HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

(courtesy of HBO)

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Lovecraft Country
Misha Green, Jordan Peele


16 August 2020 (premiere / US)

Lovecraft Country
Matt Ruff


February 2016


When Watchmen premiered last fall, its opening sequence set during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 provided a harrowing entry point into the series' tangled alternate history. Based on interviews with the makers and a swath of social media reactions, it was also apparently the first time many Americans had ever heard of one of the darkest moments in their nation's history. It's obscene that it took a spinoff series from a decades-old graphic novel to teach many Americans about the Tulsa Race Massacre no offense, Lindelof, HBO, et al). Basic education should have already done that. But the first episode of Watchmen, aired in October 2019, will likely be seen years from now as a textbook example of how genre fiction can educate in unexpected ways.

HBO's latest entry in the suddenly overcrowded field of televisual fantastic fiction, Lovecraft Country, also uses inspirations drawn from the less reputable corners of literature as a means of illuminating somewhat obscured racial aspects of American history. Based on Matt Ruff's 2016 novel, it keeps one foot planted firmly in the real (Black characters trying to make their way in segregated 1950s Chicago) and another dipping into various pools of the unreal (sorcerers, Lovecraftian beasts, haunted houses). The combination makes sense more than it should, at least at first. That's largely because while head writer Misha Green (Underground) is exquisitely aware of the ways race factors into nearly every aspect of its characters' lives, she doesn't allow that to define them entirely.

The show announces its intention to be a cross-genre hopscotcher right away. Young American soldier Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) is charging across No Man's Land and leaping into trenches, shooting and bayoneting every enemy he sees. Only, what war is this? This looks like trench warfare, yet his uniform says World War II. Then the camera pulls back and we see the full battlefield. With its Martian war machines, UFOs, tentacled beasts, and what looks like Roman legionnaires, it's like the over-stimulated dreamscape of your average sci-fi-besotted mid-century American boy.

Only when Atticus wakes up, he's on a bus crawling through the south, having dozed off while reading Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Not long after that, he's walking down a country road with a woman who was the only other Black passenger, neither of them allowed to catch a ride in a truck after the bus breaks down.

Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

A Korean War veteran, Atticus is heading home to Chicago to find out why his father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) up and disappeared. When he and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) head east to Ardham, Massachusetts, the show looks like its plugging into a metafictional live wire. The very name of the town is a play on the invented town of Arkham, where so many terrors were placed by H.P. Lovecraft. (Lovecraft gets a complicated call-out here, with both George and Atticus geeking out over the connection while still commenting on Lovecraft's infamous white supremacy). Before they even get to Ardham's spooky mansion filled with old sorcerers chanting spells to call forth forces from the great beyond, however, George, Atticus, and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett as Atticus's childhood crush now all grown up and catching a ride) have to contend with more workaday evils.

Jonathan Majors as Atticus Black (Photograph by Elizabeth Morris / courtesy of HBO)

By situating its take on racism not in the South but the purportedly more liberated North, Lovecraft Country makes white supremacy feel even more insidious. Taking away the trappings of cinematic Jim Crow and all those drawling squint-eyed sheriffs helps embed the issue of the color barrier in every aspect of these characters' lives and make it just one more danger to avoid. Whether it's a "sundown county" in Massachusetts, a Midwestern somewhere diner once listed in the Safe Negro's Travel Guide (a nod to The Negro Motorist Green Book, which George edits), or a northside Chicago neighborhood that welcomes new black neighbors with a burning cross, the North is a racial minefield.

Green and co-creator Jordan Peele show a deft hand when it comes to this kind of everyday texturing. It's seen in the supply list George keeps (food, mattress, gun) for any out-of-town driving that could involve no Black-friendly businesses. It's also seen in the intensity with which Letitia's friend Ruby (the scene-stealing Wunmi Mosaku) dedicates herself to becoming the first Black floor clerk at Marshall Field's. They also paint a loving portrait of a vibrant South Side Chicago, complete with some scorching numbers from Ruby as the head of a gutbucket electric blues band. The band keeps things off-kilter with everything from head-snappingly anachronistic music cues (Rihanna and Gil Scott-Heron to Nina Simone and The Jeffersons theme song). Green and Peele also cunningly deploy audio clips from Ntozake Shange and James Baldwin's 1965 Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley ("I find myself, not for the first time, in the position of a kind of Jeremiah…").

Unfortunately, Lovecraft Country is less sure of itself when pulling its varied influences and commentary into a unified story. The first five episodes were made available for screening, and the first two in particular are bumpy but crackling with energy. While Atticus soon discovers the whereabouts of Montrose, that quest is subsumed by a larger problem over the Braithwaite family. That would be the clan who own the spooky mansion in Ardham. They're equipped with a scarifying roster of alchemical powers, not to mention some sorcery-endowed sports cars and slavering multi-eyed monsters that bite off people's heads as easily as though they were munching a grape.

The Braithwaites, specifically sinister blondes Christina (Abbey Lee, mean-girl chic) and William (Jordan Patrick Smith, very Slytherin), have designs on Atticus and his friends and family. This eventually leads to more monsters, dimensions getting crossed, and eventually voodoo, Ouija boards, and pretty gruesome ends for some of those cross-burning northsiders.

In some ways, Lovecraft Country is a victim of its own ambitions. Emptying out a library's worth of pulp references and using them to spelunk the darkness of postwar American white supremacy just before the dawn of the civil rights era makes for a heady brew. But the ideas don't always play out successfully. Characters are put in the spotlight and then dropped, stories regularly run aground or fail to thread back into the central narrative. A subplot involving a Black character who discovers that drinking a potion will turn her White is rife with potential. But the moral complexities of her transformation (quickly discovering her power, she abuses it) are somewhat muddled by the show's repetitive obsession with the physical terms of her bloody, bone-crunching transformation. There is something poetic happening here but it's mangled rather than illuminated by the body horror.

Courtney B. Vance as George Black, Jonathan Majors as Atticus Black, and Jurnee Smollett as Letitia Dandridge (Photograph by Eli Joshua Ade /courtesy of HBO)

There will be ten episodes in total. Maybe Green and Peele will wrestle this monster of a show into some kind of shape by then. They could cast the plots even further afield, so that the simple resonant imagery of the first episode—George's old wood station wagon cruising into a summery night heavy with magic and threat—replaced by something strange, unearthly, and yet coruscastingly true. Lovecraft Country fulfills its promise like that first Watchmen episode does -- it could help unerase yet more of America's violent history.

From Your Site Articles
Related Articles Around the Web





Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.