You may not know the name of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century master of “weird fiction,” but you’ve likely seen his influence on the horror genre in everything from certain stories by Stephen King to films like Alien that use what has become known as “Lovecraftian horror,” with a large focus on fear of the unknown and the “other.”
Even if you do know Lovecraft, you may not be fully aware of just what a virulent racist he was. Much of the dread of the “other” that he captured so effectively in his stories likely derived from his real-life fear of, and contempt for, other races that he was not shy about also featuring matter-of-factly in his fiction.
Matt Ruff’s fascinating 2016 novel Lovecraft Country was a successful attempt of reckoning with the author’s racism within the world of a compelling story of Lovecraftian horror. Ruff turned the traditional Lovecraft-type tale on its head by making his story’s protagonists heroic African Americans, survivors who not only brave the sorts of nightmarish monsters found in a Lovecraft story, but also racist human monsters as they make their way through 1950s Jim Crow America. The book both addressed and transcended the racism found in Lovecraft’s work, balancing the terrifying thrills contained within those tales with subtle commentary on racial and social issues of not only its period setting, but also today.
When Lovecraft Country was brought to the attention of co-creators Misha Green (Underground) and Jordan Peele (Get Out) for a potential series adaptation, they both immediately saw exciting storytelling potential in going beyond even what Ruff did in his novel. Their series, premiering this month on HBO, does justice to Lovecraftian horror and also explodes into other pulp genres in a thrillingly fun, original and culturally important way.
“I think that when I first read Matt’s book,” Green, who is also showrunner, explains, “the ways in which he took Lovecraft and repurposed it to give space for people who notoriously weren’t given space [in stories like that] was what initially intrigued me.
“And then also, just knowing, as a big genre fan, how little room is made for people of color in the genre space completely. I was very excited about the idea of taking this book as the jumping-off point to going deeper in all the pulp genres.”
The series’ first two episodes are indeed Lovecraftian (complete with some cool monsters, weird cults and dark magic) and use Ruff’s novel as the “jumping-off point” Green referenced. We meet Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), as they embark on a road trip in search of Atticus’ missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). These characters, and the events of these episodes, carry over thematically even as subsequent episodes delve into other types of storytelling.
“To have an Indiana Jones [style] adventure episode,” Green says, “to have a ghost episode, to have a time-travel episode … a sci-fi episode … was what was really exciting to me. Because I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we can go so many places. We don’t have to start, and we don’t have to end at Lovecraft.’ … And I think that was the spirit of that book, being like, ‘We can take [Lovecraft’s] contributions [to horror] and we can build on them to build something better.’”
This idea is telegraphed right at the outset of the series, which begins in a dream that Atticus, is having where he is at first the hero of a 1950s war movie before his dream morphs into an epic sci-fi movie where he is the hero.
“I think the opening scene of any TV show,” Green explains of that intro, “you want [it] to be the premise for what you’re about to get into. … What I wanted was [viewers] to understand that this is going to be epic. It’s going to be big. You don’t see characters that are Black people doing this stuff in sci-fi dramas. They don’t get to be the center of the story. … And so the opening was to signify, yes, we’re going big. … I want it to feel like we are going to go through every genre we can go through by the end of these 10 episodes of television, because we haven’t gotten to see that with African-American characters.
“We wanted to bring that in with every episode. I said, going into it, ‘Here’s an opportunity to see people we don’t get to see in [these] spaces. Let’s not just settle for horror. Let’s go adventure. Let’s go mystery. Let’s go sci-fi. Let’s do all of it.”
While the series does delve into sometimes wildly differing genres from episode to episode, it does maintain an overarching premise, and Green does not consider it an anthology series.
“I think at the end of the day,” she says, “it’s a family drama, first and foremost, and we’re definitely following these characters on a journey. [The pulp genres are] baked in a story about an American family. And it’s a Black American family, and [we’re] centering on that and saying that, too, is America.”
In that respect, Lovecraft Country is refreshingly far removed from the Lovecraft worldview.
Lovecraft Country, Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO beginning Aug. 16.