Author: Matt Ruff
Setting: Chicago, 1950s
Published: February 14th 2017 by Harper Perennial
Summary: Science Fiction aficionado Atticus Turner, a Black World War II veteran, undertakes a dangerous journey to find his estranged and kidnapped father. Strange events place Atticus and his extended family in the snare of the Order of the Ancient Dawn, an occultist group with a legacy of white supremacy as entrenched as America’s.
This review does not contain spoilers.
If at one point the working title of Lovecraft Country was Weird Tales from Lovecraft Country, Vol. 1 or something similar, I wouldn’t be surprised. Matt Ruff has divided Lovecraft Country into a series of short stories told from the varying perspectives of two Black families terrorized by twin versions of white supremacy—one mundane, the other arcane. None of their stories would be out of place in Weird Tales (1923-1954), the quintessential pulp magazine that published strange short stories from likes of Ray Bradbury and the eponymous HP Lovecraft.
Except that, as far as I can tell, vintage Weird Tales didn’t really publish “race fiction”—that is, fiction told from the perspective of sympathetic Black or other non-white characters.* In that way, Lovecraft Country is almost alternative history. Imagine an America where infamous racist HP Lovecraft had to, at the very least, share a platform with authors—white authors, like Matt Ruff, and, more poignantly, authors of color—who literally demonized Jim Crow era white supremacy and its many injustices.
What we do have is a 2017 novel that functions more like several interconnected short stories than a single, complete narrative. The stories are told in a spare prose that largely externalizes characterizations, yet the characters remain compelling in their journeys. My favorite story belongs to Hippolyta, who experiences perhaps the weirdest tale of the bunch. The most affecting stories, for me, belong to Ruby and Montrose.
One aspect of the short story format that didn’t work quite as well is the villain. Because Lovecraft Country is based on short stories, there needs to be a dramatic through-line, and Caleb Braithwhite serves that shiftily evil purpose. The side-effect is, too often, Caleb is a white privilege Deus ex machina.
As large as Caleb looms, he doesn’t overshadow Atticus, Letitia, Montrose, George, Hippolyta, Horace, and Ruby, whose stories are ultimately of growth and empowerment under oppressive conditions. Lovecraft Country offers high-concept pulp that speaks not only to the racism of its 1950s setting but also its impact on the present day, most viscerally in the police brutality depicted.
*Total aside, the contemporary incarnation of Weird Tales made strides toward inclusivity but failed big time in 2012, as these posts from NK Jemisin and Jeff Vandemeer describe.