A powerful and necessary show that blends out-of-this-world fantastical horrors with the real horrors of racism and White supremacy.
H. P. Lovecraft is a revered science fiction and horror author, known for pioneering the cosmic horror style early in the 20th century. He takes a special interest in the fragility of human existence, the horrors of a cruel, unusual, and chaotic universe…and tentacles. Lots and lots of tentacles. He is most synonymous with the Cthulhu monster, a squid-faced dragon-person-monster-demon-god which, along with its surrounding mythos, has permeated a vast array of science fiction in the last 100 years, influencing everything from Alien to Rick and Morty to World of Warcraft. Wow…sounds like a real icon. Well, yes, some of Lovecraft’s ideas are undeniably potent and influential, but he was also undeniably a White supremacist. This baggage increasingly makes looking at Lovecraft’s influence problematic and uncomfortable. On one hand, we can’t deny the prejudices and flaws of past societies and figures, indeed, of our own societies and figures. On the other hand, there are ideas he injected into the veins of science fiction and horror that are still relevant and continue to be revered. How should we, and how should our culture, address such ideas that are mixed inseparably from the toxins of hatred? In the case of Lovecraft, the “separate the art from the artist” argument doesn’t fly: his art is imprinted with his psyche. His ghost cannot be exorcised from the genre at this point, nor should it be.
What we need is art and pieces of popular culture that will acknowledge the moral failures of the past (and present). More importantly, we need art that will take these ideas and confront them and the cruelty of their creators. In this light, HBO’s latest blockbuster-level production, Lovecraft Country, is an absolute home run, as well as a standout piece of genre television in its own right.
The show is set in 1950s America, and it revolves around Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Black veteran of the Korean war, and Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollet), an old friend of Atticus’. Atticus and Letitia, along with a whole cast of equally compelling characters, explore a newfound world of magic, monsters, and madness, whilst navigating the old world they know far too well, a world of murderous police, systematic prejudice, and social exclusion. Both the immaculately realised period setting and the captivating performances more than meet the bar set by previous HBO productions. Jurnee Smollet deserves a special mention: her performance magnetically mixes strength, charisma, and courage with fear and vulnerability. She is exceptional amongst an already exceptional cast, delivering a presence that never fails to captivate.
On every technical level, Lovecraft Country is a delight to watch. What’s more, the show has a whole spice rack of horror flavourings at its disposal, and it persistently finds ingenious ways to coat its story in them. The show adopts an anthology-style structure: no two episodes are the same, and therein lies one of Lovecraft Country’s deepest pleasures. You watch with the knowledge that each episode is going to serve you up a different taste of tantalizing terror. Each one indulges deeply in a different genre. We have haunted houses, we have magical cults, we have demon possessions, time-machines, body-swaps, and all other varieties of weirdness. Lovecraft Country never hesitates to dive head-on into these ideas. It also never fails to rethink these old horror recipes and serve up their ingredients in bold and fresh new dishes. This is the show’s greatest achievement.
My favourite episode takes the well-worn east Asian myth of the nine-tailed fox spirit and dramatically clashes it with the Korean War. The result is a story that is unexpectedly intimate and heart-breaking. Here what fiction traditionally deems horrific – a demon possession – is the least horrific part of the episode, completely eclipsed by the actions of human characters. This sentiment resonates through all of Lovecraft Country and is responsible for the show’s best moments. Often the supernatural horrors play second fiddle to the real-world horror of everyday life for Black Americans.
It is here where the true genius of the show shines through. In Lovecraft’s stories, and horror in general, the social order is always what is stable, sane and rational: the family, the church, and other social institutions are safe havens in a cruel universe of disruptive and irrational supernatural forces. Lovecraft Country provides a show-stopping break from this overly beaten path. For the Black protagonists, the racist social order is already a cruel universe, their treatment at the hands of their nation’s authorities and institutions is what is chaotic and irrational. A magnificently crafted sequence in the first episode depicts a pulse-pounding encounter with a racist police officer that is as worthy of the title of horror as the rest of the show. The ghosts, demons, magic, and aliens we stumble across are often revealed to be mixed with shades of kindness; more human, more sympathetic, and saner than the apparently stable everyday world. It is through interacting with these strange forces that our protagonists ultimately find agency, power, and liberation, not insanity and malevolence. Where the fantastical story meets and complements the show’s commentaries on racism and society, and vice-versa, are the places where the show finds its true strength.
Lovecraft Country also feels resoundingly timely, especially in light of ongoing Black Lives Matter activism and the continued brutality against Black communities by White police officers. The episode Jig-A-Boo takes place in the aftermath of the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a young Black teenager from Chicago who was mutilated and murdered by two White men whilst visiting family in Mississippi in 1955, a crime which would draw national outrage and be a spark for the Civil Rights Movement. Lovecraft Country’s inclination to focus on a real-life atrocity as sharp and stirring as Till’s murder amongst its fantastical main storyline is further proof of the show’s power and necessity in a time where the oppression of Black citizens is once again under the spotlight. In the same episode, Dee, a friend of Till’s and the main character, is put in a chokehold by a policeman as another cop interrogates her. Despite the show being filmed before the killing of George Floyd, Dee’s exclamation of “I can’t breathe” uncomfortably echoes Floyd’s tragic final moments, illustrating just how little the experience of Black citizens has changed in nearly 70 years. The world could not be more ready for Lovecraft Country, which not only challenges horror’s legacy but uses the tools of horror and science fiction to challenge society’s racism.
Lovecraft Country is eager to challenge, shock, and disorientate viewers. The show disrupts everything from established binaries and social orders – gender, race, class, life and death, time and space – to the DNA of horror fiction itself. Lovecraft and his legacy are turned expertly on their heads and shaken around for good measure. His ideas are simultaneously indulged in and taken to trial; the result is a stirring piece of television that boldly plants its flag on the horror genre.
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