Lovecraft Country (2020)
Take back your legacy
One of the main things you have to remember about horror icon H.P. Lovecraft is that he was crazy racist.
Not just “for his time,” although Lovecraft’s life spanned a period — 1890 to 1937 — not especially known for its progressive views on ethnicity. He was a dyed-in-the-wool xenophobe and even his pulp contemporaries, who, to a man, banged out stories where chiseled white saviors beat back ravening African hordes or outwitted scheming oriental sorcerers on the reg, thought he poured it on a bit thick with the whole racism thing. Lovecraft’s work is fantastic, but if you wanted to argue that, not particularly far under the surface, his stories were all about his fears of foreigners, women, and seafood, well, I reckon that thesis would stand interrogation.
What’s been interesting in recent years is seeing creators — often creators of color — grapple with Lovecraft’s legacy, using his body of work as a way to unpack issues of race and racism. Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom retells Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook from the point of view of a Harlem street musician, highlighting and undermining the original work’s racist assumptions (it’s one of the really bad ones, folks). Chris Spivey’s superb roleplaying sourcebook, Harlem Unbound for The Call of Cthulhu RPG, sets the players on the hunt for monsters and cultists during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, forcing us to confront racism head-on (to varying degrees — there’s a racism meter which is both a neat mechanic and a sobering reminder that the bad old days were twice as bad and not nearly as old as we might like to pretend). And then there’s Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country and the subsequent HBO TV series, both a kind of linked-anthology — the television version being ratcheted together more tightly than the literary — that throws Lovecraftian mysticism and horror into Jim Crow America in the 1950s.
Created for the screen by Misha Green, Underground (2016-17), and produced under the aegis of Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, Lovecraft Country is a concerted attempt to subvert, invert and “colorize” the Lovecraft canon. Present are the indescribable monsters, unspeakable cults, chthonic gods, and alien vistas, but gone are Lovecraft’s meek, bookish, lily-white doomed protagonists. Lovecraft Country’s heroes certainly aren’t white, and while some of them may be doomed, they’re not Capital D Doomed in the specific Lovecraftian sense; if the abyss stares back, they give it a smack. One of the most striking images of the entire series involves Black sports legend Jackie Robinson K.O.ing the alien god Cthulhu, H.P.’s most famous creation and mascot, with a baseball bat. It’s a dream sequence, but it’s also a statement of intent.
The dream belongs to our hero, Korean War veteran and sci-fi fan Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), who is off on a cross-country trip to find his missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), with the help of his scholarly uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance playing the character most like H.P.’s usual heroes) and childhood friend and occasional love interest Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). Zeroing in on the town of Ardham, Massachusetts (sound familiar?), they soon find themselves on the wrong side of both a racist sheriff intent on enforcing the town’s Sundown Laws and a horde of ravening shoggoths (half the fun of Lovecraft is diving deep into his mythology and lexicon, so smash that Wikipedia link and have at it). But are the shoggoths really a threat? Who lives in that crumbling mansion? What does that cult want with Atticus? What if Montrose doesn’t want to be found? And so on.
Indeed, Lovecraft Country packs a lot into its ten episodes, but where Lovecraft’s work feels dense, the series feels bloated and stuffed, as though it’s struggling to fit in everything it wants to. Perhaps that’s an artifact of its literary source, which is in form more anthology than novel, and so we get a series which, although it has a season arc, is more episodic than we’re used to these days. Still, it means that your personal preferred pulp subgenre is probably going to get an airing in some form or another some season or another (presuming we get further seasons). Want a haunted house story? You get one. Jamesian ghost story? Here you go. Indy Jones-style tomb raiding? We have it in stock.
The overarching plot concerns a power struggle within a secret occult society to which Atticus, by dint of blood, is owed membership. But that’s really just there to allow Green and team to look at pulp genre tropes through the eyes of marginalized: people of color, women, the LGBTI+ community, and sometimes all three in one character (the series’ intersectionality bona fides are pretty good). So, while the show sometimes feels less than the sum of its parts, the parts are so interesting and carefully deployed that it’s almost beside the point. The series is steeped in African American history and culture, touching on Green Books, the lynching of Emmett Till, the Tulsa Massacre, the deep roots and long-looming shadow of chattel slavery, and more. In weaving these concerns through the marrow of a commercial supernatural thriller that takes pains to highlight its connection to the whole gamut, more or less, of 20th century popular pulp, Green forces us to consider the viewpoints and assumptions inherent in that body of work, and also what voices might be absent.
Or perhaps you’re just here for the body horror and the crawling chaos, and that’s fine too — there’s plenty on offer. Having said that, it sometimes feels as though Lovecraft Country’s thematic concerns and its narrative mechanics aren’t as well integrated as they could be. You’re either marveling at a rather horrific re-imagining of Korea’s kumiho none-tailed fox spirit or noting how this is a sly commentary on both the Mata Hari and Florence Nightingale stereotypes of women in wartime, but you’re not quite doing both simultaneously, and really that’s the design goal here: to have the subtext and text play off each other in perfect counterpoint. The story is romping along and then pauses to say, “And by the way, queerness” or “Consider gender identity”— although, to be fair, how that latter theme is worked winds up pretty good after a clunky reveal. To be clear, this criticism isn’t a call for less presentation or fewer attempts at progressive, revisionist subtext, rather an observation that a tighter handle on how these elements are used could have yielded better results.
Which is not to say the actual results at hand aren’t worth your time; Lovecraft Country is a hoot, and while real rusted-on Lovecraft purists (or Puritans?) might balk, screw those guys — judging by some of the FB groups I’ve quit over the years, they’re closet Nazis for the most part. If spooky ol’ Howard’s oeuvre is to remain relevant and vital and engaging, it needs to be interrogated and reassessed in intelligent, fun, and challenging ways, and Lovecraft Country does all of that.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson