“It would seem to me that the question before the house is a proposition horribly loaded, that one’s response to that question depends on where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions we hold so deeply as to be scarcely aware of them. The white South African or Mississippi sharecropper or Alabama sheriff has at bottom a system of reality which compels them really to believe when they face the Negro that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. For such a person, the proposition which we are trying to discuss here does not exist.”
These words, spoken by writer and activist James Baldwin in 1965, might not be what viewers would expect to hear in a typical sci-fi TV series. But showrunner Misha Green and producers JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country, which made its debut on HBO last night, is not a typical sci-fi TV series. The speech, taken from a debate between Baldwin and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., plays over a series of vignettes from a road trip across 1950s America, something typically associated with little more than inoffensive nostalgia for a large segment of the American population. But these scenes, sprinkled with images of segregation and racism, carry with them a chilling tension that continues throughout the entire episode. The lonesome highways and sprawling cornfields of the rural Midwest, so often depicted as harmless and wholesome, are revealed to be a landscape as treacherous and terrifying as any from horror literature. Reality, as Baldwin proposes, is indeed a matter of perspective. And so too, argues Lovecraft Country, is surreality.
The basic premise of the series is this: Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a recently discharged Korean War vet and a devoted pulp fiction fanatic, sets out on a cross-country road trip from Illinois to “Lovecraft Country” in Massachusetts, hoping to reunite with his missing father. Joining him are his childhood friend, Leticia “Leti” Dandridge (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), author of a travel guidebook entitled The Safe Negro Travel Guide (based, no doubt, on the real-life Negro Motorist’s Green Book, a publication of resources for Black drivers traveling through the hostile and dangerous territory of rural America). From George’s profession alone, it is clear that the eldritch realms our heroes will be venturing through won’t look like anything out of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. The dangers they face will be hidden not in undersea crypts or lost cities, but in roadside diners, segregated rest stops, and rural highways patrolled by racist cops. Even the title of the pilot episode–”Sundown”–underscores this dynamic, evoking both the thematic dangers of night and darkness in horror storytelling, and the real-life dangers of “Sundown towns,” communities in which white locals habitually lynch any Black visitors that stay in town after nightfall.
It might be interesting to see a version of Lovecraft Country where the only monsters were the ones with recognizably human faces. But also, there are monsters. Like, actual monsters. Like, bloodthirsty, flesh-eating monsters with giant teeth and hundreds of eyes.
The appearance of actual Lovecraftian monsters (shoggoths, to be specific) is one of several mysteries that the pilot episode introduces without fully resolving–are these creatures part of the native fauna of Lovecraft Country? Did they emerge from one of Lovecraft’s short stories, Ruby Sparks-style? Do they have something to do with the eerie blonde woman with glinting Replicant eyes our heroes encountered just up the road? Is Central Mass just Like That™? (Kind of). The introduction of a blatantly supernatural element to the plot does break some of the more palpably realistic tension that’s been thrumming through the plot thus far, but the episode also makes it clear that the two forms of horror are interconnected. When the shoggoths attack a gang of police officers threatening to lynch the three heroes, despite their own lives being in imminent danger, the cops still view Tic, Leti, and George as more of a threat than the man-eating monsters literally tearing them limb from limb. Again, the show pulls from Baldwin’s observation about how stark the divide between Black and white realities can be–only this time, there are also protoplasmic shapeshifters showing up to kill everyone in sight.
It would, of course, be impossible to discuss Lovecraft Country without addressing the, shall we say, Chaugnar Faugn in the room. H.P. Lovecraft, the author who created the eponymous “Lovecraft Country” in which the show takes place, was an avowed white supremacist, to a degree where even his WASP-y colleagues in 1920s New England told him to tone it down a little. He wrote stomach-turning screeds against all manner of racial and ethnic minorities, with a special hatred for Black people, and much of this racism is present in even his most beloved works. The question of whether one can separate an artist from their art is an ongoing debate, especially in the speculative fiction community (which seems to attract a rather cringe-inducing array of bigots and backwards-thinkers–welcome to the pantheon, JK Rowling!) But rather than trying to resolve this controversy, Lovecraft Country approaches it from another angle: what if, rather than separating the artist’s faults from their art, we made those faults core to our own reinterpretation of the art? What if, by using the words and imagery of a famously bigoted writer, we could create a story that tears his own worldview to pieces? It’s a fascinating proposition, and one that I hope Lovecraft Country explores more in future episodes.
All in all, “Sundown” was a strong and compelling pilot, and Lovecraft Country is a series packed with potential. Though it left the audience with more questions than answers, the questions are tantalizing ones, and the answers promise to be unexpected and illuminating. Much like the film Get Out, with which Lovecraft Country is sure to draw many comparisons, the real merit of the show lies in a sort of narrative alchemy, where the visceral melodrama of horror cinema is built from the painfully quotidian experiences of the marginalized and oppressed. To call it an “allegory” is underselling it–it’s a transformation. And though the inky tentacles of Lovecraft’s legacy are wrapped around all aspects of his storytelling, Green has proven herself unafraid to wrest them from his grip and build them into something completely new.
Lovecraft Country airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO