Weird Fiction Review #2: Lovecraft Country

NOTE: This is the second of ten reviews of contemporary weird novels. An overview of the project can be found here. The previous post introduces many of the ideas discussed below.

Lovecraft Country,Matt Ruff’s sixth novel, was published by HarperCollins and nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Jordan Peele, Misha Green, and J. J. Abrams are currently adapting it for an HBO TV series. Like Peele’s film Get Out (2017), this novel explores the relation between American racism and supernatural horror. Like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, analyzed in the previous post, it “replies” to Lovecraft’s racist fantasies by contrasting the horror of black magic with the violence faced by Black Americans in an earlier period of the nation’s history. Whereas LaValle’s novel is set in 1920s New York and uses the“Lovecraft mythos,” Ruff’s much longer novel (372 pages) is set in Chicago and Massachusetts (not to mention another planet) during the mid-1950s. The central protagonist is Atticus Turner, but its episodic narrative also follows the adventures of his father Montrose, uncle George, aunt Hippolyta, cousin Horace, and others. Each episode attempts to re-situate a popular weird trope in the context of Black life on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. There are haunted houses, an interplanetary portal, a Jekyll and Hyde episode, and an animate doll. A loose plot, in which the black family must contend with a country-club-like sect of white magicians, links the episodes.

In the broadest terms, such as those used by S. T. Joshi in Supernatural Horror, Lovecraft Country counts as Weird Fiction: it features numerous encounters with supernatural creatures and magical forces; but it’s difficult to imagine either Lovecraft or Todorov appreciating it, because it lacks the genre’s primal atmosphere of hesitation. Much like Mat Johnson’s Pym, Ruff’s novel promises a critique of weird racism but (after a few chapters) fails to deliver either the sensation of weirdness or much of a critique. Ruff’s other novels are categorized as Speculative Fiction; based on this novel, he appears more interested in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy aspects of speculation than in Weird Fiction proper. In what follows, I salvage those aspects of the novel worth attention, while using it to explain why contemporary attempts as weird fiction often fail.

The most interesting feature of Lovecraft Country is its sustained meditation on racism and pulp fiction. A sequence of scenes related in the opening pages outlines the problem of “reading while black” as Ruff sees it. The novel begins in 1954, with Atticus Turner, a veteran of the Korean war, driving home to Chicago from Jacksonville, Florida, where he was discharged from the Army. His attitude toward the white racist power structure is made eminently clear: “Around one p.m. he reached the Ohio River, which marked the border between Kentucky and Indiana. As he crossed the water on a bridge named for a dead slave owner, Atticus cocked his arm out the window and bade Jim Crow farewell with a raised middle finger.” (2) But if he thinks he’s left white power behind, he’s soon set straight. When a tire blows (“A Southern tire, Atticus thought: Jim Crow’s revenge.” (2)), he can’t get service at a white-owned mechanics. Fortunately, he’s carrying The Safe Negro Travel Guide: this novel’s rather baldly named version of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, a guide for negotiating segregation while on the road published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936-66. In the novel, Atticus’s uncle George and aunt Hippolyta are the publishers of this guide. With it’s help, Atticus locates “a Negro-owned garage in Indianapolis, some fifty miles away.” (3) Despite the distance, the mechanic, whose name is Earl, drives out to fix the tire—and then offers Atticus dinner and a bed for the night. Over dinner, Atticus and the mechanic discuss their favorite science-fiction authors: “they talked about Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, . . and L. Ron Hubbard, . . . and the Tom Swift series, which Earl had loved when he was young but which embarrassed him now, both for the books’ depiction of Negroes and for the fact that as a boy he hadn’t noticed it. . .” (5) The next morning, on the road again, Atticus is pulled over by an Illinois state trooper, who becomes suspicious upon observing various paperbacks in Atticus’s car. “Anything in the trunk?” the trooper asks. “My Army uniform. Some books,” Atticus replies. The scene unfolds:

“What kind of books?”

“Science fiction, mostly.”

Science fiction?And this is your car?”  […]

“What’s this?” The trooper picked up a gift-wrapped object that had been at the bottom of the box.

“Another book,” Atticus said. “It’s a present for my uncle.”

