Bringing H. P. Lovecraft to Jim Crow America

The new HBO series Lovecraft Country melds the macabre monster stories of H. P. Lovecraft with the real-life horror of Jim Crow America. Once again, Jordan Peele shows that the scariest American monster is the white-supremacist cop.

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors, and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country. Photo: HBO

Lovecraft Country is an arresting new ten-episode HBO series that continues Jordan Peele’s inspired project of conveying the black American experience through the conventions of the horror film. Get Out, written and directed by Peele in 2017, was his directorial debut. It showed us from its first memorable scene how perfectly and explosively the new subgenre could work: a black man (played by the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield, who ought to be a big star by now) is lost in an affluent white neighborhood after sunset and is trying to get out of there before the cops or some paranoid locals come after him. Soon he’s stalked by somebody driving slowly behind him in an expensive convertible with tinted windows, through which blares a creepy WWII-era British song with the upbeat, scary refrain “Run, Rabbit, Run.” Once he’s snatched off the street by the unknown assailant, we’re engulfed in the mystery of what is happening to the area’s black male “disappeared.”

Since Get Out, Peele has extended the project by writing and directing Us, and by serving as a cocreator (with showrunner Misha Green) and executive producer on Lovecraft Country, which also begins with a mysteriously “disappeared” black American.

Horror Noire

Peele is by no means the first black filmmaker to explore racial oppression through the horror genre, but the remarkable success of his films both commercially and critically have made him the most high profile. As Xavier Neal-Burgin’s documentary Horror Noire lays out, there’s a history of B films dating back to the blaxploitation era of the 1970s and beyond:

Examples of this cinema of black protest include William Crain’s Blacula (1972), in which an eighteenth-century African prince becomes a vampire in contemporary Los Angeles after his plea to abolish the slave trade is ignored. Or Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), featuring a black anthropologist turned vampire and similarly adapting the shopworn Dracula plot to reflect on the legacy of white dominance. Both of these films date from a time when stylistically inventive and politically energized African American horror films flourished even in the face of restricted budgets.

If the category of “horror noire” is expanded to include horror films by white directors but dominated by black actors in lead roles, Duane Jones is an important figure, playing Dr Hess Green in Ganja & Hess after his role as Ben in the seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968). The casting of Duane Jones, which George A. Romero always claimed was “colorblind,” changed entirely the impact of the legendary film, making it a flashpoint for discourse on race in America. It was advertised with posters showing the character of Ben punching the middle-aged white man contending for leadership over the small household of survivors of the zombie attacks, and it concluded with the devastating murder of Ben by a white mob led by cops that — supposedly — mistake him for a zombie.

Probably the best-known horror noire is the Candyman franchise, which began in 1992. Tony Todd plays the title role of Daniel Robitaille / Candyman, the son of a slave who is lynched after becoming a respected artist and falling in love with a white woman. Candyman terrorizes the impoverished denizens of the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, which is built over his unmarked grave. Cabrini-Green had become notorious, allowed to sink into crime-ridden disrepair and then used as evidence in arguments condemning public housing projects in America.

Blasted Heath

In Lovecraft Country, lead character Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods), a Korean War vet, returns to Chicago knowing his father, Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams), has gone missing in mysterious circumstances on his way to Arkham, Massachusetts, the terrifying “blasted heath” setting for H. P. Lovecraft’s masterpiece, “The Colour Out of Space,” and a place to be shunned by all. Nevertheless, Tic sets out to find him, accompanied by his uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Dandridge (Jurnee Smollett). The group has to drive through “Lovecraft Country” — a stand-in for 1950s Jim Crow America — populated by Lovecraft-inspired monsters and white racists who make sure almost no place in “the heartland” is safe for a black person.

It should be noted that the lead cast members are so talented, charismatic, and good-looking that they carry you through the weaknesses in the first episode.

