Who Are The Monsters? Lovecraft Country's Pilot Shows Lovecraft's Creatures In A New Light
Tic Turner loves stories. When after he and the only other Black passenger on the bus get off and walk into town together, as they cannot ride the post-bus shuttle, he tells her about the book he’s reading, Princess of Mars. When she asks him why he loves the novel even though the protagonist is a confederate soldier, he replies, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.” She replies, “The flaws are still there.” Lovecraft Country puts itself in conversation with these points of view, using HP Lovecraft’s work and the broader sci-fi horror genres to reclaim flawed stories, demonstrating the value of both loving them as well as reacting to their problematic elements not with passive dismissal but with active, open acknowledgment.
Based on the novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country is a sci-fi horror series written and developed by Misha Green set in 1950s Jim Crow America. In the pilot episode, “Sundown,” Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is in search of his missing father, and he embarks on a journey across the country to find him with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and friend Leticia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Making the trip is a horrendously threatening feat simply because of the dangers of traveling while Black. Their attempt to get a meal at a restaurant results in a terrifying car chase and later on, despite the fact that they have committed no crimes, a group of law enforcement officers speed after them and bring them out into the woods at night, guns to their heads. These real horrors are then interrupted by ones not unlike those from the fantasy novels that Tic loves- huge, terrifying monsters appear and start gruesomely killing and transforming the group.
The pilot episode is lengthy at one hour and nine minutes but absolutely packed with detail and nuance, replete with a range of feeling, spectacle, and meaning. Anchored by strong and engaging performances from all three of the main actors, the show jumps between fun and terror, mystery and clarity, fantasy and deeply affecting nonfiction. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, with luminous lighting and vivid colors that work to enhance the mood of each individual scene: joy, comfort, suspense, horror. But while the coloring elevates the storytelling artistically, it also brings a visceral sense of presence and urgency, particularly important given the historical time period. While black and white photos can have a distancing effect on a modern viewer, the vibrant coloring and visuals in Lovecraft Country make it feel accessible and real, particularly valuable in conveying the idea that though the show may be set in the ‘50s, there is too much that hasn’t changed. A sense of reality amidst the fantastical elements is also brought via the use of several recreated real settings that are recognizable from famous photographs.
This balancing of the past and present, fiction and non-fiction is at the heart of Lovecraft Country. Even beyond the slimy monsters, the show takes clear inspiration from the work of writer H.P. Lovecraft, his work referenced in ways big and small. But these references are packed with meaning and baggage. Lovecraft, despite being hugely influential in the world of sci-fi and horror (even having the specific subgenre of “Lovecraftian horror” named after him), was incredibly racist and xenophobic. Beyond his own personal writing on the subject (he once wrote that God created Black people as, “A beast...in a semi-human figure, [and] filled it with vice”), his fantasy writing was innately colored by his racism, as his stories about creatures infiltrating human society were in part metaphorical for his beliefs that POC were destroying Anglo-Saxon society.
Lovecraft Country spins this on its head in several ways. While Lovecraft the man saw POC as beasts, Lovecraft Country portrays racist whites as the monsters, with both the immediate and intergenerational trauma of Black people insurmountably bigger than the fear brought on by any character escaping a fictitious creature. The show utilizes elements of Lovecraft’s work that made it so influential while also turning the source material in on itself. The emergence of the monsters at night are a clear, clever comparison to the very real “sundown towns” that the characters must avoid, as a twisted officer makes them race to get beyond country lines before sunset. The imagery, motifs, and concepts central to Lovecraft’s own work are thoughtfully repurposed, used to deliver messages in direct opposition to his own hateful white supremacist ideology. The terrors of living as a Black American are greater than anything Lovecraft created.
But even beyond Lovecraft specifically, the show does new things within its genre. There has long been an overarching lack of representation for POC and POC stories in Sci-Fi and fantasy, both in front and behind the camera. Many have also pointed out that when POC are placed in Sci-Fi worlds, it is often as non-human creatures or aliens, an obviously troubling trend given the historical exotification and animalization of people of color. Arguably one of the biggest strengths of Sci-Fi is its unique ability to both imagine more advanced worlds and to depict very real current problems in fantastical fictionalized ways, shedding new light and contributing new perspectives. For this reason, a Sci-Fi genre that is white-dominated or replicates racist ideologies is counterintuitive to the greater strengths and purpose of the genre. The very fact that Lovecraft Country is Black written and produced, with Black heroes and not a single White main character in sight (as of the pilot, at least) is an unfortunately rare occurrence and reclamation in itself.
At the beginning of the episode, when Atticus gushes about his love for the books he reads, he says, “I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, defy insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day.” He then amends it: Black people like him don’t get to be those heroes. Of course, this is an overtly self-referential foreshadowing of the fact that little does he know, Tic is about to become that hero. This is part of what makes Lovecraft Country so special. For all of its salient social and artistic commentary, it is also filled with all of the excitement and suspense of your typical thriller, only with Black protagonists at the head of it and with Black voices creating them. Lovecraft Country shows how it is possible to take art and not only recreate the parts that we like, but take its harrowing history and use it for good, going beyond acknowledgement and into active, meaningful repurposing. We can use the past and fantasy to illuminate the truth of the present. We can’t love Lovecraft’s monsters without knowing that he was one of them.
Content Warning: Please note that "Sundown" contains strong racist language, violence, and gore.