Caught after dark in Lovecraft Country

Edward Austin Hall

February 15, 2016

Matt Ruff had me a few pages into his new novel, Lovecraft Country, where one of its black characters ponders my own great childhood shame this way: “Tom Swift … which Earl had loved when he was young … embarrassed him now, both for the books’ depiction of Negroes and for the fact that as a boy he hadn’t noticed it ….” Because Ruff’s book has the mid-1950s as its setting, Earl almost certainly refers to the original series of Swift novels, which predate WWI and even have a white character use the expression “nigger in the woodpile.” I tried to read one of those books but stopped at that very phrase. My interest stemmed from the fierce appetite I had for the less-bigoted-but-still-dubious novels about Tom Swift Jr. (the earlier character’s son) that I read throughout my middle-school years.

By then, though, H.P. Lovecraft had already bewitched me and my two older sisters. How in hell we read past old H.P.’s horrid editorializing on racial matters remains a mystery to me. His verse includes a vile bit of doggerel titled “On the Creation of Niggers,” which, though unknown to me until I was an adult, is representative of the man’s attitudes overall. Ruff’s experience of such material might have been more open-eyed, but his acknowledgements do cite encounters with people at Cornell University and with an “essay … about the peculiar difficulties of being a black science-fiction fan.” Given what the author calls a near-30-year gestation for Lovecraft Country, his timing to market is lucky beyond belief: The fandoms for fantasticated fictions (fantasy, sf, and horror — all of which Lovecraft’s writings straddle — plus their recombinant subgenres) are collectively waging diversity wars that have included the late-2015 removal of Lovecraft’s likeness from the Gahan Wilson-designed trophy given to winners of the World Fantasy Award. After Nnedi Okorafor won a 2011 WFA for her novel Who Fears Death?, she blogged that “a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home [and] is one of my greatest honors as a writer.” The campaign for redesign snowballed from there.

One other bit of alchemy explained in Ruff’s acknowledgements is his discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, “at which point the [novel’s] story began to take shape.” Ruff’s melding of historical Jim Crow depredations with otherworldly horrors catalyzes Lovecraft Country into something new under the sun (and unlikelier celestial bodies, in a few scenes).

Like the real-life Green Book, Ruff’s fictitious Safe Negro Travel Guide charts paths around sundown counties (where sheriffs and their ilk routinely killed any black person unlucky enough to be within the “jurisdiction” of such racists after nightfall) and past Klansman-owned gas stations to welcoming hotels, racially unrestricted restaurants, and similar amenities sought by wary (and often weary) black motorists. Several members of the black family behind Ruff’s guide personally research these locations — some of which prove comfy, others, deadly. Lovecraft Country is seldom more tense than in its passages detailing scrapes with murderous or malevolent cops, perhaps another function of when this book is arriving, as well as the fact that my every interaction with police I undertook while black.

Ruff’s novel encompasses a variety of the traveling Berry family’s kith and kin over the course of its seven episodic chapters. It starts with Atticus Berry nearing Chicago, where he hopes to aid Montrose, his estranged father. En route, we learn that in the novel’s fictional universe Lovecraft remains an outspokenly bigoted writer of popular weird tales. Soon enough, though, Atticus and his Uncle George are joking that a New England forest near the missing Montrose’s suspected location may be patrolled by shoggoths — shape-shifting monsters from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories. Ruff exhibits a similar playfulness in the title of the second chapter, “Dreams of the Which House,” a tactic whose recurrence suggests some mockery of the Lovecraftian oeuvre. By the last chapter, we’ve seen different books (grimoires, comics, an enslaved woman’s ledger of crimes and indignities she suffered) serve different ends in different hands (some black, some white). That chapter’s title, “The Mark of Cain,” has manifold meanings inside Ruff’s fictional world and outside it, too. Adherents of so-called Christian Identity beliefs say that the Bible’s original fratricide passed down dark skin to signal his descendants’ murderous ways — a notion the Berrys ultimately turn inside out. Once I was done, Lovecraft Country looked like nothing so much as a chain of reparation narratives: interconnected stories making it their business to sniff out (and, in their limited way, snuff out) racial injustice built into other stories, some of them considered canon. After all, as of this writing we know that the next World Fantasy Award trophies won’t resemble old H.P., but … a photo of him is likely to be staring in perpetuity from his Library of America volume’s cover. And rightly so. Lovecraft’s writings have, over time, served different ends in different hands. Stephen King cites them as a key influence. I feel that whatever power they still possess derives from the intensity of H.P.’s fears and loathings. But also, in ways an annually and narrowly distributed bust cannot, those collected writings embody the man’s fearsome, loathsome views in his own words.

Enough about Lovecraft, though. Here, Ruff uses the man and his output as lenses to bring this novel into focus. And I would be derelict not to focus, however briefly, on Ruff’s best efforts here: three memorable women from the Berry family, Ruby, Letitia, and Hippolyta. Over several chapters, including my favorite, “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” these characters defy expectation and add a fizz to the proceedings that their male counterparts achieve only fitfully. Compared to 2007’s enthralling Bad Monkeys, the other Ruff novel I've read, Lovecraft Country exerts a lesser pull. Nonetheless, this newer book rewards patience, and nowhere more so than in the passages where it heartbreakingly weaves Hippolyta into the actual events that surrounded Pluto’s discovery and naming.

Once Ruff took me there, I would’ve followed him anywhere in Lovecraft Country.

Books in this review:
  • Lovecraft Country
    by Matt Ruff
    Harper
    February 15, 2016
    384 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Atlanta author/editor Edward Austin Hall co-edited, with novelist Bill Campbell, the anthology Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond.

Follow Edward Austin Hall on Twitter: @edwardahall

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