Television

Lovecraft Country Makes Actual Monsters Out of America's Tormented Racial History

But do the metaphors hold up?

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Lovecraft Country. HBO. Sunday, August 16, 9 p.m.

Everything you need to know about Lovecraft Country happens in the first two or three minutes. A black GI is racing through hilltop trenches, fighting hand-to-hand with Chinese troops in a scene that looks like something out of the Korean War epic Pork Chop Hill.

There's noise outside the trench, and the soldier leaps up to the battlefield just as the film turns from black and white to color. No Chinese up there—just flying saucers, Martian war robots from The War Of The Worlds, and befanged, leathery, winged things, all lurching toward the Americans.

As they close in, a voice crackles over the soundtrack: "What's a matter? Where you going, black boy?" But then, salvation: One of the bestial bellies splits open to reveal Jackie Robinson, the Dark Destroyer, swinging his mighty bat, and saurian heads going flying in all directions as he connects. And the dream dissolves to reveal a young black man awaking from a troubled sleep on a seedy bus as the rural South cascades past the windows.

That's Lovecraft Country: A mélange of spectacular special effects, nerdy obsession, and crippling racial animus, all wrapped up in a tumbling free-form narrative that doesn't make much sense.

Produced by a team led by J.J. Abrams and based on Matt Ruff's cult novel of the same name, Lovecraft Country—a 10-hour HBO miniseries—is a weird mess of imaginative but failed metaphors in which America's tormented racial history is presented as a pulp horror story.

It's an interesting idea, but pulp horror stories are best consumed in a single, quick encounter, before their limitations of plot and characterization become too obvious to ignore. Lovecraft Country is reduced to one of the walking dead long before its final credits roll.

Set in the mid-1950s, Lovecraft Country is the tale of a cross-country trek from Chicago to Massachusetts by three black friends. Korean War vet Atticus Turner (Jonathan Majors, Da 5 Bloods) is in search of his missing father. Turner's uncle George (Courtney B. Vance, who played Johnnie Cochran in the FX miniseries on the O.J. Simpson case) joins the trip to gather material for the line of books he publishes, The Safe Negro Travel Guide. (Yes, in the 1950s and '60s, such things were necessary.) And Atticus' childhood pal, singer Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollet, True Blood), is basically along for the ride.

They share more than a desire to find Atticus' father. All three are science-fiction nerds, obsessed with the dark fantasy novels of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle and seemingly undisturbed by the anything-but-subtle racism of some of them. (Many of their books are obtained through George's combination garage-bookstore-publishing-house business, in my opinion an underutilized financial concept.)

Lovecraft's work largely was based on the concept that our universe is a tiny bubble in a much grander cosmos of relentless chaos and senseless violence. When the walls are breached from time to time, monstrous entities with a voracious appetite for grisly pandemonium break through. It was, perhaps, a metaphor for Lovecraft's belief that America was a holdout against the bedlamite threat of immigration from Africa and Asia.

Lovecraft Country inverts the bioracist formula of Lovecraft's work and turns America into a mindless brutal landscape in which lunatic violence can explode against black people at any moment. Sometimes the perpetrators are shotgun-wielding rednecks, sometimes the toothy slime worms of Lovecraft's imagination. (The latter might have been expected by Atticus and his companions, who seem to have overlooked that their destination—Ardham, Massachusetts—has a name suspiciously similar to Arkham, the Massachusetts city in which some of Lovecraft's most lurid tales took place.) In terms of intellect and moral indifference, it scarcely seems to matter which is which.

As a metaphor, that may work out; as a story, much less so. The beauty of Lovecraft's ideas in terms of literary utility was that because the monsters existed, by definition, outside the world of human rationality, he didn't have to spend a lot of time developing characters or rationales or even plots. Just poke a hole in the space-time continuum and set the creatures to biting stuff. That works just fine for Lovecraft's 12-year-old fans, who may indeed enjoy Lovecraft Country between its talky bits. For the rest of us, it's kind of, well, wormy.

It's a shame, because, in its more muted moments, Lovecraft Country offers a disturbing reminder of the totalitarian society in which black Americans lived for its first 200 or so years. It's the quiet vignettes, not the shotgun blasts and chase scenes, that the story is told most effectively: The long line of bedraggled black workers at the end of the day, waiting endlessly for the always-tardy "colored" bus to talk them back to the poor side of town. The father leading his little daughter past the door of an ice-cream stand, around the corner to the pickup window for black customers.

