Television

In Lovecraft Country, Racial Violence Is the Real American Horror Story

The HBO series turns racist genre tropes inside-out, and then starts to play by its own rules.

Jonathan Majors and Courtney B. Vance sit on a porch in HBO's Lovecraft Country.
Jonathan Majors and Courtney B. Vance in Lovecraft Country. Elizabeth Morris/HBO

On Lovecraft Country, America is full of monsters, and only some of them aren’t human. In this heady horror romp through the grotesque topography of American racism, a small group of intrepid Black heroes faces off against sleek, slimy, vampiric creatures with 10-foot vertical leaps and eye-dappled skin, butchered and butchering ghosts, and zombie sirens, all less dangerous than the unvanquishable flood of blood-chilling sheriffs, blood-mad secret societies, bat-wielding neighbors, violent cops, and bigoted bosses who, unlike the monsters, need no provocation. Scary, funny, unsettling, sexy, goofy, loose, pulpy, and profound, Lovecraft Country uses metaphor, genre, and fantasy to tell the truth: For Black people, America’s always been a horror story.

Lovecraft Country, adapted for television by Misha Green from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is set in the 1950s. As it begins, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, pulp-novel-loving nerd turned buff Korean War vet, returns to Chicago after receiving a mysterious note from his recently disappeared father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), which promised to explain details of Tic’s maternal lineage. In short order Tic, his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), who writes and publishes the Green Book–like The Safe Negro Traveler’s Guide, and the spunky Leti (Jurnee Smollett), who comes across like a bit of a bad girl but is no such thing, set out in a wood-paneled station wagon to find Montrose in the creepy wilds of Massachusetts. The trip takes them through sundown counties as dangerous as anything in the Jim Crow South, where they encounter a sheriff who matter-of-factly explains his intention to shoot them in the back. He’s thwarted by supernatural events that land them, bloody and confused, at the door of the extravagant Braithwhite mansion, the residence of a people so white they look like the bleached-out relations of Alexander Skarsgård.

The pilot of Lovecraft Country is taut and near-perfect. The second episode is more exemplary of its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to genre, plot, and mythology. The Braithwhites are the descendants of a powerful slaveholder who started a secret society called the Sons of Adam, one so ancient, rich, and powerful its members sneer at the Klan, even though their ceremonial robes share a silhouette, if not a colorway. Extremely racist and intent on achieving immortality so as to reassert racial hierarchies, they nonetheless need Tic’s help—more specifically his blood—to accomplish their goals. After an initial botched attempt involving hallucinations, wormholes, fistfights, and the phallus that is the serpent from the garden of Eden, Tic makes it back to Chicago, only to have the Braithwhites and Sons of Adam malevolently insinuate themselves into his, his family’s, and his friends’ lives.

It’s at this point, beginning with the third installment, that the series’s essential structure comes into focus. Each episode is a kind of pulp-of-the-week—with side helpings of mythology, soap, and family drama—that takes tropes from fantasy writers like the deeply imaginative and inveterately racist H.P. Lovecraft and turns them inside-out, reading horror from a Black perspective. One episode is a cheeky ghost story in which Leti buys a house in an all-white neighborhood, a dangerous enough task even when the house isn’t haunted. Another is an Indiana Jones–style caper in the bowels of a natural history museum, where a long-dead super-racist has created a kind of treasure hunt whose final clue is an Indigenous zombie whose life and people he once destroyed. Another still, a standout, explores shape-shifting and metamorphosis when Leti’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) acquires a potion that makes her look like a white woman.

Lovecraft Country was produced by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, and while it has some obvious connections to Get Out—like incisively identifying white people as the greatest horror of all—it also shares something with the maximalist work of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy (the haunted house episode in particular is very arch in the American Horror Story way). Its episodes brim with jump scares, steamy sex scenes, cartoony banter, father-son conflicts, secret paternity, early drag balls, squabbles, murder, burning crosses, magic, grief, fear, bravery, sweetness, love, and a soundtrack full of Cardi B, Rihanna, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange, and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” which plays while a power-hungry white wizard tries to connect with Eden through Tic’s body. Like Murphy and Rhimes, Green isn’t concerned that being too entertaining will somehow undermine the series’s capital T themes so much as make you invest in them, and, in the first five episodes, she’s more disciplined than either of them, to boot. Every installment contains its own near-stand-alone pulp fiction, a structure that grounds the show and reminded me a bit of another series full of repartee, monsters, and metaphor: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Lovecraft Country has an extraordinary ability to wink and keep a straight face at the same time, to be fun and serious simultaneously. You can see it in relatively trivial details, like how it delivers the yadda-yadda mythology behind the Sons of Adam with gusto and in a way that lets you know you can totally skip it, and in its treatment of the mysterious, underdeveloped and super white Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee), which first seems to be a knowing sendup of the cursory way Black women are often treated in dramas and horror, only for a doozy of a plot point to make all of that blandness also work as an Easter egg. But the show is like that with its more essential aspects too. Faced with horror after horror, a character like Leti rises to the occasion, driving cars into supernatural beasts and bashing in the windshields of her racist neighbors, fist-pumping moments that are allowed to play triumphantly, even though the other shoe always drops.

Lovecraft Country can be scary, but as a total scaredy-cat, I found the extended encounters with flesh-and-blood white people far more tense than the encounters with the supernatural. The monsters may leap and lurk in the dark, but their sympathies seem to lie in the right places. The first creatures appear to inadvertently attack the white people first, but a pattern emerges. This is a world densely populated not only by the supernatural, but also by the souls of dead, wronged Black folk, who reach across time and space to lend a hand. In the fifth episode, the last sent to critics, the “monster” is one of the show’s heroines. With some magical assistance Leti’s sister Ruby begins to transform into a white woman, via a particularly bone-crunching and gory metamorphosis. Ruby uses her new ability to land the job at a department store she’s always deserved, getting harrowing insight not only into the white people who work there, but herself too. As a white woman, Ruby comes across as menacing and condescending to the one Black employee when she’s trying to be helpful and even more so when she’s just being herself, expressing her resentments and her fears while in a white body.

Towards the end of the episode, Ruby is reminded that while magic can help her play by white people’s rules, it also gives her the freedom to play by her own. Ruby proceeds to do just that, with an intimate and violent act of revenge she performs while literally tearing off her white, monster skin. It’s a dizzyingly layered, provocative moment, demanding to be talked about, that couldn’t come in any show but Lovecraft Country—which, unlike Ruby, doesn’t need to be told that it can make its own rules.