“This is the story of a boy and his dream,” a narrator tells us. “But more than that, it is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.” That narrator is from the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, but he’s also, in effect, narrating Lovecraft Country, Misha Green‘s phenomenal horror series. Rather than just use musical needle drops, Lovecraft Country uses narration pulled from other sources, audio clips, spoken-word poetry, creating a rich tapestry; a collage; a mosaic. In a way, Lovecraft Country is asking: Why play by the rules when rules were made to be broken?
The boy with a dream is Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, a strong lead who manages to be both rugged and bookish), an army veteran who has his nose buried in a book whenever possible. Craving stories of adventure and stories of horror, Atticus dreams of being the hero in his own saga. Sometimes, dreams come true. Sometimes, they turn into nightmares. Based on the book by Matt Ruff, the HBO adaptation of Lovecraft Country sticks surprisingly close to Ruff’s framing device, which managed to make the book both a novel and a short story collection at once. By adhering to this formula, the Lovecraft Country adaptation becomes a kind of anthology show, following various connected characters through their own individual stories and occasionally bringing them all back together.
One author Atticus is more than a little familiar with is H.P. Lovecraft, the granddaddy of the modern horror story. Lovecraft’s influence stretches far and wide, and there’s not a major horror writer working today who doesn’t owe at least some of their success to him (Stephen King, in particular, has made an unstoppable career by borrowing from Lovecraft’s bag of tricks). Even those who have never read Lovecraft are likely aware of him, and his tales of weird cosmic horrors and cruelly indifferent elder gods. But for all of Lovecraft’s iconic influence, there’s one undeniable, nasty truth about the man: he was terribly racist. Among his writing was a poem written in 1912 in which Lovecraft described Black people as “beast[s]” and “semi-human.”
The characters of Lovecraft Country are predominantly Black, and in some ways, the show is performing a ritual cleansing: it’s taking the Lovecraft out of Lovecraft and viewing his art through a completely different perspective. The show is asking: Which is scary – the paranormal monster with the slimy tentacles, or the smirking racists who can get away with seemingly anything as long as their targets are Black?
Set in 1950s Jim Crow America, Lovecraft Country arrives on television at a time when race relations are once again under a microscope. The depressing truth is that while some things have changed in regards to racism in this country, nothing has really changed. It’s just better locked away, hidden behind polite smiles and niceties. But in the world of Lovecraft Country, there’s no need to hide. The racists here are openly confrontational towards the Black characters, tormenting them with smug, sadistic glee. Why? Because they can. Who’s going to stop them?
As Lovecraft Country opens, Atticus heads back from Florida to his old homestead on the South Side of Chicago after receiving a mysterious note from his estranged, abusive father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). Back home he discovers Montrose is missing, and Atticus becomes determined to find him, their complicated history be damned. First, though, he reunites with his Uncle George, played by Courtney B. Vance in a warm, commanding performance. George is the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a Green Book-style publication that provides Black people information on which towns across America are safe, and which should be avoided at all costs. George’s artistic daughter Diana (Jada Harris) draws elaborate ghosts, demons, and other slimy monstrosities on the travel map indicating the racist haunts to be avoided, and one immediately thinks of ancient maps where cartographers would scribble in Latin “Here be dragons” on uncharted territories.
George is about to head out on a trip for the guide, and he and Atticus decide to use the opportunity to also search for Montrose. Along for the journey comes Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who steals the entire show with her alluring yet fragile performance), a childhood friend of Atticus’ who has grown up to be a fiery free spirit, much to the chagrin of her somewhat estranged sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku). The trip takes the three travelers into Lovecraft Country, aka New England, where they almost immediately run afoul of racist locals and vile, violent, racist cops. But there are also other dangers lurking – inhuman dangers. Creatures made up of slime and eyes and gnashing fangs. It’s a dangerous world these characters find themselves in. If the monsters don’t get them, the sundown towns – where Black people have to be out of sight by the time the sun goes down or face being (legally) lynched – might.
After this initial set-up gives way to mysterious cults and an even more mysterious wealthy young woman (Abbey Lee) who seems to be everywhere at every time, Lovecraft Country begins branching off into smaller stories. A haunted house takes center stage in one episode. A Cronenbergian body-horror story is the focus of another. And an Indiana Jones-style adventure, complete with booby-traps and clues hidden in museums, happens in still another episode.
These stories are all connected, and yet, they stand on their own. It’s a unique approach, and like those unconventional needle drops, it feels like it’s breaking rules – in a good way. Blending anachronistic music – Rihanna can be heard at one point, and so can the theme song from The Jeffersons – with audio clips of James Baldwin or Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word poem Whitey’s On the Moon – the soundscape of Lovecraft Country is vivid and bold, bursting with life and excitement.
Loaded with fantastic, genuinely creepy creature effects, and a shocking amount of gore, Lovecraft Country is a horror-lover’s dream come true. And, like the best works of horror, it has something on its mind. It’s never preachy about its content because it doesn’t need to be. Green and her team have crafted a lived-in world that feels real, even as unreal creatures come flying out of the darkness. Part of that realness comes from the fact that the racial hardships the characters are constantly butting up against are, sadly, still fresh. The Lovecraftian monsters of Lovecraft Country may not be real, but the very human monsters, so Lovecraft-like in their racist beliefs, still haunt this country.
Lovecraft Country premieres on HBO on August 16, 2020.
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