It is a peculiar sensation, reading while Black—more precisely, reading white authors while Black. Toni Morrison described encountering racist stereotypes in the writings of Hemingway, Cather, or Faulkner: “I skipped that part. Read over it. Because I loved those books. I loved them. So, when they said these things that were profoundly racist, I forgave them.”1 One ever feels the two-ness, overcome by art, and, yet, at enough of a remove to be in a position to judge and forgive. Morrison, of course, was speaking in hindsight then, her status as a literary giant already etched in stone. Maybe magnanimity comes more easily to monuments of literature, or maybe she was simply describing one of many instances when she felt compelled to bypass racism and its tiresome omnipresence to focus on whatever gem she might find in the sewage. A foregoing, more than a forgiving. There’s just too much racism in literature to let it ruin all art.
Still, racism is not really that easy to ignore, especially when it plays an essential role in an author’s style. Case in point: H. P. Lovecraft, the recluse of Providence, was arguably the godfather of modern cosmic horror. He was also a rabid, obsessive, paranoiac racist. And while Faulkner might have recognized slavery as America’s original sin, for Lovecraft the sin was interracial contact and other perceived assaults on white racial purity. The frontier, that old American myth, is, in Lovecraft, the source of all nightmares. What lies beyond accepted boundaries—concrete or metaphorical; borders, color lines, bloodlines—is chaos.
How do Black readers deal with the violence of these beliefs, circulating unimpeded as they do in Lovecraft’s prose? And, it must be asked, how do Black viewers deal with this same violence in the glossy new HBO adventure Lovecraft Country?
Even as it leverages African American history, sarcasm, and humor against racist bile, much of the show appears dedicated to finding a formula in which genre clichés—however racist—just have to be painted over, so as to be enjoyed without guilt. It is a tenet of the horror genre to challenge us to ponder how and why we can find enjoyment in rehearsals of abjection, cruelty, violence, and fear. But writers and filmmakers are not exempt, and Lovecraft Country has a few things to account for.
Lovecraft’s influence on the horror genre is difficult to overstate. In the eight decades since his death, in 1937, Lovecraft’s fictional world has been more or less obliquely celebrated in literature and games (whether video games, card games, or board games), as well as in numerous comics, songs, and films. A prolific writer, Lovecraft during his life corresponded with a wide circle of authors young and old, many of whom would end up contributing their own writing to expand what is known as the Cthulhu Mythos, the ensemble of stories and legends that make up Lovecraft’s fictional world.
Most of Lovecraft’s stories take place in fictional towns and cities of a New England buried in dark vales or beaten by the waves. These locales bend under the weight of generations of unspoken horrors: inbreeding and insanity, ancestral sins, pacts with monsters and extradimensional, evil deities.
An Anglo-Saxon white supremacist, Lovecraft saw contact with what he deemed to be inferior races as a risk of devolution to a more primordial state of being perhaps best embodied by Cthulhu: A “monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers.”2 Cthulhu is the most famous of the Old Ones, a pantheon of outsized alien deities lying in wait at the threshold of the world.
If Faulkner brushes a coat of the gothic over the South’s racial derangement, in order to paint his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Lovecraft drenches the Northeast in buckets of cosmic horror. In very different ways—and rather unwittingly, in Lovecraft’s case—both writers strip bare the pretenses of stateliness, civilization, and poise of their respective settings, revealing—for those who would look—what lurks beneath: the monsters that racism made and how they perpetuate it. However familiar to Black readers, it is not an easy sight to see.
What to make with this uneasiness? When asked about Lovecraft, writer Victor LaValle responded: “If you have an uncle or an aunt who’s not a terribly good person, but they’ve been good to you when you were young in some small way, it’s very difficult to stop loving them entirely.”3 For LaValle as for Morrison, not quite spoken but clearly hinted at is the notion that selective reading and other such navigation skills are part and parcel of being Black in a white world. They return us to Du Bois’s classic description of living Black in America as a state in which, “One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”4
Du Bois appears to apply a central element of R. L. Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to translate the formidable and terrifying effort required to be Black in America. Where the mad white scientist changed at will to satisfy unholy urges, African Americans struggle not to be torn apart by the contradictory demands of Black existence in white-supremacist, Jim Crow United States.
Take this racial metaphor, make it literal again, and you will have one of the several intersecting plotlines that make up Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and its recent adaptation, by Misha Green, for HBO. The 2016 novel follows Atticus “Tic” Turner, a young man returning from the Korean war, as he goes looking for his missing father, Montrose. Backed by aunt Hippolyta and uncle George, their son Horace, and his childhood friend Letitia and her sister Ruby, Tic uncovers the ties that bind his family to the Braithwhites, wealthy white New England gentry. Weirdness ensues.
