Review: White Supremacy is the Real Horror in the Pulp Fiction Lovecraft Country

Summary

Author: Matt Ruff
Setting: Chicago, 1950s
Genre: Horror
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.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

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.

Review: Mexican Gothic is a Stylish, Anticolonialist Homage to Classic Horror

Summary

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Setting: Hidalgo, Mexico, 1950
Genre: Gothic Horror
Published: June 30th 2020 by Del Rey
Summary: Mexican Gothic is a horror story lent elegance and panache by its heroine, socialite Noemí Taboada. In exchange for a promise to attend university, Noemí agrees to check up on her cousin, recently married under mysterious circumstances. As Noemí discovers, the Doyle family and their High Place residence live up to the lurid promise of the Gothic horror genre.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review

My sky-high anticipation for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic was borne of a number of factors—the genre, the period, that cover, this author. I really enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (2016) and The Beautiful Ones (2017), so to see that she’d taken on a preternatural Rebecca (1938) was a real treat. So it came as no surprise to me that I devoured this book in essentially one sitting.

It was one hell of a ride. Get your tickets now.

What makes this an outstanding-four-star rather than perfect-five-star read has to do with some conventions of the genre that, through no fault of the author’s, have become a bit stale for me. The “Gothic” elements were so strong that the “Mexican” elements fell away rather quickly. The metaphorical and explicit condemnations of colonialism are strong, but we spend so much time with Noemí trying to understand the Doyles, I found myself more interested in the glimpses of the residents of the town. The author based the location after a British mining town nicknamed “Little Cornwall,” so no doubt the total Englishification was very much intentional. 

Moreno-Garcia is an excellent visual writer with a real talent for zipping the reader along with the story. The horror elements are memorably rendered while paying homage to the classics. The gorier elements that happen in secret, in the dark, are incredibly disturbing, but, in many ways, no more so than the very “genteel” conversations about race happening at the dinner table. That Noemí is not shy about naming the horrors she is put through and acting out against them makes her a compelling and sympathetic horror heroine.

This is definitely a book I’ll be returning to for a second, slower read after I absorb some relevant history and interviews with the author. Be sure to follow the link below to the Goodreads page for Mexican Gothic, where the author answers questions and links to a glorious Spotify playlist, bonus paper dolls, and a book club kit. 

Review: A Deception at Thornecrest is a Solid Entry in the Amory Ames Series

Summary

Author: Ashley Weaver
Setting: Rural England, 1934
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Published: September 9th, 2020 by Minotaur Books
Summary: A Deception at Thornecrest is the sixth full-length novel in the Amory Ames cozy murder mysteries. The series follows a level-headed British socialite and her handsome husband, a pair who find themselves in the midst of murder a lot. The setting here is the Ames family seat, Thornecrest, and the plot involves horse racing, jilted lovers, surprise relatives, and village secrets.

Rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in return for a candid review. This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

The first book of the Amory Ames series, Murder at the Brightwell (2014) was my foray into the contemporary cozy mystery genre. I read the book in one gulp while traveling and was transported, gleefully, into the glamorous world of an RKO picture. My delight with the series has, sadly, dimmed with each installment as the atmospheric touches and witticisms have become scarce in favor of sparer and simpler prose.

Like most, I’m drawn to cozy mysteries by three things—charming characters, clever puzzles, and immersive atmosphere. Amory and Milo are charming, together more than apart. There are some fun exchanges between the two, as well as a particularly touching scene that shows the couple’s devotion.

But with each book, Amory’s characterization and her ability to solve mysteries become less clear to me. She focuses on intuition born of semblance and sometimes she’s right and sometimes she’s wrong. Fallible characters are great, but when the mystery comes together, I’m left with no satisfying character-driven reason for Amory to have solved it.

I do like that this book featured a pregnant woman as the protagonist, since so often series wrap up when motherhood knocks or gloss over the pregnancy like it never happened. It’s also fun to see Amory use her perceived weaknesses as advantages.

A Deception at Thornecrest is a solid sixth installment (seventh, counting a novella) that offers the same mild diversions as the most recent previous installments, with enough lingering sparkle for me to still have interest in the next.

Review: Moonshine is a 1920s Take on 2000s Paranormal Romance Trends

Summary

Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Setting: New York City, 1920
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Published: May 11th 2010 by Griffin
Summary: Moonshine is book one in the Zephyr Hollis series, a reimagining of the social struggles of the 1920s in a world of Others. Zephyr is a hunter-turned-activist known around New York City as “the vampire suffragette.” At the behest of the mysterious and charming Amir, Zephyr takes on a case that gets her caught up in the business of the vampire mafia right when vampires are getting addicted to a new street drug.

Rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

As someone who enjoys the odd dip into paranormal romance, Moonshine had been on my radar for a couple of years. I lost track of it because it’s not available on Kindle or through my library system. But when I read the synopsis for Johnson’s upcoming release, Trouble the Saints, I was so enthused I had to track down this book from a decade ago. I discovered, surprise, this book does indeed feel like it was written a decade ago.

There is more than a passing resemblance between the plot of Moonshine and a certain Southern vampire mystery series. The vampires-coming-out-of-the-coffin premise makes for super fun paranormal fiction, and Moonshine does a great job of exploring concepts of Other prejudice while also highlighting real-life prejudices of race, class, and sex. But a full exploration of these weighty themes aren’t the purpose of this book—it’s a paranormal romance driven by action and adventure. 

Everything about Moonshine adds up to a reading experience I could’ve loved but ultimately just sort of liked. I found myself unable to connect with Zephyr because she’s too many types in one—like Sookie, she has a special immunity to vampire control and she used to be Buffy but now she’s more of a Hermione. And this doesn’t function as layers so much as plot convenience. We’re in Zephyr’s head the whole time, and her thoughts oscillate between charming 20s slang to super modern colloquialisms. The romance is the real draw to this genre but, lust aside, I didn’t buy the connection. The visuals around Amir’s Otherness are great, and I can see how the sequel would explore their connection in a deeper way, but I’m not sure if I’ll get there. The vibrancy promised by the premise didn’t quite deliver.

That said, it’s been ten years and this book is basically out of print. I have no doubt at all that Johnson has grown as a writer since publishing Moonshine, and a lot the writing gives me a ton of faith—I am still just as jazzed for Trouble the Saints.

The Long Hot Summer (1958): Belligerent Sexual Tension ≠ Predatory Romance

The Long, Hot Summer (1958) is directed by Martin Ritt and stars Paul Newman as a handsome drifter with a mean reputation who shakes up a rich Mississippi family by setting his sights on the skeptical, married daughter, played with gusto by Joanne Woodward. The plot and themes are drawn from short stories by William Faulkner.

This essay contains spoilers.

Pop Culture Detective has a great video up called “Predatory Romance in Harrison Ford Movies” in which he dissects the actor’s most iconic characters and their problem believing no means no. It’s a worthwhile video to watch all the way through, but it boils down to the fact that these hyper-masculine characters persist—going so far as to use their physicality—despite clear rejections from their female love interests. And in films like Indiana Jones and Blade Runner and even Star Wars we the audience are primed to be okay with this. These women must secretly want it because, after all, he’s the hero. Pretty gross.

But that got me thinking. We want to like these scenes because, let’s not lie, belligerent sexual tension is hot. Who doesn’t want to see two characters challenge each other? What packs more oomph than characters battling with themselves over whether or not to give in to love? I eat up that up like dessert. But, yikes, the longer I’m alive the more I cannot stand how easily belligerent sexual tension slides into predatory romance. What’s a trope-lover to do?


Luckily, I rewatched The Long Hot Summer (1958) recently and realized, holy vintage, this movie from almost sixty years ago actually subverted predatory romance! This is despite the fact that this film has the male lead joking to a group of good ol’ boys, “A lot of women say no when they mean yes.” On the surface, this movie is about a cold-hearted woman melting for a hot-blooded man. It should be the definition of predatory romance. But it isn’t. Why?

On the surface, this movie is about a cold-hearted woman melting for a hot-blooded man. It should be the definition of predatory romance. But it isn’t. Why?

Because this film is a character piece. It’s not after cheap thrills. Based on William Faulkner’s works, the purpose of the film is to poke and prod various social conventions. Clara Varner is repressed, sure, but she also talks frankly about her sexual desires with the man she is pursuing (and has been for six years, which is how we the audience know she knows deep down he’s wrong for her). Ben Quick makes no secret of the fact that he’s pursuing Clara because she’s the holdout, but it’s also clear that it’s not just the challenge he’s after—he understands and sees her in a way that others in her life don’t bother to.

At the halfway point, we get a scene that has all the hallmarks of predatory romance. The male lead kisses the female lead right after she slaps him. Classic Harrison Ford, right? Except not! Check out the scene here:

Without sacrificing the delicious belligerent sexual tension, this scene does a number of things to subvert the predatory romance trope:

The space is large and the door is open. Clara is free to leave.

Ben announces his intentions. He tells her he’s going to kiss her, and he does so from a distance.

“You please me and I’ll please you.” This is an arrogant line, but it’s also an effective seduction because it’s what we know Clara wants. Pleasure.

When Clara smacks him, Ben stops in his tracks. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t move until it’s clear that Clara isn’t moving, either.

Clara never tells him no. She never tries to get away from him and he never tries to stop her.

Ben continues to seduce her with what he knows is troubling her—everyone around her is able to seek out their pleasure, but society and her own justifiably high standards bar her from it. You can see in the small movements she’s making that Ben’s words are affecting her. She’s turned on and fighting it but not fighting him.

At first, Clara stands completely still when Ben kisses her. Then after a moment, we get that romance lover’s dream—she bursts forth with passion. She leans into him. She holds him around the waist. The camera pans out, revealing that Ben has kept his hands off of her. He hasn’t restrained her in any way. But when she takes hold of him, he takes hold of her right back.

By the same token, when she breaks off the kiss, he breaks off his contact. He steps back. He watches her gain her composure. When it’s clear she’s not up for another kiss, he steps back even further.

“All right,” she says, “you proved it. I’m human.” She’s affected by the kiss, but Clara is nothing if not prideful and we love her for it. After Ben’s, “Yes, ma’am, you’re human all right,” she lashes out to take his supposed victory away from him with the two words she knows will cut him down.

Ben is furious at her name-calling and the fact that his “Sunday manners” will never be enough woman of Clara’s class. He’s burning with righteous energy, but the angrier he gets the further he backs away from her. When Clara runs from him, he lets her go. She’s well away from him before he gives his anger physical force by slamming the door to the shop behind him and breaking glass. He stops at the porch, so we know he wasn’t going to run after her.

I love this scene. I love that I can love this scene without feeling gross! It’s fraught and messy and complicated and belligerent and tense all without falling into the abusive subtext that lurks in predatory romance.

So, all that to say, feminist romance fans, we can have our cake and eat it, too—we just need to demand better from our media.