The Dark, Twisted Reality of ‘Lovecraft Country’

Lovecraft Country (2020). L-R: Uncle George Freeman, a middle aged Black man in grey slacks held up with suspenders, over a white shirt and pink tie, stood with his hands on his hips, next to Leti Lewis, a Black woman in her early 30s with curly 50s style hair, wearing tight red high waisted pants and a cropped cream blouse tied in a knot at the front, and finally Tick Freeman, a 30 year old Black man, taller than the others, wearing dark blue jeans and a white t-shirt. All three are staring off above the camera with skeptical expressions. All three also happen to be drenched in bright red blood.

Based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff (of the same name), Lovecraft Country is a new Sky/HBO horror series written by Misha Green and co-produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. It is based in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s. Adopting the characteristics of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, extrapolating and reclaiming the novelist’s own racial prejudices, the series brings to the forefront the terrors of race relations in America.

Blending truth and fiction, the horror reflects the violent reality of race relations, offering metaphorical symbols of the trauma racial dynamics have created, and continue to exacerbate. Atticus ‘Tick’ Sampson Freeman (Jonathan Majors), his friend Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his Uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) are tasked to journey to Devon County in search of Tick’s missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). They fight against horrors in the shape of Lovecraftian cosmic ghouls and white supremacist patriarchy. Their encounters frequently beggar the question, what should be feared more: Unknown cosmic creatures, patriarchal inequality, or white racial prejudice?

The abject is a key feature in horror. The abject, the Other is the ‘Monster’ theory horror utilises to transfer the experience of fright unto its audience. The abject is also a key feature in the creation of socio-cultural power dynamics on the micro and macro scale. Abjection is one of the fundamental features in the development of the human species; defining the Self as human and that which contradicts the Self as Beast, Other, Lesser is the root cause of the prejudices prevalent within society today.

Lovecraft Country is the intersection of fictional horror and the reality of socio-cultural dynamics. It utilises a variety of tropes to explore the horrors of existence: the reality of the Known (white supremacist patriarchy) and the frightening potential of the Unknown (Lovecraftian cosmic beasts). A series that pushes the boundaries of the Jordan Peele Universe, occupying a liminal role between fiction and reality, it adopts the Lovecraftian creatures fundamental to the evolution of cosmic horror. Lovecraft Country takes the tropes refined by H. P. Lovecraft – his Monsters generally believed to be inspired by his perception of Black people as beasts – inverting it to expose the reality of racial dynamics of Jim Crow America in the 1950s and the beastly ways whiteness sought to cement its white supremacist patriarchy ideologies.

Lovecraft Country (2020). On a quiet street during the day, George (right) is wearing a brown suit and black fedora, holding a large brown leather folder. He is talking to two women, his wife Hippolyta, a middle-aged Black woman wearing a beige pattered long skirt and mint green blouse with no sleeves. She is laughing at George and Diana, a young Black girl with her hair in two braids wearing blue jeans and a white sleeveless blouse, playing around with George.

Lovecraft Country presents itself as a fictional world, to then expose this world of cosmic Lovecraftian horror for the real, lived reality of abjection and oppressive racial dynamics from the perspective of African Americans in America: the primary subjects of American abjection. It explores the cultural world of white supremacist patriarchy, providing a microscopic lens on the heterogenous realities of being defined as Other in such a world.

1950s Jim Crow laws made it pertinently clear that Black people were considered throughout society as the lowest rank in the Anglo-American caste system and treated horrifically as a result. Lovecraft Country utilises scenes within homes in the southside of Chicago showing Tick and his family, forced to live with the ongoing sound and sight of the Chicago train tracks. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans left the horrific violence of the Jim Crow South for industrial cities where they had more access to opportunity, but still suffered from the terrors of racial segregation in all its multiplicities.

The geographical segregation of Chicago, with poor Black African American communities predominantly located close to train tracks and industrial sites, offers a small glimpse into the many ways Jim Crow America terrorised its own black citizens. Lovecraft Country explores how it feels and what it means for African Americans to experience existence on the borders of society, and portrays the violence they faced from their white counterparts and the environment in their hard fight for social mobility and social inclusion.

Lovecraft Country is set in 1950s America, yet the soundtrack of the horror’s use of modern black musicians (such as Moses Sumney and Tierra Whack) subconsciously remind the audience of the dark, twisted reality surrounding the timeline of racial segregation in America. Though the Jim Crow laws were legislatively abolished by the 13th amendment, it is evident that racial segregation, racial prejudice, and the unnamed Anglo-American caste system that places Black people at the bottom of society is still in existence today.

Lovecraft Country (2020). Alone in a green field is Tick Freeman, sitting on a crate reading a book besides a green sack. He is wearing round glasses and a brown jacket over a white t-shirt and dark blue jeans. He looks concentrated on what he is reading.

