Early on in Lovecraft Country, a story is told about a black man journeying alone in Jim Crow-era America. The man is stopped by a white police officer, who tells him he’s traveling through a “sundown country”: “If I’d caught you here after dark, it’d be my sworn duty to hang you from one of these trees.” He then notes that sunset is seven minutes hence, but that the man probably can’t make the border unless he speeds or makes an illegal U-turn, both of which would carry their own repercussions. So off the man drives, tailed closely, and with each scrap of sun that slips below the horizon the danger increases exponentially.
This basic scenario is one that should be familiar to horror fans, drawing as explicitly as it does on vampire mythology, where the danger of a sunset is well established. In Matt Ruff’s novel, a searing work of socially conscious horror, that parallel is absolutely intended. Here is a book heavily indebted to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, he of Cthulhu and other monstrous creations, but one where the biggest danger the heroes face is the color of their skin. Many a horror protagonist has eluded capture by pretending to be their adversary—acting like a zombie or pod person while walking amongst them—but that’s not an option for a black family trying to go incognito in 1954. Much like The Shining, a story of alcoholism and abusive fathers that ratchets the tension up to nearly unbearable levels with the addition of ghosts, Ruff begins with the all-too-real threat faced by black Americans in a white America, a premise that’s perfectly serviceable on its own. Then he adds monsters, ancient ones, and portals to other worlds.
Ruff has merged genre and commentary before. His previous book, The Mirage, looked at the War On Terror through the lens of science fiction, particularly the alternative history and multiverse traditions. That book, entertaining though it was in large stretches, wasn’t wholly successful as the sci-fi elements never found a natural fit with the “political” content. A reverse world order, where the United States and the Middle East had switched their positions of power on the geopolitical stage, made for a great premise, but it was never explored too deeply. In Lovecraft Country, though, the genre and themes are completely in sync, the horror and racial feeding into the other.
This kind of marriage is hardly new, but the perspective here remains fairly radical against the much larger history of white artists presenting non-white groups as a malicious “other.” For the bulk of American pop culture history, black communities in particular were depicted as savage or buffoonish, stereotypes that appear shamefully often even today. Ruff is fully aware of this history, and Lovecraft Country occasionally stops to consider itself within the context of its inspirations, a motif that can get a little cute. Characters discuss the racial views of genre writers like Lovecraft (a white supremacist) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose John Carter fought for the Confederacy), and debate the themes of Jekyll and Hyde. At one point, a character refers to himself as a “Magical Negro,” some 40 years before that term was popularized in its current meaning. Given how immediate some of the book’s subjects are—to police violence, race-baiting political campaigns, and Confederate imagery—this kind of analysis breaks the story’s spell, unnecessarily illustrating something that’s already readily apparent.
Lovecraft has the basic structure as a season of serialized TV, with each chapter functioning as a type of short story whose place within the overall plot eventually becomes clear. Each section gets its own narrative arc, as well as its own lead character, who navigates through his or her own horror tradition. In one, a black woman is given a potion that temporarily turns her white. In another, there’s a communication with the dead. In the title chapter, a man attempts to find his missing father with the help of his uncle and a childhood friend, a journey that will take them into racially hostile territory and through monster-infested woods. Lovecraft fans will undoubtedly find countless references and allusions; most obviously, there’s a Necronomicon-style Book Of Names and the Order Of The Ancient Dawn—the kind of name that would get any pulp lover’s heart aflutter.
It’s unlikely that the book’s horror sequences will leave many readers white-knuckled, though. Ruff is using the structure of the genre as much as its visceral impact; some sections are closer to Twilight Zone-style moral quandaries than gorefests—but there is a palpable sense of dread running throughout it, underlined by the steady references to the sins of America’s past. Not only do bloodlines—extended in unexpected ways by slave-owner rape long ago—play a fundamental role, but Ruff notes every bridge named after a Confederate, every white person who can end a black one’s life with a spurious accusation. One character publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, not itself a real thing, though it is based on one. There’s a moment here when a character begins to hear telltale creaks and whispers in her new house. Is the place haunted, or has it been invaded by neighborhood racists wanting to keep the street entirely white? Lovecraft Country feels incendiary because by this point, you’re hoping it’s ghosts: at least they’re not guaranteed to be malevolent.