Published Sep 22, 2020Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by author Matt Ruff, HBO's Lovecraft Country takes place in 1950s Jim Crow-era America and follows the exploits of Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a young black Army veteran who returns home to Chicago from the Korean War to find that his estranged father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) has gone missing. After seeking clues to Montrose's potential whereabouts, Atticus sets out on a road trip with his childhood friend Letitia "Leti" Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) and his earnest, book-loving uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) in search of the town of Ardham, MA, deep in the heart of the show's titular region — a mysterious place full of murder, monsters and mystical mayhem.
There's no denying the legacy of 20th century pulp author H.P. Lovecraft. As a prolific writer of weird fiction, Lovecraft's archaic, evocative style and penchant for American Gothic made him the progenitor of mind-shredding cosmic horror tales. His sprawling Cthulhu Mythos — home to curiously frightened adventurers, haunting New England mansions, long-forgotten cities, and alien deities older than time itself — was a prescient precursor to our now-obsession with shared fictional universes, influencing everything from the works of directors like Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro to the dark fantasy novels of Stephen King, South Park, the Evil Dead series and early Metallica.
However, like all relics of the past, the task of appreciating Lovecraft today is also to acknowledge and confront the more odious elements of his work. In his archived letters and writers correspondence, Lovecraft — a notorious misanthrope and profound pessimist — comes across as a man who deeply feared the encroachment of the ever-mysterious Other, a fixation which often lead to not-so-subtle themes of xenophobia and racism occupying space with the settings and characters that populated his fictional realms. For this reason, among others, Hollywood has always appeared to have a Lovecraft problem — until now.
Developed by Misha Green, and executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, Lovecraft Country acts as a sincere love letter to the pulpy sci-fi/fantasy magazines and paperbacks that flourished in the 1950s. Characters rattle off authors and quote wordy passages at length, as the show intricately weaves literary references into background scenes and entire plot beats. Much like Lovecraft's penchant for the short fiction format, each episode of the show functions as a self-contained story and parable, while also deftly revealing pieces of plot and character arcs.
When other family members — like Atticus's stargazing aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), Leti's half sister Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku), and George and Hippolyta's young daughter Diana (Jada Harris) — join the fray, the show's tone and genre trappings adapt effortlessly, switching from moments of gritty period drama to suspenseful horror and gore and then back to campy adventure romps in the vein of Indiana Jones and National Treasure.
Where the show differs from — and ultimately exceeds — its Lovecraftian source material, however, is in its approach to thematic scope. The Gothic tradition has often used the monstrous body as a way to externalise issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality as explorations of otherness and human subjectivity. For Lovecraft, this otherness always took on a dimension of cosmic materialism and hyper-naturalism rather than the merely supernatural. Lovecraft's fiction is all about the hidden dangers just outside our view, what lurks in those unnameable, unknowable and profoundly unhuman spaces, and what happens when those dangers suddenly crash — often violently and at high cost — into our safe bubble of reality.
By decoupling its stories from this Lovecraftian higher realm and recontextualising them to focus on the plight of the outsiders rather than just the outside, Lovecraft Country brings cosmic horror back down to earth to focus on the all-too-human monsters of sexism, racism and bigotry. From the excellent set design to costuming and the absolute masterclass soundtrack, every detail in Lovecraft Country lifts and gives voice to the marginalized and oppressed.
Black communities pitch together to fight against police brutality, suburban injustice and social segregation. A host of fiercely independent women demand recognition and respect from patriarchal power structures. Queer identities yearn to be free, pushing against the oppressive weight of heteronormative cultural stigma. It's a testament then to Green's strength as core writer and showrunner that Lovecraft Country never loses its central focus, managing to juggle and interrogate these delicate themes without sacrificing narrative energy, anchored at times by standout performances from Smollet, Mosaku, Williams and Majors.
Each episode is firmly grounded in the sense of adventure, where confrontations with profound horrors compel characters to embrace a morbid fascination with a natural world more complicated than first apprehended. And as for the weird, well, that's here too, as part of a treacherous world overrun with evil witches and wizards, skin-shedding shapeshifters, occult secret societies, demonic, basement-dwelling ghosts, reanimated corpses and vampiric Shoggoths.
While it may not rely on the presence of the ever-popular Elder Gods, Lovecraft Country's internal lore is suitably rich and dense enough to dissect the complexities of the human condition. It's a show that offers viewers a gripping glimpse of a tumultuous period in American history, before ultimately pulling back the hidden curtain to reveal far more sinister shades of darkness. (HBO)