“But more than that, it is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.”
This is one of the opening lines in the first episode of Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, the new HBO series also executive produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams. The show follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) as they travel across segregated America looking for Atticus’s father. The show is also based on the 2016 Matt Ruff novel of the same name.
From its opening moments, Lovecraft Country establishes itself as a story about stories, reimagining the trademark existential horror pioneered by HP Lovecraft and pointing it at fresh and interesting targets. Lovecraft’s style of horror is unique in its fear of the unknown, a kind of overarching existential dread lying in shadows everywhere. His work is filled with gigantic, unstoppable, and ancient gods that accentuate the insignificance and fragility of humanity. Think Cthulhu, his most famous creation, an unkillable octopus-dragon god waiting to be reborn and wreak havoc across the globe.
Lovecraft’s legacy is tainted by the fact that he was an enormous racist, even for his time. Although his works have remained extremely influential in the genres of horror and science-fiction, his racist tendencies are intertwined with his work. A lot of the “unknown” that Lovecraft feared stemmed from xenophobia and hardcore racism. And in 2020, it’s this grappling with legacy that makes Lovecraft Country such an interesting show.
Lovecraft Country is determined to use Lovecraftian horror against its very creator, taking aim at white supremacy and asking its audience to question what our stories are about and who has been excluded from them.
Early on in the episode, Atticus tells his uncle that when his father caught him reading Lovecraft, he forced him to memorize one of the most racist works of Lovecraft. The rest of the episode is largely a road trip from Chicago to Massachusetts and the existential fear felt by our trio is not of lurking monsters (at first) but of the monsters in plain sight, chasing them out of whites-only restaurants with guns and arresting them for no crime.
In the climax of the episode, this reimagining collides with a more traditional Lovecraftian idea. The trio is stopped by an officer who tells them that this is “Sundown Country,” and that if he catches black people out after dark, he will kill them. They’ll never be able to make it across county lines without speeding, and after begging with the officer to allow them an illegal U-turn, the group makes for the border with the police cruiser in tight pursuit, the sun slowly setting in the background.
It’s a terrifying construction, turning the impending danger nightfall poses in vampire stories into a more tangible and real fear. Eventually, our trio is held at gunpoint by a group of cops until they are ambushed by actual Lovecraftian vampires, turning anyone they bite into monsters themselves and bringing the metaphor full circle.
It’s the same kind of remixing that was on display in Watchmen last year. That show used superhero tropes to take the mask of American history to reveal the racism beneath, since “you can’t heal under a mask.” Likewise, Lovecraft Country is using established tropes of existential horror to take aim at the feelings of terror that plagued Black communities in the 1950s and still persist in new ways today.
The most powerful moment from the episode takes place about midway, when all sound cuts out and we get a driving montage set to James Baldwin’s famous debate with William F. Buckley in 1965—a debate that set out to answer the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
The montage reveals the underside of America: the segregated hot dog stands, the racist taunting at the gas pump, an Aunt Jemima billboard. It’s all summed up in this shot that shows Black workers waiting for the bus beneath a billboard selling cars to white American families in the name of the American Dream.
It’s not just Lovecraft himself that Lovecraft Country is trying to get us to reconsider, but the nature of all of our stories and myths, including the American Dream. What stories have we told ourselves? How do stories shape our idea of history? And what people have been excluded and exploited to make those stories tick?
To that end, Majors, Vance, and Michael K. Williams are all pulling their weight, but the standout (through the two episodes I’ve seen) is Jurnee Smollett as “Letitia f***ing Lewis.” Smollett somehow gives the trio both an anchor in reality when George and Atticus get lost in their own minds, and also gives the show a much-needed jolt of energy.
Lovecraft Country has lofty aspirations, and it might not be able to fully realize them with its structure—which has a bit of monster-of-the-week to it—but they are ideas worth exploring, especially with the knockout cast.
Lovecraft Country Continues Monday at 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic.
Contributed by Jackson From Skip Intro