And, when a local vehicle pulls up to rescue the passengers of a broken-down interstate bus, the way that Attricus and the other black passengers, without being told a thing, simply shoulder their luggage and start walking, all too aware that they're not welcome to ride.

As they trudge toward the next town, one of them asks Atticus about the book he's carrying. It's one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels about Mars, Atticus explains, in which a former Confederate army officer is magically transported to Mars, where he becomes a warlord among the planet's weakling natives. "How can you enjoy a story about a Confederate?" wonders the other traveler.

"Stories are like people," Atticus replies. "You're just trying to cherish them and overlook their flaws." Not this one.

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  1. Wait so this mini serieries with racist overtones has
    1. An absentee black father
    2. A black monster that black people fight?
    Please stop glorifying black on black violence

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  2. HBO has really gone down the tubes. I swear the programming staff were all interns at an NPR station.

    1. I stopped reading at “produced by J.J. Abrams.” I’ve had enough of his reverse Midas touch.

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  3. The way Garvin is trapped on the Satellite of Love watching bad movies is a horror story in itself.

    Lovecraft himself didn’t write any stories on that premise, probably because it was too frightening to him.

  4. I see now why hbo laid off 600 people. This sounds terrible.

  5. Produced by a team led by J.J. Abrams…

    No need to read any further, this will be a hard pass for me. J.J. Abrams may be the most useless, overrated hack in the history of Hollywood.

    1. J.J. Abrams may be the most useless, overrated hack in the history of Hollywood.

      I liked Alias, but it’s been downhill-in-a-nosedive ever since.

    2. J.J. Abrams may be the most useless, overrated hack in the history of Hollywood.

      Not even close. I certainly agree that he’s unimaginative and overrated but that cesspool is so wide and deep I can’t believe that anyone would believe he’s uncategorically the worst. He wasn’t even the worst in the Star Wars franchise.

      Easy contenders if not superiors just off the top of my head:
      Rian Johnson
      Paul Fieg
      James Franco
      M Night Shyamalan

      1. Eh, I said he “may be.” You could also add Alex Kurtzman to the Hall of Shame as well.

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  6. Why would he be riding on a bus in the rural south if he was going from Chicago to Massachusetts?

    1. It’s non-Euclidean geometry. Try and keep up.

    2. The detour from shadowy evil lurking in New England towns to apprehension about Asia/Africa is equally nonsensical.

      I don’t know which is the bigger mess, the actual show, or the review.

      At this point, I half expect a review that openly questions why H.G. Wells chose to portray black people as Morlocks.

  7. Lovecraft’s work largely was based on the concept that our universe is a tiny bubble in a much grander cosmos of relentless chaos and senseless violence. When the walls are breached from time to time, monstrous entities with a voracious appetite for grisly pandemonium break through. It was, perhaps, a metaphor for Lovecraft’s belief that America was a holdout against the bedlamite threat of immigration from Africa and Asia.

    This misportrayal of Lovecraft is sub par for a seventh grader who didn’t read the material for his book report. I mean, FFS, that’s not even how bubbles work.

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  8. “The beauty of Lovecraft’s ideas in terms of literary utility was that because the monsters existed, by definition, outside the world of human rationality, he didn’t have to spend a lot of time developing characters or rationales or even plots.”

    This seriously wrongs Lovecraft, who actually did bother to develop a cosmology and paid attention to the motivation of, yes, even his monsters. In “At the Mountains of Madness”, antarctic explorers stumble across preserved Old Ones, and accidentally revive them. Horror ensues, but it is perfectly rational horror: The Old Ones have dissected their victims, making anatomical drawings and taking samples, and then stored away portions for provisions as they make a trek to supposed refuge. Even the horrified explorer notices that the Old Ones are just acting like he would have in a similar situation, and sympathizes with their fate when the refuge proves false.

    The more nebulous, alien monstrosities are simply so much greater than humanity, that they react to finding us as we would in finding a nest of termites in our house. We’re just pests to be exterminated if we’re noticed, a repeated theme in Lovecraft’s works.

    Is Garvin maybe confusing Lovecraft’s own works with some of the atrocious movies and miniseries that were made from them?

    1. Yeah, Garvin should read some Lovecraft – get at least a basic idea of the mythos.

      1. I usually recommend “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” to beginners; It’s much lighter on the horror, and more lyrical.

    2. The more nebulous, alien monstrosities are simply so much greater than humanity, that they react to finding us as we would in finding a nest of termites in our house. We’re just pests to be exterminated if we’re noticed, a repeated theme in Lovecraft’s works.

      Part of his brilliance was the gamut, you had everything from relatable monsters and first-person accounts of reanimated corpses to unfathomable ancient evils to their human-but-not underground cults to cosmic miasmas. To portray Lovecraft’s style as rife with grisly pandemonium is basally incorrect to the point that you maybe don’t understand the larger genre. You might as well say Shelley or Poe wrote a lot of grisly pandemonium.

      Is Garvin maybe confusing Lovecraft’s own works with some of the atrocious movies and miniseries that were made from them?

      No, I think he’s got conclusions and a narrative and he’s working backwards from them. He can’t be bothered with things like learning someone’s writing style or facts.

      1. “you had everything from relatable monsters”

        Can’t get much more relatable than Pickman’s Model; The monster was willing to pose for a portrait!

  9. Lovecraft’s work largely was based on the concept that our universe is a tiny bubble in a much grander cosmos of relentless chaos and senseless violence. When the walls are breached from time to time, monstrous entities with a voracious appetite for grisly pandemonium break through.

    C’mon Garvin. You could have at least read the Wiki entry on Lovecraft.

    Lovecraft is about anomie, its about the understanding that humanity is insignificant on a cosmic scale. Its about a realization that we’re not only not the pinnacle of creation, but that we’re on a the crest of a tiny little hill, unable to get higher while, off in the distance, majestic mountains rise and knowing that in order to scale those mountains we’ll have to leave our little hill (ie, our humanity) behind. That the universe has no care nor any place for humans.

    There’s almost no ‘pandemonium’ in Lovecraftian fiction. There’s often even very little violence. There is, however, body horror, musings on what ‘identity’ and ‘self’ means, xenophobia, etc. Its the unraveling of comfortable illusions to see the true horror that lies even in mundane existence.

    1. “There’s almost no ‘pandemonium’ in Lovecraftian fiction. There’s often even very little violence.” Shakespeare has more violence than Lovecraft. No, really, compare Titus Andronicus with The Outsider. Generally, there is more violence in daytime TV than in Lovecraft. I guess Garvin read that article by that Lauren Miller hack and belived her to have a great understanding of literature. (To you have some idea, Harold Bloom compared his texts to gnosticism and hermeticism, I am pretty sure he would say something if Lovecraft had lots of violence, like he said that the violence in Blood Meridian took him off…)

  10. An actual chance to see Lovecrafting style horror on TV and of course its just nothing but pandering to blacks

    1. Digimon is more Lovecraftian than this. No, really, the head writer for the third season and writer for the second wrote lovecraftian horror. He even wrote an episode called The Call of Dagomon.

      1. Como to think about this, I think I will rewatch his Serial Experiments Lain. That anime was actually cool.

  11. Yeah, I will pass this one. Peele’s The Twilight Zone was kind of painfull, this just sounds as him taking an existing IP an using it to teach that racism is bad or whatever… And even if it is more than this, it is ceirtanly inferior to the original.

    1. Jordan Peele made a Lovecraftian series? What a great opportunity to turn off the tv and reread Tha Case of Charles Dexter Ward!

      1. If I will watch a Lovecraft adaptation with some social theme, I think I prefer that Cthulhu film where the guy is gay .

    2. I think the only good thing about this series is that it is hard to be as idiotic as Peele’s version of the Twilight Zone. Or The Handsmaid’s Tale.

    3. I wish reason would stop making television reviews. Either it is trashing some bullshit no one will watching, or it is praising some bullshit that has as it’s biggest quality ‘not being as idiotic as other tv shows’. (This review is a great example of the second.)

      1. Ugh, the Handmaid’s Tale.

        On the surface it appears to be a woke circle jerk about a Protestant theocracy, but when you look deeper you see that it’s actually aimed at Islam.

        In the first place the Republic of Gilead’s doctrines are nowhere to be found in actual Charismatic, Fundamentalist or Evangelical theology, but they are present in all Islamic sects (even “liberal” offshoots like Isma’ilism or the Dervish).
        And actual historical Protestant theocracies like the Evangelical Dutch Republic (Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Provinciën) and the Puritan Commonwealth of England were nothing like Gilead at all, but Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Pakistan certainly are.