The trooper tore off the wrapping paper, revealing a hardbound volume. “A Princess of Mars.”He looked sideways at Atticus. “Your uncle likes princesses, does he?” (6-7)

This is the bind that Atticus and other characters face, and that the novel asks us to face as well. In scenes like this one, it raises the question J. M. Tyree asked (see the previous post): is American genre fiction inherently racist? Most if not all the writers referenced in these passages were social conservatives who deployed racial stereotypes in a casual way; the black characters must contend with the knowledge of this, but it’s lost on the white patrolman, who doesn’t realize the deeper irony implicit in what today we’d call his “microaggressions.” The Safe Negro Travel Guide (which the trooper confiscates) signifies the novel’s alternative to genre fiction: antiracist nonfiction. The dynamic Ruff develops between fiction and reality, reading and driving, black and white authorship and reading habits, authority and resistance, is compelling. I wish I could report that the novel continued to complicate this theme, but the structures of feeling introduced in these early scenes don’t change much in the pages that follow. One reason for the lack of dynamism can be glimpsed in the above scenes—except for its central antagonist, the novel is unrelenting in its depiction of black characters as generous, reasonable, upright, and kind, and its white characters (primarily policemen) as suspicious, irrational, devious,and cruel. It reverses the hierarchy of racial representation deployed by Edgar Rice Burroughs or L. Ron Hubbard, but it retains the simplified characterizations found in racist stereotyping and much genre fiction.

When Atticus makes it to Chicago, we meet his uncle, proprietor of “the Safe Negro Travel Company,” (9) and his twelve-year-old cousin Horace (who we later learn is the author of the first comic books to feature a black woman superhero, discussed below). Although uncle George publishes nonfiction, “his deepest passion and most of his shelf space” is reserved for “science fiction, fantasy, mysteries and detective stories, horror and weird tales.” We learn that “Atticus’s shared devotion to these mostly white-authored genres had been a source of ongoing struggle with his father.” (12) The story flashes back to years earlier, when Montrose catches his son reading “At the Mountains of Madness” and schools him by finding in the public library a copy of Lovecraft’s poem, “On the Creation of Niggers.” (HPL’s racism is discussed in the previous post.) Atticus is shamed out of his youthful appreciation, but he still remembers the pleasure he took in these stories,which are regarded several times as like “old friends.” (15) His reminiscences are interrupted by the beginning of the plot, which arrives in the form of a letter from his father, who has recently left for Arkham, Massachusetts (“it’sin Lovecraft Country,” Atticus quips) in order to pursue an investigation into the family ancestry. Atticus’s deceased mother’s grandmother has left a mysterious “legacy” which Montrose hopes to uncover. We soon learn that the town is actually Ardham, Mass.—the “k” is a misprint—but that it’s in the middle of Devon county, a “sundown town” where the sheriff shoots at black motorists without hesitation. In case you didn’t get the point about fictional and actual racism, the sheriff is compared, unfavorably, to a shoggoth three times in as many pages. Soon, Atticus, George, and a convenient romantic lead named Letitia Dandridge (“Letitia, a year younger than Atticus, had for a while been the only girl member of the South Side Futurists Science-Fiction Club” (29)) are on their way to rescue Montrose from whatever trap has been laid for him in rural New England.

Weird fiction is most often related to horror fiction, but the best weird tales depend more upon suspense than horror. Terrifying monsters and/or gruesome tortures may await, but weirdness requires a sense of not knowing, of suspecting or fearing what will come, far more than it requires the horrible outcome. Many weird stories dwell in the uncertainty as to whether anything is happening at all: are there ghosts in this castle? Probably not, since ghosts don’t exist. But what if…? In this, weird fiction bears a closer resemblance to the murder mystery than it does to much speculative fiction. In Poe’s “tales of ratiocination” (think “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), the reader is aligned with Dupin in the desire to solve the mystery. This produces a generic suspense used throughout the mystery genre. In Poe’s weird stories (think “The Cask of Amontillado”), the crime has yet to be committed; the reader dreads and delights in the realization of the monstrous thing. We are compelled to explore the castle, if only to confirm that nothing’s there. Much more could be said about Poe’s structure of dread, but for present purposes it suffices to observe that uncovering a mysterious horror motivates a form of suspense that weird fiction shares with crime fiction. This can be sharply distinguished from the expectation and discovery enjoyed by readers of fantasy and sci-fi. In these genres, a new reality is presented to the imagination; the “real world,” who mechanics are threatened in mysteries (which affirm the known) and weird tales (which undermine the known), is partially abandoned in fantasy and sci-fi. The goal of readers (and usually protagonists) is to learn more about this alternative reality. Characters may of course be caught up in suspenseful plots and may discover hideous creatures, but because this is a voyage into the unknown, rather than an attempt to hold onto the known, our expectations are inflected differently from the start. The suspension of disbelief is much more optimistic; ultimately, whatever happens in Middle Earth or on Mars will be a wonder to behold, and it can’t touch us where we live.

