Lovecraft Country Probes Genre Roots

Adapted from a novel written by Matt Ruff, the new HBO show Lovecraft Country is a stunning example of a genre deconstructed. Set over the backdrop of America in the Jim Crow era, this spine-chilling series follows veteran Atticus Freeman on a journey to find his missing father. Accompanied by his uncle, a Greenbook publisher, and a childhood friend, the first episode finds the group encountering extreme racial violence in rural America…and shoggoths. Massive, pulsing blobs of flesh, eyes and teeth, these mythic beasts sound out-of-place in a story that is grounded in the real-world violence of America. What does a gibbering horror have to do with racism? Given the beast’s creator, quite a bit.

              Originally described by sci-fi and horror author H.P. Lovecraft, shoggoths are an integral part of Lovecraft’s literary mythos. Since its creation in 1921, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has maintained an endearing presence in contemporary horror circles. Fans and critics still marvel at the series’ unique themes, but modern discussion of these works has undergone a topical shift. One of the main focuses in modern Lovecraft discourse is the author’s vehement and blatant racism. Among Lovecraft’s many fictional writings, fans have found his vitriolic essays and personal letters on the subject of race in America. As these documents have started to circulate, people have brought Lovecraft’s work into the ever-growing discussion about morality. Specifically, they mention the ethical implications behind consuming the works of terrible people. Proposed solutions to this issue have ranged from Internet piracy to outright boycotts and cancel culture. In the case of Lovecraft Country, the answer comes in the form of genre mutation. The narrative calls attention to the racist past of Lovecraftian horror by aligning the themes of a Cthulhu story with the real-world experiences of segregated America.

              Thematically, Lovecraft’s novels are also a perfect fit for this story. The genre of Lovecraftian horror specifically focuses on ordinary people being exposed to ancient malevolent forces that underpin every aspect of human existence. Everything may seem normal but there is always an old god pulling the strings or a disgusting creature lurking in the shaded corner of the eye. Although the show has not granted viewers a peek at too many dread gods, it has illustrated the fact that the specter of overt, systemic racism is always lurking in the towns that Atticus passes through. The sun does not need to set for these horrors to emerge. They are always present.

The means by which the showrunners examine omnipresent racism range from overt antagonists, like corrupt cops, to various filming locations. The first episode of the show does feature a brief scene in the town of Woodstock, Illinois, a town that has had a history of active KKK demonstrations as recently as the mid-90s. While this blink-and-miss-it scene may not expose a lot of the town’s racist history, it still leaves the viewers who are familiar with the setting to wonder if that rally was really the last cry from the hate group in that area. Have they left or are they lurking just outside of one’s field of view? That scene alone proves the merit of Lovecraft Country as a piece of Lovecraftian literature. In a true Lovecraftian fashion, this short scene had me questioning my subjective reality of the town in which I grew up.

Overall, I found the first episode to be a promising start. It did move a bit slow at times and it did lose some of the topical reality to overt weirdness. Even so, I am eager to see where it goes from here. The first episode of the series is currently free on YouTube.