Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country (2016)

Author: Matt Ruff

Title: Lovecraft Country

Format: Paperback

When Atticus Turner, a Black ex-soldier fresh from the Korean war, gets a mysterious letter from his father, he goes back to Chicago, and later to a small town of Ardham, Massachusetts. Along with him goes his childhood friend Letitia and his uncle, George, publisher, writer and researcher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and they have to fight both the cosmic horrors straight from the Cthulhu Mythos and the no less real horrors of their fellow human’s prejudices. It’s a bit like a crossover of Call of Cthulhu and Green Book.

Ok – it’s political. My next post after Ministry for the Future, and another unashamedly political novel. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a subversive pulp horror, just as Guardian quote on its cover claims, and I’ll try to say a few words on whether it’s smart further in the review πŸ˜‰ I would also like to emphasize it’s solely about the book, I’ve seen only the first episode of the TV show, liked it enough to stop and order the novel, and I’m yet to go back and watch the rest of it.

Let me start with some praise for the cover – I just it. Pulpy, lovecraftian, with some KKK undertones – fits its contents perfectly, even the “now a major HBO series” sign does not make me angry. I’m happy I own a physical copy!

There is one absolutely essential thing about this book that will shape the opinion of many reader before they even open the covers. Elephant in the room that used to be ignored, Lovecraft’s racism, is addressed here directly. Recently, it started to become more and more of an issue for a growing number of genre creators and audience, which culminated in a scandal around the World Fantasy Awards trophies. WFA’s overseers replaced Lovecraft bust with a new statuette as the trophy, and at roughly the same time Ruff attempted a brilliant thing with his novel – not to reject one of the funding fathers of genre literature, but to use his power for good. And, on purely aesthetic level, I have to admit I like both, and the new one might be better for an award that covers different subgenres. Not any particular person, but a pretty combination of several themes.

That being said, I wasn’t convinced it’s a good idea to go there and judge an author long time dead. Then I’ve re-read his Complete Fiction last year and overall it stood the test of time, still fascinating, thought-provoking and well worth ones time. But parts aged poorly. I’m no expert on comparative racism and cannot say if Lovecraft was more or less racist than his contemporaries. There were certainly less racist authors then, and there might be more racist authors now. But I can certainly understand while some authors might feel uncomfortable placing his bust on their mantelpiece, and I wished he just knew better. He moved beyond the myths of religion, but not beyond the racial theories of his time. Pity.

But lets go back to the novel in question. On the one hand, Lovecraft Country is undoubtedly a lovecraftian genre novel, but on the other hand it’s about the horrors of the very real institutionalized racism of mid-XX century America and this second layer is in many ways more terrifying for the modern reader. That’s why the topic of Lovecraft’s racism had to be mentioned, and that’s why it was such a smart move for HBO to pick this for their lovecraftian adaptation.

And the construction of the novel is well suited for a TV adaptation. It’s a collection of short stories, inspired by various elements of the Mythos, connected by the characters and slowly developing the overall plot. I probably liked the first chapter most. Everything was fresh and made the most impression. The rest was also entertaining, but the way two horrors intertwined… not always seamlessly. I don’t want to get spoilery, so I’ll just say that parts of Letitia’s story felt a bit heavy-handed. The lovecraftian parts of Lovecraft Country won’t surprise you, it’s an efficient repetition of the tropes. The extra spice comes from the other parts.

It’s still pulp, and that’s why I don’t thing there’s a need to go too deep into the exact correctness of Ruff’s history. Nothing is invented, and if perhaps too much of it happens to our limited cast of heroes, such exaggeration is well justified by the genre. And serves a very legitimate purpose. It goes beyond a discussion with Lovecraft’s legacy. Atticus is a lover of early genre lit, of the master from Providence, but also of Bradbury, Burroughs and other old, white (and male, but it’s not a book about that particular topic) masters. Enchanted by the world that does not love him back, against the wishes of his very political father.

So, it is a smart discussion with some of our assumptions about the genre, and a loving one. Some ugly truths are bared, but it’s a call for inclusion, not a total rejection of the past.

Quinn’s Ideas is a YouTube channel by a guy who really loves Dune -that’s how he got my attention. His review of Lovecraft Country is very interesting, as he does it from a perspective of a young, black genre enthusiast, and also shares a personal story. He tells is better than I ever could, so please watch it if you have time.

Conclusion:

By itself it’s not a great book. In the context, it’s very interesting, and really subversive in how it treats the source material. That made more than worth my time as a reader, and it made me think!

Score: 7.5/10

24 thoughts on “Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country (2016)

  1. Interesting! I’ve heard of this book, but haven’t read it – yet ;). Thanks for the well-placed warnings, I won’t be getting my hopes too high for the plot, but I find the subtexts intriguing enough to give it a chance. Cool review! πŸ˜€

    Liked by 2 people

  2. When you say subtexts what do you mean exactly? This time I’m going to rely on human to human messages over a Google search. πŸ˜ƒ

    I was curious about this one after watching the show with one eye closed and only caught about half of it. So that left a quarter.

