The Monsters of ‘Lovecraft Country’ Live Among US

The gothic tales of notorious racist H.P. Lovecraft provide source material for HBO’s new show about ‘the hauntedness of Black life’

BY Ian Bourland in Critic's Guides | 11 SEP 20

If you were a weirdo growing up, seeking solace from a mediocre world in the pages of speculative fiction and fantasy, you likely stumbled upon Lovecraftian horror. The genre is named for its antisocial progenitor, H.P. Lovecraft, who, in the years following World War I, published stories about interdimensional beings, New England arcana and investigators at the end of their rope. The writing was never especially good – Lovecraft was more of a floridly ‘tell’ than subtly ‘show’ kind of guy – but he gave the world a host of indelible creatures that wormed their way into popular culture, from HBO’s True Detective (2014–19) to tattoos of the tentacle-faced demigod Cthulhu.

Lovecraftian lore fares better in its retelling by scores of writers over the past several decades. Many of them do the painstaking work of wresting this rich material away from Lovecraft himself, an outspoken xenophobe and eugenicist during an era of populist nationalism. Writers like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Matt Ruff, pulp specialists who broke through to the mainstream, reimagined his cosmic horror to tell stories about places and people far from the insular, white hamlets of the originals. Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country (2016) was adapted this summer for HBO, in collaboration with J.J. Abrams, Misha Green and Jordan Peele.

Lovecraft Country
Lovecraft Country, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO ​ 

The adaptation immerses us in an entrancingly inverted version of the mythos, set in 1950s Chicago and jolted to life by a period-bending soundtrack that straddles 1950s R&B and 2010s hip hop. It’s a lush, gothic vision of America familiar to viewers of Peele’s recent films, which artfully mash up genres to tell stories about the hauntedness of Black life. Indeed, the white parasitism of Black culture depicted in Get Out (2017) is on full display in Lovecraft Country. For his part, Lovecraft famously projected himself into his erudite, white investigators and sketched his demons in response to an interlude in New York, where he was repulsed by the diversity of the city’s streets. But here, the heroes are a cohort of bookish science-fiction fans, women and queers of colour.

Lovecraft Country
Lovecraft Country, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO ​ 

Lovecraft Country is marbled with deft allusions to other sources – the writing of Clark Ashton Smith and Jules Verne, the films of Steven Spielberg, The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936–66) – and to socially concerned artists from James Baldwin and Margaret Bourke-White to Nina Simone. There are moments of bittersweet nostalgia here, of a vibrant South Side of Chicago and the mid-century Black intelligentsia. There’s genuine horror, too. Beyond the abundant gore and otherworldly beings, the real terrors are entirely terrestrial: men with bats and burning crosses, the police cruisers roving the byways of northern ‘sunset towns’, the casual annihilation of Black life. One episode finds a central Black character enchanted, able briefly to masquerade as an average white woman. She later observes that only in such a transmogrification could she feel fully human – a condition otherwise denied by society’s brutal dermal illogic. The series reminds us, as philosopher Fred Wilderson III argues in his autobiographical treatise Afropessimism (2020), that for many Americans such sleight of hand is just that: a temporary respite in a country founded on the dehumanization of Black people.

Lovecraft Country
Lovecraft Country, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO ​ 

As Michel Houellebecq observed in H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991), Lovecraft was a nihilist who believed that his weird tales simply described a grotesque universe. In truth, Houellebecq got the roles exactly reversed. Lovecraft Country sets things right narratively but echoes the author’s dim world view. It reminds us, in the spirit of the best ghost stories, that the past is never really behind us, and that the dark forces we awaken simply mutate, colonize a new host or take on a different countenance. Houses can be exorcized, speculative fiction can offer fresh hope but, as the literary theorist Christina Sharpe argued in ‘On Blackness and Being’ (2016), we are all living ‘in the wake’ of a history that we are still navigating on our screens and in our streets.

In this sense, the series couldn’t be timelier, reanimating the suffocating violence of the US’s Jim Crow laws – scarier than any fictional horror – at the cusp of a renewed civil-rights movement. But don’t mistake the strength of its characters or the acrid beauty of its landscapes as gestures of redemption. Black speculative fiction has long diagnosed the failures of the Western project as endemic and terminal. Lovecraft Country just reminds us who the monsters are, and how to see past their camouflage.

Main Image: Lovecraft Country, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO ​ ​

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze