By Matt Ruff, A campy series of Lovecraftian stories set in Jim Crow-era America
With Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff soon to become an HBO series (August 2020, see the trailer below!), I knew it was now or never for reading this book that has been sitting on my shelf for quite some time.
See the Full Plot Synopsis & Summary for Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (spoilers). For the spoiler-free version:
Lovecraft Country tells a series of interconnected science fiction stories set in 1950’s America. It opens with Atticus, a black man, driving into an area where Lovecraftian monsters are rumored to have been spotted, in search of his missing father.
The novel teems with supernatural dangers and other-worldly creatures, but it’s set among a group of characters that also have to contend with the very realistic dangers and difficulties of being black in Jim Crow America. It’s a collection of short stories (though there is a main plot line that connects them all), that delves into a wide range of science fiction and a bit of fantasy, ranging from Lovecraftian monsters to space travel and ghostly spirits.
Very briefly, the stories (no spoilers) are as follows:
Lovecraft Country is about a visit to a manor where dangers (of all kinds) await.
The Dreams of the Which House is about trying to turn a (possibly haunted) mansion into a multi-unit apartment building.
Abdullah’s Book is about a task to track down an ancient tome.
Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe is about the discovery of a portal to another planet.
Jekyll in Hyde Park is about a black woman who wakes up white.
The Narrow House involves an encounter with ghosts.
Horace and the Devil Doll is about a sentient, murderous doll.
And finally, The Mark of Cain involves a final encounter between the many characters in book.
For some campy sci-fi fun, see Lovecraft Country on Amazon.
Lovecraft Country is a fun, pulpy homage to science fiction and Lovecraftian horror rather than true science fiction. It zips around from setting to setting — Outer space? Haunted house? A search for an arcane artifact? Check, check and check — which is entertaining in and of itself. The main story line sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, but the individual stories are self-contained and colorful enough to stand on their own.
In terms of tone, it borrows stylistically from pulp noir, with its campy heroes-and-villains and over-the-top plot points. But it also blends in the realism of solid historical research to depict 1950’s America. It sounds like it would be an odd combination, but it works surprisingly well.
Of course, the issue of race plays a prominent role in Lovecraft Country. The first story indirectly addresses the “why” head on. Science fiction is a historically white genre. The heroes (and certainly the main protagonists) are almost uniformly white, and many of its authors were blatant racists. When the first story warns us that we’re entering into Lovecraft Country (who was very much a white supremacist), it’s about the science fiction, but it’s also a hint at the glaring racism that the characters are going to face. Authors like H.P. Lovecraft are why this book exists.
Lovecraft Country gives us a whole slew of black protagonists, and adds an element of realism in showing how race plays into their experiences, sometimes overshadowing the monsters lurking in the background.
The stories are largely good. Some parts are a bit meandering plot-wise, but overall I enjoyed the book.
Racism in Lovecraft Country
A common critique of the portrayal of racism in Lovecraft Country is that it’s overly simplistic. There are a lot of racists in Lovecraft Country, and they’re all terrible. Honestly, I don’t see the problem. I know people love this prestige-drama schtick where they paint bigots and other bad guys as these multi-faceted characters, but this is not their story.
From the perspective of people dealing with racism, most racists are just flat-out jerks. Also, this is a campy, genre-type novel with heroes and villains, so it’s just not that type of narrative.
I think the main takeaway should be that it’s abhorrent that so much of the stuff portrayed in the book (housing discrimination, police violence, presumption of guilt for black people, etc.) still goes on today. If you’re more upset instead that the racists depicted in this book aren’t sufficiently muti-faceted, then you should skip this book.
HBO Series Adaptation of Lovecraft Country
There’s an HBO adaptation of Lovecraft Country, created an directed by Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out), airing in August 2020 on HBO. This book was on my radar before, but with the show coming out, I wanted to read it first.
The trailer is out now and from the looks of it, it really brings the scenes to life beautifully so I am really excited for it.
Read it or Skip it?
Lovecraft Country is a creative spin on science fiction tales and Lovecraftian horror, though it does read more like an homage than true science fiction. It’s a collection of campy, varied, colorful tales that span a whole range of sci-fi with a touch of fantasy, which makes for a fun ride. There are clear heroes and villains, plenty of other-worldly monsters, diabolical plots, hidden passageways and arcane tomes. Plus there’s some space travel thrown in for good measure!
I think this is probably more appropriate for science fiction fans, though I am not a huge sci-fi reader, and I still liked it. It’ll help, too, if you like short story collections in general. Even though there is a main plot line that connects all these stories, a lot of them read like one-off stories. And it doesn’t really have that epic scope or intricate world-building that a lot of sci-fi fans tend to want.
If you’re on the fence, consider watching the trailer for the show to see if it might be for you! I recognize a lot of the scenes from the book, so I’m guessing the adaptation sticks somewhat closely to the source material.
What do you think? Is this something you’d be interested in? See Lovecraft Country on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Quick SummaryChapter One: Lovecraft Country Atticus Turner, a black man, gets a letter from his father, Montrose, asking him to go to Ardham Massachusetts. Atticus travels there with his Uncle George (and his childhood friend Letitia stows away with them, too). There are rumors of Lovecraftian monsters in that area, but they mostly just encounter racist cops. At the mansion, Atticus learns that he is the most direct descendant of Titus Braithwhite, a wealthy white man who died in 1795. The house now belongs to Samuel Braithwhite (a more distant descendant). Titus had once led a coven of men, a strange religious order, that is now being led by Samuel. The members kidnapped Atticus's father to lure Atticus there. They need Atticus's blood to perform a ritual. However, Samuel's son, Caleb Braithwhite, gives Atticus an incantation to kill off the entire order. Atticus is able to leave safely, along with his father, George and Letitia. Chapter Two: The Dreams of the Which House Letitia and her sister Ruby are given money from an anonymous man who claims to be paying off a debt owed to their late father, Warren. They purchase The Winthrop House, a house located in a white neighborhood that is rumored to be haunted. The seller wishes to remain anonymous. Letitia encounters a phantom in the house, but is undeterred and even friendly towards it. Those in the neighborhood are angry about a black woman owning property there and try to vandalize her house, but the phantom fights them off. Later, Atticus finds a photo of Hiram Winthrop (original owner of the house) with Samuel Braithwhite. Atticus suspects Caleb Braithwhite is involved in all this somehow. He tells the realtor, John Archibald, to send Caleb a warning to leave Letitia alone. Chapter Three: Abdullah's Book George and Montrose find out a book that has been passed down for generations (the Book of Days from their great-grandmother Adah) is missing. The book is a record of what Adah should have been paid for her slave labor, plus interest. They learn that Caleb has stolen it. To recover it, Caleb wants them to steal a different book for him, a (possibly magical) tome called The Book of Names. Caleb's father had tried to get it from Hiram Winthrop unsuccessfully. Now, he believes it is hidden in the Museum of Natural History. George and Montrose engineer a plan (with the help of the Freemason lodge they are a part of) to find the book and give Caleb a fake. They find The Book of Names, but Caleb foils their plan. Reluctantly, they hand over the real book. Caleb returns Adah's Book of Days and gives them the balance of Adah's unpaid labor, plus interest, totaling around $300,000. Chapter Four: Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe At the Winthrop House, Hippolyta, discovers a key to Hiram's observatory, which is also a machine that is able to generate a portal to another planet. On that planet, in a gated area, Hippolyta meets Ida, a former employee of Hiram Wintrop. There are monsters that roam outside the perimeter. Ida and a bunch of other employees were brought here after a maid, Pearl, ran off with Hiram's son. Hiram wanted to scare them into telling him where they went. Hiram intended to leave them for a few days, but in the interim, Hiram's business partner Samuel Braithwhite must have killed Hiram. (The others are dead from various causes.) After a Scylla consumes two watchmen that followed Hippolyta here, Ida tells Hippolyta to leave. Ida believes Hiram's spirit lured Hippolyta here to bring Ida back to earth, so he can continue to hunt down Pearl. Ida gives Hippolyta a box that contains a creature intended to kill Hippolyta. But as Hippolya heads back to her car, it ends up attacking some white men that are hassling Hippolyta instead. Back at home, Hippolyta notices a comic book her son Horace drew about a female space traveler is missing from her