A Black family in 1950s Chicago struggles to reclaim their lost ancestral legacy while warding off monsters and magic spells in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, based on the 2016 dark fantasy/horror novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. Like the novel that inspired it, the series’ pointed juxtaposition of supernatural Lovecraftian horrors against more mundane, but equally horrifying racial inequalities of that era is especially timely in a year that has seen widespread civil rights protests against the brutal killings of Black men (and women) by police officers. And social relevance aside, it also works as pure entertainment.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
Set in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s, Ruff’s book is structured as a series of short stories, although everything is inter-related. The first quarter of the book focuses on Atticus, a Black Korean War veteran and big H.P. Lovecraft fan, despite the author’s notorious racism. When his estranged father disappears after encountering a well-dressed white man driving a silver Cadillac, leaving a cryptic message, Atticus sets out on a road trip from Chicago’s South Side to rural Massachusetts. He’s accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia (aka Leti).
Subsequent stories focus on Letitia, George’s wife, Hippolyta, and their daughter, among others, giving each member of the extended family their time in the storytelling spotlight. There are plenty of sly references to the works of Lovecraft for the astute reader along the way: a secret cabal called the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a haunted house, a strange pocket universe, time shifting, shape-shifters, and a cursed book. But the worst monsters are not eldritch terrors or a Shoggoth in the woods; it’s the stark racism and bigotry our protagonists encounter along the way.
Showrunner Misha Green (Underground, Sons of Anarchy) preserves much of the book’s central premise and main characters in this HBO adaptation. As in the book, Atticus (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) returns to Chicago after a stint overseas during the Korean War and finds his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams, The Wire), has vanished. He recruits his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson), to join him on a road trip to the town of Ardham, Massachusetts, and Leti (Jurnee Smollett, Birds of Prey) tags along for the ride. It’s not a smooth journey, what with the racist locals running them out of town, guns blazing, and vicious monsters in the woods, but they eventually arrive at Ardham Lodge, ancestral home to the Braithwaite clan—which is when the hijinks truly begin.
That said, there are several departures. Some are relatively minor tweaks, like gender-swapping the Braithwaite heir, Caleb, into a woman, Christina (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road), and changing the Order of the Ancient Dawn to the Sons of Adam. Since Christina is a daughter, not a son, she is excluded from taking her rightful place in the order. Naturally she’s pretty bitter about that, making her an unlikely (albeit untrustworthy) ally of sorts for Atticus, George, and Leti, at least as long as they can serve her ulterior purpose. The character of Caleb morphs into Christina’s handsome blond henchman, William (Jordan Patrick Smith, Vikings), in the series.
Other departures from the book are much more dramatic, most notably a time-travel episode where Leti, Atticus, and Montrose try to recover a copy of the mystical Book of Names, as well as much of the finale and the (presumed) fates of certain key characters. There’s also an entirely new story written into the series, inspired by Korean mythology: a flashback to Atticus’ military service in South Korea and his brief romance with a young nurse named Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung, The Gifted), who is possessed by a Kumiho (a “Nine-Tailed Fox” spirit). I’m not going to spoil the implications of that for you, except to say that sex with a Kumiho typically ends badly for her partners.
It is greatly to Green’s credit as a writer and producer that most of these changes enhance the adaptation while retaining the strengths of Ruff’s original vision. She’s clearly having fun with genre, evoking an Indiana Jones-style adventure in one episode, a classic haunted house story in another, and a science fiction story involving the multiverse in the next. Yet the show still feels like a seamless whole. Green even finds a clever, very “meta” way to work the novel, Lovecraft Country, into the broader narrative of the series.
Clapping back on Lovecraft’s racism
Ruff’s novel is ingeniously subversive in how it reflects the horrors of racism in the United States in the supernatural horrors conjured by a novelist famous for his extreme racist views—indeed, Lovecraft’s literary legacy is being re-evaluated by many in the science fiction community in light of those views. In the pilot episode, Atticus recalls how his father made him memorize an infamously racist Lovecraft poem as a child to counter the boy’s love of Lovecraftian horror.
Elements of Black history and culture form an essential backdrop to the tales. For instance, George’s travel guide is obviously inspired by The Negro Motorist Green Book (which in turn inspired the 2018 Oscar-winning film, Green Book), and so-called “sundown towns” really did pose a very real danger to Black travelers in the 1950s. For the series, Green skillfully weaves in additional key elements to expand on those touchstones. For example, there’s a voiceover excerpt running throughout the pilot from famed novelist and playwright James Baldwin’s 1965 debate against William F. Buckley, Jr. on segregation and the American dream. (Baldwin eloquently argued that the “American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”)
Then there’s the understandable tension between the slender, light-skinned Leti and her darker half-sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku, Luther). Small wonder Ruby finds herself tempted by William’s offer of a potion that can temporarily turn her into a white woman (Jamie Neumann, Jessica Jones)—no matter how gruesome the process of returning to her Ruby form might be.
“I envision a second season that [continues] to reclaim the genre storytelling space that people of color have typically been left out of.”
In another episode, Diana (Jada Harris, The Resident), George and Hippolyta’s young daughter (also gender-swapped from the book), mourns the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till—an iconic figure of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. When Diana is cursed by a local white police captain (Mac Brandt), she is pursued by twin demon girls, inspired by a character named Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And the shadow of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre hangs over all our main characters, many of whose ancestors perished in the violence.
There are some truly fine performances from the main cast, especially Mosaku, Williams, Majors, and Smollet, with a special shoutout to Jada Harris as Diana, who really makes you feel her character’s terror and vulnerability when she realizes the nature of the curse—and then her stubborn, steely resolve to go down swinging. If I have one quibble with the series, it’s that the finale ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, despite some dazzling magical pyrotechnics. Fortunately, by that time, I was sufficiently invested in the characters and their compelling stories that I was quite willing to cut the show some slack on that score.
I honestly don’t know where Lovecraft Country would go for a second season of storytelling—or even if there will be a second season, although the fact that the finale posted a big ratings win bodes well for the show’s future. “I envision a second season that carries on the spirit of Matt Ruff’s novel by continuing to reclaim the genre storytelling space that people of color have typically been left out of,” Green recently told Deadline Hollywood in a (spoiler-filled) post-finale interview. Based on the overall excellence of this first season, I trust her to come up with something inventive, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Here’s hoping she gets that chance.
All episodes of Lovecraft Country are now available for streaming on HBO Max.