Trouble in Lovecraft Country

Roger Luckhurst

Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country drops into the world of science-fiction and horror publishing at an interesting time. The fandom around this culture is arcane and probably irremediably nerdy to outsiders, but even “mundanes” (non-fans) must have registered something of the huge boom in Lovecraftian horror that has plumed out through film, TV, and video games into the general culture. You can’t move for cosmic pessimism (True Detective), visceral horror (Hannibal, The Walking Dead), or tentacular, slimy horrors (The Strain, the recent monster movie 10 Cloverfield Lane). Leading director Guillermo Del Toro’s whole career has been coiled around Lovecraft—and it is no surprise that he has long harbored the ambition to make a film of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Meanwhile, you can buy cute plushies of Lovecraft’s tentacled god Cthulhu and even get your Cthulhu 2016 presidential campaign T-shirt, bearing the legend NO LIVES MATTER. As this dubious last joke suggests, in the last few years this fandom has become a microcosm of the American public sphere and its fractured politics.

Sci-fi/horror fandom has displayed this contention nowhere more publicly than at the Hugo Awards, handed out at the annual World Science Fiction Convention. Since 2013, these awards have been hijacked by right-wingers angry at the liberal diversity that (they say) has ruined everything. The Award used to go to proper, virile, technophiliac science fiction: the right stuff. Now, so the argument goes, science fiction has been contaminated by all that awful race-blending, gender-blending stuff favored by liberals and pinkos. A tactical vote to ensure that the traditional values of rabid militaristic science fiction always get represented has skewed the democratic principles of the award, prompting flame wars, resignations, withdrawals, denunciations, and general chaos. Just Google “Sad Puppies” if you want a face full of vitriol.

This has also spilled over into the World Fantasy Award. In November 2015, it was announced that the trophy would no longer take the form of a bust of H. P. Lovecraft. Recent winners like Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar had raised the problem of how to accept an award that honored an avowedly racist author who wholly imbibed the white supremacist, nativist discourse of the 1920s and 1930s and considered Gothic fiction to be intrinsically a literature of the northern European Volk. When the decision to retire Lovecraft was announced, the famously bad-tempered Lovecraft editor and expert S. T. Joshi denounced the “social justice warriors” who had traduced his hero. He sent all his awards back in a huff. Cue more divisive mini-Trump tub-thumping.

<i>Lovecraft</i>. Photograph by  John Keogh / Flickr

H. P. Lovecraft has had an extraordinary posthumous career. He died in 1937, an obscure author who scraped a meager living from horror and science fiction pulps and the world of amateur magazines. Oblivion beckoned. But devoted friends and fans tended the flame, and the small press Arkham House was founded in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s stories. Then the eminent arbiter of literature Edmund Wilson dismissed these stories as “bad taste and bad art,” and a second blanket of obscurity descended. Yet Lovecraft’s career took off with best-selling paperback editions in the 1960s, B-movie adaptations began, and his influence on abject horror has been accelerating ever since. There is now even a philosophical school, the “weird realists” (like Graham Harman, or Eugene Thacker at the New School), who proclaim that we should probably stop reading Heidegger and Husserl and look to Lovecraft as the preeminent philosopher of the early-20th century instead.

For all his many faults, something crawls out from between Lovecraft’s awkward sentences and clumps of florid adjectives to catch the imagination. His work is vital to understanding the transition from the Protestant Gothic of the 18th and 19th centuries to modern secular horror, the terrors coiled in our biology and expanded astronomical horizons rather than in theological transgressions. Lovecraft tried to define his mode as “weird fiction,” marked, he said, by “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces,” and this has proved a highly durable formula. Once narrowly associated with the quintessential shudder-pulp magazine Weird Tales (started in 1923), weird fiction now has a lineage that stretches back to the wilder shores of European Romanticism and forward to the achingly hip contemporary writers of the “New Weird,” Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville.

Ruff’s Lovecraft Country neatly—even programmatically—ties many of these elements together. It is an episodic clutch of Lovecraftian (and other Gothic) pastiches set in the 1950s, strung together on a plot about Atticus Turner and various members of his family who are menaced by a secretive lodge of magicians intent on arranging the conditions for an ominous and likely world-shattering occult ritual. The twist is that Atticus and his relatives are all of African-American heritage, and the magicians are a conservative white fraternity, distributed in secret lodges across the country and intent on consolidating their power. Occult groups are traditionally hieratic and hierarchical; the Ancient Dawn is certainly all this, and not far from the Ku Klux Klan either. It transpires that the members of the black family are tied to the fate of these self-appointed white overlords through the legacies of slavery stretching back into the 19th century: their mixed blood lines bind them together.

If Lovecraft wrote pulp, Ruff is writing meta-pulp, or perhaps even meta-meta-pulp.

The narrative present of the novel is 1954, which allows Ruff to confront the tail end of segregation and violent resistance to the end of Jim Crow laws. This black family has achieved a considerable degree of independence and moves around by car, but still must consult the Safe Negro Travel Guide for secure routes. Ruff bases the guide on the real-life Negro Motorist Green-Book, published between 1936 and 1966 by Victor Green, a guide to “safe” places for blacks to eat, drink, get gas, stay overnight. It was also full of warnings about areas and towns where Jim Crow laws were still enforced. It is an early sign that Ruff has embedded a good deal of research underneath his punchy pulp prose and plotting.

