American horror Lovecraft Country premiered last week on HBO, and has already received critical praise. Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, the show follows Atticus Freeman as he joins up with his friend Letitia and his Uncle George to embark on a road trip across 1950’s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father. Not only must they struggle to survive against terrifying monsters ripped straight from a Lovecraft paperback, but also the violent racists that populated white America.
At first, I didn’t see the justification for having the show take place in the time period it did. Yes, it’s what allowed our main characters to face racial persecution, but I initially didn’t see why they chose what seemed like such an obscure theme. Then, as the first episode ‘Sundown’ neared its end, I finally saw what was trying to be said : the terrifying beasts of Lovecraft’s work are only matched in savagery and wickedness by the real world monsters that human beings have the capacity to become. Setting the story in arguably one of the most racially violent times in American history since the Civil War is the perfect opportunity to illustrate to the viewer just how brutal and bloodthirsty humanity has been, and how, sometimes, monsters are truly real, after all.
But I’m convinced there was also another intention with the setting of the story, one that explains precisely what I mean by the title of this article: Lovecraft’s history – or, more specifically, his personal history, as H.P Lovecraft looked upon black and other non-white people as “beasts … in semi-human figure, filled with vice”. He saw only the Anglo-Saxons as the sophisticated human race, the only one capable of culture and scientific literacy, and looked down upon all the rest (even the white but non-WASP American immigrants like the Jewish and Italians) as barbaric and inferior. While his racial attitudes did soften as time went on, he never truly abandoned the opinion that all human races existed on some hierarchy, with African Americans at the bottom.
What Lovecraft Country does is essentially take Lovecraft’s fiction from him. It says that, while Lovecraft pioneered the horror genre with writing some of the most dreadful and psychologically torturous monsters in all of modern literature, he doesn’t deserve them. Lovecraft Country reappropriates Lovecraft’s masterful horror icons for an updated America. It separates the artist from his art, taking a cornerstone of American culture and sharing it with all of America.