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Lovecraft Country misses the chance to turn racist history into true horror

Misha Green’s take on H.P. Lovecraft could be so much more

Lovecraft Country’s Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors, and Jurnee Smollett stand in a forest at night, looking with concern at something offscreen. Photo: Eli Joshua Ade / HBO

“Sight of the god, or its image, as all the legends of the Yuggoth-spawn agreed, meant paralysis and petrifaction of a singularly shocking sort, in which the victim was turned to stone and leather on the outside, while the brain within remained perpetually alive — horribly fixed and prisoned through the ages, and maddeningly conscious of the passage of interminable epochs of helpless inaction till chance and time might complete the decay of the petrified shell and leave it exposed to die. Most brains would go mad long before this aeon-deferred release could arrive.” — H.P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, “Out of the Aeons”

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic — which has steadfastly reminded modern society that it is just as vulnerable to uncaring, invisible viruses as it ever was — it seems like America has been sufficiently primed for a new Lovecraftian horror series, one that mines our current anxieties about being powerless to the uncaring hostility of the cosmos. Likewise, the country’s renewed recognition of racial injustice in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests might mean that more people than ever are ready for a Lovecraftian show that finally reckons with the racism of the subgenre’s namesake, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose prejudice against brown and Black people partly informed the terrors of his stories.

HBO’s Lovecraft Country is not particularly aimed at re-creating the dread and existential anxiety of Lovecraft’s works. Showrunner and Underground creator Misha Green fashioned the series from Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, as a Black reclamation of the pulp plots and archetypes H.P. Lovecraft originated. Green isn’t using the mythological pedigree of Ruff’s novel to criticize H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, though. Lovecraft Country is more or less a fantasy-mystery melodrama with pulp-adventure aspirations. It’s a reclamation of genre storytelling insofar as it puts Black characters in roles and situations that they’ve historically been excluded from. But it’s more honest to call it a refit rather than a reclamation, because Lovecraft Country remains drearily beholden to fantasy and occult mystery conventions.

Jurnee Smollett stands smiling in a crowd of applauding people in Lovecraft Country. Photo: Elizabeth Morris / HBO

The series primarily relates the trials of Black serviceman Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) as he returns home to uncover his family’s mystical heritage and clash with a sinister magic-wielding cult, all against the backdrop of 1950s Segregation-era America. Majors is joined by a treasure trove of heavyweight Black talent who round out the series’ principal cast, including Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey), Michael K. Williams (The Wire), Courtney B. Vance (American Crime Story), and Aunjanue Ellis (When They See Us). Meanwhile, Scandal’s Tony Goldwin and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Abbey Lee capably chew the scenery as the series’ main antagonists. But for all the breadth of Lovecraft Country’s cast, the series only infrequently gives its characters any depth.

An overemphasis on mythologizing and portentous exposition — the most visible imprints of the legacy of Lovecraft’s fiction on this series — keeps the characters from behaving in ways that would shed light on their psychologies. Compounding the issue is the show’s capricious pace, which often makes the series’ central voices feel incidental to its plot. Eventually, Lovecraft Country gets more of a handle on characterization, at least for its supporting cast. Wunmi Mosaku (Luther) is a standout in a twisted, body-swapping episode directed by Cheryl Dunye (Watermelon Woman). Williams, as always, pulls off a layered performance as Atticus’ father.

Along with Lovecraft Country’s erratic characterization comes its unconvincing setting. The first five episodes span from Chicago to New England during the segregated 1950s, although the specificity of this period is hardly examined for its full horrific potential. While the series’ Black characters do go through their struggles, they operate within a triumphant, presentist paradigm, as if the fight for civil rights had been won a decade and a half early.

Each episode pits the protagonists against racist adversaries (some magical, like the ghosts of evil scientists, some mundane, like redlining and the police) which they eventually overcome through courage and ingenuity. The isolation and grief which Black people were subjected to as a result of Jim Crow is seldom depicted; the series is planted firmly in the point of view of characters who fight monsters and shrug off persecution like it’s a temporary nuisance. Racism in Lovecraft Country is almost always rendered as overt and villainous — the concentrated, white crudeness of Mississippi Burning rather than the insidious social death that Black people contend with every day. Needle-drops featuring Cardi B and Frank Ocean might be the series’ attempt to blur the lines between past and present, but its simplistic vision of racism is divorced from both history and reality.

Early in its first episode, Lovecraft Country presents its mission statement. In Atticus’ words, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” He follows with: “But I love pulp stories.” And that is the extent to which Lovecraft Country feels comfortable addressing the “flaws” of its namesake influence.

Jonathan Majors sits reading by a cornfield in Lovecraft Country. Photo: Elizabeth Morris / HBO

The show is pulp in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, with the spin being that now Black people have also been given the chance to fight demons, have high-speed chases, explore secret tombs, and be at the center of magic prophecies. Many a Lovecraft derivative has given white creatives the chance to write pulp adventures featuring the occult, so there’s no reason why Black creatives shouldn’t be given the same freedom to have fun with it. There is also some schadenfreude in seeing H.P. Lovecraft’s name flaunted on a show that ultimately wants to empower the people Lovecraft thought of as “beasts” and “semi-human.”

But since Howard Phillips Lovecraft is dead, what is really gained by using his toys to make him spin in his grave? What is Lovecraft Country trying to prove? Black speculative fiction is capable of being much more than retreads of white genre stories with a new coat of paint. There are so many Black experiences which have yet to be given a voice in the genre sphere. To quote, not H.P. Lovecraft, but Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:

“You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, and you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.”

Lovecraft Country feels like a missed opportunity to repurpose the racist fear at the heart of Lovecraft’s work to articulate the specific dread, isolation, and social death felt by Black people in all corners of the world. The madness that Lovecraft’s protagonists were often submerged in hardly compares to the absurd existence of Invisible Man’s unnamed protagonist, which is to say, the absurdity of Blackness. A work that could marry cosmic horror with Afropessimism, a framework which analyzes the legacies of Black people’s powerlessness during Trans-Atlantic slavery, could depict Black fear and suffering in an honest, unprecedented way. Lovecraft Country goes with a more familiar, digestible narrative, and while such an approach has its uses, it leaves Black fear untouched and unseen.

The 10-episode debut season of Lovecraft Country debuts on HBO MAX on August 16 at 9PM ET, with new episodes airing on Sundays.


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