Lovecraft Country: American TV shows its true colours. And it’s exhilarating

Racist sheriffs, not tentacled beasts, provide the real scares in this take on Jim Crow’s US

Lovecraft Country: Writers of colour are remixing US pop-cultural tropes to better fit their own experience. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/HBO/Sky

Lovecraft Country: Writers of colour are remixing US pop-cultural tropes to better fit their own experience. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/HBO/Sky

 

Lovecraft Country (Sky Atlantic) opens with gritty trench warfare set to triumphalist music and a voiceover about “an American boy and a dream that is truly American”. The camera then pans out into a glorious golden-age vista of baseball players, alien tripods, flying saucers and even the famed Lovecraft monster Cthulhu, cutting it up like a previously unknown Healy-Rae (another being with its tentacles in everything).

This all turns out to be the literal dream of an Edgar Rice Burroughs-reading Korean War veteran named Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors). We meet him as he sits in a racially segregated bus, journeying to Chicago to find out what happened to his missing father. Before long he and his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) hit the road to travel around Jim Crow’s United States with Atticus’s uncle George (Courtney B Vance), who is putting together a new edition of his Safe Negro Travel Guide (a fictional version of the very real Green Book).

Lovecraft Country is written and created by Misha Green, based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, which leaned in turn on the warped bestiary of the extremely racist horror writer HP Lovecraft.

A whole new form of television is developing in which writers of colour are remixing the United States’ pop-cultural tropes in a way that better fits their own experience and recognises their pain

There’s a bit of a thesis statement in the opening scene, when someone challenges Freeman about why he can read Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars when its hero is a Confederate soldier. “Stories are like people,” he says. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.”

There’s a whole new form of television developing, exemplified by the recent Watchmen adaptation and now Lovecraft Country, in which writers of colour are remixing the United States’ pop-cultural tropes in a way that better fits their own experience and recognises their pain. Something exhilarating is being created in the process.

So, for example, spearheaded by Jordan Peele – one of the producers of Lovecraft Country – in Get Out, there’s a new approach to horror in which the often hidden racist subtext is made text and sits there competing with the genre’s wilder notions. In the first episode of Lovecraft Country, anachronistic hip hop, a pointed speech that James Baldwin delivered to William F Buckley, cameos from the books of Alexandre Dumas (the grandson of a slave) and fleeting picture-perfect re-creations of Gordon Parks’s photographs all blend in with a familiar genre, the horror road movie.

Lovecraft Country: Jonathan Majors stars as Atticus Freeman. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/HBO/Sky
Lovecraft Country: Jonathan Majors stars as Atticus Freeman. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/HBO/Sky

There’s a strange tension in all this. The eldritch horror of Lovecraft is never going to quite rival the sense of dread conjured up as our heroes try to leave a sundown county before sundown with a murderously racist sheriff in pursuit. By the end of the episode, when we get a schlocky gorefest in which betentacled beasties run violently amok in the woods, it feels almost like a relief. Googly-eyed, toothy droolers seem less grotesque and more reasonable than thuggish racists, to be honest. And then the episode ends with the blood-stained trio arriving at Ardham – a version of Arkham, the town where Lovecraft set his stories – and Alice Smith’s own reimagined version of Nina Simone’s version of Sinnerman plays as the credits roll.

I have no idea where Lovecraft Country is going, but I’m very much enjoying its rewiring of American genre fiction and pop culture. People have been left out of the narrative. Facts about white supremacy and colonial domination have been left out of the popular history. Misha Green and her collaborators are putting it all back in.

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