Lovecraft Country: making the best of the horror icon

Lovecraft Country: making the best of the horror icon
Image: Andrew Liptak

Back in 2016, I read two similar novels that tackled race in America: one was Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines, a novel that imagined what the US would have looked like if the Civil War came to a stalemate and was never resolved, and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, about a Black Korean War veteran who goes on a road trip across the US to uncover some family secrets. One of those books didn’t age all that well (but it’s a fine thriller), and the other just became a huge HBO series.

Set in the 1950s, Lovecraft Country follows Atticus Freedman (Jonathan Majors), a veteran of the Korean War, who returns home to Chicago after his father vanishes. When he gets a letter from him inviting him to Arham MA, he sets off with his friend, Leti (Jumee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), across the country to find him, encountering strange monsters and racism along the way.

The series is timely, given the racial protests that have broken out across the US this spring after the killing of Black men and women at the hands of police officers this year. I’m a bit behind on the series, but it’s a perfect chaser to HBO’s series Watchmen, which explored issues of race within the confines of Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel. The series is thus far excellent: the casting is impeccable, each episode has been well-paced and engaging, and it isn’t afraid to do its own thing with the source material. I’m really eager to see where this season ends up — and if we’ll get a second season out of it.

The book is an excellent read, and I recently spoke with Ruff about it, and how he came to write it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first discover H.P. Lovecraft, and what about his brand of horror appealed to you?

I don't remember when I first discovered him, but I was a big genre fan as a kid, so I came across him at some point when I was still very young. Lovecraft is one of those authors — the other one I’m thinking of is Philip K. Dick — who I actually preferred his imitators more when I was younger.

In Lovecraft’s case, that was not so much because of the racism in his work (because I don't think I paid as much attention to that as a kid) but his pacing and his kind of strange and ornate language. You’d have these these archeologists or other people walking around ruins, and in Lovecraft’s stories, the monster typically doesn't appear until the very last page. I'd be reading this and while Lovecraft’s trying to do this slow burn drag, and I'd be like, ‘when is something going to happen?’ His modern imitators seem to get the pacing issues better. And then later, when I was older and went back to him, I kind of was able to appreciate him more in his own terms, and I came to realize that what he was doing was actually quite good, but it took a while.

I think looking at him as an adult, what I get from him, and what he’s very good at is that sense of slow-building dread, where you’re just waiting and waiting and waiting. As a kid I didn't appreciate that, but as an adult, I really get into that sense of, “oh my god, we're going into this place, you know that something bad is going to happen, the signs are all there, and these protagonists just refuse to see it.”

When you can make that work, it’s actually quite effective and quite good, so that is certainly something I can take away from his work and turn to my own advantage.

Are there any works from him in particular that really appealed to you? And is there anything in particular about those works that really speak to you today?

I was always more of a mythos fan than a dreamlands fan. My three favorites, are At the Mountains of Madness, Shadow Over Innsmouth, and Call of Cthulhu.

I would say that particularly with regards to what I was writing about in Lovecraft Country, Shadow Over Innsmouth is the perfect story in terms of capturing what's good and bad about Lovecraft for me. It's the story about this guy on vacation who's poking around old towns on the coast of Massachusetts, and he stops at this town called Innsmouth where the people who live there have entered into this unholy alliance with these sort of fish aliens from the sea. They're basically interbreeding with these aliens. That’s Lovecraft’s not-so-subtle way of dealing with his own fears of race-mixing and miscegenation. And so the guy stops in and sees too much and when he’s forced to spend the night the town turns out to hunt him down as soon as the sun goes down.

So on one hand, it’s this pretty obvious racist story about a white man imperiled by these halfbreed people. But on another level, it’s one of the most effective tales of attempted lynching that I've ever read. If you change just a few details, this could easily be a story of a black traveler getting stranded in a sundown town, and on that level, it works great. And so even though I think it never would have occurred to Lovecraft to look at it that way, I think he taps into that broader sense of horror about how you don't have to be a white supremacist to think that there are places in the world where if I got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, there would be no mercy for me and that's a universal human fear.

It’s a fear that plays more heavily in certain people’s lives, but anyone can appreciate that. It’s got issues, for sure, and it exposes some of Lovecraft’s own weaknesses, his moral flaws, but it’s also just a really good story.

How did you come to write Lovecraft Country, and what got you interested in exploring the racial angle to it?

So initially, Lovecraft Country was a TV series pitch. I was invited in 2007 to do some original pitches for TV series, and one of the ideas I came up with was Lovecraft Country. The initial idea was to do a sort of X-Files-type series where you would have a recurring cast of characters having weekly paranormal adventures, and my twist was that instead of being about white FBI agents from the 1990s, this was going to be about a black family who lived in Chicago in the 1950s and who owned a travel agency and published a fictional version of the Green Book, which I called the safe Negro Travel Guide.

