MARCH 1, 2016
WHEN DESCRIBING H.P. Lovecraft to friends of mine, I have often jokingly referred to him as “the most famous author you’ve never heard of.” Despite his relative lack of visibility — he’s not read in classrooms, nor will you find any of his books on a bestseller shelf — Lovecraft’s works of horror and science fiction in the early decades of the 20th century have had an outsized influence on popular culture. Everything from films like Alien and Pirates of the Caribbean to the music of Metallica and Black Sabbath to writers ranging from Borges to Burroughs have a bit of the existential terror that permeates Lovecraft’s fiction.
Less highly regarded are Lovecraft’s ideas regarding race; a vehement believer in the superiority of white individuals over others, many of his stories were rooted in a fear of immigrants, miscegenation, and mixed ancestry. This mixed legacy has tarnished Lovecraft’s reputation. Even as recently as November of 2015, the administrators of the World Fantasy Award announced that they would no longer be using Lovecraft’s likeness on their award trophies, a bust of whom has been granted to winners for almost 40 years. This was the culmination of a debate that had been raging for most of this decade about how to, and if it was even possible to, separate Lovecraft from his racism. If nothing else, any appreciation of the author must be qualified with a condemnation of his racism.
Noted Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi condemned the move, writing that it was “craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness and an explicit acceptance of the crude, ignorant and tendentious slanders against Lovecraft propagated by a small but noisy band of agitators.” Indeed, it seemed to ignore the evidence that Lovecraft had begun to abandon the racist views he held as a young man, becoming more tolerant and understanding of difference in his older age. Joshi also pointed out that criticisms of racism could be extended to individuals such as Bram Stoker (Dracula) and John W. Campbell, Jr. (The Thing), and yet the awards bearing their names have not capitulated on the value of their namesake’s art. While the decision was defended by others, such as Lenika Cruz, an associate editor at The Atlantic, the battle over Lovecraft’s racism has not yet concluded.
It is perhaps odd, then, that Matt Ruff’s new novel, Lovecraft Country, is set in Jim Crow America, long after Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Despite drawing the title from a term coined by Keith Herber to describe the fictional New England landscape in which Lovecraft set many of his stories, Ruff’s novel takes place primarily in Chicago; though there are excursions afield to locales both terrestrial and celestial, very little of the story is actually set in the eponymous Lovecraft Country. Nor do Ruff’s characters resemble the typical Lovecraftian protagonist — white, male, and with antiquarian tendencies. Atticus Turner is a black man and a veteran of the Korean War. Make no mistake: this is a novel about racism, told from the point of view of African Americans, written by a white man in the generic tradition of another, problematic white writer. It would be very easy to fall into traps of appropriation, but on balance Ruff avoids these pitfalls more than he stumbles into them.
Ruff’s setup seems remarkably similar to the first book of S. A. Hunt’s The Bandit King series, which deals with a veteran returning home to deal with a missing father and the startling revelation that books may not be just fiction. Indeed, when Atticus returns home from Korea, he is drawn into the kidnapping of his father by a mysterious cult that seems straight out of the genre fiction and pulps that he and his uncle love. But Ruff’s book soon takes turns of its own. The kidnapping sequence lasts for perhaps the first quarter of the book, and the remainder of the novel traces both Atticus’s family and that of his friend, Letitia, as they deal with the fallout and attempt to free themselves from the machinations of a man named Braithwhite.
Braithwhite is, as his name suggests, the antagonistic white man of the tale, though much of his evil doings are merely alluded to and not shown. Contrary to the vague evil deeds we are informed he commits “off-camera” and despite his very thin layer of racism, he is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel. His motivations and goals, while partially fueled by ambition, appear relatively benign, though his methodology is questionable. Perhaps Ruff intended readers to put themselves in Braithwhite’s place; often it feels as if the villain is only villainous because we are told he is so, and if the characters with whom he comes into conflict were to take a big-picture look at their own story, they would find that he is perhaps not as bad a chap as they suppose. He is certainly no eldritch abomination of Lovecraftian styling, nor does he fit the mold of other wicked Lovecraftian sorcerers such as Old Whatley or Ephraim Waite.
