‘Lovecraft Country’ Is a Necessary Reimagining of Genre Fiction

This isn’t a new move, not even for the network it’s on. HBO darlings Westworld and Watchmen both use music to similarly disorienting effect. A player piano pumping out “Black Hole Sun.” A haunting instrumental cover of “Life on Mars.” But on Lovecraft Country, that music doesn’t just puncture the veil of period specificity in order to unsettle you—it does so to remind you that racism, like the music about revolution and aspiration and sufferation it spawns, weaves through the whole of American history.

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In that, Lovecraft Country finds itself part of a much larger project: reimagining genre fiction down to its exclusionary, often racist roots. H. P. Lovecraft, the “father of modern horror,” was a virulently hateful man, but his work and mythos influenced the very writers and dreamers he might have despised. Now those writers are turning his tropes into triumph. Victor Lavalle’s Ballad of Black Tom functions as a modern-day version of Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” with a Black man as the protagonist. N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became finds the eldritch in the urban (the literal urban, not the entertainment industry’s most regrettable euphemism).

Matt Ruff, meanwhile, poses an interesting counterexample to that trio of writers, because Ruff, who is white, penned a book about Black life that passes whatever the racial version of the Bechdel test is. Its protagonists do not flatten when they are alone. They are not defined by the racism that dogs them in the larger world, nor by the contrast offered by the book’s white characters (:cough: The Help :cough:). That’s not to say the book delves deep into psyche—it’s pulp, even if it’s literary pulp—but its interiority is genuine and unforced.

Yet, the HBO show still feels like a reclamation of sorts. Misha Green, who previously created and ran the WGN series Underground, wrote or cowrote all 10 episodes, and suffuses them with an ease that Ruff did not. (In one moment early on, when our protagonists are told that a 19th-century magnate made his fortune in shipping, Letitia mutters to George, “That’s code for slaves.”) The show wears its genre roots on its sleeve, from its title screens evoking drugstore paperbacks to its typeface that does the same, but still soars when it needs to—lifted by a veteran cast and an assured vision for the fantastical.

Lovecraft Country is in fact one of two genre projects coming from Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions with Black women at the helm. The other, director Nia DaCosta’s take on Candyman, similarly revisits a white-authored story about Black characters, and looks to delve far deeper into ideas of generational trauma among Black Americans. (The original Candyman, based on a Clive Barker story, arguably needs redemption far more than Lovecraft Country.)

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