“I do love them,” George agreed. “But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”
“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”
“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”
H.P Lovecraft was one of the masters of twentieth-century horror.
He was also, to be blunt, a huge fucking racist.
We sometimes tend to let the authors of past decades off the hook with pat excuses like, “Well, he was just a product of his time,” but Lovecraft’s racism goes way beyond that. It was extreme even for America in the 1920’s, and it is so bound up in every aspect of his writing it is impossible to ignore. His stories are loaded with sinister foreigners and bestial “half breeds,” and many of the fears and anxieties he explores are rooted in an intense xenophobia and obsession with racial purity. That’s why just last year the World Fantasy Awards changed their trophy from a bust of Lovecraft. For anyone–like me–who reads and enjoys Lovecraft, this fundamental racism is a serious issue.
That’s why Lovecraft Country, the new novel by Matt Ruff, feels so fresh and important. It takes a hard look at the racism of Lovecraft’s stories, but nevertheless finds something worthwhile in them. Then it uses those same stories, themes, and ideas as a way of talking about race and racism in the United States.
The story centers on two black families living in Chicago in 1954. When Atticus Turner’s father disappears, his search takes him to a mysterious town controlled a very Lovecraftian cult, “the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn.” From here, the story expands to explore how the cult touches the lives of Atticus’ friends and family, and includes ghosts, haunted houses, interdimensional travel, magic potions, and possessed dolls. Each chapter focuses on a separate character, and they range from frightening to funny, adventurous to thought-provoking.
Using Lovecraft’s ideas and motifs to talk about black lives under Jim Crow seems like a strange choice. However, in Ruff’s hands this combination works surprisingly well. After all, the central theme of Lovecraft’s writing is “cosmic horror”: the idea that we are trapped in a vast unfeeling universe, the victim of forces we cannot control or even understand. This is not so different from the daily life of many African Americans in the 1950’s. In fact, when a cult leader warns Atticus and his friends that they are doomed to be hounded and persecuted, to never know moment’s peace or safety, they simply laugh at him. Atticus responds, “What is it you’re trying to scare me with? You think I don’t know what country I live in? I know. We all do. We always have. You’re the one who doesn’t understand.”
Atticus’ meaning is clear: they are already living in Lovecraft Country. America is Lovecraft Country. Racism, segregation, and hate turn life into a horror story, and the only way to understand it is through the language of horror. This is what makes Lovecraft Country so special: it revitalizes Lovecraftian horror by making it relevant, using supernatural evil as a way of talking about more prosaic everyday evils. In doing so, it allows us to use Lovecraft’s deeply racist stories as tools for thinking critically about race.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars