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.