I first heard about Lovecraft Country from a friend, a friend who lives in Sweden. He recommended it wholeheartedly, saying he read it several times. I picked it up a week or so later, just as the COVID19 pandemic was taking off. It was not long after I finished Lovecraft Country that the George Floyd protests started. Given the nature of the book it was a very timely read.
Before we get to Lovecraft Country itself, it’s worth noting that I have read all of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction [goodreads.com], and I enjoy most of it. I am aware that he was a massive bigot, racist and anti-semitic, and many other -ists. I didn’t read more than a few of his non-fiction writings, is “essays” or letters, there is not reason to read it beyond a reminder of how nasty a person can be with their words. Good fiction, if lacking a lot of representation, but a nasty author.
This is the second recent book I have read that attempts to deal with Lovecraft’s bigotry by authors, who would have been on the receiving end of his bigotry, co-opting him. The other book is The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. Johnson [goodreads.com]. That book takes place inside one of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds, the dream world, and aims to address Lovecraft’s sexism. Specifically the lack of female characters by populating the dream world with female characters, including the strong female lead.
Lovecraft Country on the other hand takes place in the “real world” where Lovecraft’s books exist, and so does Lovecraftian cosmic horror. So Lovecraft Country addresses Lovecraft’s rabid racism by casting as it’s protagonists a group of Black Americans living during the height of Jim Crow America. Lovecraftian cosmic horrors alongside the everyday, real, horrors of American racism.
Lovecraft Country is a collection of linked stories, focused around a the protagonists and their repeated encounters with the members of a secret society. Magical rituals, cosmic portals, potions and spells abound. There is even a monster or two. But there are also racist cops, racist shop owners and racist random strangers. The racism is both active; vulgarities and violence perpetrated sadistically, and passive; condescending tones, stares and casual disrespect and disregard. I can’t imagine how true it is, what it was —what it is— like to experience this type of bigotry in real life. It was oppressive and ever present in the story.
The climax of the racism is a flashback to the events of Tulsa Race Massacre [wikipedia.org]. An event that I first remember hearing about a few years ago. I don’t remember being taught about it in high school, not in American History class or even in Ms. Reynolds African American Studies class. Maybe my memory fails me or maybe it says something about American racism that the trauma of an event like that is not a shared public memory, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 or Kent State.
Another aside: this is the second work I’ve come across this year that includes reference to the Tulsa Race Massacre as a key background event for the characters. The other being HBO’s Watchmen series. So maybe in the future what happened in Tulsa will be part of the collective American psyche.
I won’t spoil the Lovecraftian aspects of the stories, only note that there is a lack of cyclopean masonry and eldritch horrors. Lovecraft Country is more the The Colour out of Space and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward than The Call of Cthulhu or The Shadow over Innsmouth. But the real horror remains the ever present racism.
I really enjoyed Lovecraft Country, I will read it again, and I hope the upcoming HBO series is as good. I would put Lovecraft Country up there with To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man [confusion.cc] in giving me some vague understanding of how racism affects people through literature.