It was going to be about this family, their extended extended family, and their friends getting drawn into a series of real-life Weird Tales, sort of taking classic horror and fantasy and even sci-fi tropes and reimagining them with with black protagonists, the kind of people who traditionally would not appear in stories like that, and seeing what that did. And then at the same time, it would be exploring sort of the day-to-day mundane horrors of life in the era of legal segregation and contrasting those two things.

This is where Lovecraft came in through the back door — I needed a thematic bridge between paranormal and cosmic horror and the more mundane terrors of racism. And of course, Lovecraft is both. He’s this incredibly influential horror writer but also an avowed white supremacist.

So Lovecraft Country became this sort of double entendre reference to both the paranormal landscape where monsters come from, but also the white America where a different kind of monster comes from. The big question was: which of these was the bigger threat to your safety and sanity?

I also wanted to explore the the unique difficulties of being a Black Nerd, particularly back in the 1950s. There were plenty of Black folks who loved love sci-fi and fantasy and horror even back in the 50s: it's just it didn't love them back, and it was a real wrestling match of how do I see past this genre that at doesn't recognize that they exist. And there too, Lovecraft is a good symbol of that because there are things in his stories that would speak to anyone, but particularly if you're black, there are moments when he just goes out of his way to let you know that you're not even a full human being to him.

Your book came out in 2016 on the heels of a larger movement and reckoning within fandom about the role of authors of color and from marginalized communities. How does that longer history of marginalization and exclusion play into your view with the book or the world you’ve set up?

I knew that stuff was going on while I was writing, but history of dissatisfaction of fans of color goes back a lot further. In my research for the novel, I would be reading back issues of the Chicago Defender (the historic black newspaper in Chicago in the 1950s) to get a sense of what the issues of the day were in the black community at that time, and I would read the reviews section for movies and books and the things coming out then. A lot of it was very familiar in terms of the complaints that the reviewers had: we've got money, we want to buy movie tickets, we want to buy books, please make stuff that recognizes that we exist and that plays to us too.

The problem was that back then was that you could complain all you want it, but the only folks reading the Black press were Black folks who did not get to make decisions in Hollywood. So this dissatisfaction has always been there. It was expressed by friends of mine growing up, and there's a woman named Pam Noles, who wrote an essay called Shame that was very influential when I was thinking about Lovecraft Country, which sort of talks about her evolution as a young Black nerd. One of the things she talks about that's heartbreaking is experience going to see Star Wars for the first time and which for her as for me, was like a quasi-religious experience. But for her, it was also the moment where she finally understood what her parents had been trying to tell her about: this genre that you like doesn't really appreciate you the way you seem to think it does.

All of that fed into the novel. While I was writing the novel, one of the things that had changed was that the internet finally gave folks who in the past could only talk amongst each other now could voice their complaints and their dissatisfactions to a broader audience.

Since that time, there's been a really healthy discussion about the way race plays into writing novels. I'm curious if — you're a white author writing about the black experience — have you received a lot of pushback about that?

It's funny, I was actually expecting more pushback than I got, but the general reception for the book has been very warm and friendly, particularly from Black readers. That sort of reinforces a basic thought that I had: all of my novels really are —I would be very bored if I could only write about characters were basically variations of me. But I grew up in a family where my father was from the Midwest, my mother's from South America, our house in Queens was sort of Ellis Island for a slew of South American relatives coming to the states. So from a very young age, I was surrounded by people with very different ways of looking at the world and I just realized that there was value in understanding different perspectives, and fiction was a way of doing that.

In my storytelling, I love getting into the heads of characters who see the world differently than I do, who come from different backgrounds, and who face different challenges. In a sense, what I was doing in Lovecraft Country was just a natural extension of what I've always done. I understand that this particular pairing of a white author writing about black protagonists, particularly an ensemble cast of black protagonist, is an unusually fraught subject for some folks. But my sense, which proved out in the the reception of the book, was that if I would took my time and didn't get lazy, and did a good job, I would be fine. And so far, that's proven correct.

It seems like research is really the key to that — you mentioned looking through Black newspapers, but what else did you do for research to get the story and characters right?

In a way, I think I took a very science fictional approach to it, where a lot of it was figuring out the rules of the country that my characters were living in. It was reading about the ways segregation and racism were expressed, particularly in the northern United States, which is something we don't think about as much. Another source that was valuable to me was a book by James Lowen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, which is basically a sort of secret history of the way racism was expressed in the North.

