The horrors of Lovecraft's stories that plague and destroy his protagonists pale in comparison to the horrors that black folx in America face every day. The Ghouls are discussing the 2016 anthology, Lovecraft Country about black people in 1954 Jim Crow America and what horror really looks like to POC.
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Hello Ghoul Scouts, friends and fellow geeks! The world is a little crazy outside. We’ve been cooped up for quite some time and we thought we’d seen the most of the damage that 2020 could give us with COVID 19. Then news broke about Ahmaud Arbery, and it broke me. It reminded me of the true face of our American world. I was sad and angry and tired. So we decided to record some minisodes to ease our hearts. Because the world outside was too harsh and we were afraid of a pandemic (we’re both moving after living together for 4 years). It’s been a lot, so we thought we were owed some fun. But then more news, this time of George Floyd. And then the protests, a revolution. A civil rights movement unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I think, with all 50 states having protests - bigger than anyone has ever seen. And so, we’re going to have a minisode. But it's not just fun and games. We are a media-analysis podcast. We are here to educate and inform. So please, put on your media-analysis glasses and join us on this discussion about the novel/anthology, Lovecraft Country.
Lovecraft Country has been adapted for the screen and will air on HBO starting in August 2020. It is produced by one of our favorite guys, Jordan Peele the incredibly talented social-horror director of Get Out and Us. He also produced the new Candy Man, did not direct - remember that is Nia DaCosta! The showrunner for the show is Misha Green (Underground). It is starring faces such as Michael Kenneth Williams (HBO’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) as Atticus’ father, Montrose Freeman and Courtney B. Vance (HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, American Crime Story) as Atticus’ uncle George Freeman. Atticus himself will be played by Jonathan Majors (When We Rise) and there’s Jurnee Smollett (HBO’s True Blood, Underground, Friday Night Lights) as Letitia “Leti” Lewis.
I want to start by again saying that we at the Ghouls do not love the man Lovecraft, he was racist, antisemetic and all around an awful man. We’ve covered him. His work is foundational to the horror genre and so for that, we appreciate the work that came out of it. But we in no way, endorse that man. Just as we also do not love Edgar Allan Poe, it would be foolish to discount his impact on this genre. So keep that in mind because what is important about the novel, Lovecraft Country is that it shows that even in the face of cosmic, mind-melting, ominous and otherworldly evils - racism, the hatred from our fellow man, the institutional degradation of an entire culture and group of people, is still the scariest thing we can encounter.
So, this book is an anthology of stories featuring these characters and in each one of them there is something supernatural and spooky happening. However, in each one - the reader finds that the real horrors are racism and the dangers of living while black in 1950s Jim Crow America.
We’re about to enter into SPOILER CENTRAL! I am going to do my best to not spoil too much. However the plots of each of these stories is like...the whole point of this episode so, yeah spoilers.
I want to focus on a few of the stories but not all of them. In fact, I’ll be skipping over one of my favorite ones, so you should still read it. Or definitely watch it in August. Each of these stories is saturated with lovecraftian and horror tropes only to completely subvert and diminish the severity of these “horrors” with real social horrors.
So, as mentioned this book starts by following Atticus, named for Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, who is searching for his missing father, Montrose, who had discovered a family secret that ties them to a culty-lovecraftian white family of science wizards.
I’ll start with one of the scariest parts of this book. Atticus and company are heading to a town in Massachusetts (Lovecraft often features New England in his tales). Atticus knows they're heading into a weird situation as this is the last known whereabouts of his father and there is something very culty going on, as is the way with Lovecraftian content. However, despite that - the real horror comes from the fact that they have to travel through a Sundown town. If you’re unfamiliar with what a Sundown Town is because our American education system continues to fail us - they were all-white municipalities or neighborhoods in the United States that practiced a form of segregation by excluding non-whites via some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, and violence. In other words, incredibly dangerous areas for POC. Atticus and co know this because their family writes the Safe Negro Travel Guide, or what was historically known as, The Negro Motorist Green Book. This was a book that helped guide black Americans in their travels during the turbulent Jim Crow era and notified them of places that were safe to dine, sleep, stop for gas, and even simply drive through. This town was marked unsafe so they waited until sundown and traveled through the town with their headlights off, trying to avoid attention by authorities or townsfolk. They get pretty far, almost to the enchanting cult town before they see the red and blue lights from the police vehicle and are pulled over.
