HBO’s exciting and scary new series seems to miss the point of Lovecraft’s work
H.P. Lovecraft didn’t win much public recognition or commercial success during his lifetime. He didn’t live like a king. At his lowest points, the struggling writer had to get through days at a time on scraps of food. Some posit that a poor diet overly reliant on canned beans helped cause his death at just forty-six. How little Lovecraft could have imagined, when turning out stories for Weird Tales and other low-paying pulp magazines in the 1920s, that a century later you couldn’t walk down the street in some cities without seeing his name painted in big stylish letters, or open a newspaper or go online without finding references to him.
Imagine if he were alive now. Lovecraft was a man of vast intellectual curiosity whose antiquarian tastes existed in harmony with an interest in scientific and technological advances. Surely, Lovecraft’s shock upon learning of the advent of a cable program called Lovecraft Country, and seeing it discussed and analyzed on a website, would pass. This wouldn’t be the real kicker.
Lovecraft could hardly have begun to envision how the writers and producers of the new HBO program, Lovecraft Country, would use, or decline to use, his distinctive fictional subjects and tropes. The decisions and choices made by Matt Ruff, author of the novel on which the program is based, and the program’s creators, showrunner Misha Green and executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, are nothing if not inventive.
A Modern-Day Odyssey
Lovecraft Country is a series of linked narratives about a young black man in 1950s Chicago named Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors); his father, Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams), who is missing at the outset; his bookish and sympathetic uncle, George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance); his spunky love interest, Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett); and myriad supporting characters, ranging from members of the extended Freeman family to vicious redneck cops looking for an excuse to arrest and beat black people, to sinister members of a secret order, to ordinary whites whose casual racism comes across as subtly as a dentist’s drill.
Early in the first episode, Atticus reads a note in what may be his long-missing father’s handwriting and resolves to set out with George and Leti on a road trip from Chicago to a location in Massachusetts where the father may be. As they make their way east, the three run into monsters of both the fantastic and the human variety. The former include horrific, slobbering beasts that can rip victims apart, and the latter are whites who never miss a chance to belittle, tease, assault, and in some cases hunt down any black citizens who cross their threshold.
In the course of their travels, the protagonists meet Christina Braithwaite (Abbey Lee), an icy white woman affiliated with the weird and sinister Sons of Adam, and her right-hand man, William (Jordan Patrick Smith), and have many adventures and brushes with death before winding up back in a Chicago neighborhood where the enmity of white neighbors reaches nightmarish levels. In one episode, young white punks burn a cross on the family’s lawn, tie a brick to a horn in a nearby car to keep it blaring all night, and break into the home with baseball bats, looking for targets. Overt racism is everywhere. Forget about fine distinctions. The swath of U.S. depicted here might as well be called the “Jim Crow North.”
Lovecraft Country has attractive and (mostly) likable protagonists, exciting chase and fight scenes, and effective scares. There is lush photography and interesting period detail, including some lively musical numbers. And a bit of the dialogue, particularly between Atticus and his uncle, is fairly literate, making reference not only to Lovecraft but to Lovecraft’s contemporaries in the weird and speculative fields. (If you don’t know who Clark Ashton Smith was, you should. Maybe the program will make people want to go and look him up.)
The program weaves together personal drama, social history, and fantastic, nail-biting scenarios. But it’s likely that Lovecraft would question certain choices made by the show’s creators, and he’s not the only one. To put it bluntly, the creators of Lovecraft Country don’t appear particularly interested in what Lovecraft and his work are about.
Getting Lovecraft Right
Any book, film, or program with Lovecraft in its title raises certain questions. Good and authoritative books, articles, and movies exist. But there is so much misinformation, ignorant commentary, character assassination, and blatant misappropriation—so much garbage—that one looks uncertainly at new works, wondering on which side of the divide they will land. Lovecraft was a complex man and a challenging writer about whom many have made and continue to make galling and ghastly mistakes, and those who purport to analyze and explain Lovecraft, or works about or inspired by Lovecraft, are often the worst offenders.
On August 7, the New York Times published a lengthy article by Alexis Soloski about Lovecraft Country and about the work and life of Lovecraft himself. Reading it, one wonders whether Soloski has read a word of Lovecraft or bothered to gain any acquaintance with the biographies and critical commentary.
Soloski begins by calling Lovecraft “the widely cited if narrowly read pulp writer from the early 20th century,” and slanders her subject as a writer of “turgid prose.”
It’s quite true that more people cite Lovecraft than read his work and get him right, and Soloski’s article is a prime example. One stupefyingly ignorant and false statement follows another. She writes that “blatant racism and sexual phobias blight much of his work.” Soloski does not provide a jot of textual evidence for these sexual phobias.
As for racism, yes, some of Lovecraft’s letters and juvenilia express ugly sentiments. In that regard, he was a man of his time. But the literary scholar and author S.T. Joshi, widely recognized as the world’s leading Lovecraft expert, and author of the 1,200-page biography I Am Providence, has carefully analyzed the writer’s corpus of stories, novellas, and sketches in numerous articles, essays, and blog posts and has concluded that racism is central neither to Lovecraft’s work nor his thought. Lovecraft’s work conveys a philosophy of atheistic materialism, and a deep concern with man’s place in the cosmos, and the few racist sentiments Lovecraft expressed here and there are an incidental distraction from his artistic and philosophical concerns.
Yet Soloski is determined to ridicule and lampoon Lovecraft as a bigot. In an August 11 tweet linking to her own article, Soloski quips, “H.P. Lovecraft: racist, nativist, xenophobic, weird about sex and tentacles, probably not posthumously thrilled that a Jewish lady is writing about him in the New York Times. But ahead of ‘Lovecraft Country,’ here’s a primer on the man and his influence.”
Readers might get the impression that Lovecraft was pretty much your quintessential blueblood bigot. One would never guess that in 1924 Lovecraft married a Jewish lady, Sonia Greene, who believed in him and his supposedly overtly racist writing enough to support him financially during their marriage. Sadly, their union ended in 1926, but it’s still a peculiar choice for a closed-minded anti-Semitic bigot to have made. Soloski also appears ignorant of the fact that, as Joshi has pointed out on his blog, Lovecraft voiced his admiration for the Hasidic Jews of the Lower East Side because they strongly upheld their religious and cultural heritage. Moreover, Soloski blithely disregards Lovecraft’s acknowledged importance in the intellectual lives of such non-racists as Joyce Carol Oates, Jose Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, and Ramsey Campbell.
In a conversation with this writer, Joshi offered the following critique: “The chief deficiency of the article, all apart from a total failure to grasp the nuances of Lovecraft’s views on race, is the flatly wrong and simple-minded assertion that Lovecraft is just a ‘pulp writer’ whose primary purpose is to scare the reader. Soloski has failed to grasp the enormous volume of critical and scholarly work done on Lovecraft over the past fifty years or so, which has displayed the profound depths of Lovecraft’s fiction and its emergence out of his complex philosophy of atheistic materialism.”
Joshi also rightly objects to Soloski’s disparagement of the literary merits of Lovecraft’s work. Again, one wonders how much Lovecraft Soloski has sat down and read. If she had done even minimal reading, she would have encountered passages of tremendous resonance. Joshi states, “In fact, Lovecraft wrote some of the most vibrant, musical, and poetic prose in the entire range of Anglophone literature. He is a master of English prose, working in a well-defined tradition of ‘Asianic’ (i.e., flowery, richly textured, and evocative) prose that stretches back to at least the 16th century. If Lovecraft is ‘turgid,’ then so are Henry James, William Faulkner, and Gore Vidal.”
While acknowledging the popularity of Lovecraft Country and other pop-culture works referencing Lovecraft, Soloski appears not to know or care that one of the world’s greatest publishers, the Library of America—our equivalent to France’s esteemed Pleaides series—has seen fit to include Lovecraft’s works in its eminent list of titles. In Soloski’s article, there is no attempt to explain why the Library of America has chosen to immortalize Lovecraft over scores of other American writers. One gathers that the editors of the venerable series have a taste for turgid prose and that they have no literary judgment at all compared to Alexis Soloski.
This is the kind of nonsense you get when a New York Times reporter in 2020 tries to apply her woke sensibility to a profound and accomplished thinker and writer.
Ghost Story Writer?
Another common error, made by fans and detractors alike, is to mischaracterize Lovecraft and his artistic concerns. For example, a press release put out by the University of Kansas in 2016 regarding a faculty member’s new book on Peter Straub referred to “the great American tradition of ghost stories established by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and H.P. Lovecraft.”
That’s a whopper. Lovecraft most definitely did not write ghost stories. Myriad weirdos and villains populate his tales, but they are not at all about dead people returning as ghosts to haunt the living. The tales are largely about a universe in which races of beings displaced and sent into exile long ago seek to regain their dominance of the earth, with all the hellish consequences for humanity that this entails. Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and other Lovecraftian deities are not, repeat, not ghosts. This is no hair-splitting point. Someone labeling Lovecraft a ghost-story writer is rather like a sports writer calling Barry Bonds one of the all-time great pitchers in baseball history, or a music critic calling Jimi Hendrix a pioneering drummer. Ouch!
Just as some people misuse “Kafkaesque” to refer to anything a little strange, others misuse “Lovecraftian” for anything related to horror and the supernatural. Which brings us back to Lovecraft Country.
Here, alas, is the trap into which the makers of Lovecraft Country have fallen. They appear to have no particular interest in or knowledge of Lovecraft, and have packed the show with all manner of horror tropes ranging from trite to silly.
In an early episode, after racist cops stop the three travelers in a remote place, and several grotesque and bloodthirsty beasts interrupt the arrest by driving everybody off into the woods, one of the protagonists asks whether someone bitten by a vampire will turn into a vampire. The question seems out of place in a show with this title. Lovecraft was no more a vampire story writer than a ghost story writer.
In another episode, a bunch of children using a Ouija board receive strange and ominous messages, including a reference (spoiler alert!) to one of the original trio who set out from Chicago and who has since been killed off. Again, here is a generic horror trope that could turn up in any scary movie. Ouija boards were the subject of a cheesy teen horror franchise kicked off by a Michael Bay-produced shocker, Ouija, in 2014. At least the makers of that lowbrow entry had the taste not to try to cash in on Lovecraft’s legacy.
In yet another episode, we find an even more blatant example of a non-Lovecraftian conceit at work. During the aforementioned home invasion by the racist white punks wielding baseball bats, an elevator, seemingly possessed by a demonic force, rushes from floor to floor at speeds high enough to decapitate anyone dumb or clumsy enough to stick his head into the shaft. The camera lingers at length on the bloody aftermath of a decapitation. Here’s a scene that recalls the kind of horror Stephen King wrote, in short stories like 1972’s “The Mangler,” about an industrial laundry press taken over by a demonic force, and in novels like 1983’s Christine, about a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Other episodes of Lovecraft Country depict characters donning, and later shedding in spectacularly grisly fashion, the skin of another person, often someone of a different race, rather like the alien in the Scarlet Johansson vehicle Under the Skin—a familiar horror trope. It is not in any sense Lovecraftian.
Examples of these generic horror tropes pile up and pile up until the viewer wonders whether the show’s makers could have called it King Country, or Straub Country, or Koontz Country, or even Barker Country—Clive Barker sets much of his work in America—and with roughly the same amount of fealty to the supposed progenitor of the horrors depicted.
There’s a hokey feel about the whole thing. Absent from Lovecraft Country is the distinct ambiance of Lovecraft’s work. Gone is the sensitive, eloquent cosmicism, the sense of isolation in a strange cosmos full of vast unknown and unsuspected depths, that inspired none other than Joyce Carol Oates to write, “There is a melancholy, operatic grandeur in Lovecraft’s most passionate work … a curious elegiac poetry of unspeakable loss, of adolescent despair, and an existential loneliness so pervasive that it lingers in the reader’s memory, like a dream, long after the rudiments of Lovecraftian plot have faded.”
In the five episodes of Lovecraft Country that HBO made available for screening, you’ll find many bigoted, evil, greedy, scheming, callous, brutal, and murderous white characters, and not a single good one or a single positive interaction with a white person.
The white racism depicted here is universal. It doesn’t matter whether Atticus and company are traveling through the woods on their way to Massachusetts, or sitting in a diner in a small town, or at home in Chicago. The woods are full of redneck cops who threaten any black person within municipal limits with arrest or worse if found there after sundown.
A racist diner employee disappears into a back room in order to call a bunch of armed good ol’ boys in a pickup to come after the black interlopers. The whites in Chicago turn cheerfully to harassment, intimidation, and finally violence to terrorize and drive away their black neighbors, and cops smugly refuse to do anything about it. The best that one can say for the whites in Lovecraft Country is that some of them are more passive in their racism than others; they condescend rather than actively seeking to harm.
One doubts that the Maoist Revolutionary Worker newspaper on a bad day would print such a baldly preposterous caricature of white citizens and of race relations. The show doesn’t acknowledge inconvenient realities like the fact that, in a roughly contemporaneous period of American history in the 1960s, white-majority cities in both the North and South were electing black mayors. An awful lot of racists must have unlearned their deeply ingrained racism pretty fast. Lovecraft Country shows no interest in the complex and intimate interrelationship between blacks and whites all through the last century in the places it purports to depict or in the long and proud tradition of Northern abolitionism and involvement in the civil-rights struggle.
The show’s philosophy seems to be that if you’ve been exposed to racism, it’s okay to be racist yourself. In scene after scene, the protagonists openly dislike and resent whites. I wasn’t quite sure how to take it when one of them refers to a female character as a “cracker bitch.” Does he call her that because she’s white or because she’s really a demon? It may be that in the idiom of this show, they’re the same thing.
Many people respect executive producer Jordan Peele for having crafted a perceptive, nuanced portrait of white liberal racism in his 2017 film Get Out, where a wealthy white family showers ostentatious and condescending flattery on a black guest. It’s not widely acknowledged that someone else did this much earlier, and better. From a certain point of view, Get Out is a genre derivative of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, in which a wealthy Chicago family, the Daltons, infuriate their new driver, Bigger Thomas, with a constant show of condescending generosity and kindness. Peele’s new creation, Lovecraft Country, doesn’t even rise to the level of derivative intelligence and perceptiveness that Get Out achieved. The vision of race relations in the Chicago of Lovecraft Country is propaganda.
If you want to read gushing reviews of Lovecraft Country, there are plenty of those available elsewhere on the web. It is unlikely that any of these quibbles will make much of a difference to the millions of people who will watch Lovecraft Country.
But thinking people really should reserve their acclaim for work that carries on what is finest in the tradition established all those decades ago by the gentleman from Providence, and avoid lavishing undue praise on a depressing work that is neither insightful as social commentary, nor in any real sense Lovecraftian.