    Are you a big fan of pulp at it’s best or more like meh?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      I said it’s subversive, in that it’s using lovecraftian tropes to promote things rather contrary to his views, in quite a smart way. I much prefer this approach to a blank rejection of all the past culture that does not meet one’s contemporary standards.

      Pulp… I read a bit, every now and then, but I’m not a huge fan. This was interesting, but it won’t make me change my habits πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

  3. While the first episode of the show did not encourage me to move forward (the tone seemed a little “off”, for want of a better word, with a farcical veneer that seemed to clash with the overall themes of the story), I’m intrigued by the book and I might try this one first, before giving the show another chance, on the assumption that the first “meh” encounter was more a matter of mood than anything else…
    Thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m definitely intrigued, not just because I read a fair bit of Lovecraft in my early twenties as a replacement for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories (another dubious writer in terms of contemporary racist theories) but because I’ve read a few novels over the years that have shown a few Lovecraftian influences, direct or indirect. (Also the WordPress theme I’m using is Lovecraft, chosen partly because because it echoes my surname, partly because I liked a comment said when I mentioned H P Lovecraft suggesting it was a sex manual for British Parliamentarians.) I don’t mind the odd pulp novel, so that this novel with its tangential approach makes it a definite possibility for me!

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    1. piotrek

      πŸ˜€

      I’ve read a bit of Burroughs, a bit more of Howard, and Lovecraft, and Lovecraft aged best for me, sf and fantasy are written differently now, but Lovecraft is himself a genre that I still enjoy. Although I could do without the racism πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Not only have I never heard of this, I’ve never heard of the TV series it spawned πŸ˜… And unfortunately the terms “political” and “horror” seem to suggest that this isn’t something for me. Still, I’ll keep it in mind! Great review, thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve always been of a mind that Lovecraft had some of the most amazing ideas known to man, but all the writing skill of someone who … well … just can’t write. His work was so dry and lacked any real pacing.

    That said, I love his ideas and have found myself enjoying other peoples’ attempts at writing in his universe. So may give this a go.

    Two fun facts about old H. P.

    1. Apparently, the incredibly racist name for his cat in one of his stories (the rats in the walls, or something?) Wasn’t racist … it was named after his childhood cat. Yea … because naming your ACTUAL cat that isn’t the sign of a racist family πŸ˜‚

    2. His tombstone makes him out to be one hell of an egotistical piece of work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      He’s so unusual I don’t mind his style, I enjoy the whole package. But I don’t read too much lovecraftian prose by other authors… this was quite an unusual reading for me, but I don’t regret picking it up.

      Ad1) We have something similar in Poland… one of the traditional names for a dog is a local equivalent for the N-word, and it might not be used as often as it used to be, but some “traditionalists” get really defensive when you point out it’s really not appropriate…

      Liked by 2 people

  7. buriedinprint

    I can’t explain why, because usually I insist on reading the book first, and it’s not that I’ve ever heard any bad about Matt Ruff’s writing (solidly entertaining and smart, would be my summarized understanding of various rec’s over the years), but I ended up watching this series without reading at all. It’s been a favourite for sure. And even though I simultaneously wanted to binge every time I sat down to watch more, I always ended up just watching a single episode, because when it was over, I wanted to let it simmer and settle before moving on. I do understand the comment someone makes above-about a slightly off-kilter feel to the first episode, but I think it’s simply a matter of adjusting to a stylized view (and, also, I think we’re meant to feel strangely unsettled by the racialized violence). If you ever do get to watching, I’ll be curious to hear how you think it compares to the book (different, of course).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Oh, I’ll definitely finish the show, but I have a few other series to finish first.

      Yeah, it’s unsettling, and not only in a way that we usually associate with horrors. The interplay between two main themes is what makes it interesting, audience is definitely not meant to feel comfortable πŸ™‚

      Like

  8. I’ve only seen the book around and remember because of its eye-catching cover design but now that I know what it’s about, I’m more intrigued than ever to check it out. I do have to admit that the HBO series is what made me most intrigued by this title though. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the show if you ever go back to finish it up though. As for Lovecraft’s racist tendencies, I’m glad you took a moment to mention it here. I feel like many dismissed his work once they discovered that. I personally still want to check out his work no matter what and it’s nice to know that it’s not utter poo in the end! Thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thanks! I’ll write something about the show, I know the later episodes have mixed reviews, but it might take some time – my To Be Watch is almost as huge as my TBR πŸ˜‰

      Lovecraft is so unique, I see him as a genre of his own and don’t mind language and style I’d see as aged in another writer. Ruff addresses stuff harder to forgive, and in a smart and entertaining way. Both are worth a moment of reader’s time πŸ™‚

      Like

  9. Pingback: Negative Reviews | Wakizashi's Teahouse

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