Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff, is an interesting book, both in concept and execution. Taking place in America, 1954, we follow the Turner family as they deal with racism and the supernatural threats that plague them. Throughout the book, we start realizing that one of those is much easier to deal with than the other.
We start with Atticus Turner, a young, black man simply trying to drive up North. Along the way, he’s pulled over for driving while black and there’s always the looming sense of dread just from the embedded racism that he’s trying to avoid. Eventually, he heads to Massachusetts to find his missing father and things start getting more eerie.
Now, I thought about saying, “Things start getting more Lovecraftian” but that wouldn’t be acute. See, all the racism that Atticus deals with while driving is already Lovecraftian, as the influential author was quite a bigot. When a white police officer threatens to shoot a black man if he doesn’t get out of town by sundown, that’s Lovecraft, even if he never wrote such scenes. When monsters and ghosts start showing up, they seem rather mundane to all the racial tension and, sometimes, almost act as a relief.
It’s relieving to deal with the supernatural because it’s not real. I know, for the most part, that I don’t have to worry about ghosts and inter-dimensional beings. I know that. But, in the real world, racism and bigotry are very much alive. As a country, we used to worry about witches and now’s it’s part of our history, but the hate and ignorance that permeates Lovecraft Country is part of our present. Ruff uses the supernatural as a hook to get readers who might not want to confront these issues.
In the book, ghosts can be reasoned with, monsters are indifferent. These scary, immortal threats might not be rational, as Lovecraft often had characters go insane when confronted with them, but in way, they act rational. Some feed, some kill, some of them are just lonely. But, they’re beyond petty things like hatred for different races. Racism, when compared to the threats beyond our own world, becomes the irrational.
Now, I had trouble getting into this book for two reasons. First, the stress of reading about a black family in the 50s was enough to make for slow, uneasy reading. Second, the book is told in parts. I couldn’t find a pace while reading because the first chapter is actually the first short story. Eventually, when I started realizing how the book was laid out, I found my rhythm and was able to cruise through the novel. Considering that Lovecraft mostly wrote short stories himself, you’d think I would have figured that out sooner.
In the process, the book became less creepy and more of an interesting cross between Lovecraft and The Twilight Zone. I didn’t find the overarching plot that connected the chapters to be that compelling, though the resolution is fun and brings all the different elements together. The individual stories, however, are memorable. Each follows a different member of the Turner family and shows a different aspect of 50s America and the supernatural elements of Ruff’s world. There’s talk of Lovecraft Country becoming a movie, but it could make for a great HBO or Netflix anthology series.
I had started this for Halloween and it wasn’t a bad choice for the holiday, but it might let some people down if they’re looking for straight horror. Really, it’s more acute to call it urban fantasy, as nothing in it is much scarier than what you would find in a Jim Butcher book. But, for a great example of how fantasy and science fiction can be a mirror into our world, how it can be a commentary on prejudices and our own faults, Lovecraft Country is easily recommendable.