There’s a familiar horror trope that I’ll call the Wary Traveler. The traveling protagonist(s) visit an unfamiliar town or region that seems normal at first. As they spend more time in the area, signs emerge that something is eerily abnormal. Perhaps, someone gives them the evil eye, they see an upside-down cross or they’re warned that they’re not safe. At some point, perhaps when night falls, the town suddenly becomes a death trap. Supernatural or crazed human foes threaten the heroes, who fight to survive and escape.
The viewer experiences the story with fear, but assures themselves that such towns don’t exist and it could never happen to them.
In its premiere episode, the new HBO series Lovecraft Country shows that this horror was real and happened to black Americans who dealt with systemic and violent racism both in the South and in the (allegedly more progressive) North.
Lovecraft Country is based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. The creators of the television show are Jordan Peele (Key and Peele, Get Out) and writer Misha Green (Underground), both of whom are known for creating content with a distinct African American voice. Lovecraft Country fits that mold and depicts several African Americans, including Atticus Turner (Jonathan Majors), his uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), and his friend/love interest Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smolett), in the 1950’s as they face both real and supernatural threats.
Atticus, the lead, is an interesting character. He’s a young Korean War veteran and fits the mold of an action hero. He is smart, courageous and athletically buff, which Letitia visibly appreciates. His Army service is one of the issues of contention between him and his father Montrose, whose disappearance fuels the first episode.
Atticus (like his uncle George) is also a bookworm who loves pulp fiction tales, such as those by Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, whose name and works heavily influence the book and this series. In the early 20th century, Lovecraft wrote a number of stories about Cthullhu and other “Elder Gods,” whose power, malevolence and their minions are so vast and alien that their very presence drives people insane. That or they are menaced by evil, power-hungry men working to awake the sleeping gods. Lovecraft’s imaginative stories have influenced many creators, such as Stephen King, Mike Mignola, Guillermo Del Toro and Ridley Scott.
Lovecraft’s Cthullhu by Andree Wallin
In the first episode, Atticus, George, and Letitia travel to New England (called “Lovecraft Country” because it’s where many of Lovecraft stories take place) to search for Atticus’s missing father who left Chicago in the silver Daimler of a rich, young white man. There they encounter supernatural creatures directly out of Lovecraft’s stories.
Lovecraft influences this series in another way as well. As mentioned in this episode, H.P. Lovecraft was a noted bigot, racist and white supremacist. He approved of lynchings and even wrote a poem “On the Creation of Niggers.” When Atticus demonstrated a fondness for Lovecraft, Montrose made him memorize this poem in an effort to dissuade him from reading his works. It doesn’t have that effect, as Atticus reflects that:
Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.
Lovecraft Country also shows this aspect of Lovecraft as the other villains of the first episode are white men in power. In looking for Montrose, Atticus, George and Letitia visit a “sundown county” where blacks are prohibited after sundown. A sheriff’s deputy reminds them of this fact seven minutes before sundown and minutes from the county line, leading to to the most suspenseful moments of the episode.
(As detailed in Sundown Towns and other works, sundown towns and counties were real places in the early to mid-20th century, and blacks found in them after sundown could be subject to imprisonment, beatings or even death.)
Of course, real villainy is not the only authentic thing of the television series. There are real moments of friendship, love, and family throughout the episode, such as a scene between in bed with George and his wife Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) where Hippolyta suggests that she make the next trip to gather information for their book, the “The Safe Negro Travel Guide.” It’s a sweet scene that shows a nice back and forth between a middle-aged couple who clearly love each other, but have their own fears and hopes.
Based on the first episode, Lovecraft Country is an innovative television series that melds seemingly disparate elements, realistic and systemic American racism and Lovecraftian, supernatural horror. It will be interesting to see how these elements play out in the next nine episodes.
Lovecraft Country trailer