Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lovecraft Country

As you might know, I'm a pretty big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and that Cthulhu Mythos brand of supernatural horror in general. But if I ever bring Lovecraft up in a conversation, there's usually two things people know about him. One of them being, of course, a cursory knowledge of Cthulhu, and the other being his overt racism.

There's really no way around it, even if one can enjoy his writing style or ideas of horror, a lot of his stories have racist undertones, and he even wrote a poem called On the Creation of N*****rs. All in all it's pretty damning for his character, so most of the time you need to specify that though you may be a fan of Lovecraft's ideas, you're not so much for the man. In short, it's difficult. And if it's difficult for me, and I'm a bland white guy, how hard must it be for someone that likes supernatural fiction who's black? This is the starting point of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

Lovecraft Country is essentially a Lovecraft-era weird tale starring the very people H.P. Lovecraft would analogize as scary fish monsters, i.e. black people. Set during the heyday of Jim Crow, our protagonists have to face not only the obscure and arcane realm of semi-scientific magical monsters, but the much more mundane but just as terrifying world of everyday racism. One where a cop could pull you over and you could only count on luck to get by without a mishap. One where, pulling into a restaurant, there was a fair chance you wouldn't even be welcomed in. Hell, at least the nameless terrors don't distinguish by skin color.

So it's here we meet our cast of characters, including, but not limited to: Atticus Turner, recently released from the Army, an avid fan of science fiction books and possessor of a dark destiny; George Berry, Atticus' uncle and publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide; Letitia Dandridge, daughter of a shoddy psychic and Atticus' old friend; and so on. Each chapter is told with a different character's perspective, and Ruff has forgone typical chapter numberings in lieu of chapter titles like: Abdullah's Book, The Narrow House, and The Mark of Cain. This serves to give the book a feeling of a short story collection, the way you'd read most Ray Bradbury or Lovecraft stories. The twist is though each of these chapters works as a self-contained story, they all build to the final chapter, which wraps the whole thing up.

The plots contain a nice mix of supernatural horror elements, from science-fiction oriented like a dimensional gate, to more gothic horror, like a familial curse. They all meld pretty well, most of it explained by some magic-but-not-quite system that they introduce. It eschews the usual Lovecraft formula by featuring a regular villain, who, as it turns out, is just a dude. He's a little supernaturally oriented, but he's no cosmic horror from beyond our comprehension. It works better for the setting, since mind-shattering alien beings aren't so much the problem here as the small-mindedness of men.

Lovecraft Country is a great read, with much of the same threats written of by Lovecraft and company, but with very different sensibilities. It's much more human-oriented than the supernatural horror genre usually tends towards. Humanity is the focus, and humans, in the end, are the threat. It does what books of this type seldom do, which is provide a new perspective into someone else's experiences, which remains tangible despite the fantastical elements. If you're a fan of cosmic or supernatural horror, or if you're looking to get into those genres, Lovecraft Country is an excellent addition to your library, and I highly recommend it.

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