With Peele of Key & Peele/Get Out fame creating an HBO exclusive miniseries based off Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft country, we decided it is a great opportunity to review the book here. Lovecraft Country follows the adventures of a black family from Chicago during the height of Jim Crow through an interconnected anthology, with each story building on the previous and working together beautifully. In the book, Lovecraft himself is a known author, so we depart from the standard Mythos that we see in most Cthulhu Mythos stories, akin to the way Charles Stross openly mocks Lovecraft in his short story Equoid. That said, however, the stories are in fact quite Lovecraftian.
Lovecraft’s writing is steeped in a constant miasma of paranoia; is the man who just sold you a pear just some fruit monger supporting his family? Or is he part of a larger conspiracy and is lulling you to a sense of security to do you harm. This fanciful constant dread is something that permeates all of Howard Lovecraft’s universe, with the dread being validated later on in the story with squamous tentacles and rugose abominations. The novel twist Lovecraft Country brings is the world of Jim Crow. With Jim Crow, the fear and apprehension and mistrust are in fact well earned and grounded in reality. It’s not simply paranoid delusion, but rather a very real part of everyday life. The motel clerk who tells you that there’s no vacancy may *not* be a member of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, but may very well be a member of the Klu Klux Klan or at least a supporter thereof. This oppressive dread and fear permeates the book giving it a very Lovecraftian vibe, but with the added spike of being quite and very real.
All this is not to say that the ingrained racism of the era was the ONLY source of horror. There is in fact a black magic cult with connections all over the country, ghosts, forbidden tomes and interdimensional travel to the stars. All standard fare of the genre, so it will do well for readers who like a taste of the eldritch and stygian in their horror.
The story revolves around the friends and family of young Atticus Turner, freshly returned from fighting in the Korean War. An avid science fiction reader he was traveling north to Chicago from Florida at the behest of his estranged father. The relationship between Atticus and his father is a very interesting one; his father’s world is consumed by outrage over the injustice and misappropriation of his people, whilst Atticus, still not dismissive of it himself, tries to look past this sad state of affairs and look towards the good parts of life. Flashbacks show Atticus reading Lovecraft in his youth, and his father protesting against it. When talking about At the Mountains of Madness, his father refers to “The Elder Klansmen”, and asking “Yeah, but they’re white aren’t they”, to which Atticus replies that they’re barrel shaped, winged and grey, “Yeah, but they’re light grey right?”. This exchange especially struck a chord with me, on one hand you have people unfamiliar with the subject matter casting aspersions at it. If they had a modicum of respect for the material they would at least read it and make their critiques from a place of experience having read the story or stories they’re so against, but also it raises the question for someone dealing with Jim Crow every day, why SHOULD they have so much as a sliver of respect for the author of “On the Creation of Niggers”, which is also brought up in the story.
The first story in the anthology involves Atticus returning to Chicago and his family, both blood and extended, and their business of the Negro Travel Guide. The Negro Travel Guide is based off the real life “The Negro Motorist Green Book”. Both books inform the black motorist of where they can lodge, eat, get fuel and vehicle service in America, as well as what places to avoid. Such a book was vital during the time period as stopping for a flat tire in the wrong parts of the country could have been a fatal mistake in Jim Crow’s America. Atticus discovers that his father has gone off to Ardham (first misread as Arkham) Massachusetts on the behest of some rather rich white men. In true Lovecraft fashion, Atticus learns of his hidden and forgotten ancestry and the dark secrets. Atticus and company barely escape with their lives.
Dreams of the Which House
The story continues on with one of Atticus’s friends inheriting a small sum of money from her late father and purchasing a dilapidated mansion under land contract, allowing her to sublet rooms to others from south Chicago, but at the same time she’s unable to modify the house including removing the giant nude statue of the goddess Hecate that adorns the foyer. The house, it turns out, is in fact haunted by the ghost of a racist sorcerer. Eventually, as the white neighbors lay siege to the house with acts of vandalism and attempted arson, the ghost and the new occupants come to an arrangement and learn to live together.
This tale involves the recovery of a book of forbidden lore from a transdimensional booby trapped room with gravity and geometry suspended. The problem solving and resolution in this tale make for quite a fun read.
Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe
The next tale concerns a woman employed by the Negro Travel Guide with a love of Astronomy. She discovers an observatory owned by the ghost of the previous story and goes a step further by discovering a portal to another world. There she talks to an abandoned victim of the sorcerer left on the planet to die by the late sorcerer.
Jekyll in Hyde Park
Young Ruby, who accompanied Atticus on his travels in “Lovecraft Country” is hired as a personal assistant by the leader of the natural philosophers. Their relationship quickly goes beyond the professional and she is granted a magic potion. This potion turns her into a red haired caucasian woman. At first she is enthralled at the novelty of the juxtaposition of being assumed innocent and not instantly mistrusted by the police, but quickly begins to feel sick to her stomach realizing that she is herself guilty of many of the sins she bore all the years of her life living as a black woman.
The Narrow House
Still questing for more arcane lore, we find Atticus and his father venturing to find a lost member of the order of sorcerers (called natural philosophers) only to find him and his family dead at the hands of a lynching. Being an accomplished natural philosopher, the family lives on vampirically living off the experiences of the living… ghosts living in a shadow out of time.
Horace and the Devil Doll
Returning from the extraordinary, we find ourselves in the mundanity of the daily life for our heroes. We follow young Horace and his adventures reading comic books and playing games. One of his new toys however, is in fact cursed and begins to hurt the children and cause trouble.
The Mark of Cain
In our final story, we find out about the ritual marks that grant the immunity discussed earlier in the book. All the stories are connected and build off each other, weaving a complex and intricate mythos in of itself. Using what we have learned from the mechanics of the sorcery so far, we learn how to finally fight back against the threat of the league of sorcerers and turn their own magic against them.
All and all I can not recommend this book high enough and I wait with baited breath for the upcoming HBO series.