Posted on June 29, 2017

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country: On Horror and Racism

Guest Post

There is much to recommend about Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, published in 2016. It is a book where the premise (monsters are real, but racism is the real monster!), setting (1954 Chicago and environs), form (a series of connected short stories, each taking up a different horror trope), and characters (each of which stars in their own story and crosses over into the others as side-characters) are all reasons to pick up the paperback. Recently, the book became even more enticing following the announcement of an HBO series adaptation produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) with Misha Green (Underground) writing and showrunning. (You can check out Matt Ruff’s announcement here.) The show has the potential to be the next big thing given the talent involved and the source material, so if you want to be one of those people who invariably claim that the book was better, now’s your chance to get ahead of the pack. Except that might not be the best idea in this case because everything that works here could easily end up working better as a TV show since it only reaches its full potential on the page occasionally.

“‘You require me,’ Atticus said. ‘To be your magic negro?’” If the subject matter and setting indicate that Matt Ruff’s book will be a serious affair, his tone and playful use of genre tropes like the one above (uncomfortably used by the likes of Stephen King in books like The Shining) soon reassure readers that he is writing this book not to make some kind of important moral statement about mid-century racism but rather to entertain while lightly poking at the horror genre’s nastier history. Indeed, woke readers will recognize, in the Klan hoods on the cover of a book titled Lovecraft Country, their unfortunate xenophobic connection to the famous genre author’s beliefs and literary output. Horror has not treated people of color kindly on page or screen, and that history becomes the thematic thrust of the novel. Ruff’s characters emerge as extraordinary not for their bravery or their heroism (though they ably and amply display both) but for their relative normalcy.

The first story—the best in the book—sees a family venture into a “sundown town” to rescue a man in search of a past that has been kept from him. The next story features a woman who just wants to own a house she can afford, even though it lies in hostile territory given her skin color and harbors a racist ghost who tries to scare her out. The characters desire only what they should by rights have access to; they are denied it by monsters both human and uncanny, and their plight makes for the book’s best segments. Ruff’s most clever mixing of horror tropes and social commentary comes with a woman who gets all she desires by drinking a potion that enables her to attain her desire to experience white existence through a Hyde-esque transformation.

I only wish the book was as well written as it is conceived. Ruff’s writing is fine, it just never reaches above pulpy thrills into the higher realms of literature. With ideas and characters this strong, some slack on the mechanical level is no reason to avoid the book, but the slackness infects the overarching story and the villain (who only begins to develop in the last 30 pages of the novel). Since none of the stories that make up the chapters of the book overstays their welcome and each one features a wildly different horror genre or trope, the pages turn very easily here. They do not, however, amount to much, narratively speaking. This feels not like a book but rather like treatments for the first 6 episodes of a TV show because the climax is barely there and one of the middle stories is a bit of a dud. It’s no surprise to read in the back-matter provided by the paperback publisher that Ruff had initially conceived this as a TV show.

The forthcoming HBO series has the potential to fix all the problems present in the book. Television horror has been on a major winning streak recently (Hannibal is the best example, but Penny Dreadful and even The Exorcist spinoff show from last winter and the most recent season of American Horror Story have shown that episodic storytelling can work well for both slow-build horror and the kind of one-off genre-jumping that this novel lends itself to). I can only hope that Lovecraft Country will continue the run. If the creative team can craft more formally considered versions of the stories presented so mechanistically here and cast the right people for these juicy roles, they’ll be a good way toward making a great show. If they can make the bad guy into a more interesting character and clear up his motivations a little more, they’ll be almost done with their work. The only thing remaining would be to expand.

Despite all my complaints about the writing not being as engaging as I’d like, the narrative lacking some punch, and the pretty generic bad guy, I do really want to read (or see!) more stories from this expansive and fully-realized world. Few horror books have had characters this engaging and put them in such a fruitful context. The novel’s conceit necessarily undercuts the scares, at least as traditionally conceived in the genre by making the white society and characters into the more dangerous threats, but that doesn’t mean that the horror elements aren’t interesting. There’s a story about a teleportation room that will stick with me for quite a while, as much for how Ruff uses the conceit as for the conceit in and of itself. It’s about time for horror to acknowledge its racist roots and Lovecraft Country is a fun, if flawed, example of how to do that work.

 

Alex Thompson is a writer and teacher and can be found on Facebook.

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