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How Lovecraft Country fights racism with wit, flair and horror

HBO show 'Lovecraft Country' and N.K. Jemisin's novel 'The City We Became' push back against seminal horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's racism in inventive ways

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' is both a knowing homage to Lovecraft's work and a stinging riposte to his white supremacy.
HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' is both a knowing homage to Lovecraft's work and a stinging riposte to his white supremacy.

H.P. Lovecraft died in 1937. It took till 2011 for the literary world to confront his virulent racism. That year, writer Nnedi Okrafor’s Who Fears Death received the prestigious World Fantasy Award for best novel. Since 1975, when the award was constituted, the trophy for best novel had been a stylized bust of Lovecraft. Okorafor was ecstatic about the award but didn’t know much about Lovecraft, beyond his outsized influence on modern fantasy and horror. But when she found out about his racism—especially a notorious, derogatory poem about African Americans —she was aghast that as a black American of Nigerian heritage, her work could be rewarded with a trophy bearing the likeness of a racist. This triggered an international outcry, which culminated in the trophy design being changed in 2015. This pushback, which began in 2011, has now reached an apogee with two acclaimed works of fiction in 2020: a TV series and a novel.

HBO’s Lovecraft Country, based on writer Matt Ruff’s excellent 2016 novel, is only three episodes old but it is already being hailed as a television tour de force. Developed by Misha Green (producer of Underground) and co-executive-produced by Jordan Peele (director of Get Out and Us), Lovecraft Country takes a simple conceit and does something brilliant with it. It follows the supernatural adventures of two black families in 1950s America, and the monsters and horrors come not just from Lovecraft’s works, but also from a pre-civil rights US society of aggressive segregation and institutionalized racism. The show is both a knowing homage to Lovecraft’s books and a stinging riposte to his white supremacy.

The other work of fiction that uses Lovecraft to subvert Lovecraft is three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy-horror novel The City We Became, which was published in March. The novel, set in present-day New York City, follows six New Yorkers—five of them people of colour—who are transformative avatars of the city, spurring it into becoming a living, sentient entity. Their antagonist is a monstrous, Lovecraftian inter-dimensional entity that wages both a supernatural and a real-world battle against the avatars. And this entity—whose sinister manifestation is the creepy Woman in White—weaponizes xenophobia and racism to try and defeat the avatars and destroy the city.

Click here to read the Lounge review of N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became.

But to fully understand what the novel and the show do, we need to know who Lovecraft was, and his literary legacy. The cult writer of pulpy horror stories from the early 20th century is considered the pioneer and originator of an extremely influential marriage of horror and fantasy—weird fiction. His dark Gothic imaginings of an impersonal universe populated by cosmic, madness-inducing monsters that slither into people’s lives and slowly destroy them, has been so successful that an entire genre of fiction called “Lovecraftian" has sprung up over the past century. Lovecraft has inspired fiction by the likes of Neil Gaiman, China Miéville and Stephen King, as well as movie franchises like the Alien films. Elements of the “Lovecraft mythos"—“eldritch" monsters like Cthulhu, “cyclopean" demonic cities like Ry’leh, forbidden books like the Necronomicon and “squamous" characters born of the interbreeding of monsters and humans—are today part of the cultural lexicon. Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane in Batman comics is named after the demon-haunted city where Lovecraft set many of his stories.

But the dark subtext that was, until recently, brushed under the carpet is just how much Lovecraft’s disgust and hatred for black, brown and other people of colour informed his imagination. In seminal novels and stories such as The Call Of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft locates demonic, inhuman cults amidst black, Asian or mixed-race communities that threaten the white, Christian puritanical order. The latter is then defended by individuals or groups of white men—scientists, writers, poets—who seek to not just shut out the monsters, but also destroy the communities. The usual racist dog whistles regarding law and order, immigration, diversity and miscegenation form the context of Lovecraft’s fiction. What both Lovecraft Country and The City We Became do is flip these tropes on their head.

In the TV series, the black protagonists are smart, urbane, stylish and sophisticated. They have deeply imagined lives and hopes and aspirations that endure despite systemic racism. They are publishers, writers, musicians, soldiers, business owners and budding comic book writers who chafe at the oppression, but aren’t cowered down by it. Two of them are fans of speculative fiction in general, and Lovecraft’s books in particular, while also being deeply aware of the latter’s racism. They even have a name for rural Massachusetts where Lovecraft set many of his stories: Lovecraft Country.

The white characters, on the other hand, are manipulative at best, and unreconstructed racists at worst. In episode 2, three of the protagonists run into a secret order of Ku Klux Klan-like “grand wizards", actual sorcerers that control famous Lovecraftian monsters, the shoggoths. The group, called the Sons of Adam, is attempting to gain immortality through unspeakable, eldritch rites. For this they need to use blood magic with blood taken from a black man. As the rite proceeds, the show brilliantly drowns out the self-serious incantations of the white wizards with the voice of Gil Scott-Heron reciting his poem Whitey On The Moon. “I can’t pay no doctor bills (but whitey’s on the moon), Ten years from now I’ll be paying still (while whitey’s on the moon)." This undercuts the usual tropes of pompous, navel-gazing white fantasy—wizards, spells, magical portals—by foregrounding black dignity and aspirations.

In The City We Became, the Lovecraftian enemy controls racist policemen, Alt-Right culture warriors and white people who casually call the cops on people of colour. It does so by appealing to their feelings of resentment and aversion towards the black and brown “other". On the other hand, the book’s diverse heroes battle the monster and its minions by drawing on the magical powers of solidarity through art, music, cuisine and a vibrant, heterogenous culture. The protagonists use their pop culture smarts, imbued with humour, wit and empathy, to push back against monolithic white culture’s nostalgia for an “earlier time", when hierarchies of oppression were set in stone. In other words, against H.P. Lovecraft’s own world view. In the book, the city’s multiracial communities are the true “New Yorkers", and the enemy and its army of white racists are colonialist aggressors who must be fought off. As one of New York’s avatars tells the Lovecraftian monster, “Don’t sleep on the city that never sleeps, son, and don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here."

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