Book Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of versity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

— Matt Ruff

Note: Though fantasy fiction, this book reviewed is based on real and painful times in American history, particularly the Jim Crow America of segregation and racism against Black Americans was not only the norm, but the institution.

Is it possible to separate the person from their art? Does knowing that the person whose work you enjoy, even admire, is a horrible person change your view of that work? I still have books signed by authors I don’t agree with like Orson Scott Card, but in storage. I still have the Mists of Avalon by child molester and abuser, Marion Zimmer Bradley on my shelf. The creator of the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was recently convicted of possession of child pornography. I can’t look at these works again without thinking of the wrongs committed by their creators.

I never got into H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve tried to but just never could finish the supposed classic “At the Mountains of Madness.” But Lovecraft was such an integral figure in imaginative fiction that little did I know I was reading works that were definitely influenced by him. From Stephen King and Brian Lumley to the films of John Carpenter, I’ve grown up with Lovecraft lore. Little did I know that this literary giant of imagination, this icon of genre fiction was a racist. I’m not talking about the casual racism of “he was a person of the times” that so many other artists were back then. He was an outright white supremacist.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is not only a book inspired by Lovecraft but one about the racial attitude that Lovecraft shared with so much of America. Through its ensemble cast of African-American characters they will navigate through secret societies, sorcery, other worlds, ghosts, time travel, and Jim Crow America.

From the publisher’s description:

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

The book takes its time to get to any incidents of supernatural horrors that are promised. Instead of a straightforward novel we get stories of novella or novelette length that are interconnected with each other culminating in a confrontational conclusion. In the first and titular segment, Atticus, his uncle George (publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to the real world Negro Motorist Green Book) and childhood friend Letitia encounter horrors of America’s racism. From a simple stop at a gas station to just sitting at what is thought to be a safe diner, the experience of being Black in 1954 America can range from demeaning to life threatening. They are searching for Atticus’ missing and estranged father who is in Ardham, Massachusetts. Atticus originally misreads his father’s handwriting as Arkham, hence the origin of the title Lovecraft Country.

This will lead to the introduction of the main antagonist of the book, Caleb Braithwhite, who will directly and indirectly effect the characters for the rest of the book until a final confrontation that is satisfying yet leaves room for a sequel. Perhaps we will get that sequel in the form of another book. But since it is also a forthcoming HBO series produced by Jordan Peele, we may get it from the show.

What Matt Ruff accomplishes here can’t be called a delightful read. In fact much of it is incredibly uncomfortable. Not because of any eldritch horror, but from the historical context of America’s great sin of racism. There is a segment where Montrose Turner, Atticus’ father recounts his boyhood memories of the real life Tulsa Riot of 1921. The memory, as recounted, and as written by Ruff, stabs you in the heart.

Yet, in spite of the real world horrors, there is a strength in the characters that not only allows them to endure but to inspire. There is Hippolyta, George’s wife, who dreamed of being the first Black female astronomer ever since she was a child and continues her love of the stars. She will feature in her own adventure while doing research for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Her twelve-year-old son, Horace, wants to become a comic book publisher. Letitia Dandridge purposely becomes the first homeowner in a White neighborhood, so that it may open the doors for more Black home ownership in the area. Each character, in their own way, wants to carve a place for themselves in a system that is designed to keep them down.

A sub-theme of the book and it’s characters is that several of them are also geeks. Atticus, George, Horace, and too a less extent, Letitia are readers of the popular science fiction of the era, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course H.P. Lovecraft. And though Burroughs is problematic, Lovecraft as we now know, was outright bigoted. And perhaps this passage can help me reconcile with my own modern experiences with someone like Marion Zimmer Bradley:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. ”

“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Atticus gets that stab in the heart, when as a young man, his father shows him a copy of a Lovecraft poem called “On the Creation of Ni***rs.” Except Lovecraft did not use Asterisks. Ruff credits Pam Noles’ article, “Shame,” as an influence. It is about the difficulties of being a Black science-fiction fan in America.

The audiobook is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, whose dramatic performance adds weight and nuance to characters who sometimes undergo some emotional toils. He is a stage actor who is also no stranger to audiobooks.

Among the accolades that Lovecraft Country has received, one of them was a nomination for the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Ironically up until 2015, the World Fantasy Award statue was a likeness of H.P. Lovecraft. It was finally changed after 40 years from pressure to do so.

Some readers may not like the way the book is divided into novellas that are interconnected. Personally I really appreciated it and perhaps he only weak segment would have to be the Horace centered story. But overall, Matt Ruff not only brings to life the hard world of the characters but he manages to infuse them with an authenticity as well. These aren’t great heroes out to save or change the world. They are Black Americans making it through a shameful period of America’s past that is not really all that distant and not one that we have distanced ourselves away from enough yet.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

A Reader’s Guide to Lovecraft Country
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Cory Doctorow on Lovecraft Country
When Jim Crow Drank Coke
Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Shame by Pam Noles

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