One of the most fascinating subjects in all of literature is H.P. Lovecraft, a highly prolific and widely acclaimed pulp science-fiction/horror writer known for his cosmic creations that have inspired countless other works for years beyond his own. What he is also known for, however, is his open bigotry and extremely offensive views on black people, going so far as to have even had a cat named after the n-word. It is something that has prohibited me personally from ever enjoying his work or even really wanting to delve beyond what I was already familiar with.
It is not unusual for creatives from different eras to have outdated beliefs, but H.P. Lovecraft was violently racist even for his own time. This had me intrigued when I heard that Misha Green and Jordan Peele, two genius black creatives, sought to adapt a book based off Lovecraft’s work and mythology. I’ve lived my life believing that it is impossible to separate the art from the artist and that the two are forever inexplicably tied, but the very premise of HBO’s radical new show Lovecraft Country is the reclamation and subversion of great stories from problematic creatives. More specifically, the black experience of connecting to stories by people who are racist, despite it.
The story begins with Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), an avid sci-fi nerd and fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s work who, when discussing his enjoyment of the stories, also recounts the times his father made him read Lovecraft’s racist tales aloud, in one of the many moments that transcend even the gory creature battles that soon take place in the show. Forcing certain viewers to confront the privilege of being able to read whatever they like and not having to worry whether or not the author hated their very existence. Jonathan Majors communicates this so effectively not only through his words but in the seconds after them, when you can see the contemplation and pain in his eyes.
You then have Jurnee Smollett-Bell, coming off a leading role in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), giving a deeply felt and frequently kickass performance – taking justice into her own hands and fighting off both cosmic and very human monsters. With the rest of the cast including the likes of the incredible Courtney B. Vance and Michael K. Williams, there is no shortage of pathos and beautifully realized drama. Unfortunately, this can be overtaken by the show’s otherwise busy and sometimes convoluted plot, going at a speed so fast it can sometimes feel hard to keep up with where we’re at, both thematically and very literally.
Each episode feels like almost a short story in a grander anthology, which can break the sense of progression and cohesion that one would expect from a series, but also adds to its ability to feel like absolutely anything can happen at any time. Within a few seconds, we can go from familial conflict to giant vampire-like creatures descending onto the characters and splattering the screen with blood. Luckily when Lovecraft Country begins to buckle under the sheer scope and ambition of itself, we have that family drama and just how monstrous racism can be, connecting and grounding it in reality – which may be the series’ single greatest accomplishment. Even with scenes literally featuring Cthulhu and other horrifying cosmic creatures attacking our protagonists, it’s the moments where people act in evil ways towards others that provide the true horror of the show.
Even after multiple episodes, it can be hard to know not only what to make of a show as complex and staggering as Lovecraft Country, but also trying to figure out what could possibly come next. The show’s greatest feature and liability is the fact that it is never one thing and can (and will) go in any possible direction. Anything goes in Lovecraft Country and it has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a trip worth taking.