The first third of Lovecraft Country is occasionally weird, thanks to its development of numerous intersecting threads of suspense. Focalized on Atticus, we increasingly encounter episodes of strangeness, which develop the primal hesitation. An unusual car seems to follow them and intervenes on their behalf, cutting off a truck full of racist firemen who are pursuing them. They learn about the history of their destination. “I never realized just how strange a place it is,” their informant explains, adding “Ardham’s more of a mystery.” (40, 41) It promises a mysterious landscape: “’This is the most detailed map I could find,’Marvin said. ‘Most don’t even hint at a road through the forest, but it exists.’” (41) Late at night, on this strange road, Atticus and George are captured by the town sheriff, who seems prepared to execute them on the spot,when strange sounds are heard in the woods: “Out in the darkness, a big something slid or was dragged along the ground. They heard the snap of another branch,and another, and the groan of an entire tree being shoved over.” (52) Realism faulters when the characters shrug off the unseen force that rescues them, but our sense of weirdness increases when they reach their destination, a manor house that seems lost to time, with a butler who’s not only expecting them, but ushers them in through the front door. “’Mr. Turner, I presume,” the man said. ‘Welcome to the Ardham lodge, sir.’” (59) All of these are examples of the conventional ways that weird tales build suspense, and they work well enough. The suspense produced by the apparent absence of racism at Ardham lodge is one of the novel’s more thoughtful attempts to develop weirdness from a Black perspective. The white folks in this castle are respecting us. There must be something wrong….

Atticus and company are shown to sumptuous rooms in the lodge, and the novel returns to its ruminations on fictions and realities by introducing a time-honored weird trope: the mysterious book. In his room, Atticus discovers a bookcase full of his favorite author:

The lowest shelf was Lovecraft Country: Algernon Blackwood, Robert Block, August Derleth, William Hope Hodgson, Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, and the man himself. Finger-walking over the book spines, Atticus stopped at a reader leather-bound volume that stuck out conspicuously from between The House on the Borderland and Beyond the Wall of Sleep.

The cover of the red book was embossed with the half-sun symbol and the words BY-LAWS AND PRECEPTS OF THE ADAMITE ORDER OF THE ANCIENT DAWN. (65)

The Adamites—a cult of feuding magicians, whose machinations embroil the Turner family for the remainder of the novel—combine science with necromancy in the “real” world of the novel, just as the Lovecraft circle attempted to combine cosmology with supernaturalism. Thus the “truly magical” text is embedded with fictional weird texts, symbolizing the porous nature between actual and fantastical worlds. But this passage is also a good example of why Ruff’s novel fails to generate the reading experience promised by this collection of names. For one thing, it’s rather silly to imagine these authors side by side in 1954. The scholarship and publication that would put them into such a neatly arranged library wasn’t begun in earnest until the 1960s. It’s a minor example of a larger problem: the novel’s tendency to eschew historical realism. The “pastness of the past” is seldom realized. (This has major implications for how racism is imagined, discussed below.) More importantly from an aesthetic perspective, no effort is made to present these mysterious by-laws as strange or unaccountable. Readers familiar with “the Lovecraft circle” will know how the genre treats such texts, which hint at obscene blasphemies and wonders beyond comprehension. They are obscure, frightening, full of potency. Turning them into a version of “Robert’s Rules of Order” is a kind of deflationary joke, aimed at the whiteness of these staid, traditional alchemists, but it comes at the expense of any underlying weirdness. Before long, the reader will be asked to accept magic as an ordinary part of this world.

It turns out that their hosts are the Brathwaite clan. The present-day Brathwaites are descended from Titus, a “slave trader from Boston”who, as Atticus puts it, “owned by mother’s great-great-great-grandmother.” (67) One of Atticus’s maternal grandmothers was raped by Titus or one of his sons, making Atticus the youngest descendant of their bloodline. Consequently, the “rules” of their magic rituals require his presence (as well as that of the youngest Brathwaite, a necromancer named Caleb) at an elaborate ceremony—hence the luring and kidnapping of his father. The ceremony opens a portal, but Caleb uses it to kill some Adamites with whom he’s feuding, so the ultimate secrets are preserved. Caleb thanks the Turners for their help and gives them a magical gift. As the butler explains, “in addition to repairing your car, Mr. Brathwaite made a small modification to it that he believes you’ll find agreeable. . . A dash of immunity. From now on, you should find you’re much less likely to run into trouble on the road. Law enforcement officials, in particular, will tend to treat you as though you’re invisible to them.” (104) In short, a Cloak of Invisibility for the Negro Motorist. Cool. But by now we have passed fully into a fantasy world—one in which magic is an ordinary part of daily life. We have passed from Lovecraft Country into Hogwarts.

