Lovecraft Country is a show about the horror of HP Lovecraft that isn’t Lovecraftian at all
Creator: Misha Green
Streaming on: Disney+Hotstar
Lovecraft Country begins spectacularly. We are in the middle of a genre-jumping sequence that bursts into colour from monochrome, visceral war-movie to batshit sci-fi. An attractive Martian girl descends from a space cadet through a laser beam, and there's a tentacled monster. A saviour arrives in the form of a black baseball hero who smashes it to pulp. Such are the dreams of Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), very American, very black, a sci-fi/horror fan and a war-return from Korea, who had dozed off on the bus on his way back home in South Chicago. As he chats with a woman, also black, seated on the other side, the camera zooms out to show us they are seated in a segregated section of the bus: For coloured people only.
It's a great sequence—if not Lovecraftian—that sets the tone for the show: a reimagining of modern America's racist history through the lens of genre. But the title is somewhat misleading: it implies a direct, confrontational revisionism of the brand of 'cosmic horror' of HP Lovecraft—described by Stephen King as 'the most influential horror writer of 20th century' who has achieved a kind of posthumous literary superstardom after a life of obscurity—while addressing his xenophobic views. But its material seems not to be Lovecraft alone but the larger umbrella of Weird Fiction of the early 1900s that encompasses sci-fi/horror/fantasy. Once Atticus gets off the bus, he talks to the other lady about the kind of stories he loves; the scenarios he longs to be in—on a great adventure to the space and back—one could argue, aren't Lovecraftian at all, even though he shares some of the traits of a Lovecraft protagonist.
It's the kind of family that quotes Bradbury at the dinner table, literally. It's not only a refreshing look at a black family in film or television series, but one that is also rooted in the reality of that time, when there were massive fans of pulp literature in the community.
We will soon learn, for example, that Atticus's father (Michael Kenneth Williams)—who has gone missing—had written to him hinting something about his long-dead mother's ancestral history. Lovecraft stories (whether it is "The Rats in the Walls", or "The Shadow over Innsmouth") are often about characters that discover some horrible, unspeakable secret about their genealogy and slowly lose their minds. In the manner of the scholarly Lovecraft protagonist, we get the scholarly black family, where Atticus has returned to. His Uncle George (Courtney B Vance) is a horror nerd who runs a printing press where he edits the The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a handy book for those who don't want to get killed in racist, 50s America ('A bad tip in the guidebook can kill someone,' goes one of the lines in the episode, titled "Sundown Town").
His aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), we learn, has been a contributor in amateur journalism magazines and their daughter—Atticus's loving niece—creates original comics in the torn pages of her exercise book in her pastime. His father, we learn, once made his son read Lovecraft's poem "On the Creation of Niggers" to remind him of the author's racism. It's the kind of family that quotes Ray Bradbury at the dinner table, literally. It's not only a refreshing look at a black family in film or television series, but one that is also rooted in the reality of that time, when there were massive fans of pulp literature in the community.
Once again you applaud the timeliness of the show, created by Misha Green and based on a book by Matt Ruff. How exciting will it be to reclaim the genre through the black lens. The horrors in the first episode are supplied by real life itself—and they are chilling. Lovecraft Country invents set pieces from things that actually existed in Jim Crow America, laws that were enforced in the South that treated blacks as second class citizens. One such sequence is that of the Sundown Town, a tag given to towns through which blacks are only allowed to pass in the daytime and can be killed if they violate it. Atticus, accompanied by his uncle and Letita Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), childhood friend and possible love interest, have exactly fifteen minutes when they are crossing one. A road patroller appears, as if Freddy from A Nightmare on Elm Street in uniformed clothes, and starts the countdown. A car chase ensues.
Later they are accosted by a group of cops, headed by a Sheriff with a bad reputation. In other small town American adventures—Stranger Things, for example—the sheriff is usually your friend. Not in Lovecraft Country, where the monsters'–the shoggoth, a famed Lovecraftian creation, among others–arrival provide a sense of relief, technically saving Atticus and others in a couple of occasions. We move further and further from what the term Lovecraftian denotes—the monsters in Lovecraft stories are malevolent 'Old Ones' from another dimension and time trying to make a comeback—but it's fun and thrilling: a smart pilot that keeps us guessing the exact nature of this 10-episode TV series by HBO, and what directions it could go in. Where did the whistle in the jungle come from? Who is the mysterious white woman who saves them on one occasion? What's the secret about Atticus's mom's ancestry? It's in the second episode that the show spectacularly derails itself–as spectacularly as it had begun.
The problem isn't that Lovecraft Country doesn't meet the expectation of a Lovecraft fan; the problem is that it uses Lovecraft tropes superficially, without tapping into its strengths.
Where the horror in episode one came from real life, Lovecraft Country finds itself having to rely on its own supernatural mythos in episode two. It's a mishmash of Lovecraftian tropes and the show's revisionist ideas: like a a clan of white supremacists trying to open a portal that'll lead to the original Eden, where the alpha-male, Adam, presides over all other living beings. We are now at the Braithwaites, where Atticus and co are being treated as VIPs. The funhouse scares are intriguing as long as we are kept in dark about what's exactly going on, as long as there is mystery. But once the secrets are unloaded on us—in a surprisingly hurried manner—it stops being fun and starts looking lame. We now have magic portals and doors with invisible screens opening up, a far cry from the gnarly, gothically grotesque imagery of Lovecraft's writings. The problem isn't that Lovecraft Country doesn't meet the expectation of a Lovecraft fan; the problem is that it uses Lovecraft tropes superficially and doesn't exploit their strengths.
Even though the action shifts to Arkham, Massachusetts, a fictional town created by the author, the show doesn't doesn't delve into the details of the place. Lovecraft stories draw their power from the baroque descriptions of ancient architecture that gives you the creeps; their regional cosmic horror taps into the local histories surrounding a community, as in "The Dunwich Horror" (we get customary tour of a nearby village but nothing of real value). The show goes for the monsters and tropes and misses out on the some of the subtler Lovecraft things, such as his sense of mood, the signs of evil in the form of a foul odour; sounds such as the ominous chirping of the whippoorwills (night birds that await an impending death, waiting to catch a soul as its on its way out); the poisoning of the landscape, the restlessness among the cattle. But Lovecraft country wants to be less a Lovecraft tale and more a roller coster ride through a Lovecraft-themed amusement park.
The political correctness, too, starts losing its edge, its messaging too pat–the exchanges between Atticus and his newfound ally, Christina (Abbey Lee, in a role that Elizabeth Debicki was supposed to play, and you see why), a goth-punk princess at the Braithwaites, that talks about female subjugation in the family, are a crashing bore. Lovecraft Country is correct in its instinct to paint all white people as monsters; it's symmetrical to Lovecraft's demonising of the Other—that is anyone who isn't a White Anglo-Saxon protestant. But it lacks the visual style that is required to make this shit work on screen, as we have seen in the hands of Guillermo del Toro (all his films), Ridley Scott (in Alien) and John Carpenter (in The Thing). Lovecraft Country seemed just right with Jordan Peele—who has reinvented the horror genre by looking at it from a black perspective with films such as Get Out and US—as one of the its executive producers. You'd expect it to evoke the old, primal horror of Lovecraft even as it critiques racism of old America. Instead we've got a show that doesn't get the original spirit of the author's works at all. Stanger Things was more Lovecraftian. So was Tumbbad. And The Lighthouse. And so many others.