Lovecraft Country review: HBO's latest blends supernatural horror and real-world racism in a dramatic adaptation
While HBO's Lovecraft Country, which comes from the stable of Jordan Peele, JJ Abrams and Misha Green, gets many things right — the gorgeous frames, costumes and 'look'; Jonathan Majors as Atticus; the music — it seems to not have the same sense of dread and unease that ran through the source material, Matt Ruff's book.
Lovecraft Country begins with a war scene, a Black soldier engaged in combat in the trenches. The frame widens and you see that this isn't an earthly battle: spaceships appear on the horizon as do suitably tentacled monsters. As our hero faces off against a large, indestructible alien, his dream (nightmare?) breaks; he comes awake in a bus that's leaving behind the Jim Crow South, but not its prejudices.
When the bus breaks down in the middle of miles of rolling farmland, the idyllic setting camouflages the social dystopia of segregation. The white passengers get a ride into the nearest town by a passing truck; Atticus — our protagonist — and a fellow Black passenger are left to walk along the desolate road, carrying their baggage.
Atticus' co-traveller quizzes him about the sci-fi book he's been reading, featuring an ex-Confederate soldier-turned-Martian overlord. "There's no 'ex' for someone who fought for slavery," she informs Atticus. "That's like saying someone's an ex-Nazi." Atticus explains his philosophy to her: "Stories are like people. Loving them doesn't make them perfect. You try and cherish them, overlook their flaws."
Black readers have had to do a whole lot of overlooking when it came to genre fiction they cherished.
This is the premise that partly spurred Matt Ruff's book, on which HBO's Lovecraft Country adaptation is based. Ruff notes that he was inspired by the essay "Shame" by Pam Noles, in which she describes the joys and sorrows of being a science fiction fan who never found people like herself in the books she read or even (later) the films she watched. Noles writes about how revelatory coming across a brown protagonist in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea felt, and how heartbreaking it then was to have him whitewashed in a TV adaptation.
Atticus' dilemma is similar: he must reconcile the fact that the writer whose stories are so important to him — HP Lovecraft — was a strident racist who hated Black people, just as he must reconcile the fact that the country he fought a war for, has no place for him. Atticus loves these stories, but he will never be a part of, or star, in them. Except, in Ruff's hands, in Lovecraft Country, that is just what Atticus does.
When we meet Atticus, he is on his way home to Chicago, having received a letter from his father Montrose. This is the 1950s; Atticus and Montrose have had a falling out over him enlisting in the US Army during the Korean War. The letter is the only communication they've had in months. Montrose writes that he has traced Atticus' mother's elusive ancestors to a place called Ardham. Further, Atticus has a sacred birthright or legacy which must be claimed at Ardham. Montrose goes missing soon after dispatching the letter.
When Atticus arrives in Chicago, he meets with his uncle George, the publisher of the "Safe Negro Travel Guide" — modelled on the real-life Green Book, an annual guidebook that was specifically aimed at African American travellers, detailing helpful and often life-saving information on which rest stops they could use, hotels they might stay at, gas stations, diners and counties they might pass through without threat to property, life or limb. George and his agents travel through America, collating information and tips for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. We also meet George's wife Hippolyta and daughter Dee (in the book, George has a son called Horace), and a family friend called Ruby Lewis, who will all feature in their own adventures later.
Ruby's sister Letitia joins George and Atticus on a road trip to Ardham, where they hope to find Montrose.
As the coronavirus shutdowns unravelled across the world, changing pretty much every aspect of modern life as we know it, the New York Times published an essay titled "2020 Is The Summer Of The Road Trip. Unless You're Black". It was about how the American tradition of the road trip — a symbol of freedom, adventure, inward journeys, and coming-of-age in so many stories on page and screen — was (and is) a vastly different experience for Black travellers. The essay referenced the Green Book, but also how much concerns about their safety are part of modern-day Black Americans' lives — the need to be on constant alert, the possibility that one misstep might lead to unthought-of consequences. "Travel is supposed to be a reprieve from all the hard things we are usually dealing with, but it often doesn’t feel that way for us," one of the interviewees quoted in the story says.
In Lovecraft Country, these concerns are magnified manifold. A scene in the book that doesn't make it to screen is when Atticus is driving down to Chicago and is stopped by a trooper. Despite having all his papers in order, the trooper decides to check Atticus' car, tossing his books and clothes about, tearing open a gift meant for George. The anxiety that scene triggers is immense, and is repeated across several others that have made it into the HBO adaptation, especially since the route to Ardham takes George, Letitia and Atticus through "sundown county" — all-white places where Black individuals can be legally killed simply for being out past sundown.
Apart from the real world horrors they're contending with, there are also supernatural ones: Lovecraftian creatures who haunt the woods fringing the road through the county, woods where passersby mysteriously disappear. The book prefers not to state what these creatures are in concrete terms, and their carnage is referred to only in flashes. Episode 1 of the TV series, however, devotes a fair bit of screen time to the creatures, which dilutes their terrifying nature somewhat.
Indeed, while this HBO adaptation, which comes from the stable of Jordan Peele, JJ Abrams and Misha Green, gets many things right — the gorgeous frames, costumes and 'look'; Jonathan Majors as Atticus; the music — it seems to not have the same sense of dread and unease that ran through Ruff's book.
Ruff wrote Lovecraft Country as a pitch for a television series, so its structure should lend itself well to further seasons, where Letitia, Ruby, Hippolyta, Dee, Montrose and George can take centrestage in turns. But the book also hums with a foreboding and tension that comes from its characters constantly being under threat that in this first episode at least, hasn't come across on screen.
(The recently wrapped up Perry Mason season 1, also an HBO show, did manage to depict this nerve-stretching tension in scenes featuring the character Paul Drake.)
In a story-within-a-story, George's daughter Dee creates a comic book heroine called Orinthia Blue, a Black woman who has adventures in outer space. In the book, Horace (replaced by Dee on screen) creates the comic for Hippolyta, who loves reading about space adventures, but like Atticus and Pam Noles, never finds characters like herself in them.
One answer to conundrums like the one posed by HP Lovecraft's works is what the novelist Victor LaValle did with The Ballad of Black Tom: retelling a problematic story (in this case, The Horror at Red Hook) from the perspective of a Black protagonist, reclaiming the narrative. Another answer is what Dee/Horace do, and what Ruff has done with Lovecraft Country: write stories that centre the people who've been excluded from them unconscionably, and for far too long.
Hourlong weekly episodes of Lovecraft Country season 1 are available on Disney + Hotstar every Monday at 7.30 am. Watch the trailer here —
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