Author: Matt Ruff
Title: Lovecraft Country
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 😉 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.
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!