By Matt Ruff
Published by Picador, 2016, paperback RRP £8.99 / hardback RRP £16.99
(£12 at Bookbuster)
REVIEW BY TIM BARTON
I recently saw the first episodes of the new TV adaptation of the novel Lovecraft Country. On the credits it said ‘from the book by Matt Ruff’. Now, I had totally missed this book when it was published in 2016, but knew Matt’s previous books. His first had been a campus novel, Fool on the Hill, and he’d written since then a crime thriller (Bad Monkeys) and an alternative world circa 9/11 in Mirage, and a couple of others. But the one that I loved most was his second, Sewer, Gas and Electric. In that 1997 novel he takes a Robert Anton Wilson gonzo approach and gives us a surreal sci-fi NYC, complete with a killer Great White in the sewers, ‘Meisterbrau’, the ghost of Ayn Rand living in a hurricane lamp, and eco-terrorists.
When I was in my teens I discovered H P Lovecraft’s stories, so, liking Matt’s work too, I jumped straight in with Lovecraft Country. With the rising BLM movement pushed to new heights by George Lloyd’s channelling of James Baldwin with his dying words (but, why now, why not with Eric Garner in 2017? perhaps Trumpian AmeriKKKa was not taken as seriously in his election year as three years on…), the timing for the TV adaptation could not be better.
Lovecraft was a notorious racist, as evidenced in his letters (which I never read). The protagonists in Matt’s novel are black African-Americans, descendants of slaves, and caught right in the heart of white supremacist 1950s USA (for those who care, Matt is a white dude from Queens). His inspiration came not only from Lovecraft, but from wide reading about the trials and tribulations of black people in America, especially his discovery of Sundown Towns – white-only towns and counties where black travellers must not be found within their borders after sunset, or they would face jail, intimidation and violence.
Bringing his protagonists into ‘Devon County’ and introducing them to Eldritch Lovecraftian horrors may seem like over-egging the cake, and in the TV version this becomes much more explicit much sooner than in the novel, with killer ‘shuggoths’ attacking a cabin in the woods, it is in fact very effective. The Klan-like secret organisation, seeking a ‘not the Necronomicon’ book of power works well against the everyday possibility of racist abuse and violence hovering over every moment of the protagonists’ lives.
In keeping with Lovecraft’s preference for the short-story form, the book’s chapters are pretty much stand-alone tales, with shared characters and a story arc, thus making it perfect for a TV series adaptation. When Matt published the novel, Marvel’s Black Panther was still two years in the future. Roles for black actors, outside Spike Lee’s studio, were limited – the usual stereotype of ‘the black guy dies first’ still all too often applied, and a positive role was usually filled by Denzel Washington or Will Smith, a gritty one by Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, or Samuel L Jackson. Coming up in the rear were Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor. If a black woman was in a starring role, it would usually be Angela Bassett or Halle Berry.
The rise of these stars of course helped pave the way for new actors, but it was the sadly recently deceased Chadwick Boseman’s role in Black Panther, alongside a cast of mainly black actors (including Angela Bassett) who proved a major movie franchise could make big bucks with a mainly black cast and lead – Hollywood, previous to 12 Years A Slave and Black Panther seemed to believe no major blockbuster could emerge from such a gamble. This narrative is popular (see, for example, Steve Rose’s Gone, the King article for The Guardian), and I must acknowledge it is, of course, a bit simplistic, but there is something to it. The recent Watchmen series, as well as Lovecraft Country, likely owe a debt to Black Panther. What’s missing in the worship of that film is a critique of the inherent safety and conservatism represented by Prince T’Challa – ironically, a more pertinent perspective is the one in Mario Van Peebles’ Panther, where Peebles plays Stokely Carmichael (still very overdue a decent DVD release, I wonder why?) – a perspective defeated, in Killmonger’s death at the hands of T’Challa.
His inspiration came not only from Lovecraft, but from wide reading about the trials and tribulations of black people in America
Black Panther shows black America as impoverished, but does not dig into the history, or the current crises, of African-American experience. Lovecraft Country does. The book has a lot of tales related by or to the main protagonists from their family histories – much of this is tailored to a TV narrative by placing the protagonists themselves into these stories. The book’s approach is deeper, but the series is making the right choices for the medium, so far the parallels are strong, the changes sensible and effective. Matt has been an advisor on the screenwriting, which no doubt helps. In the book, a family wide fascination with SF novels, SF comics and astronomy is a central thread, and unlike with the Watchmen movie is kept as prominently in the show.
The darkness of the Lovecraft universe is missing from the book, certainly in the early chapters: Matt’s style is much lighter and eschews Lovecraft’s gothic vocabulary. But the darkness of American racism is starkly portrayed. The book predates the current political storms, the TV show was commissioned and produced earlier too – it’s release slap dab in the middle of rising police racism (or, at least, a much wider conscious awareness of this ongoing criminal oppression), riots, and supremacist brutality is serendipitous, perfect. I hope it gets the audience it deserves, and think it may be doing just that, as the books are selling well at Bookbuster!
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