Just how much Lovecraft can be found in Lovecraft Country, the new HBO series based on the 2016 novel of the same title by Matt Ruff? Explicitly, not all that much, despite an opening fantasy sequence in which a monstrous, tentacled being who is very clearly Cthulhu, the most familiar (and—dare I say it?—beloved) of Lovecraft’s “elder gods,” is walloped to icky smithereens by Jackie Robinson, in a scene that surely would have driven Lovecraft himself mad with indignation. Yet “Lovecraft Country,” a label Ruff never defines but that seems to arch over the whole of the United States, fits the series thematically even as it sets up expectations that may disappoint some fans of the influential horror author. The series, developed by showrunner Misha Green (who co-created the 2016 historical series Underground), soon resolves itself into a supernatural soap opera, but its primary subject—life as a Black person struggling under the weight of systemic American racism—remains acutely pertinent to Lovecraft’s work.
The racism of Howard Phillips Lovecraft was extreme even for its time, and like Ruff’s novel, the series quotes from a particularly vile poem Lovecraft wrote in 1912, one with the title “On the Creation of N—–s” that only gets more racist from there. The Black novelist N.K. Jemisin has argued persuasively that Lovecraft’s racism is central to the horror he aimed to convey in his work: a cosmic, existential dread combined with profound physical disgust. An exemplary quote from the story “The Lurking Fear” captures it: “I felt the strangling tendrils of a cancerous horror whose roots reached into illimitable pasts and fathomless abysms of the night that broods beyond time”—the tendrils and the cancer, and the great dark emptiness between the stars. The typical Lovecraft protagonist pursues some lonely, arcane scholarly quest until he collides with the terrible secret that humanity is an irrelevant speck in a universe presided over by vast, repulsive, powerful entities that our minds cannot even comprehend. This revelation is frequently linked to the discovery of a degenerate community of worshippers, people whose humanity has been contaminated with alien blood—fish men being a particular favorite. Lovecraft’s published and private writing exhibits the same revulsion toward people of color that his characters lavish on the “mongrel” mer-tribes of his fiction.
With his novel, Ruff inverts this perspective. Set in the 1950s, Lovecraft Country depicts the family and friends of Atticus Turner (related to Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831, and played by Jonathan Majors in the series) and their run-ins with a secret society of rich white occultists calling themselves the Order of the Ancient Dawn. A leader of this group captures Atticus because he is descended from its founder, who impregnated one of his slaves. With the founder’s blood, the mage plans to conduct a ritual that will make him immortal and restore the hierarchical social order that he sees as threatened by a changing world. While Atticus escapes the sorcerer’s New England compound and returns to his native Chicago, he and the people he’s closest to continue to have their lives and fates manipulated by the cult as its members jockey for supreme power.
Ruff’s book is in part a valentine to Black nerdery and the ability of readers of color to find wonder and transcendence in a genre that rarely included a place for them. Atticus and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), who publishes The Safe Negro Traveler’s Guide, a Green Book–style manual of establishments where Black motorists can eat and sleep while on the road in Jim Crow–era America, share a love of pulp fiction. This dismays Atticus’ irascible father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), who points out that Atticus’ problematic fave, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, features a hero, John Carter, who was a Confederate officer before becoming a warlord on Mars. “Stories are like people,” George tells Atticus, in a line echoed in the HBO pilot. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. … They do disappoint me sometimes. Sometimes they stab me in the heart.”
Or you find a way to retell them. Lovecraft Country is really a series of linked stories in which Atticus and the people in his orbit each engage with a pulp fiction trope inflected by the dilemmas of the racial caste system. Atticus must confront the fact that his Black ancestor was raped by his white ancestor. His childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) buys a haunted house in a white neighborhood that does not want to be integrated. His aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), a thwarted would-be astronomer, stumbles upon a device that enables interstellar travel, where she finds a colony whose only surviving member, another Black woman, has no interest in returning to a home planet plagued by hatred and inequality. A team of buddies retrieves a forbidden book from a secret vault inside a museum to trade for the stolen accounting book in which one of their ancestors detailed the precise amount of reparations owed to her by the family who enslaved her. Letitia’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) meets a man who supplies her with a potion that temporarily changes her into a white woman.
Some of these stories echo Lovecraft tales. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” becomes Lovecraft Country’s “Dreams of the Which House,” for example, but the storyline is entirely transformed from that of a student plagued by the ghost of a 17th century witch in a cursed house that is eventually razed to the triumphant battle of a young woman to secure her place in the world. The TV series changes the story even further, until all that remains of Lovecraft is the pun in the story’s title.
In one terrifying scene, Atticus and company are detained by a rural sheriff who intends to blame them for a string of local robberies and then shoot them in the backs for a fictional escape attempt. This plan gets interrupted by monsters who devour the white men. In the book and the series, these creatures are identified as shoggoths, beings that once served Lovecraft’s elder gods. But Lovecraft’s shoggoths are not lithe, pouncing, velociraptorlike predators with infectious bites, like those in the series. Rather, they’re amoeboid blobs that periodically shout “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” for reasons unknown. At any rate, the racist sheriff and his grinning thugs are far scarier than pretty much anything Lovecraft ever cooked up (except perhaps for Brown Jenkin, a malevolent rat-shaped demon with a human face and hands). Contrary to the author’s assertions, it’s often the little—and the human-scaled—things that inspire the most fear.
The aficionado will scour HBO’s version of Lovecraft Country in vain for knowing and clever references to Lovecraft’s mythos, but the series does preserve something of the novel’s original notion: that for Atticus and those close to him, people simply trying to survive in a highly imperfect world and who are treated as pawns by the powerful white characters, there’s no need to look to the far reaches of the universe or the depths of the ocean to find unfathomable, senseless, gibbering evil. It’s all around them, and it flourished in H.P Lovecraft’s heart. Ruff’s novel ends with the collected Black characters responding to a magician who warns that if they cross him, “No matter where you go, you’ll never be safe!” They laugh, right in his face.
For some of Slate’s political coverage, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.