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'Lovecraft Country': Facing Monsters —And A Monstrous History

<em>Halt! Cthulhu goes there? (L to R):</em>Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) in HBO's <em>Lovecraft Country.</em>
Eli Joshua Ade
Halt! Cthulhu goes there? (L to R):Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) in HBO's Lovecraft Country.

Here is a list of things that the HBO series Lovecraft Country, premiering Sunday, August 16th, has in common with the 2018 film Green Book:

1. Setting: Jim Crow-era America

2. Acting: Subtle, nuanced performances (Viggo Mortenen's dese-and-dose Green Book gangster notwithstanding).

3. Subject: Story features a road trip involving a travel guidebook written to inform Black people where they can safely eat and stay. (Green Book: Entire film; Lovecraft Country: Opening episodes only.)

And here is a brief, incomplete list of the things that Lovecraft Country prominently features that Green Book emphatically does not:

1. A story centered on the lives of Black characters.

2. Black characters with agency, absent any White Savior narrative.

3. Shoggoths.

Shoggoths, of course, are creatures imagined by writer H.P. Lovecraft — blobs covered with eyes that continuously arise and dissolve back into their putrid, pulsating flesh. (The Shoggoths of Lovecraft Country are shaped more like Pit-bulls than protoplasm, though they've got that whole creepy-eyes thing covered.)

Lovecraft Country is only the latest in a series of movies, television series and novels to engage with America's greatest moral, economic, social and psychological wound — the legacy of slavery — by way of the fantastic. Creators like Jordan Peele, Damon Lindelof, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead didn't avail themselves of, respectively, body-swapping, superheroes, an angry ghost and an entirely literal subterranean mass-transit system as a means to distract from, or to trivialize, racial injustice. No: They knew that when grappling with a foundational truth so huge and ugly and painful, utilizing the metaphorical imagery of science-fiction and horror offered them a fresh way in — an opportunity to get their audiences to re-examine, to re-feel, the enduring impact of that evil.

Horrors so great and terrible as to stagger the human mind? That was H.P. Lovecraft's whole schtick. He stuffed his fiction with various and sundry eldtrich squamous tentacled oozy ancient malevolent beasties, the very sight of which proved so incomprehensible to us poor human schmoes it would instantly reduce us to gibbering wretches.

It's that precise affinity — slavery as abject, ungraspable, soul-devouring horror — that writer Matt Ruff's 2016 novel, upon which the HBO series is based, cleverly explored. Creator and showrunner Misha Green (alongside executive producers Peele and J.J. Abrams, among others) doubles down, threading the novel's central plotline through a series of eldritch-monster-of-the-week episodes.

Atticus 'Tic' Freeman (Jonathan Majors) travels from the Jim Crow South to Chicago in response to a letter from his estranged, missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). With his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), he embarks upon a cross-country trip in search of his father, encountering horrors both all-too-familiar (bigoted cops of various stripes) and otherworldly (Shoggoth-hound-thingies, ghosts, the odd uber-Aryan wizard, etc.).

Though it's sure to be compared to Watchmen, given both its prominent HBO Sunday night berth and its determination to view race in America through the prism of science fiction, Lovecraft Country is lighter in tone, and far pulpier in sensibility, than Lindelof's comparatively grand, sweeping epic. It's much more apt to go looser and loopier, sprinkling magic spells, sacred codexes, secret passages and the occasional light tomb-raiding into the mix. It's also far more eager to serve up the satisfyingly grisly thrills of pulp horror — bad guys getting their bloody, cosmic comeuppance, for example.

But for every fun, if wildly anachronistic, element — needle-drops like Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money," say, or abdominal muscles like Majors' — Lovecraft Country is always careful to re-center itself on its characters, and their hemmed-in status as Black women and men in 1950s America. Between every narrow escape and exposition dump about "finding the missing pages from the forbidden tome" or whatever, it gives its characters and their relationships breathing room. Case in point: Letitia's contentious bond with her sardonic, disapproving sister Ruby (the quietly astonishing Wunmi Mosaku, in a warm, deeply compelling performance) gets a chance to grow and complicate. And in a later episodes (only the first five were screened for press), Ruby happily manages to step off the sidelines and mix it up with the series' deep, abiding weirdness.

Majors, compelling in The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods, seems stern, even stoic at first, but soon lets his character's nerdiness bubble up. As she was in Birds of Prey, Smollett is fast and funny when the script demands it, and fiercely physical when it comes time to fight back against whatever nasty piece of business the universe is setting against her, this week.

That H.P. Lovecraft — troubled, imaginative, racist — should inspire a book and a series that centers Black characters, and that expressly uses his own creations to flesh out the inner lives he denied them in his own work, was not something he could have imagined. You can't help but wonder what the guy'd do, were he to somehow find himself confronted with that knowledge, a truth his White-supremacist mind could not begin to comprehend.

I mean.

There'd ... there'd probably be gibbering, right?

Gotta figure.

Stands to reason.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.