What “Lovecraft Country” tells us about toxic legacies
Growing up I devoured a lot of Hellboy, Stephen King and horror anthologies on television – Tales from the crypt, are you afraid of the dark, and Masters of Horror being my favorites.
Yet, introduced to words like “strange fiction”, “cosmic horror” or “Lovecraftian”, I was most fascinated by the stories which raised the curtain of reality, which showed a “secret history” of the world. . And there was a special line in the way these stories were told.
They transmitted terror when the characters stumbled upon forbidden knowledge – slowness and unfathomability driving them mad. And at the root of it all are insidious forces – primordial creatures older than time itself – and their worshipers, secretly the puppeteers of the universe.
HP Lovecraft was the ancestor of this kind of terror, so much so that his name became an adjective for an entire subgenre.
My fascination with the works he influenced led me to the man himself and his own stories. (I still have a copy of the Necronomicon collection on my desktop as I type this.)
Never meet your heroes
However, in an interview with Vanity Fair, novelist Victor LaValle best described what it was like to discover Lovecraft, the man behind the prose, as an adult.
“It was like, say, your uncle or aunt or grandparent that you love dearly, but then you get into high school and start to realize that they actually say and maintain a lot of really messed up prejudices.”
See, even for early 1900s standards, Lovecraft was a fierce fanatic who wrote hate speeches, disguised as poems and essays, expressing racist, misogynistic and xenophobic worldviews. One particularly disturbing piece is a poem about the creation of black men, where he compared them to “vice-filled” beasts.
More problematic is how some researchers, including author NK Jemisin, would argue that the aversion rooted in Lovecraftian horror most likely stemmed from Lovecraft’s own disgust for people outside his race – the unknown existential threat in his stories an allegory of his own xenophobia.
Lovecraft’s work is an undeniable cultural touchstone. Not only did they influence contemporaries – like Robert E. Howard (Conan the barbarian).
So, in this case, how do you separate the art from the artist?
These are probably the same questions that gave birth to HBO. Lovecraft Country.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff in 2016, Lovecraft Country follows Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Korean War veteran, as he sets out on a cross-country trip through 1950s America in search of his missing father. Throughout the journey, he and his companions – his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) – face a multitude of threats from shoggoths and wizards, men. the Klan, the police, and white America in general.
Oscillating between real world monsters and tentacle beasts is a skillful skill Lovecraft Country possesses. In his pilot episode, he does not immediately plunge into the supernatural. Instead, true to his “weird fictional” roots, he revels in slowly lifting the blindfold from our eyes. And that “disentangling” becomes the cornerstone of this show – the intersecting plot, the genre at large, and even the audience’s own experience.
In Lovecraft Country Opening scene, Tic is established as a man with a soft spot for pulp fiction. He is shown with a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A princess of Mars – as he says, “I love that the heroes go on adventures to other worlds, challenge insurmountable odds, beat the monster, save the day” – and later that of Lovecraft In the Mountains of Madness.
However, as if speaking on behalf of many BIPOC fans, Tic expresses an inner conflict – even guilt – by enjoying these works. A princess of MarsThe main character, John Carter, was a white Confederate soldier who fought for slavery. (“You can’t put an ‘ex’ in front of that!” One character exclaimed.) Tic is also well aware of Lovecraft’s unrepentant vitriolic racism.
Addressing this problem up front draws parallels between Tic’s journey and that of the audience. Tic knows that in his day, the stories he loved, at best, rarely had room for people like him. At worst, they were derogatory to non-whites. It’s a showdown for both Tic and viewers.
Tic is exposed to more realities as the show unfolds – from townspeople who would love nothing more than the lyncher, to see how much of a family heirloom pain is, passed down from generation to generation, to many black families. (And, oh yes, of course, there are also revelations about earlier races of men, “holy” bloodlines, and monstrous deities who see humanity as toys.)
In a way that is both meta and ironic, everything seems ‘Lovecraftian’ about how fear arose out of realizations about the nature of the world: Atticus acknowledges the problematic stories in his books; the repudiation of nostalgia and the ‘American dream’ of the 1950s (which we should all know by now was not inclusive); And we, as viewers, confronted with our own feelings for an author and a genre he may have born with hate at his heart.
More than a confrontation, a reconquest
However, beyond the simple confrontation with these realities, Lovecraft Country consists in recovering these toxic legacies and reclaiming them. Use them to empower the marginalized.
Lovecraft CountryThe structure of is more flexible than today’s heavily serialized shows and treats the episodes as semi-standalone adventures. (While there is a wider arc to play, the episodes, beyond the first two, play out distinctly.) One is a haunted house story, another a tribute to Indiana Jones. There’s also one that’s more body horror.
Your mileage may vary with this “story of the week” format, but it’s clearly a deliberate choice. The original novel carried the same structure to mirror Lovecraft’s works – mostly made up of short stories, short stories, and poems.
In doing so, Lovecraft Country provides much-needed commentary on gender stories from the past, which could have benefited from non-white perspectives; and each episode in itself becomes a “one for one” response, not only to Lovecraft’s works but to pulp fiction in general.
In the central plot, a black man seeks to control the powers used to subjugate him and his people. That in itself sends a message of reappropriation of his narrative – not only within the show but also outside of it.
Beyond Atticus’ hetero-cis-male perspective, Lovecraft Country also seeks to correct some of the more problematic aspects of pulp literature by fleshing out its characters. Jurnee Smollett’s Leti takes center stage in the series’ third episode, making it clear that the series will not replicate the pulp model of the damsel in distress whose spearhead is literature. The inclusion of a Jamie Chung-centric episode down the line (Episode 6) will also hopefully address the “yellow peril” stereotypes popularized by pulp characters like Ming the Merciless and Fu Manchu.
Lovecraft Country seeks a solution to toxic inheritances outside of binary.
Rather than categorically rejecting Lovecraft and his influence or turning a blind eye and producing a ‘sure story’ close to the denial of realities (here is watching you Green book), it hijacks a whole genre.
While it may be too early to tell, if as a show itself, Lovecraft Country will be able to deliver the same compelling, water-cooler-worthy storytelling that HBO has built a reputation on, there are some big things to take away from its intention.
With its existence comes the realization that, with certain arts, the link between the artist and the work has become insoluble. In this case, Lovecraft’s work has an inseparable influence on horror, fantasy, and science fiction. However, as that same influence has spread away from HP Lovecraft, I would like to believe that ownership too.
HP Lovecraft’s fanaticism is transparent and an issue not really up for debate. Writers – not just Lovecraft Country – grapple with their love for his fictional brand and the hatred that unfortunately gave birth to it. Confronted with these realities, instead of being consumed by Lovecraftian madness, they endure centuries of angst and say, “we can get even crazier.”
And somehow, we can take it easy that wherever HP Lovecraft is at the moment, he’s probably rolling in it. – Rappler.com
Lovecraft Country Episode 1 is Streaming Free on YouTube.