Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is less a novel than it is a collection of linked short stories built around a brilliant conceit. That is, the main characters in the stories are all from an extended African-American family (family and friends) living in Chicago in the 1950s. That is to say, the stories are shot through with everyday racism that will make your toes curl. But they’re also shot through with magic, nasty creatures, and mysterious rites. Who better to deal with such supernatural horrors than people who have to deal with horrific treatment on a daily basis just based on the color of their skin?
I should say, at this point, that I’m not particularly familiar with Lovecraft’s work (I’ve got a book of his on in my ever expanding “to read” pile, though). I have a vague sense of what it’s about, but it’s only a surface understanding. That’s to say that I’ve read some criticism from people about Lovecraft Country that isn’t, well, sufficiently Lovecraftian. That wasn’t a concern for me going in and it certainly isn’t a concern now that I’ve read the book.
In this “Big Idea” piece over at John Scalzi’s blog, Ruff explains that Lovecraft Country started as a TV pitch (and, indeed, it’s been picked up by HBO with Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams involved) and knowing that now I can see it. Each story serves like an episode, telling a tale that stands alone but pushes forward an overall plot that comes to fruition in the season finale (aka, the final story). It’s a bit frustrating initially because the first story (the title track, if you will) winds up really quickly, especially when you’re expecting it to be just the beginning of a much longer story.
So that first story does what a good pilot does – introduces the main characters and explores some of the world they’re walking around in. The closest thing to a “main” character the book has is Atticus Turner, a veteran returning to Chicago to a collection of family and friends that will, one by one, be drawn into this weird world. Atticus is the link between the African-American characters and the main white character, Caleb Braithwhite. Braithwhite is the latest in a long line of secret-society sorcerers who are trying to control the world. He and Atticus are distant relations – Braithwaite’s ancestor owned one of Atticus’s ancestors, whom he also raped. That makes Atticus a critical part of Braithwaite’s scheme to control the society and its secrets.
That being said, this isn’t Braithwaite’s story. He lurks above the main characters, pulling strings and trying to use them to his advantage. In that way, the book makes a powerful point about the lives African-Americans lead in a racist society. As bright, clever, and determined as they are, they’re really not in control of their own destinies. That they’re able to turn those tables, somewhat, makes the point land even harder.
This being, essentially, a short story collection, it rises and falls from tale to tale. All of them have some kind of interesting creepy thing going on – a haunted house, a “devil doll,” a comatose woman providing a “change” for one of the characters – but they don’t all work as well. The cream of the crop for me is “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe.”
Hippolyta is one of a pair of sisters close to Atticus’s family and someone who, had she not been a black woman in 1950s American, would have become an astronomer. As it is, Hippolyta retains her fascination with the stars and occasionally shows up at observatories just to help out. That leads her to one particular observatory in Wisconsin that’s tied into the history of the secret society. As a result, she discovers a portal to another world and, briefly, takes us there. What she finds on the other side is another sad commentary on how people of privilege treat those who have none. It’s both a serviceable monster story and an interesting commentary.
It will be interesting to see how Lovecraft Country translates to the small screen. On the one hand, it’s built for it, given its episodic nature. On the other hand, since each story has a different main character it might be hard to keep such a dispersed focus (a “star” playing Atticus would, presumably, not want to spend as much time on the sidelines as he does). It will also be interesting to see if some issues of appropriation come up as the book gets a wider audience. Ruff certainly appears to be a white guy telling an inherently African-American story. He did it well from my perspective – but I’m another white guy. Particularly the fate of Hippolyta’s sister might raise some eyebrows.
Regardless, this was an enjoyable trip into Lovecraft Country. I’ll gladly go again.