A somewhat clunky book, Ruff’s novel seems to engage with Lovecraft as an afterthought; a late addition sprinkled here and there, mostly in the form of metaliterary nods. To be sure, the novel points out that Tic and his family are all nerdy readers, and it hails Black nerds through references to science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. The characters bring up and discuss Lovecraft’s books: in a somewhat heavy-handed scene, as he tries to find, on a map, the place where his father went, Tic mistakes the town name Ardham for Arkham, Lovecraft’s fictionalized version of Salem, MA. Later, Tic designates a shelf lined with contributions to the mythos as “Lovecraft Country.”
There is a reason Black authors have rewritten, rather than merely reused, the horrors of crazy white literary uncles.
Not a place but the outlandish fiction of one, then. Lovecraft Country—as seen in H. P. Lovecraft’s original writings and in such crucial vehicles for the mythos as the tabletop role-playing game Call of Cthulhu—is not just a place; it is also a time. It is the Jazz Age, seen not from the Cotton Club but from the Klan Halls popping up like mushrooms around the country in the decades when Lovecraft wrote his most memorable works. Although Ruff gestures to that time by placing Montrose and George in Tulsa during the 1921 massacre, setting his novel at the onset of the civil rights movement unmoors Lovecraft’s horror fiction from the horror of Lovecraft’s time.
Much of the novel develops in this space—not quite Lovecraft but close enough. Lovecraft in the end is but a pretext with which Ruff does not seem eager to engage. Thus, to evoke the particular problems of reading Lovecraft while Black, the characters produce a copy of Lovecraft’s now infamous poem, “On the Creation of Niggers.” It’s a convenient shortcut for Lovecraft’s racism, but it is also unearned: this abominable doggerel was never actually published anywhere until 1978. Were all of Lovecraft’s writings this unredeemable, no Black reader would have ever bothered with him.
But as LaValle suggests, those Black readers who ever got into Lovecraft usually met him early along the way, at an age when coping with nasty literary uncles of dubious mental hygiene and questionable style might describe one’s entire school-reading schedule. His response, as an adult writer, was to show the ghastly uncle what’s what: LaValle’s 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom takes Lovecraft’s most overtly racist short story, “The Horror at Red Hook”—a xenophobic fever dream that should be taught in history classes, about the 1921/1924 Emergency Quota Act and 1924 Immigration Act—and retells it from the point of view of a central Black character.
This is a rewriting of wrongs in the same tradition that saw Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or Alice Randall’s Wind Done Gone straighten Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. This is what it takes to kill a ghost. But, then, maybe this very one never quite haunted Ruff—who happens to be white—quite the same way.
In Misha Green’s HBO adaptation, racism is the constant that ties Lovecraft Country to the US across time. It is an idea hammered home, notably, through a gleefully anachronistic soundtrack bouncing 60 years of pop music against two centuries of American history. The notion also shines through in the series’ central intrigue, which revolves around a very American story: the Braithwhites are related to Tic’s family by blood. Hannah, Tic’s mother’s ancestor, was enslaved and raped by the family’s patriarch, Titus Braithwhite. Although she managed to escape his estate when it burned down and killed him, Hannah did give birth to Titus’ descendant: the ancestor to Tic’s mother. The show expands, significantly, on the plotline connecting the family to the Tulsa Massacre. It also features new, drastic changes: cousin Horace becomes Diana, and Caleb Braithwhite becomes Christina; we follow Tic during his service in the Korean War, where he meets and falls in love with Ji-Ah, a woman possessed by a kumiho; Tic’s father Montrose is portrayed living a life on the down low as a closeted gay man.
Meanwhile, in the 1950s, the Sons of Adam—a society of terminally male, white wizards—need Titus’s direct descendant to work their magic. “The power of the true philosopher is carried in the blood … Diluted, no doubt, and also tainted somewhat,” says the elder Braithwhite to Tic, in the novel, and nothing in either book or series comes to contradict this line. The logic of blood purity that so obsessed Lovecraft reigns here, as well, as confirmed in gaudy, gory fashion in Tic’s Christ-like sacrifice in the season finale.
Spoiler alert: Tic seemingly dies, bled dry by Aryan ice queen Christina Braithwhite but secure in the knowledge that his sacrifice helped defeat her and preserved the “line,” living in Leti’s womb. The Turners have taken over the bloodline, made (Braith) white magic theirs, and Tic’s son will grow up to become a writer: all is well that will never end well.
For good measure, the final scene of the season finale delivers a shocking punchline: Dee, now sporting a bionic arm (long story), crushes Christina Braithwhite’s windpipe as she lies stuck under a collapsed structure. Ding dong, the witch is dead.