Uncle George researches and writes “green books,” guides for black travelers who must find places to eat and places to stay overnight at a time when most restaurants and hotels refused to serve or house black citizens. His fieldwork takes the group to a diner called Libby’s, rumored to be a haven for black patrons. But the deserted diner has been renamed and is under new management, and the atmosphere is anything but welcoming. Letitia, walking uneasily to the restroom, overhears the waiter on the phone saying, “Of course I didn’t serve them, not after what you did to Libby—!”

Leti, Tic, and George barely make it out of the restaurant or the town after a harrowing pursuit by a truckload of gun-toting yahoos. And this scene is calming compared to the later chase out of a “sundown town,” a town where black people were forbidden by law to be found after sunset. Tailed by a sadistic cop with every intention of arresting them for something, after which any violence is possible, the group has to stay under the speed limit, driving slowly to the county line with only minutes to spare until the sun sets.

The source material for the show, a 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, evokes the American weird fiction author H. P. Lovecraft, a fervent white-supremacist New Englander, known for both his virulent racism and his brilliantly imagined worlds of horror. Lovecraft expressed his racism directly in many of his stories. In one of his most famous tales, “The Call of Cthulhu,” an investigator seeks the source of a “grotesque, repulsive, and apparently very ancient statuette” of “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline . . . with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long narrow wings behind . . . squatting evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.” He locates a mixed-race cult that conducts ceremonies of worship to the statue in the swampland near New Orleans: “Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the center of which, incongruous in its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette.”

Police break up the orgiastic ceremony, beating and killing many of the “mongrel celebrants.” The survivors questioned later at the police station are described as follows:

The prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mix-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Mostly seamen, and a sprinkling of Negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a coloring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that something far deeper and older than Negro fetishism was involved . . .

With Lovecraft, something far deeper and older than humankind is always involved. After watching only the premiere episode of Lovecraft Country, it’s not clear how much interest the show has in Lovecraft’s ancient entities that far predate humanity and are always “called” to reappear in the present day in Lovecraft fiction. But there’s a major interest in taking Lovecraft’s tendency to describe people of color in terms scarcely less monstrous than the Eldritch Abominations themselves and upending it, so that the monstrous human creatures are now white racist predators.

What It Gets Wrong?

This “cartoonish” representation of monstrous white characters has been a source of complaint about Lovecraft Country — one of the few complaints about a generally highly praised series.

In an Atlantic article entitled “What Lovecraft Country Gets Wrong About Racial Horror,” Hannah Giorgis argues:

[T]he show spends so much time focusing on its white characters’ near-comic monstrousness that it undercuts the development of its Black leads. It’s clear that the series thinks racism is evil, more so than even Lovecraft’s shoggoths . . . But halfway through the series, I’m still left wondering who Atticus, George, and especially Letitia (a classic “Strong Female Character” archetype) really are. What animates Lovecraft Country’s Black characters when they’re not fighting racists, whether man or beast? . . . As is, the show inadvertently simplifies the realities of white supremacy with its monster allegory, while treating the Black cast less as characters in their own right and more as vehicles for a sweeping critique of American racism.

It’s probably my love of genre film conventions that makes me indifferent to investing violent white racist characters with more complex humanity. If a sheriff is threatening to hang three black people for being inside his county after sundown, who cares if in other circumstances he’s — let’s say — a man of quiet charm, a devoted father, and a guitar player of unusual skill? I’m also not seeing the lack of character development in the three leads that Giorgis complains of. In fact, I’ve been thrilled by the show’s insistence on their restraint, their intensely guarded private thoughts, and their secrecy, which seems to me highly expressive of the lives they’ve led under the siege of white supremacy.

There’s a wonderful interlude early in the first episode when the bus Tic is riding on breaks down. He and the other black passenger he talked to in the back of the bus, a thin, middle-aged woman, merely sit and wait when a truck is brought in to drive the passengers into town to catch another bus. Tic, a bookworm, returns to reading his science fiction, which features all the heroics that are possible in fiction but unlikely for him up to that point, though he’s always had to endure extraordinary levels of danger in regular life. It seems clear that neither black passenger expects to be allowed to ride in such close quarters with the white passengers who are being helped onto the truck, and that they will have to walk all the way to town toting their luggage, which is what subsequently happens. The tension of the scene, when Tic looks up and meets the gaze of the staring driver, is whether there will be more overt viciousness — whether Tic and the middle-aged woman will be verbally assailed merely for being black and looking at the truck that might have conveyed them into town as well.

Because, in general, insult is added to the everyday injuries of life under Jim Crow. Just gassing up the car leads to harassment for Tic, George, and Letitia, as a white teenager loudly reviles them by hooting and scratching in imitation of a monkey. And as they drive away, they pass a billboard featuring the Aunt Jemima pancake mix, with its well-known stereotypical mammy image, a legacy of slavery. (Quaker Oats Company, which owns the Aunt Jemima brand, only announced that they would retire the name and image in an effort “to make progress toward racial equality” on June 17, 2020.)

Lovecraft Country isn’t subtle about these effects, and, in fact, they’re overly emphasized, making them seem less ubiquitous in the society under examination by presenting them in showy close-ups and offering sometimes strained explanations for them in dialogue. So it’s strange and disheartening to read articles such as a recent Insider piece suggesting such emphasis is needed so as to explain bygone racist artifacts to contemporary audiences. The presumption is that people wouldn’t have noticed the lingering shot of the Aunt Jemima billboard or understood its significance otherwise, and the same goes for “green books” and “sundown towns.” The heroic appearance in the first episode of baseball player Jackie Robinson — the legendary Number 42 — is also explained by Insider, as is a voice-over by James Baldwin, taken from a famous debate when he eviscerated arguments in defense of American equality and opportunity made by arch-conservative William F. Buckley, Jr.

But if Insider wanted to get really educational, they could point out a lot of other details about the show. For example, the copy of Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo discovered by Tic in his missing father’s apartment isn’t significant just because that novel is about “a man who’s wrongfully imprisoned and then escapes.” Dumas’s racial heritage is being referenced as well — his father, a general, was born in Haiti to a French nobleman and an enslaved black woman. And Letitia’s last name, Dandridge, refers to the gorgeous and ultra-talented Dandridge sisters, Vivian and Dorothy, who came to fame performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem — and, more specifically, to Dorothy Dandridge, the first black female star in American film, whose tragic downfall can be blamed on the stereotypically racist roles she was asked to play and the torment of her professional as well as personal involvements with abusive white men.

Do we even want to get into the antecedents of Tic’s first name, Atticus? The TV series is set before 1960 and, therefore, before the existence of the famous 1960 best seller To Kill a Mockingbird, with its leading character Atticus Finch, a white lawyer defending a wrongly accused black man from a charge of rape. Presumbly, Tic would’ve been named after the Roman poet Atticus, a name meaning “Athenian” or “from Attica.” The name presumably carries with it a suggestion of the more highly cultivated aesthetic and philosophical tendencies of the Greeks that were admired and co-opted to a large extent by the conquering Romans. Highly educated Greeks often served the Romans as slaves.

But, frankly, we know Tic’s name is meant to evoke Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch was once a revered character based on the author’s beloved lawyer father, Amasa Lee, played in the 1962 movie adaptation by Gregory Peck at his most Lincolnesque, but now he’s scorned as a liberal fantasy. The character of Atticus (as well as Lee’s father, Amasa) was revealed as a segregationist by Lee herself in her long-awaited second novel Go Set a Watchman (2015), shocking older generations of fans of the book.

It’s a convoluted tangle of connotations that seems richer and more promising than the Insider article suggests, and it could bode well for the rest of the series if it avoids its worst tendencies toward a horror narrative functioning as lessons in Jim Crow for Dummies.