Lovecraft Country Review: Horrors of This World and the Other
*This review is based on the first five episodes of Lovecraft Country.*
There’s a solid chance that H.P Lovecraft may not love the latest HBO adaptation of his work, being the problematic racist that he was. However, he is probably one of the few that doesn’t adore this genre mixing, boundary tacking show. The word ‘Lovecraftian’ brings strong images and traverses horror, science fiction, pulp, gaming, films, TV and literature. It is well known, well loved and has heavily influenced many creatives who have come since the author. One such person influenced was Matt Ruff who wrote the novel Lovecraft Country, a retro set tale with poignant modern messages that re-imagines Lovecraft’s work in a Black context.
Lovecraft Country follows Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Korean war veteran who travels from deeply segregated Florida to his hometown of South Chicago after receiving a cryptic message from his missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams). He meets with an old friend, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), a fiery political activist and photographer, and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), a pulp fiction lover and writer of a ‘Green Book’ style guide to Black America. Together they set off to search for his father, travelling America during the Jim Crow era. On their way they face literal monsters and even scarier racial monsters. The journey leads them to Ardham, Massachusetts, a place referred to as Lovecraft Country because of its association with the author. This is when the true horror begins.
From the opening dream sequence I was hooked. Tic falls asleep on the bus to Chicago and we are treated to a science fiction feast created by a ‘book nerd brain’. Watching a war montage turn into a scene of flying saucers and slime-covered aliens is fascinating enough, add in first black major baseball star Jackie Robinson home-running his way through the lot and it becomes spectacular. There’s no tease, Lovecraft Country knows you came here for some ‘Lovecraftian’ horror and it delivers instantly, with a dripping cherry on top.
The visuals throughout the episodes are beautiful, combining a vintage aesthetic, terrifying creature effects and thrilling set pieces that tick every box for horror, sci-fi and pulp lovers. The genre melding works perfectly with the episodic structure, allowing different flavours to come to the forefront throughout the show’s run. There are some particular moments in the third episode that involve such hauntingly disturbing imagery it was impossible to look away.
“This show will make your skin crawl for multiple reasons. Loaded with everything from the ‘mammy’ imagery of Aunt Jemima, to a conversation about John Carter being a Confederate soldier, this show doesn’t shy away from the murky opinions of Lovecraft.”
As with the book there’s a feeling of anthology to these stories, with different narrative elements taking over the action in different episodes. The episodic nature allows for all kinds of creatures and themes to be explored whilst always linking back to the overall season arc. Within the first five episodes we are treated to a cabin in the woods monster rally, a cult excursion, a haunted house story, a National Treasure style heist and a gory body swapping horror. Each episode may have a different horror theme but every last one has dealt with race, class, sexuality and privilege throughout.
This show will make your skin crawl for multiple reasons. Loaded with everything from the ‘mammy’ imagery of Aunt Jemima, to a conversation about John Carter being a Confederate soldier, this show doesn’t shy away from the murky opinions of Lovecraft. There are clearly racist sentiments in his work, and to take this and spin it to give us these beautiful stories helmed by a strong black cast is a truly brilliant move. HBO is doing great work in creating innovative and stunningly entertaining pieces of television that are also exposing the history of racism in America and putting forward the social contexts of today. I feel I am learning about parts of American history I haven’t been aware of before, with one major example being the first episode informing me what a ‘Sundown County’ is and the true terror of that concept. The result is the tensest, and yet slowest, car chase I’ve ever witnessed. I was both educated and horrified.
The soundtrack for the show is timeless, fitting the mood and cementing the overarching racial and social messages. By the time the first episode wraps, we’ve been treated to audio taken directly from James Baldwin’s famed debate on race with William F. Buckley and a cover of Nina Simone’s version of the traditional spiritual song, “Sinnerman.”. The music is built into the series, from Letti and her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosako) covering “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On” and the theme song to “The Jeffersons” playing in the first moments of episode two. They have even included Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon”, a spoken word piece about the racist and economic turbulence during the space race. Even Marilyn Manson makes an appearance on the soundtrack. The music supervisor, Liza Ricahrdson, has pulled some tricks out of the bag and created an eclectic and incredible audio accompaniment for the show.
Lovecraft Country boasts a talented cast with a mixture of veterans like; Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Courtney B. Vance, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire’s Michael K. Williams and The Book of Negroes and Quantico’s Aunjanue Ellis. Then there’s the new talent. Jonathan Majors, star of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods, manages to make Aticus both soft and warm as a character but believable as a hero. Wumni Mosaku is spellbinding as Ruby, especially in the latest episode that allows her to explore her character’s psyche and inner rage. It’s a performance that has me wanting a lot more Ruby as the series progresses. But, the main stand out has to be the ass kicking, final girl-esque Leti, played wonderfully by Jurnee Smollett. Hot off the heels of her badass performance as Black Canary in Birds of Prey, Smollett stands above the crowd in this series. A strong Black female lead, Smollett manages to be vulnerable in certain scenes, definitely giving her Scream Queen credentials, whilst also being undeniably strong and controlled in other scenes. Watching Leti take a baseball bat to the racist protest cars parked outside of her house is ever satisfying and empowering, she is clearly a versatile powerhouse of a performer.
It’s not just the cast that hits it out of the park. Monkeypaw Productions, helmed by the incredible Jordan Peele, and Bad Robot Productions, led by J.J Abrams, combine forces to create something intensely visual and openly social. It’s clear to see where the connective tissues of horror, science-fiction and social commentary come from with these names. The list of directors attached is already intense including: Yann Demange, Daniel Sackheim, Victoria Mahoney, Cheryl Dunye and Helen Shraver. Helmed by Misha Green there is talent in every strand of this show.
I cannot wait for each week’s new episode to dive in and explore the world of the “Elder Gods” and the “Great Old Ones.”. The horror of the show is visceral and it doesn’t shy away from the gore. Yet, it never abandons it’s characters just to give us a creepy moment. The real trick is the fact I care about these characters, even after just one single episode I wanted to see more of them. Vignettes of their life make me feel for them, making the horrors to come even more devastating. The personal blows are heartbreaking and the moments of human cruelty are scathing. It has true heart and deals with drama beyond the supernatural. Posing the question, which is scarier, the creatures and demons of Lovecraft’s world or the actual historical people of the real world?
Episode 6 was released this morning and it is available to UK audiences through Sky Atlantic. It is definitely worth the catch up binge if you haven’t already let this horror into your heart.