It's terrifying. My blood was cold and I was terrified as I read it. It seemed so certain that nothing good could happen and were it not for the lovecraftian beast in the woods, our heroes would be dead. Bart Bishop of litreactor.com in his article, Horror While Black: Race in Matt Ruff's 'Lovecraft Country' parses out this part of the book, “The next few moments unfolded with a grim familiarity: They were ordered from the car; struck, screamed at; searched; struck again; and finally marched to the back of the Packard and made to sit on the rear bumper with their hands behind their heads and their feet crossed in front of them.” They’re accused of being burglars and car thieves, but luckily as they’re marched into the woods a beast, what Atticus had earlier joked was a “shoggoth,” intervenes. Bishop goes on to compare this interaction to the death of Philando Castille.
But what I found from this interaction was the theme of this book. There’s a creepy, unknown monster of darkness in the woods but these folx braved it because the monster they know, these law enforcement officers, are so much more frightening.
There’s another story following a young boy, Horace, who finds himself the target of these sinister dolls. I won’t explain everything that happens but at the Apex of this terror - the monster has taken the form of a police officer. Horace, terrified of the doll haunting him and despite his instincts, runs to this officer for help, only to be met with more terror and violence. Reminds me of the Bedeviled film with the black boy running to the police officer who turned out to be Mr. Bedevil. It begs the question, who can POC run to? People keep asking - if we defund the police then who can you call when there’s trouble -- well, right now many POC communities ask themselves that very question.
Matt Ruff also touches on internal hate and colorism. There’s a story of a woman, Ruby - sister of Leti, who uses magic to turn into a white woman. https://litreactor.com/columns/horror-while-black-race-in-matt-ruffs-lovecraft-country First of all, the chapter is entitled “Jekyll in Hyde Park” and is accompanied by a provocative quote from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.” That’s a potent word choice, and it also hints at Ruby’s transformation as a negative.
Bishop explains, “It must be considered what Ruff is trying to say here. He is a white man, after all, and seems to be addressing his privilege throughout the entire book. His characters run the gamut of personality, so one can’t accuse Atticus of “acting white” because he reads science fiction, when Montrose is portrayed sympathetically as a proud black man. Letitia, meanwhile, doesn’t give up on her house, even going so far as to tame the racist old ghost that inhabits it. So in a book that engages so heavily with race, and flips Lovecraft’s own generalizations about black people as being savage and uneducated on their heads, what does it mean that Ruby becomes Hillary and is happier for it?”
One of the most impactful stories I found was about the main Cultist’s son, Henry Winthrop. Henry fell in love with their maid who was a black woman. So they fled the cult town and tried to find a new home. They had a son and lived in a white neighborhood. Henry’s mother helped him find a spell that would protect him from his father’s cult “scientists”. However, he missed a glaring problem with this. In that, the worst threat was not his father’s men with their supernatural, otherworldly wizard powers but rather the town that didn’t accept a mixed race family which ultimately brings their doom. As a white man, of privilege and never truly knowing the dangers that black folx have to live with, he missed the real danger and it cost him his family and his life.
I could go on and on and on about this book and the many many parallels. Matt Ruff does a phenomenal job blending the real and extraordinary. Each name, each chapter, each monster - is so real and affecting. I am more than excited to watch this show.
What Ruff does so well is show the strength of these characters - two stories I skipped in my spoiler town feature strong, black women who stare in the face of impossibility and danger. They are firm in their beliefs and understandings of the world. Horrors that make otherwise weak characters in lovecraft novels mind’s melt or hearts explode (whatever absurd fate he Shoggoths or Yog goggoths bring about), merely puzzle these black women. They are instead intrigued and stubborn, refusing to budge because to them - this is nothing. For a black person in Jim Crow America and even today, the horrors of everyday life builds up a strength that those who aren’t even aware of the true face of the world could never have. We are like Henry, fools who arm themselves against things that in reality don’t matter and are surprised when reality comes knocking.
Media from this week's episode:
Lovecraft Country Writer: Matt Ruff
Summary by Goodreads: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy.
Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia.