Halloween reading: ‘Lovecraft Country’

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Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country draws its title, of course, from H. P. Lovecraft, the author whose work founded a new era in horror literature and inspired generations of books, films, games, and even music. Lovecraft’s signature water-based, rotting aesthetic and atmosphere of looming existential dread marked an explicit change from the sterile terror evoked in previous books in the genre, such as Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. However, Lovecraft’s works were steeped in blatant, vitriolic racism and bigotry. Most of his plots sought to exacerbate the disastrousness of “cross-breeding”, immigration and desegregation. Lovecraft’s racism was extreme even for his time; for instance, amongst a charmingly diverse collection of bigotries, he was also virulently anti-Semitic and expressed an open admiration for Hitler. Lovecraft’s elevated position in the science fiction and horror canons is perhaps the most audacious indicator of the genres’ historic exclusion of Black authors, characters and readers, a problem that Lovecraft Country attempts to overturn.

Lovecraft’s elevated position in the science fiction and horror canons is perhaps the most audacious indicator of the genres’ historic exclusion of Black authors, characters and readers

Set in the Jim Crow era, Lovecraft Country narrates eight interconnected episodes of an African American family’s confrontations with racism, drawing a parallel between everyday incidents of human bigotry and the overwhelming, dispassionate threat of the supernatural that was so integral to H. P. Lovecraft’s own work. However, instead of shoggoths and Old Ones, the looming threat in Lovecraft Country is white supremacy itself, embodied in a cult of warlocks who echo Lovecraft’s own racist vitriol in their pursuit of a eugenicist, Aryan world. 

The eponymous first story centres around Atticus Turner, a young veteran soldier embarking on a road trip through North America to try and track down his estranged father. His journey is constructed through the “Safe Negro Travel Guide”, a fictionalised portrayal of Victor Hugo Green’s Negro Traveller’s Green Book, which outlined where Black travellers could find vital resources and safer routes where they were less likely to be met with racist violence. On their journey, Atticus, his uncle George, and his friend Letitia encounter uncannily disturbing forces and inexplicable horrors that draw them into a dark power battle with the evil Order of the Ancient Dawn. The following seven stories shadow different members of Atticus’s extended family, each reimagining one of Lovecraft’s classic tales as a supernatural mirror of mundane racism, a far more terrifying beast. 

Atticus and George are both Black sci-fi lovers, and therefore occupy the strange state of loving a genre that doesn’t really make room for them

Lovecraft Country is an intelligent, engaging novel that manages to impart some insightful commentary on whiteness and contemporary racism in America. Notably, Ruff seeks to address the long history of exclusion and bigotry in the sci-fi scene, a space that has historically catered to white audiences and artists. Ruff has mentioned that he drew inspiration for the book from Pam Noles’s essay Shame, which detailed the difficulties and juxtaposed pain and joy of being a Black science fiction fan. Atticus and George are both Black sci-fi lovers, and therefore occupy the strange state of loving a genre “that doesn’t really make room for them, that at best ignores them and at worst insults them as a price of admittance”, as Ruff stated in an interview with Rise Up Daily. Atticus’ love of sci-fi and horror and his position as the leading protagonist lends an extremely interesting extra dimension to the novel, and is a timely call from Ruff for the diversification of fantasy literature.  It is worth noting that as a white author, Ruff’s portrayal of these narratives is approximate, and he operates at an epistemic distance from the type of story he wants to tell. I encourage readers to interrogate his depictions of racism and oppression which are, though insightful, necessarily couched in a position of privilege. However, his neat and deeply satisfying double subversion of Lovecraft’s stories and prejudices makes for fascinating reading. Read Lovecraft Country closely and critically should the opportunity arise!

Image: Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash

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