Sean Kitching. *Contains mild spoilers*

Returning home to Chicago in search of his missing father, Montrose, 22-year-old army veteran Atticus Freeman sets out on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his uncle George and childhood friend Letitia Lewis.

Atticus is a fan of pulp science-fiction and horror, even though he’s aware of its obvious shortcomings. As he disembarks from a bus and helps a woman with her luggage, she asks what he was reading during the trip. It’s an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord Of Mars book, he explains, Carter being an ex-confederate officer.

“You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that!” the woman replies. Atticus acknowledges the validity of the comment, before adding: “Stories are like people, they ain’t perfect. You try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.”

Atticus visits his uncle George, publisher of the The Safe Negro Travel Guide (based on Victor H. Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book) and picks up a H.P. Lovecraft book, noting that his father made him memorise Lovecraft’s repellant poem ‘On The Creation Of N***\s’ when he caught him reading his stories.

Despite the clear racist sentiment (and frankly extremely poor level of ‘artistry’) of the poem, Atticus is not entirely put off Lovecraft’s work and hence it’s street smart and book smart son who goes in search of his father, encountering horrors of a human and inhuman kind along the way.

Staying relatively faithful to Matt Ruff’s book, whilst adding a number of interesting touches of her own, Misha Green takes the viewer on a wild ride that veers all over the map of Weird Tales-style genre-fiction motifs, including warring factions of white sorcerers, many-eyed Lovecraftian demons, haunted houses and shape (and colour) shifting potions.

Time and again, Atticus and his friends and family are saved by their knowledge of the pulp fiction universe in which they have found themselves. A quote from uncle George’s favourite book (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), leads to the realisation that attacking creatures are sensitive to light.

When searching for an item in the crypt beneath a museum, Atticus muses: “If we follow the logic of adventure novels…” The ways in which evil can be combatted in horror stories always implies a dialogue – an understanding and utilisation of the power of symbols.

The show looks fantastic and is brilliantly acted, with Jonathan Majors’ and Jurnee Smollett’s Atticus and Letitia being the obvious standout performances. If it also seems a little chaotic at times, its fast forward momentum ensures that it is worth the viewer’s time and ongoing suspension of disbelief.

Ruff’s book is broken into chapters that initially seem to be only loosely connected, but which come together over time and this is a large part of its appeal. Although critics have only been given access to the first five of ten episodes and it remains to be seen how well the individual stories will gel as the series progresses, the show offers far too much excitement and righteous sentiment for the viewer to get too caught up in such concerns. Green’s decision to opt for an opening dream sequence that collages together several different images from the kind of pulp fiction the show draws upon, could perhaps be seen as overplaying her hand too soon, but it’s nevertheless a bold choice, as is her use of music – a selection of vintage tunes and contemporary hits, with some spoken word thrown into the mix.

That H.P. Lovecraft espoused racist and xenophobic notions is beyond debate. It could be argued that he was actually more racist than was common during his era, due to his almost neurotic level of fear and catalogue of many aversions (including to such relatively non-frightening things as sea food). This, of course, was what made him a sometimes talented (if limited to a certain style) writer of horror fiction. It also made him appear to be an emotionally stunted man-child in many respects.

Like Atticus, and many fans of his writing in real-life, I read his work in my early teens, which is probably the best time for exposure to it. Reading a Lovecraft biography more recently, I decided I’d rather stop reading than continue to familiarise myself any more with the details of his life. It was not any virulent strain of racism that made me feel this, but rather the somewhat pathetic and ill-adapted-to-life figure that he cut. None of this, I would argue, and Green and Ruff would appear to agree, renders Lovecraft’s writing entirely worthless.

Opting to directly acknowledge Lovecraft’s racism (as well as the racism of society in general), whilst placing Black American characters at the heart of its narrative, Lovecraft Country works at reclaiming a popular genre for those who for too long felt poorly represented within it. It also has immense fun inverting such clichéd horror tropes as the ‘Magical Negro’, which just as surely deserves to be consigned to the historical past as other more overtly negative forms of racial stereotyping.

Ruff himself cited Pam Noles’ essay ‘Shame’ as central to his inspiration for writing the book. Journalist and author Noles recounts her experience as a young science-fiction fan and her parents’ opposition to those books. In particular, Noles’ contrasts her excitement at reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, in which Ged and the other Archipelagans are clearly POC, with her crushing disappointment in the 2004 SciFi Channel’s adaptation, which altered that essential aspect. The history of the representation of Black Americans in the horror genre is brilliantly summarised in Xavier Neal-Burgin’s excellent documentary, Horror Noire, which makes for an interesting companion piece to Lovecraft Country. Neal-Burgin identifies several points at which the narrative began to change. George Romero’s infamous 1968 independent horror flick, Night Of The Living Dead, with Duane Jones as the heroic but ill-fated black hero. William Crain’s Blacula, Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs, Rusty Cundieff’s Tales From The Hood and of course, Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

Arriving four years after the publication of Matt Ruff’s book, Misha Green’s screen version of Lovecraft Country, like 2019s Watchmen, updates and subverts an existing narrative for purposes that could hardly be more timely. That it does so with such enormous vitality, aplomb and huge entertainment value is of enormous credit to Green and Peele and the excellent cast, who anchor the show’s more outrageous flights of fancy in solid and believable human emotions and interactions.

Lovecraft Country begins in the UK on Monday 17 August on Sky Atlantic

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today