Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two-year-old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.
Lovecraft Country is a 2016 horror novel by Matt Ruff, which I have been looking forward to reading for quite some time. I enjoy otherworldly forces and eldritch beings, but what especially drew me in was how this book appeared to be marrying these ideas with a real-world source of fear and suffering (as most good horror does). In this case, it is the world of Jim Crow America from the perspective on an ensemble cast of characters from two Black American families.
The outline given in the summary above, which is about half of what was on the back cover, is only really the tip of the iceberg. Atticus Turner is who sees us into the world of this story, but it expands from there, with a narrative through-line running from beginning to end. I would not call it an anthology story, though at times it certainly felt like it. The novel is divided into smaller, titled sections that feel like short stories in their own right, though they’re largely dependent on those that came before them to work. Each focuses on a different character in these two families, some of whom only having small parts before they’re given their time to grow. Though a couple were weaker than others, each brought a distinct and rich perspective to the world, and were confronted with their own unique horrors as well.
Ruff struck a good balance, shedding light on the forces the characters are interacting with without explaining too much. At the centre of each story as the source of otherworldly concerns is the mysterious Order of the Ancient Dawn, an old organization of “natural philosophers” who tap into the powers of Creation, allowing them perform both wondrous and terrible things. By the end I do understand the basics what they’re doing, but not too much in the way of how. There are also vague, strange presences at the fringes of the story, lurking in dark woods and emerging through gateways, which hint at a dimension to the world beyond human comprehension.
The true horror of the story, however, is the nigh-constant presence of bigotry and hatred coming from most of the white people they encounter, made all the more unsettling by how real these volatile attitudes were at that time. This book taught me about “Sundown Towns,” a real life phenomenon where a small town or neighborhood would decide that no black people were permitted within their borders after dark. It didn’t matter if they worked there or were just passing through in a vehicle, they would be harassed, assaulted, or even lynched just for being there. In a book of paranormal encounters and otherworldly creatures, the most terrifying moments involve ordinary folk who choose to get rid of “undesirables” with extreme prejudice. When this level of danger and hate is the norm, how much more scary can a haunted house really be?
Despite stark demonstration of racism, the book does not have as dour of a tone as you might think. The cast of characters are determined to aspire to more than their society deems them worthy of nor do they let the machinations of an order of sorcerers control them, making the story feel much more hopeful. Sometimes they are selfish, or careless, or too stubborn for their own good, but each is endearing and resilient in their own way too. They suffer from daily oppression, and it is an integral element to the novel, but it is not a story about living an oppressed life.
Of all the books that I’ve read this year so far, old and new, Lovecraft Country is easily one of my most favourite. It tells a great story that made me laugh, disturbed me, and gave me hope. It also marries horror and race issues together in a way that’s terrifically out of this world and terrifyingly down to earth. One thing I especially appreciate about this is how, in its own small way, it works to reconcile issues with H. P. Lovecraft and some of his work. While the Cthulhu Mythos is much loved and iconic to this day, we cannot forget that Lovecraft himself was a vicious racist, which he wasn’t shy about injecting into his work at times. Far be it from me to say for certain just how much reconciliation this book allows, but it no doubt helps. I can’t recommend this book enough.