Atticus and company return to Chicago and the novel’s only truly weird episode concludes. From this point on, supernatural forces are regarded with an underlying indifference. We are left with the more typical fantasy plot: a race to gather various artifacts that function as keys in the ultimate ritual. Rival factions of the Adamites use conventional and supernatural means to acquire them, with the Turners attempting to survive by assisting and foiling various schemes. The narrative develops a campy cheerfulness as it submits its characters to a smorgasbord of fantastic fiction’s clichés. In “Dreams of the Which House,” Letitia attempts to integrate a white neighborhood. She ends up with a haunted house, but the ghosts end up scaring away neighborhood segregationists! In “Abdullah’s Book,” George and Montrose attempt to steal a magic book from the Museum of Natural History; the relation between this Book of Names and the dread Necronomicon is dragged out for several pages without consequence, save learning that Lovecraft didn’t know his way around Arabic names (hardly a revelation). In “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” we learn how hard it is for a black woman to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment in the 1930s and 40s. With another wink at Lovecraft, nine-year-old Hippolyta follows the discovery of “Planet X” and proposes that it be named Pluto. It is, of course, but credit goes to a little white girl! Grown-up Hippolyta then travels to a dangerous planet in a distant solar system, observes a vaguely Lovecraftian alien (“the sphere suddenly burst open like an orange turning inside out, dark rind splitting to reveal a wriggling white pulp. Dozens of pale tentacles shot out, wrapping around the man’s limbs…” (204), and escapes in time to enjoy hot chocolate with her husband. In “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Caleb Brathwaite gives Letita’s sister Ruby an elixir that turns her into a white woman she names Hillary. She enjoys her newfound power and freedom: “Many white people, men especially, smiled at Hillary as they went by her, but what was really noteworthy was that the ones who ignored her, ignored her in a different way than they would have ignored Ruby. There was no side-eyeing, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention. She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.” (235) In “The Narrow House,” Montrose meets the ghosts of a lynched family and recalls his own memories of surviving a race riot. In “Horace and the Devil Doll,” the youngest member of the Tuner clan must escape an automaton that recalls a modernist classic of weird fiction, Richard Matheson’s “Prey,” in which an African doll attacks a white woman. Running across a South Side park, young Horace is confronted by a white cop who immediately draws his revolver and prepares to shoot the child. “Then the scene seemed to telescope, as an invisible cable attached to the policeman’s back yanked him into the air and sent him flying into the trees…”(338) He’s been saved by Caleb Brathwaite! As the “invisible cable” suggests, at this point we’re so accustomed to the supernatural it can be described with the simplest of mechanical metaphors. It’s the kind of magic one encounters in unoriginal B-movies, comic books, and video games: invisible force fields generated by flicks of the magi’s wrist, and so forth.

The various strands thread together into a climax I skimmed through; I won’t bore you with the details. What begins as weird fiction ends as an adventure story. The shift in tone and texture is clearly signaled in“Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” which turns from weird fiction to comic books. When nine-year-old Hippolyta trains her telescope on Planet X, we’re told: “It was a magical moment, and in the comic-book version of Hippolyta’s life, it changed everything. Reality was different, of course.” (185) Yet of course Hippolyta’s “reality” involves interplanetary travel—the novel has already abandoned weird realism in favor of superhero narratives. Indeed, as Hippolyta investigates the cosmic portal, she frequently notices parallels to her son’s comics: “she recalled the ocean-dwelling squid men of Europa from Orithyia Blue #5”; “This reminded Hippolyta of the booby-trapped airlock the corsairs of Neptune had used to knock out Orithyia Blue in issue #4…” (193) The Interplanetary Adventures of Orithyia Blue is a comic that “Horace had created … after Hippolyta suggested that it might be nice to read a science-fiction story about a woman for a change.” (175) The heroine, based on his mom, is a “graduate of the Howard Astrotechnical College class of 2001 and the solar system’s best troubleshooter.” (175) She gets involved in complicated adventures, full of “political intrigue” and humor: “the question was not ‘Will Orithyia survive?’ . . . but ‘Will she get to the store before the toy department closes?’” (176) The series has at least twelve issues. Pause to consider the suspension of disbelief required to imagine that a twelve-year-old, without any formal training, can create a year’s worth of professional-quality comic books. The average superhero comic is put together by at least four or five professionals—writer, pencil artist, inker, colorist, letterer, several editors, etc. These people work on each issue as a full-time occupation (whereas Horace also goes to school, plays with friends, etc.) It staggers the imagination: but not to produce a weird effect. On the contrary, this background information is meant to anchor the characters in their real world. It therefore exposes the texture or style of the “reality” that composes Ruff’s universe. It is the same as that used in superhero comics. It makes a nod to reality but fills its world with exceptions to that reality; it exaggerates and simplifies.

