First Impressions and Here Be Monsters – LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some are already declaring Lovecraft Country as ‘this years Watchmen‘, but this feels hyperbolic to a degree. Watchmen was an immediate shock to the system. Lovecraft Country will, hopefully, slow build its way to a piece of cathartic theatre.

Based on a 2016 pulp novel by Matt Ruff, the show adapted by Misha Green begins with a statement of intent – here be monsters. This differs from the novel, which introduces us to our protagonist Atticus Freeman (played here by Jonathan Majors) as he ventures back home to Chicago after the disappearance of his father, Montrose. All this will follow in Green’s show, as the first episode Sundown is particularly slavish to Ruff’s first fifty pages or so, but the opening moment indulges by landing Atticus in the wildest of dreams involving Lovecraftian monsters, UFO’s, beautiful women from space and cosmic wars. Pure blood pulp science-fiction which front loads, thematically, what Lovecraft Country concerns – black legacy and heroism within a nation populated by the worst of monsters. The shoggoths and weird places inside H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction are just to whet the appetite. The meal itself stands to be far chewier.

The pedigree behind Lovecraft Country is, of course, pretty damn impressive, and speaks to the confluence of black and white voices who have united to bring Ruff’s vivid yet recognisable world to life. Green, as showrunner, was lauded for her previous work Underground, an apt title given it didn’t break out into the mainstream as Lovecraft Country stands a chance of doing. Jordan Peele, as an executive producer, lends his satirical, ironic horror perspective (indeed the next episode, if it stays close to the novel, could feel very Get Out). J. J. Abrams, super producer du jour, is likely the man who got this on its feet with the prestigious HBO, who are consistently looking for both their next Game of Thrones and now Watchmen, given that show is unlikely to get a second series (immediately – it’ll reappear eventually). HBO have certainly thrown enough money at Lovecraft Country to suggest they have lofty ambitions for it, and it could well be a series that has fallen at precisely the right time.

The difference is that Watchmen felt almost prophetic at the end of 2019 with hindsight, as focused on police brutality and corruption in racial terms as it was, whereas Lovecraft Country simply serves to externalise and metamorphose the hate coursing right now through America into literal, unknowable horror.

This is not to denigrate Sundown as an opening episode—using ‘pilot’ doesn’t feel appropriate any more in this day and age—because it’s very well constructed, and builds nicely into a thrilling, extended and bloody final act.

What it seeks to do, however, is frame the kind of undulating, sinister white supremacy that has never gone away in American society through a grotesque, cosmic horror lens. Ruff’s novel has been adapted faithfully but some of the edges have been sanded off. A key scene in the journey Atticus takes with headstrong photographer Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and everyman uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) sees them arrive at a small, very white town in deepest Massachusetts where they attempt to get some food, only to be quite literally ran out of town by a bunch of murderous white rednecks.

“I am a citizen!” George—a man who travels the Midwest frequently to create an underground guide for black people to know where is safe to travel—protests, even when Atticus smells the coffee and suggests they keep driving. Yet in Ruff’s prose this entire scene is suffused with a deeper sense of protracted dread, whereas Green seems to want to get it out of the way so we can get to the barnstorming, entertaining climax. Perhaps it feels it can use shorthand. We know what we need to know by now about white supremacy.

The appeal of the story, certainly in Sundown, is watching such human monsters attacked and even at one stage utterly transformed into a monster of the Lovecraftian kind, and the episode lacks little in knowing irony when it points out just how much of a virulent racist and anti-Semite the writer Lovecraft himself was. Atticus is aware of the legacy of the man to whom the book lends its name, with the titular ‘Lovecraft country’ serving not just as a place filled with the kind of cosmic weirdness he wrote about (suggesting Lovecraft was more documenting rather than imagining back in the early 20th century), but also the kind of pure white hate that still forces black people in the 1950s setting to segregate. Early on, Atticus’ bus transporting him home breaks down and while the white folks are given lifts, he and the only other black lady must walk back into town – even despite him being a war hero. We never even see the moment he learns this. It just cuts to him walking. The hate, the racism, it’s all simply assumed by these characters.

If the portrayal of white supremacy is therefore less outwardly horrific and potent than in Watchmen, Lovecraft Country is no less self-aware about the story it tells. Green’s opener is emboldened by the audience’s growing knowledge and awareness of H. P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic terror of a cosmic universe filled not with wonder, but horror, and I’ve wondered recently if the strong resurgence of Lovecraftian fiction in everything from action pictures that throw Cthulhu in at the end all the way to modern, outwardly bleak Star Trek, is a reaction to how our world seems unrecognisable and beyond strange as the 21st century deepens.

Our leaders, the rise of hateful movements, the peddling of bizarre conspiracy, take your pick – we live in a swirl of weirdness that is suffusing normality and fiction is reflecting that. White supremacists are open and proud right now, and they are in Lovecraft Country. Atticus is forcibly cowed by the ugly, shameless racist bravado of the police in this story – indeed the most effective scene is a slower, deadlier running out of county by a local sheriff who has the most delicious of comeuppance.

Yet by the end, Atticus and Leti transform into the kind of black superheroes that both dreamed about in the science-fiction tales they embraced as children, in what feels like a long-forgotten past for two friends who could well become something more in time; the kind of hero Atticus’ young cousin Diana writes about in comics just for her mother, the black futuristic, cosmic superhero Orithiya Blue. Atticus watches as the human monsters are consumed by the Lovecraftian horror in the weird woods, as the entire climax turns into a savage, Evil Dead-style piece of survival horror – and they happily do not spare the claret.

This, to me, feels like the ultimate message of Lovecraft Country. Black people need heroes in the vein white audiences have enjoyed for decades, especially right now in the face of emerging, emboldened hate. Atticus, Leti and these characters are travelling into the depths of white supremacist hell, the dark heart of America, but you are rooting for them to emerge triumphant, even if the cost is bloody.

Perhaps the most powerful, and memorable scene of Sundown however is a striking, extended montage sequence set to a speech from probably the greatest black essayist of the 20th century, James Baldwin. These are just a few of his words:

Our white South African or Mississippi sharecropper, or Mississippi sheriff, or a Frenchman driven out of Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality which compels them to, for example, in the case of the French exile from Algeria, to offend French reasons from having ruled Algeria. The Mississippi or Alabama sheriff, who really does believe, when he’s facing a Negro boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity.

His words cut to the heart of Lovecraft Country and provide it with the added resonance one hopes will carry through a series which, if it adapts the book faithfully, will include ‘aristocratic’ white supremacy, a powerful exploration of lineage and legacy, and a fascinating contrast between the white and black experience. Lovecraft Country is about confronting hate, confronting the monsters lurking all around us, and giving no quarter. The catharsis will be in Atticus and those around him becoming not so much superheroes, but an entire race of people standing up for their identity, for their culture, and further reminding us that black lives matter, and they have always mattered.

If it achieves that, it will grow from an immediate success into a real triumph. Then we’ll be able to describe it as the new Watchmen.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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