The “real monster is racism” trope gets an energetic re-imagining in this pulpy occult historical
The title of Lovecraft Country is a bit misleading. H.P. Lovecraft’s troubling racism and its impact on horror and science-fiction fans, particularly African-Americans, does play a part in the narrative. However, it’s not the core of this novel. Rather, it’s the difficulties and dangers of being Black in America. These very real horrors permeate everyday life for the novel’s characters. With its 1950s setting, such a theme might sound obvious, but as we’re seeing with other historic evils, it’s still relevant. The story’s execution is brilliant with the end result a lively, fun and impactful read.
Historical Setting: 1954-55 Chicago, with detours to New England, Wisconsin and Outer Space
Appearances by Historical Personalities: None
Historical Events Covered: 1921 Tulsa massacre is vividly experienced through flashbacks,
Timely Dialogue: “…a doddering senior whom Atticus had nicknamed Preston Brooks for the way he brandished his cane…”
Preston Brooks: A U.S. congressman of the 1850s whose most famous act was severely beating an abolitionist senator on the floor of the Senate during debate on slavery. If he’d been an anti-slavery, we might view him as merely a curmudgeon. But he was pro-slavery, so he was just a racist a**hole.
The Best Thing I Learned: There is an organization known as the Prince Hall Freemasons that’s still going strong today. I’ll let the novel’s protagonist, Atticus Turner, explain:
Prince Hall was an abolitionist who lived in Boston at the time of the Revolution. He joined the Massachusetts militia to help fight for independence. And he wanted to join the local Freemasons, but because he was a colored man, they wouldn’t let him in. So he and a group of other freedmen formed their own Masonic lodge.
Which Historical Personality Is This Book? The life story of Martin Delany would fit right in with the heroes of this novel. Born to slaves who’d bought their freedom, he worked tirelessly to get an education and became something of a Renaissance man. He was a writer, doctor and politician. He also became the first African-American officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Particularly relevant to Lovecraft Country, his writing dealt with freemasonry and speculative fiction.
Black veteran and sci-fi fan Atticus Turner returns to Chicago from a work trip to find his father missing. Following the trail entangles him with an occult society and the magic they traffic in. With the help of his plucky friends and neighbours, Atticus fights back against supernatural forces, all the while fighting the daily battle that is life in 1950s America for people of colour.
I take particular joy at the seamless integration of disparate themes. [Dropping in a gratuitous reference to Teen Titans Go to the Movies, which combined its comedy and superhero stories to brilliant effect.] Lovecraft Country does the same trick to perfection. Over an episodic series of stories, elements of occult horror go hand in hand with immersive details of racial discrimination and suffering.
That’s not to say this is a downbeat novel. Ruff’s storytelling is full of irony and sly humour. The story moves along at a spirited pace that kept revealing just enough of the ongoing mysteries, while raising tantalizing new questions. The protagonist for each story is different, each with their own unique backstory and motivation. They are fantastically interesting and I couldn’t help cheering for each one as they lived as the heroes of their own stories. The novel has the feel, at times, of a heist movie. Each member of the team runs afoul of the occult society, all leading up to a satisfying finale.
The novel’s horror is not necessarily of the cosmic, Lovecraftian kind. But there is an essential similarity. Whereas in Lovecraft’s work, humans are insignificant, their lives destroyed at the whim of ancient alien gods, African-Americans feel like they are the insignificant ones who could so easily be destroyed by White America. In Lovecraft it often drives the protagonists insane. In Lovecraft Country, it’s just Tuesday.
Other Reactions to Lovecraft Country
Because author Matt Ruff is white, readers need to ponder whether he tells the story of Black protagonists with the right sensitivity and whether he might be taking opportunities away from African-American authors. This isn’t something I’m qualified to fully address.
Ruff has made an effort to highlight a Black author of similar work: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle. I will say in its favour that Lovecraft Country really made me get into the mindset of dealing with daily discrimination in the 1950s. It never papers over how difficult it was to be Black in America.The novel’s whole genesis comes from an actual travel guide printed at the time that would advise Black travellers how to survive on road trips. Though set half a century ago, the parallels to the present are obvious. And that, I think, is to the novel’s credit.
Lovecraft Country gets a seal of approval from Get Out‘s Jordan Peele, who is executive producing a TV adaption of the novel for HBO. Misha Green, of Underground will be showrunner. With that kind of pedigree, this is easily my most anticipated book adaptation since Game of Thrones!
- Well-researched period details are poignant reminders of racism’s impact throughout American history
- The occult horror of the story meshed perfectly with message of the novel
- A fantastic ensemble of well-developed characters
- Despite the title, it doesn’t really deal with Lovecraftian horrors
- The primary antagonist didn’t seem all that bad compared to everyone else the heroes dealt with on a regular basis, but maybe that was the point
Lovecraft Country pushed all the right buttons for me, with its mix of occult horror and an underrepresented viewpoint from history. But above all, it’s packaged in a fun, riveting story with deeply drawn characters. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait for the TV show!
★★★★★ (of out 5)