How to Drive Safely Through ‘Lovecraft Country’

Published October 10, 2020, 8:00 AM

by MB Lifestyle

SCREENCRUNCH: Before you dive into the HBO series, make sure you dig your tentacles into this riveting novel about Cthulhu and being black in 1950s America.

By Karl R. De Mesa

You might say HP Lovecraft’s legacy in horror is a problematic one. 

For one thing, the popularity and influence of the Cthulhu Mythos can be felt in a still-growing fandom, resonant in works worldwide by everyone from Stephen King to Junji Ito. And yet for another, Howard Philips was extremely racist, like tremendously so even for the predominantly white early 1900s—he was contemptuous of Jews and blacks, looked down on the Irish, abhorred migrants in general, and his stories refer to “Asian dregs…” as well as “squinting Orientals,” plus he was an apologist for lynchings and pretty vocal about his admiration for Hitler.  

Lovecraft’s intolerance is a struggle for many horror writers and artists who’ve taken inspiration from his stories to confront the powerful ideas, cosmology, and narratives in them and yet try to separate or even simply cherry-pick what they want, when you suspect it was hate and bigotry that likely fueled the creation of the alien gods and cephalopods. It’s also caused rifts and was quite the controversy at literary awards, especially the World Fantasy Awards. 

Image courtesy of HBO

For me it’s been a constant confrontation I’ve needed to make peace with, but more to the point one of the horror writers who wanted to navigate and challenge his own and others’ ideas of HP and his prejudices was novelist Matt Ruff (who also penned Bad Monkeys and The Mirage), the author of 2016’s Lovecraft Country. His novel has now been adapted into an HBO series starring Courtney B. Vance, Michael K. Williams, and Jurnee Smollet, produced by big names like Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams

The TV show doesn’t just look beautiful and eerie and macabre as you’d expect from something coming out of HBO, but it also tackles plenty of what has also become an absurdly relevant topic for today. Absurd because the novel is set in the 1950s. 

Before you dive into the TV series, here’s a quick rundown, WITHOUT SPOILERS, on what to expect from Ruff’s amazingly layered, complex, and entertainingly satirical novel. 


At its heart, Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a historical epic spanning two generations of black families, the Turners and the Freemans.  

Set mainly in Chicago and around New England in the 1950s, our main protagonist is Atticus “Tic” Turner, 22-year-old Army veteran of the recent Korean War, and a big time fan of science fiction and horror authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and of course HP Lovecraft. 

As the novel progresses on its surreal, and often way too real, adventure, Tic confronts how it is to be what is now essentially a black geek; a minority person of color in America who happens to like Caucasian writers, trying to get to grips with how someone like him can embrace these stories when plenty of them actually hated him, his family, and his race, and portrayed them as villains or slaves.   

Atticus explained his love for something like say the sci-fi novel Princess of Mars even if the hero is a Confederate soldier: “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.”


The novel is at once a short story collection with overlapping characters and events and also a very rambling novel all at once. 

Ruff has commented in interviews that he previously envisioned it as a TV series pitch before he developed it into a novel, years later. You can see this intent in the infra of the book.

The first chapter introduces the motley and dysfunctional family of Freemans and Turners, as Atticus finds out his cranky father Montrose is missing somewhere in New England. Along with his Uncle George (a professional publisher who puts out the “Safe Negro Travel Guide”) and his feisty, sexy friend Letitia Dandridge, Tic embarks on a road trip to hell to find a father that Tic doesn’t even like since they’ve been estranged for years. 

If you’re a fan of the Lovecraftian mythos, then definitely pick up this work that knows the tropes and the script and subverts them with swagger and brag. 

Driving through the south side of Chicago and through to the Jim Crow-era south states turns out to be more dangerous than getting trapped in HP’s fictional horror town of Innsmouth with the fish people and the cthulhoids. The trio battle against sundown towns (a particularly nasty bit of racist, segregation law), shotgun-toting Christian white folk bent on running them past the county line, extremely trigger-happy authorities, and generally very hostile creatures of the human, sub-human, and inhuman variety.     

What they do discover when they find Montrose Turner, Tic’s dad, isn’t just the kind of racism that would make the KKK look like teens doing cosplay, but a full press of Lovecraftian strangeness and strangeness that somehow still make the bigots a far more insidious piece of monstrosity than secret societies, conjured squid demons, and alien gods bent on annihilating all. 


A recurring cast is introduced in the first episode (“Lovecraft Country”), which takes up about a fourth of the whole novel, to establish their relationships, and we then segue to focus on the lives of the other characters in the later chapters. 

“Jekyll in Hyde Park” and “The Dreams of the WiTch House” are particularly inventive subversions of Lovecraftian lore, especially the latter’s tongue-in-cheek reference to a classic HP story. If you’re a fan of The X-Files or Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, you’ll understand the dynamic right away. These later introspections expand on the tension of racial friction in America and how the surreal, cosmic horror of Lovecraftian mythos impinges on the lives of the Turners, the Freeman, and the Dandriges down the years and up to the slavery era. 

Ruff smartly and cleverly inserts prejudice, civil rights, and disenfranchisement into the metaphor of eldritch entities that is again a strange and very resonant umbrella of topics considering what’s happening in America right now, with the country writhing in the social turmoil of BLM, antifa activism, and the galvanizing death of people like George Floyd and Elijah McClain.  

While Lovecraft Country’s later chapters do feature a haunted house, a malevolent mannequin, and ye olde classic cursed tome (hello, Necronomicon?), it is Atticus’s voice that I always hear at the end of each mini-story, the black fan trying to get to grips with the meta of these strange tales. How does he continue to love a genre that, at the least, doesn’t love him back? And Tic suspects, quite rightly too, that its creators may very well hate him just for being different, for the color of his skin. 

In fact, in one pivotal scene, where he’s empowered to likely end the bigotry of a particular area through violence and death, Atticus asks himself: “What would Cthulhu do?” A question of whether he should let the hate and vitriol of an Elder God take the wheel or he should lean on the better angels of his nature, or at least one sans tentacles. 

If you’re a fan of the Lovecraftian mythos, then definitely pick up this work that knows the tropes and the script and subverts them with swagger and brag. 

Lovecraft Country is now available at all major book sellers.