Page Turners

The Jim Crowe Horror of Lovecraft Country

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I’ve said it before on this site, but I’ll say it again. Horror isn’t really my genre. It’s an interesting genre of storytelling, but it’s just not one that I have a whole lot of familiarity with. And, because of this, I’m often shocked when I come across a piece of horror fiction that tries to do something special with the tropes. Which I know is my own ignorance speaking, because I’m sure that there’s plenty of genre-defying horror out that that tries to get across some very deep themes and there are storytellers out there who try to use the mechanics of horror to do something out of the norms. I’m just not overly familiar with them. Which means that whenever I do come across a piece of horror fiction that does something special, I really take notice of it. And for this Halloween I’ve come across an anthology novel that really accomplishes that for me. Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country has certainly been making a stir lately, what with Jordan Peele announcing that he’s going to help produce an adaptation for HBO in the coming years, and that alone got me interested in checking out the book. I never actually talked about Get Out here on the site, because I got a pretty terrible flu the day after seeing it and never found the time to revisit it yet to write it up, but that film was spectacular, and I figured that anything Peele wanted to attach his name to was going to be worth my time. So, I picked up Lovecraft Country and am pleased to say that it’s a terrific read. Not exactly what I was expecting, but it was a great time.

Lovecraft Country is sort of an anthology more than a novel. It tells an overarching story about a group of characters, but they each get their own individual tales that help build that narrative. It focuses around a particular family in Chicago in 1954 and their continued struggles against a powerful cult. The story begins when a young black  Korean War veteran named Atticus Turner returns home to Chicago only to find his father Montrose missing. He learns that Montrose has been approached by a shadowy New England family known as the Braithwhite’s who claim to have owned an ancestor of Atticus’ mother, and who wants to meet with Montrose and make reparations. Atticus is concerned about it, and he ends up heading to the strange village in New England where Montrose has gone, with the help of his uncle George and his childhood friend Letitia. They survive several obstacles, including a particularly racist sheriff, and finally make it to the strange hamlet where the Braithwhite’s rule. And, immediately, they realize something wrong is happening. The Braithwhite’s a clearly involved in some sort of cult, as Atticus finds a book about their organization, that worships some sort of Old Gods with a magical language. And, as their stay with the Braithwhite’s continues it becomes evident that they wanted to lure Atticus here because he’s the last true blood-relative of an ancient Braithwhite sorcerer, and they want to sacrifice him for unlimited power for themselves. However, Caleb Braithwhite, the son of the family, helps stage a coup, and manages to kill all of his father’s followers, while keeping the Turners safe, and giving himself quite a bit of power.

But that’s not the end of the story. Because Atticus, George, Letitia, and Montrose return back to Chicago, and Braithwhite follows. We start hopping around, seeing a whole litany of stories featuring the Turner family and their friends, all while trying out different types of horror. Letitia ends up lucking her way into a massive house in Chicago that she attempts to turn into an apartment building safe for black folks, only to find that it’s haunted by a member of the cult. George and Montrose are threatened by Braithwhite into travelling to another dimension to steal a book of magic. George’s wife Hippolyta uses a mystical observatory to journey and temporarily get trapped on a different planet. George’s son Horace is used as a pawn between Braithwhite and a rival sorcerer in Chicago, only for him to get stalked by a killer doll. Letitia’s sister Ruby unwittingly begins a relationship with Braithwhite and is given a magic potion that turns her into a white woman. And Montrose travels to Ohio to meet with the phantom of a different cult member to obtain a book of notes that Braithwhite needs. But, as these strange events start to stack up our group of heroes start to realize that while Braithwhite isn’t as terrible as the other members of this cult, he’s clearly not going to stop using this family for his own gains. So, they devise a plan to defeat Braithwhite, at the same time that he plans on using them to defeat his rival sorcerer in Chicago.

Going into this novel, I wasn’t quite expecting what I got. I hadn’t been aware of the anthology format that the novel used, and that did certainly throw me at first. But, when I got used to it, I found it to be a very interesting choice. We got to see several different stories, with several different styles of horror used in one over-arching story. These characters are an absolute delight, and seeing them tossed into a variety of different horror tropes was a fascinating experience. And it’s made even more fascinating when placed in this context of Jim Crowe-era racism. This is a story that takes place in the same year as the Brown v Board of Education decision, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement gaining steam. And yet, the most dangerous and terrifying thing about this novel aren’t the cultists, ghosts, and aliens. It’s the people. The racism and hatred that was just so built into society was more damaging and monolithic than any Old God, and the decision to have these black characters facing off against both supernatural and all-too-natural threats made for a brilliant read. I was a little surprised to see the novel written by a white man, although that probably just comes from my own personal anxiety around telling stories that aren’t mine to tell, but regardless of that, Ruff built a fully believable, and sadly realistic novel that reminds us that we don’t need to focus on beings from the supernatural world here around Halloween, because there are plenty of monsters here on Earth already.

 

Lovecraft Country was written by Matt Ruff and published by Harper Collins, 2016.

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