By Matt Ruff
I ordered this book from the states and even made a post about receiving it a couple of weeks ago. I was super excited to read Lovecraft Country and can now say that it didn’t disappoint. This story is part pulp horror/science fiction, part social commentary, and part historical fiction. I had an absolute blast reading this.
Lovecraft Country follows three African-American families as they get caught up in this white sorcerer’s evil plot. On the blurb we are told that the story is about Atticus Turner going on a road trip with his uncle George and friend Letitia in order to rescue his father, but actually, that sub-plot gets resolved rather early in the book. After that, various people amongst Atticus’s family and circle of friends end up having their own paranormal adventures, each one part of the wider plot. Matt Ruff has said that he initially envisioned Lovecraft Country as a TV show, and the structure of the book makes that origin clear.
At first I was a bit unsure about this format. I was really liking Atticus’s story. It reminded me a bit off Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth, and the road trip through racist America was quite interesting. Disturbing, but interesting. I wanted to explore more of this situation. I wanted to know a bit more about this cult and the magic they had stumbled across. However, I did come to like the different chapters. Each little story played with a different trope and exposed different forms of institutionalised racism. I particularly liked the ‘Dreams of the Which House’ chapter, as it featured Letitia buying a house and facing opposition from both a very angry and powerful ghost, and some white neighbours ready to do anything to drive her out. As well as haunted house and evil cults, we also come across treasure chests in hidden dimensions, doorways to other worlds, houses frozen in time, appearance changing elixirs and, of course, a tentacle-monster or two. The variety of pulp fiction adventures was great.
Another reason I came to like this segmented approach to the story was because it featured a really good cast of characters. I suppose it would have been good to spend more time with a few of them and see a bit more development, but it was good getting a peek at the whole family’s lives as these weird things happened to them. I ended up feeling really happy for everyone in the end. But I shouldn’t spoil that here.
At times, Lovecraft Country deals with some serious subject matter and I feel it does so well. It’s hard to imagine how America’s segregation policies made everyday life difficult for African-Americans, even in parts of the country that didn’t have the dreaded ‘Jim Crow’ laws. The horrors the characters in Lovecraft Country face daily rival the horrors they face once the cultists come into their lives. It was a real eye-opener seeing all the different forms racism has taken over the years.
Despite the serious and often depressing subject, Lovecraft Country manages to remain a really fun book. Between all the troubles the character’s face, there’s a lot of triumphs, adventure, and even fun. I commend Matt Ruff on striking the right balance between exploring racism and having fun with classic horror tropes. Thought I must admit this isn’t a frightening book. There is a constant sense of danger for the characters, but nothing that’ll keep you up at night.
My only real complaints about this book, is that it just doesn’t feel Lovecraftian enough for me. Yes there’s the cultists, and the ancient language of Adam and even the tentacles, but we seem to be missing the real eldritch element. It’s there, but since we never see the main villain’s plans come to fruition, or even get a clear picture of what his goal is apart from take over all the other covens, it felt a bit lacking to me. We also never see the villain do anything completely evil; sure, he kills a lot of people, but in doing so he does save our heroes.
Though come to think of it, maybe the lack of focus on the elder gods and the reality-beyond-our-own-that’ll-drive-us-mad and all that makes sense. Cosmic horror has been replaced by the underlying horror of living with institutionalised racism.
All in all, I’d highly recommend Lovecraft Country. It was great reading a book that took its inspiration from Lovecraft’s work while also throwing away all the racist bullshit he put in his stories.