Genre: Horror, Historical: American, Science Fiction/Fantasy
Archetype: Diverse Protagonists
Lovecraft Country is tragically devoid of romance and yet I can’t resist reviewing it for you, dear Bitches, because it’s one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in quite some time.
Lovecraft Country is a series of connected stories (together they form one cohesive arc, but most of the chapters could easily stand alone) about a Black family living in Chicago in the 1950s. The family business consists of publishing The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a guide for Black people traveling throughout the US. The stories of the Turner family demonstrate the racism and unrelenting danger of being Black both in the Jim Crow South and in a suspicious and violent North.
In the first section of the book, Korean War vet Atticus Turner gets a message from his father, from whom he’s been estranged for years. Atticus, his uncle George, and their friend Letitia travel to New England to find out what happened to Atticus’s father. In doing so, they discover that they are related to a white family, the Braithwhites. Caleb Braithwhite wants to depose his father, who is the leader of a secret society of “natural philosophers”. While he’s at it, he wants to depose all his rival societies, too. Caleb might claim not to share the racism of his ancestors, who owned one of the Turners, but he’s still wants to use the Turners for his own ends, and he knows both what bribes to offer and what threats to make to get what he wants.
In following chapters, male and female characters get equal time as the family finds itself entwined with mysterious forces in various ways. Often these stories have very funny moments. Often they are scary. I have two words for you: “devil doll.” But the brilliance of the story is that the family is relatively unflappable in the face of supernatural horrors, because they already have a whole range of mundane horrors to deal with. When Letitia finds herself owner of a haunted house in a white neighborhood, the ghost is much less trouble than her white neighbors. When a magician threatens the family by saying, “No matter where you go, you’ll never be safe!” they just laugh and laugh.
There’s an enormous amount of humiliation and tragedy in this book but the overall sense is one of endurance, resourcefulness, and triumph. It’s also a celebration of Black fans of speculative fiction, a genre from which people of color have often felt excluded. The first time we meet Atticus, a cop is rifling through the science fiction books in his car (the bastard BENDS THE PAGES, ugh). Later, Atticus bonds with his uncle over SFF and fights with his father over it (his father is quick to point out the racism that pervaded the genre during the 1940’s and 1950’s). His nephew, Horace, writes comic books, and Horace’s mom, Hippolyta, grew up dreaming of being an astronomer. Ultimately, the family benefits from having members who are savvy about both science and speculative fiction – they don’t waste much time refusing to believe in what is clearly happening, and instead just get on with survival.
In the last decade, a number of individual authors, as well as the SFF community as a whole, have struggled with Lovecraft’s legacy. Women and people of color have written marvelous works inspired by the Lovecraft mythos that subvert the racism on which this mythos was constructed.
If you’d like to have a look at a few of my favorites:
- In Maplecroft and Chapelwood, by Cherie Priest, Lizzie Borden fights the Eldritch Horrors with an axe, and racism is a sign of corruption by the forces of evil.
- In the haunting and horrifying short novel The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook” is retold from the perspective of a Black man.
- She Walks in Shadows is an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired stories by and about women.
- Jonathon L. Howard’s Carter and Lovecraft pairs a detective with a woman who is Lovecraft’s descendent, and who also has African American ancestry, which surely has Lovecraft spinning in his grave.
As a reader, I’ve been thrilled to see the very people Lovecraft either ignored (women) or vilified (almost everyone else) claiming what they love from his work and putting their own spin on it. It’s not only a social move forward; it makes for fresh, exciting fiction. I can’t think of many more satisfying things than the many moments of triumph in Lovecraft Country.
For H.P. Lovecraft, the horror of the Elder Gods was that humans were insignificant before them and could only eke out small victories – but women and people of color have always had to fight to claim their own significance, and have always moved forward through small victories, against great opposition. As Lovecraft’s most marginalized and vilified people stand up for their rights to recognition and dignity in the face of Eldritch Horrors in new fiction, they either explicitly or implicitly (depending on the story) claim those rights from our own society, and in doing so remind us that Elder Gods, who don’t have much interest in us anyway, aren’t nearly as terrifying as other people.
I usually try to avoid reading other reviews before I write my own, but in this case I wanted to see what Black reviewers thought of this book. It’s a book written by a White man about Black lives during the 1950s, so the odds that it could go horribly wrong were pretty high. I’m happy to say that the reviews I’ve found have been as glowing as mine. Here’s one from Aaron Coats from the Chicago Review of Books, and one from Alex Brown from Tor.com (the book is not published by Tor). Alex Brown says:
We people of color have had to deal with problematic faves since time immemorial. Atticus and Montrose debate how much of choosing to stick with an artist who creates things you love while spewing vileness you hate is sacrificing your personal convictions for pop culture and how much is compartmentalizing socio-cultural quandaries. And given the vitriol over whether H.P. Lovecraft should be the icon for the World Fantasy Awards, that debate is still not over. So to not only set a story about Black American life in Cthulhu trappings isn’t just intriguing storytelling but a slap in the face to Lovecraft himself. And in this Black woman’s view, that’s a damn fine thing indeed.
That whole “write what you know” adage has always been nonsense, but Ruff proves that here. He has clearly done his research here, and writes the Black characters with so much depth, variety, and complexity that I kept forgetting he is actually white. With gems like Lovecraft Country, the excuses against diversity in entertainment get weaker by the day.
Lovecraft Country is sad, and scary, and funny, and exciting. It’s also fist-pumping-in-the-air awesome. I loved the range of characters and the many tough, smart women. I loved the seamless melding of the magical and the mundane, the tragic and triumphant, the funny and the terrifying. The writing is simply impeccable. If I had extra thumbs, they would all be up.
(Additional NB from Sarah: Regarding the Turner family business of writing travel guides: in a recent episode of 99% Invisible, a podcast about design, I learned about the history of The Green Book, a travel guide (one of a few!) written by a Hackensack mail carrier named Victor Hugo Green to help Black families on road trips in the 1950s when gas stations, restaurants, and other places for motorists wouldn’t always serve or welcome Black people. The brief coverage of history and creation of The Green Book is fascinating if you’d like to learn more.)
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I have strict I have a strict rule for my media consulting where I don’t interact with media by people I know to have had horrible views. Thusly, I have never read Lovecraft but it is intriguing to see books from people influenced by him that have characters who would have appalled him.
The Ballad of Black Tom was amazing; I look forward to reading Lovecraft Country (it’s waiting for me at the library, WOOHOO!) as well.
On a slightly-related note, I just finished Cat Winters’ YA novel The Steep and Thorny Way. It’s a retelling of “Hamlet” in 1920s Oregon, protagonist Hanalee is a biracial girl who sees her father’s ghost at the crossroads, and she and her gay frenemy/co-protagonist/it’s-complicated Joe Adder face down the KKK and the budding eugenics movement in their small town. It’s amazing, although very hard to read in spots because, well, the KKK.
While Lovecraft did have what Rikki describes as “horrible views” — he was racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic — he was also a truly incredible author, one of my favorites who I think should be as well-read and -known as Edgar Allan Poe. He’s a writer who almost every horror cites as an influence, his Lovecraft mythos of shared tomes and entities continues to this day, and he’s been the source or influence of more games than I can count. I absolutely recommend his work; and folks who hate his horrible views can contrast how and what he wrote with those who followed in his footsteps.