        So rather than being a fantasy persecution wank for rich, white feminists, perhaps it’s a stalking-horse to secretly promote anti brown-man sentiments amongst Wine Moms and Vodka Aunts.

        1. I don’t think its aimed at any particular religion but rather at fundamentalism used to control a population. Look at attempts to control women by denying them access to reproductive health care or by denying same sex couple access to same services as everyone else. Is US same as Saudi Arabia, no. Are their people who would like the control that Saudis have, ?.

          1. Everything is so terrible and unfair.

          2. “Are their people who would like the control that Saudis have, ?.”

            Yes, we call them progressive democrats.

  12. You know, black people use to write things other than: It is hard to be black. Brazilian poet Cruz e Souza actually wrote lots of poems that weren’t about how hard it is being black (and he actually suffer because of discrimination, he wasn’t richer than I will ever be like Jordan Peele). Come to think about this, why I almost never hear about Cruz e Souza? It sounds as the type of guy these people on the left would melt over…

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  14. Any for a Call of Cthulhu game cross over with Vampire the masquerade game 2nd edition. I’m sure it will be more fun that that T.V series.

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  19. Seriously, I have only seen one, count ’em, one, good cinematic adaptation of a Lovecraft story: “The Color out of Space“. (2010) And then they had to go and do a remake with Nicolas Cage! Avoid the remake like the plague!

    Lovecraft has had horrible luck with the films, absolutely horrible. Aside from that one I cited, most of them have been, at best B movie schlock.

  20. This isn’t a Lovecraft story. He is only mentioned in the title. The book is actually quite good.

  21. Pop culture is an antiintellectal joke.

  22. Why is everything on reason.com pop culture bullshit??? Why are 80% of comments spam?? Fuck you reason.com. burn and rot.

  23. The Green Book was created by a New Yorker, with listings in New York. [There were] places in Harlem where black people were not allowed to go to.

  24. Glenn’s reviews are so bad. He is just another one of those critics that goes: It talks about women and minorities, so it is good. Most of this films are pointless: if you agree with the message it is just a form of masturbation, as you are just watching it to confirm your views. If you don’t agree, it is not a film that will change your mind. They aren’t even knew, “anti racism film” is its own genre now: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_racism-related_films – Hell, American History X (and it wasn’t the first film to talk about this)already is more than twenty years old now, there is episodes of Fresh Prince of Bail Air that talk about racism, a god damn sitcom. So Peele is not even making nothing new…

    1. “Lovecraft’s work largely was based on the concept that our universe is a tiny bubble in a much grander cosmos of relentless chaos and senseless violence. When the walls are breached from time to time, monstrous entities with a voracious appetite for grisly pandemonium break through. It was, perhaps, a metaphor for Lovecraft’s belief that America was a holdout against the bedlamite threat of immigration from Africa and Asia.” This has way more to do with Lovecraft’s atheism and schopenhauer-influence than with his racial views. Thomas Ligotti writes in a similar vein and at least one tale (Purity) presents a sympathetic black charecter (a black woman, at that). Did you never heard the theme “cosmic horror”, Garvit?

      1. It is really annoying to read about this in a website that also writes about the ‘politization of everything’…

  25. Am I the only one who’s just skipping all these series and movies that want to lecture on race? Auto skip.

    1. It needs to be there in the NTSB rating: Rated NC-17 for language, horror, and brain-damaging social messaging

      They just ask the writer/director: Did you make this movie because you like making movies or because you think this movie shares an important message?

  26. Lovecraft’s work largely was based on the concept that our universe is a tiny bubble in a much grander cosmos of relentless chaos and senseless violence. When the walls are breached from time to time, monstrous entities with a voracious appetite for grisly pandemonium break through. It was, perhaps, a metaphor for Lovecraft’s belief that America was a holdout against the bedlamite threat of immigration from Africa and Asia.

    My college roommate was a big Lovecraft fan, so at his suggestion I tried one book. Found it incredibly boring and never picked up another one.

    But the notion that Lovecraft was about racism seems to me post-modern BS. “Monster aliens kill humans” is a staple of lots of science fiction. That that is anything but standard SCI-FI is bunk.

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