Where does one even begin to broach the complex subject of H.P. Lovecraft, the namesake of Matt Ruff's 2016 novel Lovecraft Country and its 2020 television adaptation, executive produced by Misha Green, J.J. Abrams, and Jordan Peele? For starters, he was a racist - an exceptional one, even by the context of his lifetime. Some of the things he's said and written I can't even bear to quote here in good conscience.
He was also, crucially, an author and poet in the then-nascent subgenre of "weird fiction" up until his death in 1937. Though largely ignored in his lifetime, Lovecraft's work would later find its audience among a new generation of readers, and to this day he is credited as the most prolifically recognized author of "cosmic horror" fiction, made popular by his collection of novels and short stories encompassing what is known today as "The Cthulhu Mythos."
How then does one reconcile the dichotomy of Lovecraft's reprehensible beliefs and his immense posthumous impact on the shape of popular fiction? In the case of Lovecraft Country, by reconfiguring the tropes and narrative structure of Lovecraftian horror fiction around a subject - a black man in mid-20th century America and his extended circle of family and friends - who would otherwise be rendered either peripheral or monstrous by Lovecraft's own hand.
"Stories are like people," says Atticus "Tic" Turner, the protagonist of Lovecraft Country as he walks alongside a fellow traveler down a lonely road on the way to Chicago. "Loving them doesn't mean they're perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws." Convenient though that answer may be, it is nonetheless the gravitational center around which the show's creators have chosen to align the orbit of the series' ideas and themes.
A Korean War vet and avid science-fiction buff, Atticus knows all too well the pain of loving something that doesn't love you back, and the value of literary escapism: "I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds. Defy insurmountable odds. Defeat the monster, save the day. [A] Little negro boy from the South Side of Chicago don't notoriously get to do that." Played by Jonathan Majors, known for his scene-stealing turn as the gentle playwright Montgomery Allen in 2019's The Last Black Man in San Francisco, his portrayal of Atticus is just as emotionally nuanced and considered.
Though the premise of these two stories could not be farther apart in terms of tone or content, what they nonetheless share are characters dispossessed from their own histories by forces of prejudice and systemic plunder far beyond their control and older than either of their lifetimes. After a brief stint in Florida after his tour in Korea, Atticus is summoned home to Chicago by his estranged father Montrose (Michael K. Williams), who has discovered a secret concerning his maternal ancestry. "I know that like your mother you think that you can forget the past - you can't," reads Montrose's letter as Atticus recites it for his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide, an in-universe equivalent to Victor Hugo Green's Green Book. With his father now missing and the only clue to his whereabouts lying somewhere in the isolated town of Ardham, Massachusetts, Atticus, George, and his childhood friend Letitia "Leti" Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) must embark on a journey to bring him safely back home.
Lovecraft Country: Season 1 Photos
Lovecraft Country establishes its bonafides as a speculative pulp-serial straight out the gate with its opening scene, a dramatized recounting of Atticus' time fighting in the trenches of the Korean War, only for the scene to be quickly overtaken by his own overactive imagination. From flying saucers and laser-shooting alien tripods, eldritch horrors and a lithe, bikini-clad Dejah Thoris, the show wears its unabashed love of genre fiction tropes proudly on its sleeve. The spectre of what happened to Atticus in Korea, and perhaps what he left behind, hangs over the episode with all the ominous portent of a funeral pall. Showrunner Misha Green's adaptation takes the foundational elements of Ruff's novel and amends them confidently into the space of an hour-long serialized horror-drama. An unsurprisingly comfortable fit, given that the book was originally conceived as a television pitch. If you're looking for a beat-for-beat adaptation of the text, this isn't that; it's better.
What Lovecraft Country's first episode does particularly well is foreground the presence and experiences of black women. Jurnee Smollett's turn as the smoldering Leti is captivating from her first moment on-screen, as is Letitia's sister Ruby, played by Luther's Wunmi Mosaku. George's wife Hippolyta, played by Aunjanue Ellis, is a strong matriarchal figure with palpable ambitions for something more than just her role as a housewife, and Atticus' little cousin Diana, played by Jada Harris, is precocious and creative. Something notable about Diana is that, in the novel, the character was originally portrayed as a 12-year old boy named Horace. This isn't the only case where the show plays with the gender of the novel's original characters, as the series changes the formidable Caleb Braithwhite into the sultry Christina Braithwhite, who makes an impressive first appearance in the form of Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road). Whether these changes will have any bearing on the character's motivations or goals in the future, however, is anyone's guess at this point.
The first episode, "Sundown," has a lot going for it, particularly when it comes to the show's overall score, music choices, and cinematography. The block party scene at the one-third mark of the episode is a perfect example of all these elements locking into place. When Lovecraft Country is good, it's good. Awash in the ethereal glow of fuschia lighting, Black bodies dance in joyful abandon to Ruby's scintillating cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "I Want A Tall Skinny Papa" followed by a duet performance of Dave "Curlee" Williams' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Matter of fact, the sole exception to the episode's otherwise period-appropriate soundtrack is an appearance by Tierra Whack's 2019 single "Clones" while Atticus walks through his neighborhood in an earlier scene. As for the block party, there's laughter and singing, pouring fire hydrants and weightless smiles. It's an unambiguous portrait of Black joy, a ray of communal celebration and happiness that stands in stark contrast to the darkness that's soon to follow.
By far one of the stand-out moments, if not the stand out moment of the first episode of Lovecraft Country is the cross-country montage of Atticus, George, and Leti traveling through the heart of the Midwest, narrated by a sobering excerpt of James Baldwin's opening statement during his historic 1965 debate with conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. "It would seem to me the proposition before the House, and I would put it that way, is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro, or the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro, is a question hideously loaded, and then one's response to that question - one's reaction to that question - has to depend on effect and, in effect, where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is, what your system of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply as to be scarcely aware of them."
Baldwin's words are searing when paired with the imagery of segregated ice-cream counters and movie theater entrances, Aunt Jemima billboards and teenagers pantomiming racial stereotypes. The very serious function of racism, as Toni Morrison once so eloquently put, is distraction. It keeps one from doing their work, or simply living one's life, by constantly having to assert the fundamental worth and truth of one's existence.
The action sequences in "Sundown" are as intense as its moments of poignance. The car chase scene out of Simmonsville is a bracing back-and-forth of twists and turns that culminates in an explosive finale of eerie implications. The escape out of Devon County before sunset is a tense cat and mouse encounter of racial terror, as the town sheriff bears down on George's Buick with a force as malevolent and unrelenting as any of Lovecraft's own horrors.Ironically, the show becomes a lot less horrifying when the "actual" monsters show up. The episode's climax in the woods of Worcester County is a gruesome onslaught that feels like a remix of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and the car chase scene from Jordan Peele's Us. It's a fun finale, though one that all too conveniently diffuses a confrontation of genuine terror and emotional stakes.