Welcome to Lovecraft Country, where cosmic horror is a white people problem

, | Book reviews

In Lovecraft Country, being called a nigger, refused service at a restaurant, harassed by the police, or treated with contempt by an elite coven of warlocks is just another day. This cast of black characters living in Chicago in 1954 is accustomed to America. They have learned to navigate it. Literally. One of the main characters publishes a travel guide called The Safe Negro Travel Guide. It steers black people around — or, if necessary, through — the more virulent racism in America, especially where Jim Crow laws are still in effect. Which restaurants will serve black customers? Which highways should you not be on after dark? Which garages can you call if your car breaks down?

So the characters in Lovecraft Country don’t seem terribly surprised by the idea that maybe the universe is a vast and ancient expanse of indifference at best, outright hostility at worst. Why would someone go insane from learning what minorities know every day? If you look into the abyss long enough, you still have to ride in the back of the bus on your way to work.

Matt Ruff’s novel cleverly and competently assembles a clutch of Lovecraft tropes to make a heavy-handed but effective point about racism. But this is still a horror novel. It’s not a parody. Although the Lovecraftian horror is a metaphor, it’s still Lovecraftian horror. An invulnerable cult leader, mysterious tomes, portals to other worlds, horrible things lurking in the woods, the ghosts of men who dabbled in forbidden knowledge, demonic familiars, creatures with teeth and tentacles. It’s all here, in a somewhat disjointed episodic format with wonderfully playful titles. “Dreams in the Which House”, for instance, is about buying a house in a white neighborhood. That happens to be haunted.

Lovecraft’s upper-class professors and privileged dilettantes in New England, every last one of them white, could get straight to the heart of the matter. But these characters first have to deal with the racist cops patrolling the road on the way to the cultist’s remote village. The main character, Atticus Turner, fought in the Korean War, but no one is going to let him check out a book from the Miskatonic Library. Herbert West, Charles Dexter Ward, and Wilbur Whateley, all blissfully ignorant about social injustice, had it easy.

In most Lovecraft, there’s a narrator who serves as witness to the madness and insanity, or at least the witness to a witness. During one of the later chapters in Lovecraft Country, Atticus’ elderly father recalls his own childhood, when a lynching turned into a gunfight between the town’s whites and blacks. It’s the perfect expression of this book’s take on Lovecraftian mythos.

I saw my father had been shot in the side and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He had this look on his face. Horror. Horror at the universe. I was too young to understand it. I thought he was afraid because he was dying, but that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t until I had a son of my own…that I understood what he felt.

He wasn’t afraid for himself. He was afraid for me. He wanted to protect me. He had: He had saved my life, getting me away from that gunfight. But the night wasn’t over and he knew he wasn’t going to be there to see me through it. That’s the horror, the most awful thing: to have a child the world wants to destroy and know you’re helpless to help him. Nothing worse than that. Nothing worse.

Why get worked up about the universe wanting to destroy your child when the locals will probably get to him first?

The family angle is also a unique aspect of Lovecraft Country. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, being a bit of a hermit, didn’t write a lot about relationships among people. Families tended to consist of distant uncles writing distraught nephews they haven’t seen in years. There’s nary a female character to be found. But Ruff’s novel goes well beyond one man. It’s about a family, and that family’s community, and their shared experience with the atrocity of institutionalized racism. It’s about women. It’s even about children. One episode seems to be a nod to Stephen King’s cliques of geeky kid heroes. The boys in Lovecraft Country have to brave the white owner of a comic book store (these kids even play boardgames!). A boy named Neville imagines racism as a demon.

…he picked up the telephone and got connected to the operator in Biloxi. This is Neville Porter calling person-to-person for Mr. Porter, Neville said. The operator, a white woman who sounded old and was probably hard of hearing, said, What’s the name of the party you wish to speak to? Mr. Porter, Neville repeated. His first name, said the operator. It’s OK, Neville told her, it’s a private house. There’s only one Mr. Porter there.

Which is when the demon came out.

Now you listen to me good, you goddamned pickaninny, the demon said. If you think I’m going to call a nigger “Mister,” you’ve got another think coming. What’s his name? N-N-Nelson, Neville said. The demon mocked his stammer, then made him apologize and address her as “ma’am” before finally putting the call through. By then, Neville didn’t even want to talk to his grandpa anymore. Didn’t want to talk to anybody.

“Why didn’t you just hang up?” Curtis asked. “On the operator, I mean, not your grandpa.”

“I couldn’t,” said Neville. “It would have been disrespectful.”

“So? She was disrespectful to you. And what’s she going to do about it anyway, from a thousand miles away?”

“She’s not a thousand miles away from my grandpa. What if she really got mad and talked to the other operators down there? You think he’d ever get a phone call again?”

Curtis reared back in outrage. “They can’t do that!”

“It’s Mississippi, stupid,” Neville said. “They can do whatever they like.”

I picked up Lovecraft Country because I’d read that Jordan Peele was producing it as a series for HBO. Peele is riding high on the success of Get Out, another example of “hey, you got your social commentary in my horror”. I credit Lovecraft Country with helping me understand Get Out a little better. As a horror movie fan, I really liked what Get Out was attempting, by using the experience of racism in the context of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Stepford Wives story. That aspect of Get Out was cleverly written, and it was played with heart and gravity by the tremendously talented Lakeith Stanfield, Betty Gabriel, and especially Daniel Kaluuya. The way Gabriel used her face to convey thinly veiled horror was one of the most frightening things you’ll see this year, easily on par with anything James McAvoy was doing with his face in Split.

But my problem with Get Out was Peele’s tendency to revert to the sketch comedy tone of his stuff on Key and Peele. It felt out of place. The ridiculous TSA character, played by comic actor LilRel Howery, smacked of shucking and jiving. Why was that in a movie where the tone of paranoia and suspicion was so fundamental? Why the triumphant bitch-smacking finale? Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Stepford Wives were deeply cynical and unremittingly dark social fables. They didn’t have clowns. They didn’t draw hopeful conclusions. They were dire warnings.

Something similar happens in Lovecraft Country. Protagonists in cosmic horror don’t tend to fare well. There’s not a lot of triumph in a vast, indifferent, madness-inducing universe stocked with slumbering malevolent gods. Yet Lovecraft Country, where the characters directly encounter alien worlds, horrible creatures, and evil magicks, has a light touch. It walks you through the outlines of Lovecraftian horror with a spring in its step and a Scooby-Doo can-do attitude towards its cults, ghosts, and sanity-blasting tomes. It’s sometimes more Goosebumps that Great Old Ones. LilRel Howley’s TSA agent would feel right at home, Jim Crow laws excepted.

But perhaps this note of optimism is warranted. Racism is a horrible blight, more real than cosmic horror, more tangible, more in-your-face. Certainly more every day. But we can react to racism. We can shine a light on it and attempt to drive it away. The reaction to racism shouldn’t be resignation to a horrific ending. That’s not how the civil rights movement happened. Maybe stories about racism should have happy endings because they can have happy endings. The Jim Crow laws were abolished. The Supreme Court said no to segregated schools and yes to mixed race marriages. Whatever you think of the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter”, it’s a reminder that some people have cause to fear the men and women who are supposed to protect them, and now the men and women who are supposed to protect them are watched more closely. Hundreds of protesters outnumbered the white nationalists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia. A xenophobic and racist bully has appropriated one and a half branches of our government, which has emboldened racists. But it has also brought them into the open where they can’t dog whistle to each other from the shadows. Get Out and Lovecraft Country have earned their lighter touch and their optimism. They deserve it. Not all horror has to end in a padded cell.