car. Chapter Five: Jekyll in Hyde Park Ruby wakes up as a white woman after Caleb offers her an elixir, which temporarily transforms her into a beautiful white redhead. He then offers her a job working for him as he works to unify all the lodges of the Order of the Ancient Dawn. (Ruby has recently been fired from a job after being accused unfairly of stealing.) In exchange, he will give her the deed to a townhouse and a supply of elixirs, giving her the power essentially to choose her race. Ruby performs some tasks for Caleb, including hiding a magical charm in the office of Captain John Lancaster. (Lancaster leads the Chicago lodge of the Order and hopes to be the leader of all the ledges, but Caleb wants it for himself.) However, she goes into the basement of the townhouse one day to discover the body of the red-headed woman, Delilah, whose blood is being used to power the elixir. Caleb claims Delilah would have died anyway, and the story ends with him telling Ruby that she needs to decide who she wants to be. Chapter Six: The Narrow House Caleb asks Atticus and Montrose to find Henry Winthrop, the son of Hiram Winthrop. Henry took some of his father's books when he ran away, and Caleb wants to acquire them. He's especially interested in Hiram Winthrop's old notebooks. Atticus and Montrose go to Aken, Illinois, where Henry is rumored to be going by the name "Henry Narrow". However, they find out that the Narrow family died at the hands of a racist mob that was angry about having a interracial family in their neighborhood. When they go to the Narrow house, Montrose finds himself meeting the ghosts of the Narrow family. The ghosts exist in some strange limbo state where they relive the last day of their lives. Henry and Montrose chat, but afterwards a mob descends and murders the Narrow family. Montrose also sees the ghost of his deceased father. Afterwards, Atticus finds Montrose in the Narrow house, in the real world, clutching Hiram Winthrop's notebooks. Montrose tells Atticus that they are going to tell Caleb that they found nothing here. Chapter Seven: Horace and the Devil Doll Horace is approached by Detective Noble, Detective Burke and Captain Lancaster. A comic book (Orithyia Blue) Horace drew was found near Hiram's observatory. They demand that Horace ask Hippolyta about it and report back to them. When Horace won't cooperate, Lancaster performs a spell that causes inanimate objects to move and another to prevent Horace from telling others what happened. Horace notices that all sorts of cartoons and images of black people are staring at him or grinning. Horace's friends bring a strange African Pygmy Devil Doll to their clubhouse, and it eventually attacks Horace. However, Horace manages to use Scrabble tiles to spell out to Ruby what happened. Ruby tells Caleb. Caleb shows up, kills the doll and removes the curses. Caleb thinks Lancaster must have assumed Hippolya was at the observatory on Caleb's orders, and Lancaster tried to kill Horace in order to punish Hippolyta for working with Caleb. Caleb plans to kill Lancaster. Chapter Eight: The Mark of Cain Everyone (Montrose, Leticia, Hippolyta, et al.) gets together to discuss and share stories about their experiences with Caleb. Caleb has a plan to get rid of Lancaster, but they decide that they need to get rid of both of them. They decide to pretend to go along with Caleb's plan, but ask Winthrop's ghost for help. Caleb meets with Lancaster to work out their differences, but Caleb (along with everyone's help) lures Lancaster into a room where a monster swallows Lancaster and his croonies up. Then Atticus enacts his plan, where he uses magic (thanks to Wintrop) to alter Caleb's Mark of Cain. The altered mark prevents Caleb from entering into certain geographic areas and prevents him from doing magic. They toss Caleb into their truck, drop him off in Indiana and drive off. Epilogue Hippolyta asks Letitia to get the combination from Wintrop so she can go back and find Ida and tell her what happened to Pearl (despite Ida having tried to kill her with that monster). Meanwhile, Ruby (as Hillary) goes back to the employment agency, introducing herself as Hillary Hyde, looking for a new job. Finally, George, Montrose, Atticus and Horace put the rest of the money Caleb gave George into a safe. The book ends with Atticus and Montrose agreeing to take Horace along for their next trip around for the Guide. These were the quick chapter summaries. See here for the Detailed Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.
If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($1, $2, or $4) or joining the Patreon!See Lovecraft Country on Amazon.