So they talked about Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, all of whome Earl liked; and L. Ron Hubbard, whom he didn’t; and the Tom Swift series, which Earl had loved when he was young but which embarrassed him now, both for the books’ depiction of Negroes and for the fact that as a boy he hadn’t noticed it, despite his father’s repeated attempts to point it out to him.
—Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country 5
There’s a lesson buried in the opening pages of Matt Ruff’s novel, soon to be an HBO series, which may go unnoticed by some readers. It is thirteen pages before Atticus Turner stumbles across a copy of The Outsider and Others (1939), the first collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s work from Arkham House. Thirteen pages of seemingly pointless discrimination against a black man, Army veteran, trying to do something as simple as drive from Jacksonville, Florida to Chicago, Illinois.
Except it isn’t pointless; it is the sole point of Matt Ruff’s novel. As much as readers and critics might like to focus on Lovecraft and his contemporaries, science fiction and weird fiction, in exclusion to the realities of Jim Crow and segregation—race and prejudice—they were a part of it, and it informed their fiction. Privilege, for white people, is not having to think too hard about it.
It’s old. It’s just the way it was. Can’t change it.
But we as readers can change the way we read it. Can understand the context in which a story was written, try to empathize with what it might be like to be an African-American and read Lovecraft’s “On the Creation of Niggers” for the first time…which is where, fifteen pages in, Ruff’s novel starts to fall apart.
The poem was written circa 1912, during a period when Lovecraft as a young man wrote ultra-nationalist and xenophobic poetry, long before he was a horror writer or connected to amateur journalism; the text Ruff uses to introduce the poem to Atticus is a complete fiction. Lovecraft never published “On the Creation…” during his lifetime; there are no mentions of it in any of his published letters, nor in any of the memoirs of his life. It was not revealed to the public until 1975 when L. Sprague de Camp published in his flawed book H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography, and for much the same reason that Ruff inserts it here: graphic, undeniable shorthand that Lovecraft was racist.
Ruff’s mention of the poem is less lazy than economic: nothing else Lovecraft wrote has the N-word in the title, and Arkham House had made a point of not emphasizing (and occasionally denying) that aspect of his life. “Medusa’s Coil” was published in Arkham House’s The Curse of Yig (1953), but that collection was released under Zealia Bishop’s name, not Lovecraft’s, and the ending censored. The first volume of the Selected Letters would not be published until 1964, and that too was censored. Ruff could have dug into Lovecraft’s fiction for an N-word—in “The Picture in the House” or “The Rats in the Walls”—but it was no doubt easier and faster to create a convenient fiction.
While the cast (predominantly African-American, with a black protagonist) and setting (1950s United States) may be relatively novel for the Mythos, relatively little else in Ruff’s novel is. Atticus Turner exists in a world where both Lovecraft’s fiction is a reality and where some iteration of the Mythos is apparently real; the same basic premise as August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1979). Once the first connections are made, it’s a road trip to Lovecraft Country, with The Safe Negro Travel Guide as psychopomp for the journey.
It’s difficult not to compare Lovecraft Country with “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, released the same year and covering some of the same thematic ground. LaValle’s worth benefits from brevity: it is difficult to maintain the mood and suspense of the short story at novel length. So too, LaValle had the courage for a downer ending. Not everybody has to live, or come out whole. More importantly, perhaps, “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a story of the Mythos—Lovecraft Country, despite the title, is not.
There is one tantalizing suggestion of a connection: that Lovecraft’s Arkham might have really been Ardham, that the tentacled Scylla might be the inspiration for Lovecraft’s shoggoths…but the farther in the reader gets to the novel, the less connection it has to Lovecraft and the Mythos. The initial set-up, in that first 13 pages, was for a dive into the Mythos from an entirely different perspective. What it delivers, ultimately, is a rather conventional occult thriller with a somewhat unconventional cast.
Lovecraft Country, it should be emphasized, is not a bad book. Matt Ruff did a fair amount of research, it shows in every chapter. His prose is solid, his characters well-developed, the plot is effective. It simply isn’t what it could be, or really what it promised to be. The name itself is a great hook, the premise it sets up is excellent, but this isn’t a book that dives into the thick of racism in the time of Lovecraft, or the Mythos he and his contemporaries created. A drive into a Massachusetts town where a freemason lodge practices real magic is not a journey into Lovecraft country.
What this book needed was some greater revelation. Some attempt to reconcile the everyday horrors of being African-American in the United States in 1954 and the cosmic horrors of the Mythos. Something like Harlem Unbound (2017), but in narrative form. Lovecraft Country didn’t have that. It never even aspired to it.