LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: a hot, glorious mess of cosmic horror, social justice and Afro-futurism (Season 1 – Review)

Where do you even begin to start when examining Lovecraft Country? Misha Green’s series feels like an apogee of black-fronted genre television, a show which throws everything but the kitchen sink at its audience.

One recurrent aspect of Lovecraft Country across the ten episode run (which has felt like twenty given how much Green and her writers have packed in) is how acutely aware everyone involved in the show is about what the series means. This is not just just a drama. This feels like a statement. It feels like television reparations for decades of TV shows and movies that Lovecraft Country takes an enormous cue from, all of them almost exclusively fronted by white casts with low threshold of ethnic diversity, particularly in American storytelling. Lovecraft Country confidently, with fulsome sass and stylistic vim, barges onto the scene with a concoction of high concept Afro-futurism, cosmic horror, social justice power and emotional melodrama. It does so unapologetically.

It makes for quite a ride, frankly. Green, backed by two very different showmen in Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams, adapts Matt Ruff’s episodic and almost anthological source material relatively faithfully, revelling in some of the more striking and powerful storylines – particularly Ruby’s Mr Hyde-style transformation, powered by racial commentary, that is delivered with icky, brutal gore in Strange Case (it was my favourite story in Ruff’s book and the show does it justice). Along the way, Green is unafraid to throw new juice in the mix, such as Atticus Freeman’s backstory as a GI in Korea, brought to live in what for me is Lovecraft Country’s finest episode, Meet Me in Daegu, and strings together a myriad of narratives and ideas with real bravado come the season finale. Not all of them stick but Lovecraft Country is never less than pulsing, pulp entertainment of the highest order.

It is, frankly, a complete hot mess, but I mean that in the kindest possible terms.

Early comparisons were made between Lovecraft Country and last year’s masterpiece Watchmen, which makes complete sense, but does little justice to either show for different reasons.

Lovecraft Country, for one thing, is no masterpiece.

It can veer quite wildly in quality from week to week at points, whether it’s a moment of Jurnee Smollett overacting, or a script which doesn’t quite click together (take Indiana Jones riff A History of Violence), or indeed an episode utterly misconceived and plain unfathomable from start to finish (here’s looking at you, I Am), but then it will land a brilliant piece of Lovecraftian horror mixed with sweet natured period romance such as Meet Me in Daegu, or the nightmare fuel at the core of Diana’s demons in Jig-a-Bobo. Given the scope and scale of Green’s storytelling, and how it overlaps with a range of sub-genres, consistency would have been an immensely tall order. Considering the breadth Lovecraft Country covers, it acquits itself well across ten episodes packed with ideas, storylines and social commentary about the black experience.

The penultimate episode, Rewind: 1921, which sees several of our Chicago heroes including Atticus (or ‘Tic’ as he’s known), played by a commanding yet sensitive Jonathan Majors, Smollett’s strident ex-photojournalist Leti Lewis and Tic’s angst-ridden father Montrose (the great Michael Kenneth Williams, in the show’s trickiest and most profound role), travel back to the infamous Tulsa massacre of 1921 in Oklahoma, is the episode destined to draw the greatest Watchmen comparisons given how central Tulsa is to that show’s core DNA. While Lovecraft Country uses time travel to embroil our characters in those events, it struggles to convey the same level of horror as Watchmen. Structurally, Damon Lindelof’s series has a tapestry and deeper lyricism than Lovecraft Country, which frequently falls back on tropes and narrative devices that allay audience fears that it doesn’t always make a great deal of sense.

It is also, ultimately, remarkably detached from Lovecraft himself. Sundown, the opening episode (and still one of the season’s best), suggests that Green’s series will weave the horrific treatment of Jim Crow-era black society in the American South with the literalised cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s work, but this doesn’t entirely come to pass. Whitey’s on the Moon introduces a significant magic aspect to the series which, at the show’s worst, pulls the lazy Harry Potter trick of conveying action and drama through gobbledygook spells (finale Full Circle is particularly egregious about this), and doesn’t quite provide the Get Out-style racial satire that could have emerged from Samuel Braithwaite and his Ardham estate – though some commented, quite fairly, that the events of episode two would in most shows of old served as a season finale, given the scale of the drama.