Following the set-up chapters, Ruff writes in an episodic form, chapters jumping between characters and spanning large swaths of time. These episodes are loosely tied together by the lurking but ever-present Braithwhite, but many of them could stand alone as the sort of “weird tales” that Lovecraft himself wrote. The episodes grow progressively weaker as the book progresses, however, and the more directly they are concerned with the overarching plot, the less interesting they are. One of the strongest chapters, in which a character leaves Earth entirely for a distant world, would have been far stronger had it not been contorted to fit back into the frame of the Braithwhite threat. Alien landscapes, glowing interdimensional portals, horrific creatures of unknowable intent, and geographies of an incomprehensible nature are much more in keeping with Lovecraft’s style and sensibilities, and this is the only section of the book where they appear.
Ruff’s worldbuilding is at its strongest when, like Lovecraft’s, things are not explained, but by the end there are almost no secrets that have not been laid bare. The protagonists too easily are able to unravel the secrets of sorcerer’s guilds that are hundreds if not thousands of years old, are too genre-savvy for their own good (utilizing their love of the pulps to inform them about the realities of the enemies they face), and are too willing to make incredible leaps of logic that just happen to be spot-on. That said, the world that is presented is quite interesting, even if it does lose something in the explaining. Its blend of magic, researched realism (the book’s fictional “Safe Negro Travel Guide” is a direct reference to the real-life “Negro Motorist Green Book”), and adventure story continues to be entertaining for the duration of the novel.
All of this is an aside to the real question of the book: how do the fictional tentacular monsters of Lovecraft compare to the very real horrors of racism that to this day echo through history and shape the modern era? However, if you have come to this book looking for new or groundbreaking insights on racism in America or even racism in Lovecraft’s work, you will be disappointed. It never gets further than talking about how racism is bad. It does a fair job of painting the various micro- (and macro-) aggressions those without privilege experience, as well as providing scenery that speaks to the ways that the lack of privilege influences one’s life — for example, unable to buy houses in the “nice” white parts of Chicago; Atticus’s neighbors show off by buying fancy cars that they nevertheless are unable to drive for fear of having them damaged. Presumably, the message is that racism is worse than Lovecraft’s fictional universe-destroying, insanity-inducing, multi-eyed, bloblike shoggoths, but I don’t think this was an embattled position in the first place. The conclusions one draws from seeing these two types of horror juxtaposed are too obvious to feel impactful. Perhaps Ruff’s real motive is more defensive: Atticus goes out of his way to defend Lovecraft as a writer despite having his father point out the author’s racist tendencies. Ruff may be working with Lovecraft’s tools (or at least rifling through his toolbox), but he seems to be at odds with Lovecraft’s agenda — there’s a dissonance here that is jarring and at times hard to overcome.
Apart from namedrops that seem more intended to establish the author’s credibility as a Lovecraft aficionado than anything else, there is very little Lovecraft in the book (especially for a book with Lovecraft in the title). The superficialities are there — strange cults, rituals in the night, monsters with more body parts than strictly necessary — but none of the psychic horror of Lovecraft is found in Ruff’s work, none of the existential dread. The threats are real and obvious: a white man, often with a gun. Lovecraft’s horrors were scary not because they appeared horrific (though they certainly did), but because they were beyond our comprehension: we were unto them as ants are unto humans, and it was impossible for our minds to wrap themselves around their entirety, instead choosing, as Lovecraft wrote, to “go mad from the revelation[s] or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Ruff’s book is enjoyable enough, and should entertain readers fond of the genre, but it is at once too safe and too different to approach the master’s house.
Justin Bortnick is a writer and game designer currently working towards a PhD in English at the University of Southern California, where he researches narrative forms and intersections with New Media. His work has been featured in such games as “Frog Fractions 2” and on websites like Gamasutra.