It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book. I guess I’ve been waiting for the right one.
So about a year ago, I got it into my head to check out the collected works of HP Lovecraft. I think it’s because I’d been seeing Cthulhu…well, pretty much everywhere. I had a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s work, but I had never actually read any of the stories. So I found a book of stories and novellas and, over the course of a few months, read the thing.
My initial reaction was “meh.”
Maybe I’m not the right audience for it. While I thought some of the stories were interesting, nothing really struck me as truly epic or awesome. But the one thing that I did notice, something that really bothered me, was the latent and blatant racism on display in Lovecraft’s stories. It was pretty clear that he had an extremely low opinion of non-white people.
Well, author Matt Ruff noticed this as well and he crafted a really good book about it. Lovecraft Country is an interesting examination of racism in 20th century America, all set in a world very similar to that of Lovecraft’s imaginations.
Essentially, this book is a collection of episodic stories of a black family and their friends encountering a lodge of “natural philosophers” straight out of Lovecraft’s stories. To be clear, none of these stories are actually set in Lovecraft’s universe. You won’t see anyone chanting about Cthulhu sleeping in R’lyeh in this book. Instead, Atticus Turner and his family and friends find themselves drawn into a sinister cabal. Dark forces are at work in America. Powerful men, both politically and supernaturally, are vying for power and control and they’re trying to use Atticus and company as their pawns and tools in their conflict. They see these people as disposable and not to be taken seriously. But they’re making a mistake underestimating them. These are people who are used to living in Lovecraft’s country, and they’re not going to take that bigotry lying down.
What makes this book fascinating isn’t the way that Ruff brings Lovecraft’s mythos to light (he does a great job of that, definitely). What makes this interesting is the way that each story highlights a different aspect of how racism shaped American culture during the Jim Crow days. For example, Atticus’s uncle runs a travel agency for black people, but he also publishes a travel guide to let black people know where they can go safely (i.e. what motels they can stay at, where they can stop for food and gas without getting run off or attacked). It turns out, this is a real thing that I had never heard of before. The story also touches on things like housing covenants and racist real estate practices, the effects of which are still echoing to this day.
I could go on and on, but what’s fascinating is that in many ways, what’s truly fascinating about this book is that the danger the characters face don’t stem from the natural philosophers and their invisible war. No, the true and insidious villains are the little sleights and subtle violence that they experienced at the hands of their white neighbors.
I’ll admit, I’ve been blind to these sorts of stories for years. I’m trying to correct that (and for selfish reasons, I’ll admit). But I think this is a great entree into reading about how America has treated some of her citizens. If nothing else, it’ll give you a peek into a very disturbing country.You have to check out @bymattruff's awesome book, Lovecraft Country. Click To Tweet