Lovecraft Country is an indication, in that sense, of how far genre television has come, and how confident this series particularly is in the strange brew it contains.

In fairness to the show, Ruff’s book doesn’t entirely engage with Lovecraft for every story either, but Green doesn’t quite integrate the deeper racial anxiety about the writer’s hateful politics with the storytelling on show, as the season feels keen to place Atticus, Leti & co in a near-anthological approach to the season’s structure.

Holy Ghost is a spectral piece about Leti buying the house of a long dead, white colonialist, turning it into a black refuge in a white supremacist community, only for said rich racist to haunt the place, Ghostbusters-style. A History of Violence breaks with the book to go tomb raiding (at one point stealing openly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), while I Am sadly chooses to turn Hippolyta’s strange and weird alien planet story from the book into a confusing, bizarro trip into Afro-futurism which feels utterly detached from almost everything else in the show. While playing with the format is to be admired, Lovecraft Country is so desperate to engage with all of these styles and ideas that it loses track of the book’s central confluence of violence and murder of black people in America with Lovecraft’s unspeakable, nameless terror.

You almost wish more had been done with the metafictional idea of Ruff’s novel existing in-universe, as Atticus at one point travels to a future in which Ruff’s novel depicts a slightly varnished historical narrative from what we see in the show (which is a neat and crafty means of explaining why certain stories and characters are different or newly invented for the series). There is a deeper point behind this addition, in that Green is commenting on how the black experience within fiction and narrative is presented today. There is a sense that Green can’t quite believe a show like this exists, populated primarily by skilled black actors, in which Abbey Lee is not the heroine but villain as Aryan-looking heiress Christina Braithwaite, and which has the space to utterly wipe out the kind of X-Files-style secret white old man cabal in the Sons of Adam in episode two through the power of a black man’s blood, before said black man is literally crucified on a cross in the finale and dies to combat immortal white supremacy. Can you imagine such television being aired on HBO or anywhere else twenty or twenty-five years ago?

Lovecraft Country in that sense also displays how far we have come, and how wonderfully unafraid black storytellers now are in positioning people of colour in genre fables such as this, as heroes saving the world, travelling through space and time, and even facing their own latent demons, such as Montrose coming to terms with his own sexuality – a factor not present in Ruff’s source material, and a happy by-product of how, in killing off Courtney B. Vance’s uncle George early on, the show affords Montrose the space for development the book didn’t have the wherewithal to do.

There is also a concerted effort to not portray Atticus as a complete ‘black saviour’, or transform him into the kind of inviolate hero white fiction would frequently propagate. Meet Me in Daegu exposes his darker side, as a war-time murderer in Korea, and a man in many senses atoning for his own sins throughout the season – even more staggering given almost none of this comes from Ruff’s book at all. These are not one-dimensional creations. Even Christina has more of a sympathetic vulnerability at times than the book ever afforded her slimy namesake Caleb, her sex change from book to screen really aiding Strange Case and Ruby’s sexually charged moral compromise.

Wunmi Mosaku is also a highlight in possibly the book’s standout character, imbuing Ruby with an intensity that offsets her sister Leti’s earnest righteousness. Lovecraft Country’s storytelling might at points be a slick regurgitation of narrative concepts and twists other shows have successfully made work in the past, but it always works to foreground characterisation and the unified sense of this black community fighting against existential evil, above mere plot. The show is at its best when it focuses this balance and suffers when it ambitiously overreaches.

Few shows on television can claim to be Lovecraft Country, though. It takes the best parts of Ryan Murphy’s melodramatic horror of American Horror Story and its ilk and whisks them into a blender with a treatise on social justice, black power and family drama. The Abrams’ sense of scope doesn’t always fuse with Peele’s darkly comic social satire but Misha Green fashions something genuinely propulsive, bombastic and inventive from the mixture.

It doesn’t need a second season but for the sheer fact Lovecraft Country exists, and has such joie de vivre at heart, it deserves to return.

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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