Book Review by Kerey McKenna
August 20th was the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, famed Author of Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and other pulp tales of foreboding New England towns where clandestine conspiracies attempt to awaken long-slumbering, cosmic horrors. In honor of Mr. Lovecraft, I sought out a novel with Lovecraftian themes for this week’s review, the latest in my series, “I read this…with my ears.”
Leaving aside H.P.’s break-out star Cthulhu, the iconic slumbering cephalopod, what are the most identifiable themes of Lovecraft’s eerie tales? What local landmarks would signal to a weary, but wary, traveler that they have crossed the border into Lovecraft country? I would posit there are three:
- Hostile environments: From the barren arctic poles to rural New England villages that don’t take kindly to outsiders, you get the sense that you are clearly not welcome among these insular, and probably inbred, country folk.
- Malevolent Conspiracies: If, despite the icy welcome, one were to make it to the manor house overlooking this odd community, there would be no respite from the strangeness and unease. One might soon discover that the country aristocrats are members of a secret society. A society whose tendrils influence every local authority. And if you come to their attention you may well be the “guest of honor” for a strange ceremony that you may not survive…
- Cosmic Insignificance: Dubbed “cosmicism” by H.P. himself, it is the horror experienced by the individual human mind when confronted with the fact that not only is it not the center of the universe, but in the grand scheme of things the struggles and desires of the individual do not matter.
So does Matt Ruff do anything different with these themes than what Stephen King has done many times over? Yes. He acknowledges that here, in America, an entire population had to cross through or even somehow survive and eke out an existence in “Lovecraft Country:” African Americans in the Jim Crow era.
If one’s skin is the “wrong color,” then the wrong turn down a country road at sundown could bring a motorist into a hostile rural town, where they do not take kindly to strangers, and where the police had no power to stop or were in fact in league with a malevolent conspiracy. Figures in white hoods would hold strange ceremonies and sacrifice hapless victims as offerings in a twisted theology. And even if they survived all that, African Americans would be presented with constant evidence that their lives do not matter. Eking out an existence on the margins of mainstream society could be revoked by the majority at any time, and any aspirations the individual might have based on talent and desire would always be barred to them. Cosmic Horror: the intuition that even if one survives the ordeal, the struggle is ultimately meaningless.
Our story is set in 1954 when Atticus Turner, recently returned from service in the Korean War, sets out on a road trip to find his estranged father who disappeared chasing mysterious bits of family lore in the rural and insular community of “Arden, Massachusetts” (as fictional as Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts). Joining him is an expert on traveling while black, his Uncle George Turner, travel agent and publisher of The Safe Negro’s Travel Guide. “The Guide” is a book for African Americans, cataloging which hotels, motels, campgrounds, and diners serve blacks, as seeking respite at other businesses could result in a door in the face at best and violence at worst. This is actually based on the real world publication of the time, The Negro Motorist Green Book, whose cover read, “Carry this book with you—you may need it.” Also along for the ride is Letitia, a childhood friend of George’s who claims to be a spirit medium, but demonstrates more than her fair share of street smarts and cunning. Being an avid reader of science fiction, pulps, and yes, even H.P. Lovecraft, Atticus takes it in stride when, after several life-and-death car chases, they finally reach Arden and find they have stumbled into a town very much like a Lovecraft pulp tale. He discovers that the Order of the New Dawn, a group of “natural philosophers” (i.e., would be alchemists) have lured him to a ceremony because they believe he carries the blood of a powerful sorcerer. The question is how polite are they going to be about collecting that blood? And even if Atticus and his band do escape, what strangeness might follow them back to Chicago…?
And that’s just the opening act. Once back in Chicago, the narrative becomes more episodic, with each section featuring a different friend or relation of Atticus and the troubling aspects of American history intermingled with the supernatural. In “The Witch House,” Letitia sets out to become a “Pioneer”—a black owner of a house in a traditionally white neighborhood. Not only is the system rigged against her (banks, reluctant to grant mortgages to blacks, instead set up alternate agreements heavily stacked against the would-be home owner), but she faces a two-pronged attack trying to force her out, beset on one front by her white neighbors and the other by a poltergeist. In one episode, the brothers of a Prince Hall Freemasons Lodge (Prince Hall Masons is a real-life, predominantly black Freemason order) go on a treasure hunt in the catacombs of Chicago’s underground, searching for a grimoire of a warlock, who was also a prohibition-era gangster. In these stories, the wrong inflection in tone while reciting an incantation or the wrong tone of voice when speaking with a police officer present equal danger for the hero or heroine. Another tale reframes Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to explore the experience of “passing”, when a light-skinned African American could present as either black or white and thereby adopt a dual identity.
I’d go on, but each episode builds upon the next to advance the larger narrative and I don’t want to spoil anything (save that the aforementioned “Witch House” and “Hippolyta Green Disturbs the Universe” may be my favorites). Frankly, some of the surprise is discovering which character mentioned offhandedly or even portrayed disparagingly in one chapter becomes the hero or heroine of the next.
The book has a lot for fans of horror and science fiction—even those who aren’t devotees of H.P. Lovecraft. Classic Sci-fi and pulp adventures available to a 1950’s audience—The Martian Chronicles, Tom Swift, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and radio pulp drama—are all touched upon, but again through an African American lens. Escapism becomes all the more important for a people whose lives are not only mundane but often difficult and steeped in struggle. But what does it mean when even in escapist flights of fancy, the underlying inequities of reality are still present?
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Lovecraft and race. With his posthumous fame, modern Lovecraft fans who care to look are confronted with personal correspondence, letters to the editor, and even bits of doggerel verse that display H.P.’s visceral detestation of peoples and cultures other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And while some of his apologists may claim that this was par for the times and his upbringing, I would argue that even for the time someone getting worried about “a plague of clamorous French-Canadians” may have been afflicted with literal xenophobia, the fear of the different. In his more fantastical writings, the hordes of Blacks, Jews, Poles, Catholics, Irish, Latins, and the aforementioned French Canadians became the hierarchy of bug-eyed creatures and mad cultists that so bedevil the characters of his stories.
In this novel Matt Ruff (who is white) asks us not to erase H.P. or love him warts and all but acknowledge the effect that his talents and his flaws have on the audience and move forward from there.
If asked to sum up the Lovecraftian aesthetic many would do so with the term “unease”. If pressed to elaborate one might expound, “unease at the true horror and injustice of the world.” By setting the narrative in the Jim Crow Era, that unease and injustice become a palpable, malevolent force even before any tentacled monsters or cultists arrive on the scene. For generations, tales from an ancestor who lived on a plantation, an uncle who was at the mercy of a vindictive police officer during a traffic stop, or an aunt tailed by a car full of white thugs have been the horror stories passed down in the family lore of all-too-many homes. For those lucky enough to be born in more favorable times, places, and stations, these horrors should be as terrifying as any strange elder god sleeping in a sunken city. For those not so lucky? Well, that’s just another day in Lovecraft country.
Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.