Back in 2016, I read author Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. The book showed how in 1950s America, life was horrible enough for African Americans that even a murderous cult of evil sorcerers might not be as bad as the everyday racism they experienced throughout the country. I thought the book depicted the real world evils of racism far more effectively as a source of fear than the otherworldly elements, and the ending seemed a little too pat, but otherwise it was a good book.
Then I heard HBO was making an adaptation of it and have been waiting something like two years for that. With Jordan Peele among the executive producers, well, I’ve been waiting for this one. Watson and Ryan both spoke highly of it, so let’s spend a few weeks seeing if their assessments were accurate ones.
Now, as I recall, Ruff wrote his book less as a straightforward narrative than as a series of interconnected short stories following various black characters around over time as they run afoul of dark magic and horrible creatures. The lead character in the first story was Atticus “Tic” Freeman. He was a young man with an interest in pulp fiction, including the works of H.P. Lovecraft despite the fact Lovecraft was known for being a huge racist even by the standards of his own time.
Then, one day, his father Montrose disappears with a white man. Montrose had no time for white men, so this is mysterious enough for Atticus, his uncle (and Montrose’s brother) George, and neighborhood girl Leti to go on a road trip from Chicago to the small part of New England that sounded a lot like “Lovecraft Country” but wasn’t quite that. That’s more or less what happens here in this first episode with a few more monsters added to the mix.
The show does a good job of explaining Tic’s interest in pulp fiction, or at least how he can read works that paper over the more racist ideas and attitudes of the white men who wrote them. Why would someone like Tic enjoy the adventures of John Carter when the character’s backstory establishes him as a former officer in the Confederate Army? Simple: he ignores those aspects and just lets himself find the humanity to connect himself to. Considering this first episode opens with a dream sequence that seems to end with Jackie Robinson taking on Cthulhu, it may not be completely obvious where such interests might come in handy, but it turns out they do.
Because, once on the road, some of those things that Tic only read about turn out to be all too real, and while he and George (another fan of those works) knows a bit about how to deal with them, the racist cops looking to lynch the three were not quite so fortunate.
Yes, like the book, the real world racism is far more frightening both to the characters and the viewers than large shoggoths that only come out at night. George is the author/editor of a Green Book (as seen in the movie of the same name), a guide that tells African American travelers where it’s safe to stop for a meal, and some of the reactions the three face on the road shows exactly why black people needed books like that. This is a show where the tensest moment may just be not when a couple trucks full of men shooting at the heroes chase them out of a town, but a much more slow speed encounter where a sheriff basically tells the three they need to be out of his county by sundown, mere minutes away, or else they will be hung and they better not speed or they will be pulled over and no doubt stuck in the county when the sun goes down.
Frankly, burrowing blob monsters with infectious bites are almost a relief as a result.
Now, the episode does end with the three arriving at a creepy manor house in the middle of nowhere, a place where they are apparently expected, and from what little I saw of a character, it does look like the series did a gender flip on the novel’s eventual final antagonist, but as for all that I’ve seen so far, I hope the rest of the series ends up as good as what I’ve seen from just this one episode.