I’ve been in a mood.
I quit social media in late July, during a period of dissatisfaction with the emptiness of conversation I’d been having on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Several months into this pandemic and its resultant social collapse, I found myself escaping into reading for fun for the first time in a long, long time. I was consoled originally by Sherlock Holmes stories — I reread them all in June and July, one per day — and then quickly found that the lurking fear of 2020 was not so easily ignored.
On this reread, I discovered that my new favorite Holmes stories were the cheapest, gaudiest, most lurid, horror-tinged ones. And there actually are a significant handful of these — the Sherlock Holmes Canon includes a story prominently featuring a severed ear! One with a gentleman storing his sister’s corpse in the family crypt! Another with a woman’s face which had been ripped off by a lion! Soon, I found my interests quickly turned into a brief obsession with Victorian penny dreadful literature (rewatching the Penny Dreadful television series, to boot). This morphed out of books and into games, and I pulled Arkham Horror: The Card Game off the shelf — a game I’d bought into significantly several years ago, but had never really played much of. I’ve played it a few times and really enjoy it, but I suspect that this and other Lovecraftian games beckon a longer, separate post down the road.
Anyway, my evolving summer reading as well as the devolving state of American democracy dovetailed nicely with the new TV series Lovecraft Country, which premiered on HBO a few weeks back. We watched the first few episodes, and I have since started falling down an ever-deeper series of figurative shoggoth-holes. I’d heard of this book a few years ago — the name of the novel by Matt Ruff was familiar, but I hadn’t read it (I have now read about 90% of it). I saw that Jordan Peele was associated with the series (as a producer), but otherwise didn’t know anything before watching. I anticipated a mixture of clever Lovecraftian criticism in the storyline, a lot of depiction of 1950s-era racism, and perhaps a few tentacles here and there.
First, if you haven’t seen the series, you probably should. Here’s the first episode in its entirety on YouTube:
I thought the premiere was very good! I have a ton of little quibbles with it, but overall its heart is in the right place, and it provides a Black-led cast and Black-centric framing of Lovecraftian horror that gave a novel and important spin to the old racist’s bleak world. It’s both a resounding middle finger to Lovecraft as well as a reclamation of his vision. The second episode was, to me, an enormous step down from the first episode (largely due to the directorial and acting choices more than the screenplay, which was largely faithful to the novel), but let’s focus on the positive for now.
That first episode opens up with the ostensible protagonist, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Turner in the novel), waking up from a dream that is like a 1950s sci-fi nerd’s dream: Jackie Robinson slicing a Cthulhu in half with his baseball bat, Dejah Thoris dropping down from a George Pal War of the Worlds-style flying saucer. All mixed up with memories that seem very much like his experiences in the Korean War. Very little of this was “Lovecraftian,” of course, but damn if it didn’t do a good job of setting up the weird joy of mid-century pulpy science fiction and horror, and bring in Lovecraft with the period in which Arkham House and Lovecraft’s devotees were starting to bring his work into the public consciousness.
The rest of the episode does a great and clever job of connecting the real horror of sundown towns/counties with the old horror trope of getting to safety before the sun falls. The end of the episode takes a number of liberties with the Lovecraftian inspiration for the series (and a few welcome ones with Ruff’s novel, reframing a story-within-the-story as part of the main narrative), but it showed a lot of promise for the core ideas of the series. As I mentioned above, I’m almost done with the novel, and it’s pretty scattershot, but has a few moments of brilliance (the Hippolyta-centric chapter, the Ruby-centric chapter) that I am very excited to see on the screen, even if some of the reviews seem to indicate that the premiere episode was the best of the ones provided for review.
I also enjoyed the Lovecraft Country Radio podcast — at least episode 1, I haven’t listened to episode 2 yet. Hosted by two women of color (Ashley Ford and Shannon Houston, the latter who is one of the writers for the series), they did a nice job of breaking down how the show is reinterpreting horror for this narrative world. Here’s the first episode:
But yeah, I like it even though the show’s not perfect (the opening musical choices of episode 2 made me cringe hard; some of the casting choices in episode 2 didn’t work for me; the end of episode 2 diverged from the book significantly, and in ways I think will be to the detriment of the series). That said, I am happy to see Lovecraft back in the world of pulpy media as well as with a new spin.
But, beyond this series, the resurgence in Lovecraftian horror has been noticed by a few. Meagan Navarro wrote a brief, but interesting little piece on Bloody Disgusting a few months back called “The Elder Gods Are Coming: The Resurgence of Lovecraftian Horror” that’s worth a look. From the films Underwater and the Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space to the third season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Navarro connects these to existential fears drawn from the uncertainty of, well, everything these days. From the never-ending pandemic to the evolving police state to the growing specter of climate change, there’s never been a better time for humans to feel powerless and insignificant in the face of a world out of their control.
And maybe that’s what’s going on, and perhaps that’s what’s motivating my slide from reading the “rational Victorian” at the beginning of the pandemic down to the depths of feeling like an ant in a cosmos built for Old Gods. Obviously, Lovecraft Country went into production well before the world fell into its current state, and has done a pretty good job of connecting this sense of dread and creeping terror with being Black in the 1950s (and beyond). But, I think I’ve found myself increasingly seeking out more stories that try their best to shatter any remaining simplistic views of the pre-2020 world.
That is to say, I’m a white reader of Lovecraft who has typically only viewed Lovecraft’s racism as a significant but not fatal speedbump in my appreciation of his nihilistic world. I say that without a lot of remorse, really, just as a way of acknowledging that my whiteness has, of course, given Howard Phillips Lovecraft a pass, when many could not do that. And so Lovecraft Country — both the novel and the series — have been flawed but intriguing things, pushing me to think more seriously about the impact of a nihilistic worldview created by an inveterate racist. Perhaps I should have before now, but I’m glad I am, finally.
I haven’t read any of his other books, but LaValle wrote the introduction to the second of Leslie Klinger’s (mostly excellent) second volume of The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, and, in it, made a compelling argument for how we should dig back into these stories and come to terms with their racist underpinnings. His love of cosmic horror comes through clearly in this introduction, as well as in interviews he’s given about this novel.
I’m looking forward to diving into it further, while also looking forward to seeing how much more these works get reinterpreted, as they are largely in the public domain. I’ll
complain talk more about this in my subsequent gaming post, but I look forward to seeing more folks take a look at Lovecraft and try to make sense of it for our current era, while eschewing the nauseating world that has, to date, made Lovecraft a corny joke: One of plushie Cthulhus and cartoons.
There’s nothing charming about Lovecraft (the man or his work), and there’s very little to laugh about in 2020 in general. I’m diving deeper into the bleakness, and maybe if you read this, you might too?