I think I’ve found my book of the year (so far), and although it’s actually by a white author*, it is very much rooted in the experiences of an almost all Black cast of characters.
While H.P. Lovecraft infamously wrote in a derogatory way about non-Anglo whites (AKA. he was a racist and very specific type of white supremacist), this lovely book takes his pulpy stories and twists them, this time making its central Black protagonists the heroes – and demonising the mostly middle-aged, wealthy white antagonists. As expected Lovecraft Country has a heavy supernatural/science fiction vibe – and it’s delicious, really.
Broken up into short stories that all add up to a dynamic whole, it focuses on a new character each time, and I have strong feelings for each and every one of them. Pretty sure you will too.
HBO have actually adapted it now into an upcoming show, produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams – and this is the main reason I picked up the book. That and my boo Matt has been raving about it (and I almost always take all his recommendations because we’re horror twins). I’m not usually a big sci-fi/fantasy fan when it comes to literature but these characters, as well as the very real topic of racial discrimination and the book’s supernatural stylings, they got under my skin and maybe now I’m a convert.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year-old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George – publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide – and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite – heir to the estate that owned one of Atticus’s ancestors – they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.
I’m not going to go into any of the intricacies of the plot here because they’re joyous and a real treat to unravel. As above, each story ties into the central themes and the overriding narrative, but also works in bite-sized chunks.
We meet Atticus and his uncle George first, who are joined by childhood pal, Letitia on a road trip to retrieve Atticus’ father Montrose from a mysterious group of rich white men. But what do they want from the family really? Well this trip undoubtedly changes the course of all their lives forever and has a trickle down effect that saturates the rest of their families, including George’s amazing wife Hippolyta and their son – and Letitia’s half-sister Ruby.
Each segment is influenced by Lovecraft’s stories (of which I don’t know enough, I have to admit) and there are elements of supernatural, (Hammer) horror, fantasy and a whole lot more. Central to all the stories is the very real threat posed to our protagonists by the racist system – and it has a lot to say about what’s more dangerous – traveling through a sundown town (or state) or tentacled monsters hiding in your peripheral.
Well for a start I didn’t even know what a sundown town was until I read this and I am appalled – with the concept itself but also my own ignorance. There’s a particularly terrifying chapter in which the characters find them in a sundown state and they have a very small window of time to flee beyond the state line before they’re killed by the pursuing law enforcement. LEGALLY.
It’s nail biting stuff but it’s also devastating because how can this ever have been accepted? It makes you wonder what still might go on underground in places like this because God knows racism is still as prevalent today.
I also have to admit that I only learnt about the Green book after watching the 2018 film of the same name – a film incidentally that I really enjoyed but now recognise to be deeply problematic. We learn every day though, right? Anyway, George and his family travel around the country doing research for the Green book – and I really enjoyed these asides.
Without spoilering, I am really into the female characters of this story – Letitia is a feisty heroine who doesn’t take no for an answer – and one of my favourite threads is the one in which she takes ownership of a haunted house. Meanwhile, her half sister Ruby takes on a very intriguing secret mission which really puts white privilege and the concept of the thin white, European beauty ideal into perspective.
Ruby’s story is right up my street – and really taps into the super unsettling body horror sub-genre. I cannot wait to see what it looks like onscreen. From what I can see (and I’ve been avoiding it as much as I can), the TV adaptation has added – or padded out more characters – presumably to build a fuller Lovecraft Country universe – which means it will probably move beyond the original story – or build it outwards. I just hope it doesn’t lose any of the characterisation or move too far away from the central crew, because they are the best and I love them all.
With regard to its author being white, I’m not sure how I feel about that. That he can write such an amazing book and really tap into such racial themes is impressive, but is it his place? I don’t know the answer to that and it’s something I wish to ruminate on. Perhaps my opinion here doesn’t even matter – and that makes perfect sense too.
My only comment from here is, read this book – it’s a straight up banger. So fun, so rich and it’s genuinely beautiful. I had the most fun texting my thoughts to Matt after every chapter.
What are you reading?
*Even though Matt Ruff is not a Black author, I’ve still categorised it with the other Black books I’ve been reading, just to keep them together.