Lovecraft Country – Fantasy, Horror and Reclaimed History

This is a review of Lovecraft Country that includes spoilers of the first episode and non-spoiler allusions to events that occur within the show’s first four episodes.

“Stories are like people, loving them don’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them and overlook their flaws.” Atticus Freeman says this in conversation as he mitigates his enjoyment of A Princess of Mars, a book in which a confederate officer is the centred hero. My relationship with entertainment is filled with concessions and struggles and especially with vintage Hollywood films made during the Hays Code era or the catalogues of some infamous artists. It’s often emotionally taxing to try and mitigate these concessions because the past is a living thing and the past’s legacy informs our present. This is where re-imaginations become a rather compelling ground as is the basis of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country. Lovecraft Country has been described as a work that explores the conjunction between the fictional horror of H.P Lovecraft and the American racism experienced by African Americans during the Jim Crow era. It’s HBO series adaptation, produced by Misha Green, Jordan Peele and J.J Abrams, recently launched and it is truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on television before.

I’m going to preface by saying that I’m not an avid fan of science-fiction or horror, and thus was unaware of H.P Lovecraft’s legacy as a prolific writer of fantastical pulp horror stories or his well-documented history of being a racist before my knowledge of this show. Here’s one of the articles that best helped me orient myself with it. Lovecraft Country‘s pilot, Sundown, goes a way in not only re-imagining the pulp stories of Lovecraft’s era through the lens of black characters but in engaging with those conflicts as well. The opening of Sundown transports us into a feverish dream sequence in which Atticus Freeman is at war within a world similar to Edgar Wright Burrough’s A Princess of Mars. Freeman is a veteran of the Korean War, so we see some of the other soldiers he’s fighting to be Korean before the world turns fantastical in front of Freeman’s and our very own eyes. The world becomes a glorious wonderland of science-fiction filled with alien monsters and colossal explosions on an alien land, presumably Mars. Things get sidewindingly weirder when a black Dodgers baseball player enters this world and essentially decimates one of the monsters with his baseball bat. [Side note: I entered my initial viewing of Lovecraft Country completely blind to Lovecraft’s context so I cannot begin to explain how ill-prepared and gobsmacked I was for this spectacle. Trippy doesn’t even begin to explain it.] But just as we think the alien monster has been defeated, it reforms and comes back to attack. The baseball player prepares for another swing and this swing is what sends us into reality as Freeman wakes up from his dream, at the back of a bus with an open A Princess of Mars by his side. This reality is set within the Jim Crow era and finds Freeman as a soldier returning from war with the mission of finding his father, his only living parent who’s recently gone missing.

Lovecraft Country joins the likes of Watchmen in providing black middle-class characters and/or perspectives within period set-pieces, and this is one of the elements I find most compelling about it. Atticus Freeman is an aspirational black nerd who loves sci-fi comics, played by Jonathan Majors. We meet his nearest family in Chicago and are met with more representations of that through his aunt and his Uncle George. Uncle George, played by Jonathan B Vance, is the publisher of a travel guide titled Safe Negro Travel; a Green Book of sorts. Freeman’s cousin Dee, Jada Harris, is an adolescent girl who’s just as avid of a reader as he is and is an artist. His childhood friend Letitia, Jurnee Smollett, a sci-fi aficionado herself who also enjoys photography and is set on occupying her presence within predominantly white spaces, whether through occupation or residence. Although the story is set within the Jim Crow era, Lovecraft Country is centred around black characters who are set on enjoying themselves in spite of it. The block-party in Chicago is filled with such joy and fun as well as a runaway performance from Winmey Mosaku as Letitia’s sister, Ruby. Freeman reveals a letter he received from his father that insinuates that his father may have gone searching for a birthright legacy situated within Ardham, Massachusetts, very closely named to H.P Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham. Needing a car, Freeman asks Uncle George to borrow it but Uncle George decides to tag along as Ardham is a town not explored within his travel guide. Letitia also tags along to help and this begins their expedition into the unknown.

Whilst Lovecraft Country is full of fantastical horrors of great scale and imagination, its most chilling moments, sequences and horrors are often centred in the reality that these are black characters living within the Jim Crow era. Our first scene in reality finds Freeman at the back of the bus by design. By nature of the fact that Uncle George travels to find which places are safe for black people, he has had his kneecaps bust from bad trips and tips. Our leading trio visit a restaurant in what’s meant to be a safe stop but are sent scurrying by shot-gun flinging residents who become aware of their presence, this scene provides one of my favorite moments from Smollett’s Letitia as she signals Freeman and Uncle George leave. The first episode is littered with these allusions and its title, Sundown, itself is a reference to the Jim Crow era and warns what the centerpiece sequence of the pilot is. The United States has what are called Sundown towns, these are all-white municipalities or neighborhoods that practice segregation by law through intimidation tactics or violence. Freeman, Uncle George and Letitia, within the first episode, find themselves in a sundown town. After being stopped by the police in the early evening, around 19:00, the policeman notifies them that they are within a sundown county. He then goes on to say that if they are still within the county by sundown, 19:09 specifically, that he is legally sworn to lynch them, relishing the thought of it. The officer then proceeds to trail Uncle George’s car as they try figure out the quickest way out of the county without breaking any traffic laws or speeding; because they’re being trailed. This is based on real-life history and watching this sequence filled with more dread than any fantastical sequence in this show does. What irks me about this is that I didn’t know the full extent of how these laws existed but now that I do, I’m not shocked by them. What I am shocked by however is that remnants of them still exist today.

Lovecraft Country is truly unlike anything I’ve experienced on television before and its pilot alone warrants viewing. The cast is stellar, the character’s feel lived in, the world is so immersive and everchanging. The final horror sequence in the first episode was intensely gory and filled with even more graphically wild monsters. The series continues to explore extremely unique circumstances surrounding black middle-class living within the Jim Crow era whilst serving Lovecraft-esque horrors as Freeman and co. find themselves going deeper into a Lovecraftian context that reveals a secret fraternity filled with magical ties. Country, the further it goes along, can feel like an overwhelming experience especially for those, like myself, who aren’t deep within sci-fi lore. I personally know that I’m going to get through the remaining episodes a lot slower than my usual fodder but it’s exciting to see more of these developments. To have history revisited and see the expansion of black-centred fiction and black characters, especially within period settings. It allows for a completely different dissection or exploration of history that is relatively uncharted ground through a black perspective, one that continues to pique my interest as a young black storyteller. If you are a fan of science-fiction television and/or films, what are some recommendations you can give and how did you find Sundown?

Lovecraft Country premieres tonight in South Africa on 1Magic at 21h30 and will be available on Showmax from the 8th September 2020.

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