Lovecraft Country (HBO Max)
Written by Misha Green, Wes Taylor, Jonathan I. Kidd, Sonya Winton-Odamtten, Kevin Lau, Shannon Houston, and Ihuoma Ofordire
Directed by Yann Demange, Daniel Sackheim, Victoria Mahoney, Cheryl Dunye, Helen Shaver, Charlotte Sieling, Misha Green, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Nelson McCormick
Back in 2017, I read & reviewed Matt Ruff’s novel, Lovecraft Country. My main take away is how I didn’t feel that the book lived up to the title, barely connecting its narrative to horror tropes associated with author H.P. Lovecraft. I think the exploration of ties between the Black experience in America, the racism woven throughout Lovecraft’s work, and the cosmic horror he presents are all ingredients for something that could be incredibly special. My thoughts were that I hoped the pending HBO series would find a way to deliver on the promise of the book, mainly because the showrunners were Black. Sadly, Lovecraft fizzled out in the same way as the novel.
Atticus Freeman returns to Chicago after serving in the Korean War. He finds his father, Montrose, has gone missing and retraces the old man’s path with Uncle George and his childhood friend Leticia’s help. They end up in Ardham, Massachusetts, where Atticus discovers he is the descendant of a powerful sorcerer and is one of the last of his bloodline. That gives the young veteran a lot of power in the secret circles of magic. Horror in a variety of forms enters the lives of Atticus and those he loves. It becomes clear that Atticus must submit to his destiny and take on those who seek to do him and his family harm by using magic back against them.
The series, much like the books, loses its focus as the episodes go on, and so it becomes hard to feel emotionally invested in the characters. The show felt way too much like True Blood for my liking, with garish over the top horror, rather than moody, atmospheric horror I expect when you call something “Lovecraft.” Besides the main plot about the cult, there isn’t very much here I associate with the author. Lovecraft evokes immense cosmic horrors that cause dread, facing something beyond your capacity to fight it, so you must submit and allow it to wash over you, typically ending in insanity. I think The Color Out of Space nailed how Lovecraft stories feel the type of horror you are up against.
Lovecraft Country opts for a pulpy style, not really my personal taste, but I know some people like that. However, it veers into boring allegorical territory once the opening two episodes are passed, with a monster of the week type of structure. Everything is some sort of fable for being Black in America, which could be really good if handled less didactically. I’ve recently read some takes from Black media writers about this series and the film Antebellum who said they are feeling fatigued by the constant framing of Black life in America as a horror experience. They posit that, while some of these interpretations are clever, they also are reductive and exhausting for Black people to see so frequently. Instead, they propose horror media that feature Black characters without always having to present their community’s real trauma as fodder for monster movies.
I never felt like the things Lovecraft Country presented ever paid off or felt like they said something meaningful beyond the obvious. I applaud the representation that Lovecraft Country offers, but it’s a show I don’t plan on revisiting in the second season, and I found myself slogging through most of this. There are brilliant ideas, the monstrous Pickaninny Twins that haunt Atticus’s teenage cousin Diana are a tremendous visual, but they don’t ever clearly mesh with the overall narrative. The strange geography underneath Leticia’s house is another weird detail I just eat up. But then the presentation of a supernatural trans character who is murdered by one of the good guys and then no fallout occurs doesn’t sit well with me. Lovecraft Country is overflowing with ideas; it’s just a shame they don’t show strong cohesion or amount to an overall strong narrative.