While further demonstrating the importance of realism to weird fiction, this approach also has significant consequences for the antiracist work Ruff’s novel promises. Justin Bortnick, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, summarizes the problem:

if you have come to this book looking for new or groundbreaking insights on racism in America or even racism in Lovecraft’s work, you will be disappointed. It never gets further than talking about how racism is bad. It does a fair job of painting the various micro- (and macro-)aggressions those without privilege experience, as well as providing scenery that speaks to the ways that the lack of privilege influences one’s life . . . the message is that racism is worse than Lovecraft’s fictional universe-destroying, insanity-inducing, multi-eyed, bloblike shoggoths, but I don’t think this was an embattled position in the first place. The conclusions one draws from seeing these two types of horror juxtaposed are too obvious to feel impactful. Perhaps Ruff’s real motive is more defensive: Atticus goes out of his way to defend Lovecraft as a writer… [However] there is very little Lovecraft in the book (especially for a book with Lovecraft in the title). The superficialities are there — strange cults, rituals in the night, monsters with more body parts than strictly necessary — but none of the psychic horror…

For me, the novel’s “comic-book reality” also raises questions about the politics of representation. Comic book narratives such as Orithyia Blue rely upon an allegorical mode. As in the recent furor over Black Panther, we are incited to celebrate the heroic representation of figures that stand for under-represented political subjects at the cost of a realistic assessment of the problem. The question of how much realism is “enough” is debatable and may itself be a terrain of struggle. The chief effect in Lovecraft Country is like that found in Soviet propaganda of the 1930s and 40s: its exaggeration simplifies realities, providing fantastic solutions to real-world problems, and obliterates history. In Ruff’s novel, white people are bad and black people are good. Racism is treated with slightly less nuance that one finds in the oft-repeated claims “they hate our freedom” or “the only way to stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns,” etc. The 1950s are imagined as a period of unending racial antagonism: the color line is enforced swiftly and mercilessly by a host of white segregationists, who seem to populate every corner of the city, the heartland, and New England. At the same time, the novel’s continual focus on police violence resonates with Black Lives Matter. The police are a presence that could only be imagined after the massive escalation and militarization of cops that began in the late 1970s. The novel imports a contemporary view of racism into a past, erasing the entire history of Civil Rights and the carceral racism that developed in response. It imposes upon the 1950s a “good guy / bad guy” political logic that belongs to our contemporary age. Ruff, whose white, seems anxious to make every person of color in the novel a paragon of virtue. Montrose initially appears to be a rather rough-hewn guy, but his occasional violence is explained and excused as necessary “tough love.”

As Bortnick points out, Lovecraft Country is equally shallow in its grappling with weirdness. It makes numerous allusions to the Weird Tales-era writers but fails to evoke the sensations for which they are prized. I began this series of posts by quoting Justina Robinson’s prediction, back in 2003, that “Literature is going to SF and try and take the entire thing over by main force”; Ruff’s novel suggests the truth of this sensibility. Published by HaperCollins, it appears to exploit the trend in weird / speculative fiction with considerable cynicism. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the readers and writers of weird tales, along with other pulp genres and comic books, were often subjected to public shaming. Weird stories were (and are) regarded as adolescent, merely sensational, nonliterary pap for the masses—often with good reason. Lovecraft’s racism, I think, is often conflated with these more aesthetic qualities, which is a mistake (if only because Lovecraft was a sophisticated racist; he has many ‘childish’ qualities, but is far-right politics are not one of them). Lovecraft County’s costly cover makes twin promises: that it will indulge in Lovecraftian horror, and that it will make the genre more palatable to literate audiences by offering a critique of his racism. Yet as we’ve seen,it is far less successful in either direction than The Ballad of Black Tom, which approaches the problem from within the genre. It’s not difficult to see how Lovecraft Country would provide fertile grounds for TV series in the style of Get Out, but this adaptation confirms the adage that bad books make good movies. No doubt Ruff and others involved will prosper from this adaptation, but weird fiction will not. Much like what happened during the “horror boom” of the 1980s, genuinely weird stories don’t fit the conventional narratives imposed by / chosen for capitalization.

The next post, on John Langan’s The Fisherman, will take us into a different set of concerns. Langan’s novel is an earnest attempt at prolonged weirdness which raises interesting questions about the genre’s use of framing devices, embedded narratives, and prose style.

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