Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

In which Jim Crow is more of a threat than Nyarlathotep.

Lovecraft Country

Harper, 2016, 372 pages

Critically acclaimed cult novelist Matt Ruff makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy.

Chicago, 1954. When his father, Montrose, goes missing, 22-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 one of Atticus' ancestors - they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn - led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son, Caleb - which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his clan's destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of two black families, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism - the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

Lovecraft, from the very beginning, has inspired others to play around in his universe. He invited his writer friends to do so while he was still alive, and authors have continued to do so ever since. It's even more inviting nowadays since his works are mostly in the public domain so literally anyone can write a Cthulhu mythos story without fear of copyright lawsuits. This is probably a large part of why Lovecraft has inspired an entire subgenre for generations.

Of course, there is the dark side of Lovecraft, well known to his fans and his detractors alike.

HP Lovecraft

Howie was a big ol' racist. Not just "a man of his time," but really, really racist, even for his time.

Matt Ruff confronts this head-on in this collection of stories about an African-American family's struggle with the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Atticus Turner, searching for his missing father, discovers that his pop is being held captive in the mansion of Samuel Braithwhite. The Braithwhites once owned Atticus's ancestors. Samuel Braithwhite needs Atticus because (as was so often the case), his progenitor did a bit of miscegenatin' with his slaves, and Atticus, Negro or not, is a scion of the Braithwhite bloodline. And Samuel Braithwhite is, among other things, a "natural philosopher," which is their fancy name for "sorcerer" although they deny it.

Needless to say, the Braithwhites' plans for Atticus and his kin are not to the latter's favor, but as Atticus, his father Montrose, his Uncle George, and the spirited and resourceful Leticia and Ruby all get involved in a conspiratorial mess from which they only want to extricate themselves, they begin to acquire power and knowledge of their own. Set in the 1950s, much of the villainy in this book is of the mundane sort, the everyday discrimination and threats that all blacks faced just for being. But Atticus and his father and friends face far more, since they have drawn the attention of a secret order of power-mad sociopathic wizards.

Fortunately, they are up to the challenge. Atticus himself is genre-savy, what we'd call nowadays a member of the fandom even, since he has actually read H.P. Lovecraft. (His father took a perverse pleasure in digging up Lovecraft's infamous "n-word" poem and showing it to his son.)

Lovecraft Country, aside from name-checking HPL himself, does not really delve too deeply into the Mythos. There are no appearances of Great Old Ones, and the Turners do not go looking for Elder Signs like investigators in a Call of Cthulhu game. The book is really a series of connected adventures. Each one was good and each one advances the story, being both a tale of ordinary people trying to defeat the sinister Order of the Ancient Dawn, and a tale of ordinary African-Americans trying to get by in the era of Jim Crow. Matt Ruff handled both aspects of the milieu deftly and brought the volume to a satisfying climax. He avoided many of the pitfalls of such stories by not making the black characters too noble, too virtuous, and too clever, and even the (mostly white) villains of the story were not always pure racist evil. (Indeed, Caleb Braithwhite, the son of Samuel Braithwhite, is a dangerously likable evil mastermind.)

I enjoyed this book by a previously unknown-to-me author much more than I thought I would, and I would recommend it to all Lovecraft fans. It's also a book that meets that trendy demand for "diversity" in genre fiction without pandering to it.

Rating: 8/10.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, horror, reviews

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