Book Review: Lovecraft Country

Author: Matt Ruff


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Will the real Cthulhu please stand up.


When, long ago, the gods created Earth

In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.

The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;

Yet were they too remote from humankind.

To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,

Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.

A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,

Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.


Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)


Yes, Howard was indeed no Julia Ward Howe in the prescient thinking department. The dude was a flat-out racist with a Capital R! And, yeah, he was a level 10/10 racist even in his own day! And maybe that's why his stories are so very dark and apocalyptic. I mean, billions of universes perish in flame in his stories, and the people who witness such events die of insanity.


“Lovecraft Country,” takes place in Jim Crow U.S.A. and the majority of main characters are black. The primary character, Atticus Turner (a combo name built from Atticus Finch and Nate Turner?) is a science fiction literature aficionado. And he travels around the country doing research for a book published/written and printed by his father. The book's titled, “The Safe Negro Travel Guide.” A book which, unfortunately, is based on an actual historical artifact. Lovely. USA! USA! USA!


“JIM CROW MILE—A unit of measurement, peculiar to colored motorists, comprising both physical distance and random helpings of fear, paranoia, frustration, and outrage. It's amorphous nature make exact travel times impossible to calculate, and its violence puts the traveler's good health and sanity constantly at hazard.

—The Safe Negro Travel Guide, Summer 1954 edition”


Atticus receives a mysterious letter inviting him to a mansion up in Arkham, Massachusetts—Lovecraft Country. It turns out that Atticus' mother was intimate with one of the main players of the Lovecraft clan. And Atticus was one of the consequences of this relationship. That meant that Atticus is related by blood to the top tier of the Cthulhu klan—racists, all, of course!


What's happening in the novel—


1. Vordergrund (Foreground): A science fiction, horror, fantasy, and action story.


2. Mittelgrund (Middle-Ground): The Lovecraft Cthulu Klan


3. Hintergrund (Background): The REAL Klan


The Grand Wizard of the Cthulu Klan is Atticus' step brotherish relative Mr. Braithwhite. Caleb Braithwhite wants all the elders in the racist Lovecraft group wiped out so that he can assume ultimate power. And he needs Atticus and his cohorts to complete the task. Braithwhite isn't a racist, perhaps, but he is a supreme asshole!


There's some cool Indiana Jones action when Atticus and his friends have to work their way into a bizarre maze caught between reality and magic. Sometimes they “float” haplessly while being attacked by insane, steampunk-Millhauserian death devices. One of Atticus' female friends buys a house/mansion that's haunted by a racist, plantation-daddy ghost who ends up befriending her and actually providing protection from the racist neighbors. It's pretty funny. Another of Atticus' “gang,” Hippolyta, discovers a supernatural planetarium that you can step through into strange worlds in other galaxies. Weird, white beaches and dark waters, with six-foot diameter living meat beach-balls with a taste for human flesh. Another of Atticus' girlfriends discovers a blood potion that turns her into a skinny white, upper-crust white woman. Whacky shit ensues.


Further on in the book, we enter in all-too real historical nightmares. The haunting Tulsa Race Riot, that occurred in 1921, was a frightening mixture of the apparitional and actuality. The riot went down in a well-to-do black neighborhood called Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was known as the Black Wall Street. (It was also known as “Little Africa.”)


The setup here, reminds me of a character in the original, 1978 version of “Dawn of the Dead.” The National Guard were setting up to invade a low-income, project housing park. One bigoted, racist guardsman was filled with hate—Wooley. He screams, itching to charge in and kill indiscriminately:




This country, the USA, like the rest of the world, floats on an all-too corporeal ocean of blood. And we've only taken a few precarious baby steps away from our delusions of “fairness,” and “we're-number-oneness.” The Tulsa Race Riot puts me in mind of the “Schindler's List” movie. Horrible. And it all started with an accusation of rape of a white woman by a black man. When the smoke cleared, it seemed a black guy in an elevator tripped and grabbed a white woman, who happened to be the elevator operator on that day, and she “yelled” in astonishment the same as she would have had anyone else done the same. It was a non-event. The woman never pressed charges. The black man who did the tripping was not charged and immediately exonerated then released. Ghosts of the Black Wall Street linger in “Lovecraft Country”--in a cursed time-loop.


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One of the intertwined vignettes, involves Neville, an African American boy who just turned thirteen, and a “devil doll.” He already accepts that there are demons in the world. When Neville decided to call his grandpa, long distance, this happened:


“So he picked up the telephone and got connected to the operator in Biloxi. This is Neville Porter calling person-to-person for Mr. Porter, Neville said. The operator, a white woman who sounded old and was perhaps hard of hearing, said, What's the name of the party you wish to speak to? Mr. Porter, Neville repeated. His first name, said the operator. It's OK, Neville told her, it's a private house. There's only one Mr. Porter there.


Which is when the demon came out.


Now you listen to me good, you goddamned pickaninny, the demon said. If you think I'm going to call a nigger 'Mister,' you've got another thing coming. What's his name? N-Nelson, Neville said. The demon mocked his stammer, then made him apologize and address her as ma'am before finally putting the call through. By then, Neville didn't even want to talk to his grandpa anymore. Didn't want to talk to anybody.”


These “demons” are far more frightening than any “devil doll.”


And so, when Mr. Braithwhite is ultimately outsmarted and cursed, but not killed, by Atticus and his pals, they can't help but laugh at Caleb's threats of revenge. They all know what “country” they live in. And his particular brand of terror, ahem, pales in comparison.

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