There’s no telling if Christina Braithwhite’s end—or anyone else’s, for that matter—is final. Lovecraft Country may be shooting for a second season, in which case we’re likely to see resurrections; this season, after all, already treated us to several risings from the dead, including one by Christina. The egregious circumstances of her prior second coming deserve special scrutiny, as I believe it illustrates how this show goes awry.
Among the most significant additions to the novel’s plot is the introduction of Emmet Till as a minor character. “Bobo” appears in episode 3 as one of Tic’s cousin Dee’s playmates, who finds out from a Ouija board that he will not enjoy his upcoming trip down South. But Till goes from uneasy Easter egg (he is not named in this episode) to a red thread of horror. His murder and subsequent funeral in Chicago play a central part in episode 8, “Jig-a-Bobo.” Ruby, visiting her lover and partner in transformation Christina Braithwhite, after attending Emmet Till’s funeral, asks her if she cares: “No,” the Aryan maven responds, “I don’t care about Emmet Till … and I don’t think you really do either.” Ruby is left to ponder whether that is true.
Christina finds out for herself what it’s like to die like Emmet: she pays two goons to beat her, tie a cotton gin fan around her neck with barbed wire, and dump her in the river, mirroring the teenage boy’s murder at the hands of Southern men accusing him of whistling at a white woman. The entire scene is shot in close-up and real time. Seconds after going under, a gasping Christina comes up for air, sobbing. She is back from the dead, and, soon, her cries seem to turn to laughter. Scene.
What is the point of this scene? At “best,” this is the old sensationalist, sensibility trick once regularly used by certain abolitionist writers: How does it feel to see the blonde girl treated like a black boy? They thought white readers might be best moved by imagining themselves, or light-skinned enough characters, in the place of actual slaves, whose Blackness might be too alienating. At worst, this is a leery, self-satisfied bit of torture porn masquerading as a lesson of some sort. It leaves the horror of Till’s death off-screen, even as it offers to regale us with its pale copy (pun intended).
In 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley’s harrowingly courageous decision to keep her son’s casket open at the funeral, and let the whole world see the horror perpetrated on her son, made a profound cultural difference: it dared expose the true horror of racist violence. If the show rightfully spares us that sight, it also eschews the righteousness of Till-Mobley, for one simple reason: in Lovecraft Country the senseless violence of lynching is turned into entertainment.
Reflecting in a daze on seeing Till’s maimed body at the funeral, Ruby whispers, “He looked like a monster.” The comment expresses the season’s not so subtle refrain: maybe everyone’s a little monstrous. As a soldier in Korea, Tic tortured and killed women; Dee, as we’ve seen, becomes a cold-blooded executioner. Ruby herself, given a Jekyll/Hyde potion by Christina, finds in her white persona the freedom to act mercilessly: she gores a rapist by showing just where he (or she, as it were) can shove her high heels. We are left to appreciate the carnage: he certainly deserved it, and, at this remove, we’re sure to keep our hands clean.
This, ultimately, throws in relief for Lovecraft Country’s central problem: for all its posturing about horror literature, it does that not to take the genre or its stakes as seriously as its horror-loving characters would. Using Lovecraft and his writings as placeholders for American racism at large—and leaving them broadly untouched—the show makes racism little more than a vivid backdrop to the protagonists’ adventures.
All we get is a trite epiphany: if everyone’s a bit of a monster, maybe rather than engage the nasty uncle, we can do shots with him, get white-girl wasted. None of this is real: tomorrow morning, when we wake up hungover, we can all pretend we blanked out and promise we will never do it again.
There is a reason Black authors have rewritten, rather than merely reused, the horrors of crazy white literary uncles, taken their words apart and reorganized them, rather than simply pointed at them. Rewriting is magic; it casts a new spell to undo the old ones.
But as Lovecraft Country itself emphasizes, spells have to be carefully crafted in order to do what they are meant to do; one mistake in the utterance of them can entirely change their effect and their consequences. In the show, it falls to Tic’s unborn son to do just that, in an indeterminate future that likely is just one of the many parallel Earths discovered by Hippolyta in her adventures. Too bad that Earth does not seem to be the one we currently live on.
This essay is the first in a series on citizenship, part of the University of Michigan’s Democracy and Debate Theme Semester for fall 2020.
This article was commissioned by Marlene L. Daut.
- Claudia Dreifus, “Chloe Wofford Talks about Toni Morrison,” New York Times Magazine, September 11, 1994. ↩
- H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Weird Tales, February 1928. ↩
- “Nnedi Okorafor, Matt Ruff, and Victor LaValle at the San Francisco Public Library,” January 16, 2018, YouTube video, 48:00. ↩
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (McClurg, 1903), p. 3. ↩