The fantasy and science fiction world has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the works of HP Lovecraft. Prolific during the pulp era, Lovecraft has been incredibly influential in the development of modern fantasy, horror and science fiction. But it is also now widely acknowledged that Lovecraft’s work was informed by his own white supremist, racist and anti-Semitic attitudes. So much so that in 2015 the World Fantasy Awards stopped using an image of Lovecraft as its award statue. This followed a long campaign by fantasy authors, famously including Nnedi Okorafor, who, after winning the award, wrote about how conflicted she was about it: ‘A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honours as a writer’.
Which brings us to Lovecraft Country, a book by a white writer about a cast of black characters living in 1950s America. Those characters, some of them lovers of pulp science fiction and fantasy, reflect on their own problematic relationships with authors like Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Boroughs:
‘But you love these stories!’ Atticus said …
‘I do love them,’ George agreed. ‘But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. Their flaws are still there though.’
In the first of what turns out to be a collection of linked stories, Atticus’s father has disappeared, and Atticus travels from Chicago deep into traditional Lovecraft Country, the New England area of the United States, to find him, accompanied by his uncle George and his old friend Letitia . This first story digs deep into the Lovecraftian mythos with a hidden village called Ardham (reflecting Lovecraft’s own Arkham), strange creatures in the forest, a secret society and a blood-driven ritual to open a portal into the unknown.
Each of the stories that follows focusses on a different character and take a different pulp horror or science fiction trope as their basis. There is a haunted house, a gateway to distant planets, body swapping, evil dolls, communing with the dead and eldritch doorways. And through it all a battle among various sects of Lovecraftian organisations with Atticus, his family and friends caught in the middle.
The main characters have a much easier time dealing with the crazy unknown than with their lives in the America of the 1950s. The book opens with Atticus being pulled over arbitrarily by the police and having his gear, including a present for his uncle, ransacked. When Letitia buys into an all-white neighbourhood she is more threatened by the young white men who harass her than by any malevolent spirit. At one point Atticus, George and Letitia are pulled over by the police just for being black and driving a vehicle:
The next few moments unfolded with grim familiarity: They were ordered from the car; struck; searched; struck again; and finally marched to the back of the Packard and made to sit on the rear bumper with their hands behind their heads and their feet crossed in front of them.
But Ruff also looks at the positives: the way in which people come together when someone is in trouble. Or the way in which survivors of slavery dealt with their pain. One of the stories revolves around a book kept by Atticus’s ancestor Adah that recorded every day of her captivity and calculated the amount she was owed for her labour and the insults she suffered:
Ruth [Adah’s daughter] entered the figures in neat columns, subtotaled [sic] and summed them … But for Adah it was the count of days that carried the greater significance. Holding the completed Book in her hand, she realised that she’d completed some form of exorcism. Though the memories of slavery remained as sharp as ever, their weight had been transferred to the ledger’s pages. Now doubly and truly freed, she set about living the rest of the remainder of her life with a peace she hadn’t known before.
The key to this all is that none of Ruff’s characters are victims, even when they are on the losing side of the ongoing battle. And his ‘villain’, Caleb Braithwaite, is not a blatant racist in the way of many of the other white people they encounter.
Lovecraft Country was originally published in 2016. It has been given a new lease of life now as it is coming in mid-2020 as a series on HBO (the trailer for which has just dropped) with plenty of interesting folks attached, including Jordan Peele, Misha Green and JJ Abrams. Given the episodic nature of the stories, this is a book that feels ripe for adaptation.
Ruff pulls off a daring feat of his own in this book as he walks a tightrope between the pulp he is repurposing and his exploration of the racism in America that was inherent in those texts. And he succeeds in creating a series of creepy tales that also show how, for many black communities in America in the 1950s, the real demons were not hidden things that went bump in the night but were in plain sight in the wider society in which they lived.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.