Racial prejudice is so cemented into American society that, in the 21st Century, African Americans are disproportionately working the poorest paid jobs; denied adequate access to healthcare; murdered whilst exercising (Ahmad Aubery); murdered in their sleep (Breonna Taylor); and murdered through aggressive and deliberate police brutality (George Floyd). Lovecraft Country reminds its audience, using horror as a vehicle for reflecting the real world, that “the past is a living thing.” Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosako), Leti’s sister, recognises her rejection from a variety of employment opportunities (for which she is over-qualified) as the product of anti-blackness, rather than a sign of her unemployability – a common and unfortunate reality for countless Black people of both the past and present day.

Between the 1950s and 2020, activists such as John Lewis have fought tirelessly for diversity and inclusion to be embedded into the American legal system, with a view to equity for African Americans. Society has come a long way since the Jim Crow era; white society can no longer happily enforce violent, discriminatory, and hostile legislation in Sundown Towns. A scene in Lovecraft Country shows Tick, Leti, and Uncle George driving through a Sundown Town in search for Tick’s father, forced to experience the horrific reality of intimidating billboards stating: “Don’t let the sun set on you here, understand?” Lovecraft Country shows just how far society is yet to go before we can reflect on the crimes of the Jim Crow era without recognising similarities in the hostility felt by Black people in the world today.

It is the violence of white supremacist patriarchy and the horrific reality of Sundown Towns that encouraged Victor H. Green to write ‘The Green Book’, identifying to Black travellers places they could and could not stop safely without getting lynched. Misha Green’s fictional horror shows Uncle George as the creator of ‘The Black Traveller’s Guide’; the mix of white violence and cosmic horror Uncle George, Tick, and Leti face suggest that no guide can adequately prepare them for the duality of terror they face by humankind and beasts alike.

Despite all the suffering at the hands of white supremacy and fantastical ghouls the Black people in Lovecraft Country face, there remain moments of unflinching communal Black joy. Scenes of live music, dancing, and divine reverence provide a glimpse into the culture of celebration and exaltation inherent within the black community – offering much needed respite from the suffering created by racial prejudice. The series shows Blackness – spirituality, sexuality, character – as the heterogenous thing it is, defying white supremacy’s insistence on erasing the diversity of black identity. Uncle George, Leti, and Tick are all individuals living through their own personal trauma, attempting to define their personal relationships to their communities and to America at large.

Lovecraft Country (2020). The scene is in a dark, creepy forest at night. L-R: George, in a grey-blue checked knit polo shirt and black pants, stands slightly behind Tick, in a yellow t-shirt and blue pants, a shiny pair of silver dog tags around his neck. Next to him is Leti, wearing a loud stripy brown and black blouse tied in a large bow at the front, with a red waistcoat over it. She also has a camera slung around her shoulder. All three are looking fearfully away from the camera.

Lovecraft Country highlights the leading characters’ display of strength in the face adversity and does well to expose the traumatic suffering that adversity creates. Uncle George, Leti, and Tick are characters who are allowed to experience the full spectrum of human emotion: they make mistakes, suppress their feelings, indulge in things that bring them pleasure, fear the horrors (human and other) they have no control over, and are constantly interacting with the ever-changing circumstances of both their interpersonal dynamics and dangerous environment. Leti is presented as a black woman: an indispensable source of strength and survival, and a tired, frightened, traumatised human being.

Watching Lovecraft Country, I was struck with the knowledge that the feelings of fright I experienced as a result of the horror bore great similarities to the feelings I experience witnessing or experiencing the oppressions and aggressions of white supremacist patriarchy. The series makes good use of features of the Gothic, succeeding in Gothic’s mission ‘to curdle the blood and quicken the beating of the heart’. Lovecraft Country forces its audience to realise that the reality of race relations is unfortunately too successful in also achieving the mission of Gothic outlined by Mary Shelley. Lovecraft Country unflinchingly exposes the audience to the real and imagined horrors of the lived world. The horror series encourages us to hold ourselves accountable for the times we act as oppressors, to admit to the real world implications of an imbalance in power, to recognise the affects the socio-cultural world has on our psyches, and to ask for the help we need to heal.

Lovecraft Country uses the genre of horror as a vehicle for revealing truth through discomfort. It forces us to reckon with the recent history of America, willing us all to see how our modern history has carved the landscape of our present world, and encourages the audience to strive to eradicate the Known and Unknown Lovecraftian ghouls from our lived world.

by Adwoa Owusu-Barnieh

Adwoa recently graduated from the University of Birmingham, studying Classical Literature and Civilisation.  She loves mythologies, poetry, and cooking. Adwoa will often be found listening to music or a podcast, and loves to unwind with a glass (or two) of red wine. You can find some of the poetry she writes in her spare time here. Adwoa is interested in curating multimedia art exhibitions, and writing about the many art forms that excite her.

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