The story travels back in time to address the question of reparations for the slave labor of one of Atticus’s great-grand-mothers in the 1870s, and one section is set in the midst of the notorious Tulsa race riot of 1921, when the black section of town was torched by resentful, rioting whites and hundreds were killed. In the 1950s, Ruff details surviving “sundown towns,” where, as the Negro Motorist was likely to advise, any police protection or rule of law ended for unlucky blacks caught out and about after nightfall. A sequence set in a haunted house is similarly interwoven with the historical record of how black families who moved into white neighborhoods were exploited by real estate agents, who could use prejudice to engineer profits, and who, once settled, experienced racial violence with little chance of redress. Vengeful ghosts shaking the walls double the structural violence on the streets outside.

One of the peculiar habits that Lovecraft passed on to weird fiction in general was a kind of anxious self-fashioning by writing fictions through heavily acknowledged debts to other texts. Lovecraft’s essay on the Gothic tradition, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” was a collection of influences on his own style and approach rather than a disinterested account of genre. He would build one text out of another, with his own At the Mountains of Madness serving as a sort of projected completion of the mysteriously irresolute ending of Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Lovecraft also delighted in pseudo-bibliography, the fabrication of plausible sounding books of unimaginable horror. That evil grimoire, the Necronomicon, is another Lovecraft invention with a remarkable afterlife, with many versions now in print or consulted in the Evil Dead films. Predictably, it ends up in Lovecraft Country too. This kind of intertextual work is often grasped as a way of legitimating a very low cultural form by inventing its own tradition.

Ruff’s pastiches of Lovecraft are similarly self-conscious. His characters in the 1950s are themselves obsessive readers of science fiction and horror, with piles of Ray Bradbury and Fritz Lieber sliding around in the back of the car, or bookshelves that are pored over and explicitly declared “Lovecraft Country: Algernon Blackwood, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, William Hope Hodgson, Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, and the man himself.” Ruff’s plots find an evocative image of their own origins here: “Atticus stopped at a red leather-bound volume that stuck out conspicuously from between The House on the Borderlands and Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The cover of the red book was embossed with the … words BY-LAWS AND PRECEPTS OF THE ADAMITE ORDER OF THE ANCIENT DAWN.” Press two (real) books together and a third (fictional) one is birthed from the act of conjuncture. Lovecraftian purists might balk at Ruff’s willingness to mix the magical and supernatural with the strictly materialist horrors of “cosmic indifference” that drive Lovecraft’s most powerful works, but Ruff is adopting the same intertextual tactics as his master. If Lovecraft wrote pulp, Ruff is writing meta-pulp, or perhaps even meta-meta-pulp.

A sketch of the fictional character Cthulhu, drawn by his creator, H. P. Lovecraft, Wikimeida

But the crucial question Lovecraft Country raises is what it means to take the notoriously racialized imagination of Lovecraft and try to make it address directly the question of racial prejudice in America. It is fairly well known that Lovecraft strongly self-identified as the last scion of two New England Puritan families and steeped himself in the world of pre-Independence colonial American history. He spent only two years away from his beloved Providence, Rhode Island when he married in 1924, and struggled to find a living in New York. The experience was profoundly traumatic for Lovecraft; he felt humiliated and ended up in poverty in the slums of Red Hook, then the largest port in the world and populated by a transitory, international community. At the time, Lovecraft was reading nativist racial theorists like Madison Grant, who warned that open immigration into New York by those tainted with “Asiatic” blood and the migration north by African Americans constituted the race suicide of the northern European stock that had first settled America.

Lovecraft’s important transitional horror story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” imagines a demonic underpinning to the monstrous miscegenation he saw in the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. His most accomplished horror story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” written almost as soon as he returned to Providence, reads like a transposition of this racial horror.

What Matt Ruff aims to achieve, I think, is at once an acknowledgement of this dark side of “Lovecraft Country” and an inoculation against it: that there can be a liberal appropriation and redirection of the Gothic that refuses any intrinsic link between the genre and mythologies of the Aryan North. I’m not sure Ruff is always successful in this aim, and there are some queasy moments where the pulp form feels inadequate to the complexity of the history evoked. A revision of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde story, for instance, featuring a black woman who drinks an elixir and “becomes white,” thus experiencing a different social reality, felt a little glib. Even so, there is consistently an energy and ambition in Lovecraft Country that wants to do something more than simply re-stage the same old moves of affective, abject horror.

Coincidentally, the black New York author Victor LaValle published his own Lovecraftian horror novella in spring 2016, The Ballad of Black Tom. This work occupies the marginal spaces of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” but explores the story’s Satanic priest Robert Suydam from the perspective of a young black guitar-player from Harlem who gets ensnared in Suydam’s devilish plans. It’s a simple yet clever way to think about Lovecraft in Red Hook at the same moment as the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Black Tom refuses simple oppositions or reversals, though, and is all the better for it. It does not flag its liberal intentions with the kind of explicit anxiety displayed by Ruff, and ends with an ambivalence that flows from a recognition of the compromised trajectories of racial politics in America since the 1920s. LaValle dedicates his book, “For H. P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” That feels right: an honest acknowledgement of the huge influence of “Lovecraft country,” but also how difficult it is to live there.