REVIEW: “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff

Lovecraft Country was one of those books I always meant to read but never got around to doing so. I love revisionist takes on old genres, especially ones that bring something new to the table. In Lovecraft Country’s case, that was prioritizing the stories of Black Americans by placing Black characters as the leads in various genres that have often underserved them. But I just never got around to reading the book. Until now. In light of the imminent premiere of HBO’s adaptation of the book, it seemed exactly the right time to finally read it. And, man, I’m so glad I finally did. I really wish I’d done so earlier. Reading Lovecraft Country is like watching a season of a great show contains elements of serialized and episodic storytelling. There is an overarching narrative at play, but each story stands alone while being wholly entertaining, quite frightening, and extremely poignant. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There may be mild spoilers for Lovecraft Country.)

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, 22-year-old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned one of Atticus’s ancestors—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of two black families, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

Boiled down to its simplest elements, Lovecraft Country is about Atticus Turner and his family and friends who, through a series of unfortunate and supernatural events, find themselves in the middle of a brewing turf war between various lodges of an ancient order of “natural philosophers” (aka magicians). However, this narrative plays out primarily in the background, with only a few of the novel’s eight stories directly furthering that plot. Instead, the bulk of the book features a collection of mostly standalone stories, loosely connected to the central plot. Each story follows a different character (though most characters appear in multiple stories, just not as the focal point), through the lenses of various pulp genres, as they get sucked further into this weird world. It’s an eclectic way to tell the story, but it’s one that ended up working better than I thought it would.

As I finished the first story of Lovecraft Country, I felt a bit disappointed. I tend to prefer books where the story is told linearly throughout the novel’s page count. Short stories are neat, but I much prefer the character development and world-building that a novel can bring to a narrative. However, as I got into the book’s second story, it quickly became apparent that Lovecraft Country wasn’t just a collection of stories that were related only by theme, but a collection of stories that were connected by a plot – in much the same way as many genre TV shows are executed. With each story, I got to delve into the minds of these characters I’d become invested with. I got to see each of them be the star of a story, with each story’s atmosphere tailored to that character’s personality and backstory. It’s easy to see these characters grow and change in the wake of what they experience throughout the novel and it’s nice to get to jump between various points as the story goes on. At the same time, I got to see the novel’s world expand, with each story exploring a new facet of this supernatural universe. There were rules and stakes that became clear as the novel progressed and having different sections of the story devoted to specific parts of the world proved a particularly effective way to explore this world.

It’s impressive how well these seemingly disconnected stories end up building to the novel’s climax. Each story has its own feeling, being inspired by, and written in, the style of different pulp stories. Lovecraft Country has something for all genre fans; there are heists, ghost stories, space stories, secret societies, terrifying monsters, and all kinds of fun, supernatural ilk. But they are all connected by this ancient order – and by one member, in particular. At first, the connections seem to be loose, feeling more like Easter eggs than pieces of an ongoing story. But about halfway through the book, it becomes very clear that all of these short stories are actually connected in a much deeper, meaningful way, and that connection is what fuels the momentum for the novel’s second half. Ruff’s no-frills prose helps keep the tension high, allowing each story’s atmosphere and character development to do much of the heavy lifting. Even if you don’t love short story collections, Lovecraft Country manages to capture the best elements of short stories and novels and is beyond enjoyable.

Obviously, race plays a big part in the story – in ways you might expect, and in ways you might not. There’s the expected kind: the book is set in America during the 1950s. Much of the country is still segregated, with Jim Crow Laws still in effect (or the remnants of them still heavily felt) throughout the South. And even in the more “progressive” parts of the country, life still ain’t swell for Black citizens. Large chunks of the book deal with this. The characters are faced with racist law enforcement, racist citizens, and even racist societal standards. It’s haunting, partially in the context of how little we seem to have advanced from that. For these characters, horror is a part of their daily lives. If they already live in fear, why should the supernatural be much scarier? Lovecraft Country also tackles race in a more meta way: by examining both the racism of the novel’s namesake, H.P. Lovecraft, and the racism found throughout many pulp genres over the years. Multiple characters are fans of science fiction, as a genre, and choose to overlook some of the various authors’ less-than-stellar views because they want to imagine themselves as the heroes of the stories. Lovecraft Country, as a sort of commentary, takes these characters and subsequently places them in the center of science fiction and other pulpy stories. There’s a sort of karmic justice seeing the work of a renowned racist influence transformed into this story about the very people he hated so much. Ruff does a surprisingly good job with these elements – a lot of care and effort was clearly put into ensuring the novel did justice to the very real injustices suffered by Black Americans in the past (and in the present). It can sometimes make for a dark, upsetting read but I feel Ruff was able to find a balance between these darker themes and the lighter pulp ones.

At the end of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed Lovecraft Country. The stories are simultaneously varied and interconnected. As you get further and further into the book, it becomes clearer and clearer just how connected these seemingly disparate tales are. But the true joy of the stories is how well they standalone. Each story perfectly captures the genre being emulated while deftly exploring whichever character is leading the story. And with such variety, there’s easily a story for everyone in Lovecraft Country. As for the plot itself, it’s every bit as interesting as those contained within the various shorts. I appreciated the mixture of horrors – both supernatural and human – and, while it’s unfortunate that this is still the case, it’s so refreshing seeing mainstream genre stories revolving around non-white characters. Having read the book, I’m even more excited for the TV adaptation. If you haven’t read the book and you like any pulpy genres, you should really give Lovecraft Country a shot.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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