There's this idea that people have that racism was really more of a Southern problem, and that's not true: it was a nationwide problem. But there was this difference in the way it was expressed in [the US], where the South was trying to basically continue its exploitation of Black labor after the Civil War as much as they could. It was fine if black people were around as long as they kept their place and didn't try to seize equality. So the South embraced racism openly because it had to, so you had extensive signage telling you where you couldn't couldn't go. So things like the the Green Book, for example, you didn't really need that if you were traveling in the South because it was very clearly marked where you were welcome and where you weren't. And likewise, the idea of a sundown town — a town where Black folks were not welcome after dark — that's not something you would typically see very often in the South because again, Black folks work there.

In the North and in the far West, though, there was a very different expression were starting around the 1890s, partly in reaction to freed slaves coming North and West, but also in regard to other ethnic groups like the Chinese laborers on the West Coast, where there were basically these waves of ethnic cleansing swept through the countryside where whites basically said “we don't want anybody who doesn't look like us living here.” And they would expel people from the town and set up rules to make sure that new people could not come back in. This is where sundown towns came from.

A lot of the violence that accompany this would then just sort of get suppressed and forgotten about and so that’s why we've still got large parts of the country today where you just don't expect to see people who aren't white, and if you don't know the history you just assume that it’s a weird coincidence that no Black folks and no Asian folks decided to live in this part of the country. That's not true. It's not that they didn't like the weather. It was that there was this concerted effort to make them unwelcome and to kill them if they didn't leave.

The last couple years we've seen a number of authors of color repurposing Lovecraft’s tropes. You’ve got Victor LaValle, N.K. Jemisin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia; they've all been telling these really great stories that use these Lovecraftian tropes or repurposing his imagery explicitly to go against what he’s known for. Have you been keeping up with the scene, and what have you seen changing?

So it's funny — by total coincidence, Victor LaValle’s novella Ballad of Black Tom dropped on the exact same day as Lovecraft Country. So we were aware of each other beforehand, just because it's like, “oh, somebody else is working on something that sounds kind of like what I'm doing” and we've since met and become friends.

Barnes & Noble got us together, and we had a conversation about what we were thinking about. So that’s been cool, getting to meet him. I met Ruthanne Emrys when we had a panel in New York run by Miskatonic University. I don't know if you can call it a movement so much as just but a lot of a lot of people seem to have arrived at the same place where each in their own way — like, there’s some good stuff in Lovecraft, and they’re taking what they like and leaving the rest, and I think that’s a great thing, and I’m happy to have a part in that.

It’s nice to see that Lovecraft’s racism isn’t a requirement for that horror.

No, it really isn’t. He’s so deep into the DNA of the genre, and I know that there are people who wish that he would vanish forever, but he was there at the beginning of modern horror, and he encouraged his fellow writers to share in his creation and write their own versions of mythos stories, and so it was one of the first shared universes that he created with people like Robert Bloch and others in his circle. Cthulhu is a permanent part of the genre now, and people are going to be talking about the Necronomicon long after you and I are forgotten about. You can’t make him go away, even if you want him to, but you can certainly take his toys and do different things with them. I think that’s a better solution.

You mentioned that this had originally been a TV pitch, so now that it’s come full circle, what has it been like to see your work translated into TV?

It’s hard to describe! It’s amazing — I really lucked out on that. The timing really worked out: the novel came out in 2016, right around the time when Jordan Peele was finishing up Get Out and thinking about his next project. I got this call from my agent who said, “this is kind of odd, but Jordan Peele wants to talk to you. He's mostly known for comedy, but he's apparently looking to break into horror.”

I got on the phone with him and Misha Green, and we had a really wonderful conversation. What was clear was that we were all excited about the story for the same reason. It was not long after that when the first trailer for Get Out dropped and I realized why. I ended up being the beneficiary of Get Out’s success. Once that came out, and it did so well, Jordan could basically write his own ticket, and what he wanted to do was Lovecraft Country. With Misha, I was already familiar with her work because she’d done Underground, which is basically the Great Escape set in a slave plantation. She's done an amazing job translating the novel into the language of television, taking the book as a basic framework and then expanding on that and doing really cool things with it.

I have not yet seen the full series; I've only seen the first few episodes. But what I've seen, I'm just incredibly pleased with the way it's turned out. I mean, I knew it was going to be good. But it's it's one thing to think that and quite another to see it realized. It’s one of those things where I’m being German, where there's a part of me that keeps waiting for this good fortune to be balanced out by something bad happening, but so far, so good. So yeah, I couldn't be more pleased with the way it's turned out.

Lovecraft Country is airing on HBO on Sundays through October 18th.