“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.” — H.P.L.
NOTE: Contains minor spoilers.
Don’t get me wrong — I used to devour books and enjoyed other genres besides horror, but before Lovecraft I read mostly science fiction and fantasy (such as the dozen or so science fiction books my dad had in the basement, including Asimov, Niven, Herbert and, most importantly for me, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) and novelizations of Dungeons & Dragons worlds like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance, which my mom used to get for me as treats whenever we were dragged to one of the local malls.
While all that is a blur of childhood memories, I remember very specifically buying my first Lovecraft anthology, Dreams of Terror and Death, at the Waldenbooks at the Fairfield Mall. I had caught up on all the D&D series I was reading, and I wasn’t going to walk out of a bookstore empty-handed. I scoured the shelves until I saw it. The cover was this crazy, fantastical amalgam of strange architecture, menacing creatures, and a big, evil-looking ball. It looked like a nightmare, and as a kid who was prone to nightmares, this immediately caught my eye. The fact that it seemed to be about nightmares was just icing on the cake. Dreams? Of terror and death? This book got me. It was a trade paperback and a little more expensive than your run-of-the-mill D&D mass-market, but I convinced my mom and it was mine.
I wasn’t disappointed. The nightmare worlds that Lovecraft created were apocalyptic: monsters that bent the laws of physics; insane gods; humans who thought they could tap into the gods’ powers; and strange, ancient cults who guarded the secrets to it all. They were books of madness. Lovecraft eviscerated the idea that there was a heaven, hell, or loving god, and replaced all of that nonsense with chaos and terror beyond death. His stories built up in me this feeling that there was something sinister lurking just beyond my perception, at all times, in a way that both excited me and scared the living shit out of me. And isn’t that the feeling all teenagers are chasing?
A few years later, with a developing political worldview that had no place for racism, I was devastated to discover that Lovecraft was a terrible white supremacist, anti-Semite, and xenophobe. His letters are full of the most disgusting and vile invective directed at immigrants, Jews, and Black folks in particular. At that point it all sort of greyed-over for me. This once colorful and imaginative mythos was now devoid of excitement or interest, knowing that all of these horrors just stood in for Black and Brown people. I left Lovecraft to be relegated to the dustbin of history that his work crawled out from decades after his death.
Two-Thousand and Twenty. It’s some 25 years after I picked him up, and lo!, Lovecraft has crawled out from the trash once again, but now reanimated by the very folks he denigrated while he was alive. The HBO series Lovecraft Country is the negation of the negation, finally killing the racist horror author, and at the same time creating something new that could not have existed without him. Many criticisms of the show miss the point — it “bears down on the cartoonish villainy of its white antagonists” because this is what pulp does! It revels in overblown dichotomies, but where the stand-ins for evil often also stood in for Black or Brown-skinned people, immigrants, Jews, and socialists in pulp science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Lovecraft Country turns that on its head and smashes it apart.
To be clear, the characters also face Lovecraft’s monsters: the main characters are attacked by shoggoths, some of the gnarliest ghosts you can imagine haunt the third episode (which, to be fair, also includes at least one cheeseball ghost, but again — it’s pulp!), and Cthulhu itself appears in the opening sequence, among UFOs, aliens, and general apocalypse. But now, these creatures are an extension of the terrors white supremacy inflicted and continues to inflict on Black folks. The protagonists fight their way through these things, but also other monsters like killer deputies in sundown counties, ancient orders of bourgeois white supremacists, killer cops in league with racist neighbors (not to mention the bougie white supremacists), invulnerable white women, and more. They face physical and mental harm from the police as well as cosmic horrors, though often it is white supremacy that poses the most immediate and dire threat, and even more often white supremacy and cosmic horror cannot be disentangled.
While Lovecraft Country is historically situated in the particulars of Jim Crow, it doesn’t relegate it to the past. The jump from the corrupt and abusive cops of 1950s Chicago to killer cops in 2020 is easy to make and, I think, the show clearly wants you to draw these conclusions. What is mistaken for heavy-handedness is just some liberal guilt response, the not-wanting-to-be-beaten-over-the-head impulse of those who would rather the past remain the past. The genius of using Lovecraft as the vehicle for illustrating these points is that, within the worlds he created, the past never stays dead. Not long ago, the defenders of the colorblind institutions of democracy in the U.S. would have had you believe that “race” is dead. But as Lovecraft himself warned, things can appear dead for an eternity but rear their ugly heads again and again. Though race may “eternal lie,” it’s far from dead, and its death cults continue to do real damage across this land. Now, they have awoken to the realities of race but confine them to platitudes like “I See Color” on sweaters, and an Amazon-peddled shirt for a “Woke White Person” that promises to be for those “brave enough to stand up to injustice and hate,” warning them to “not be the white bystander that stays silent and is in compliance with racist rhetoric and bigotry.” I can only assume that, having stared into the realities of race, these are some kind of armor or talisman that staves off the inevitable conclusions that white supremacy is baked into the structures of this society, and that in order to dismantle one, you must dismantle the other.
In the end, the hardest thing to come to grips with is the way Lovecraft Country ties white supremacy so closely to mysticism and magic. The cops are wannabe warlocks, and the use of magic is tied closely to race. Perhaps, intentionally or not, this could be the specter of capital, animating the white folks to act in their racial interests. This, for sure, could be the show’s weakest point, but it could just as well be me expecting too much of my entertainment. On the other hand, magic can also be one of the show’s strongest points. Again, without giving much away, by flipping these ancient magicks on their heads, through the life-or-death struggle, the characters are able to strike powerful blows against the system. Regardless, there truly is something sinister lurking in the background, just under the surface, waiting to break through in all of its insanity and horror. In Lovecraft Country, the horrible elder gods are race, Jim Crow, and the systems that benefit from it and prop it up.