Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff is likely on the book lists of many given that an HBO production based on this novel is arriving with all the appearances of a good sized budget. How good is it as a standalone horror novel?
Lovecraft Country (Harper Perennial, 372 pages) is a collection of narratives of individual members of an African-American family and their relations, tied together through a relationship of some of them to an evil and supernatural White ancestor and his cultist descendants. A White descendant of that ancestor uses coercion, persuasion and financial recompense to try to get the characters to further his nefarious goals. It takes place against the backdrop of the 1950s Jim Crow era.
The first narrative is likely to get the most attention in the HBO production of Lovecraft Country as the main character, Atticus Turner, is a returning Korean War vet that upon driving home learns that his one time, extremely physically abusive father, is missing. He is tough, capable and well read in science fiction and fantasy of the day – and also the one that draws a parallel to the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
At first the structure of Lovecraft Country puzzled me a bit, until I read the interview with author Matt Ruff that explained that it was originally a television series pitch reminiscent of the X-Files. Finding no interest at that point, Ruff restructured his work into the novel. However with this in mind, the structure of Lovecraft Country makes better sense, though I couldn’t help but feel it didn’t fit as well as it could as a single novel.
With the obvious association with Lovecraft, I expected a consistency of tone and structure of the supernatural that was Lovecraftian, but most of the narratives didn’t stray very far from the mixed and more common supernatural elements found in X-Files. Two narratives were a bit too close to what I have seen elsewhere. One involved a time-space device that seemed much like a movie from the 1960s (or perhaps an episode of The Time Tunnel – I recall watching it once in the 1970s), and another involving a doll that struck me as a bit too reminiscent of the final story of the 1975 movie Trilogy of Terror starring Karen Black.
Our primary villain creates the conditions of his ultimate defeat and that at times seems a bit too obvious when it happens. The ending follows the sort of justice you would expect. I would have liked it to have additional complications and a bit less predictable, but it is something that should translate well for the video production by HBO.
But yes, it is also Jaffe.
Rona Jaffe wrote a book called Mazes and Monsters in 1981. It was later made into a made for TV movie starring Tom Hanks. Jaffe exploited the recent news at the time of the suicide of a mentally disturbed boy James Dallas Egbert III. His mother attributed his death to obsessively playing Dungeons & Dragons. The game was relatively new and not well understood by the public at the time and many religious leaders responded with what was later known as the “Satanic Panic” because the game often dealt with supernatural themes. The presentation of role-playing games in the book and later the TV movie called significant, negative attention to the game and worse, against those that enjoyed playing it. But clearly, Rona Jaffe profited from the controversy.
In recent years, some writers have derived new works leveraging the name and shared world of The Cthulhu Mythos. The Cthulhu Mythos is a collection of narratives, themes, tropes and devices derived from the works of H.P Lovecraft, but named by August Derleth, a writer and editor that both kept Lovecraft’s works in print while at the same time doing much to represent his own interpretation of those works in his own way. The Cthulhu Mythos reflects the collective works of many authors, and they often take elements of Lovecraft in a direction obviously different than as presented in his original works.
A very well known fact though is that Lovecraft as a man, held some racist views that were a bit stronger than average for the 1920s and 1930s, and he wrote about them – more so in his letters but also in some of his creative works. Stumbling across them can be jarring. Some authors and many science fiction and fantasy readers are so strongly repulsed by these views to the point that they cannot separate appreciation or criticism of the created works from the creator.
As a result, there are a number of writers that incorporate criticism of Lovecraft into their related works and doing so creates controversy, much like Rona Jaffe did with Mazes and Monsters. Using the Lovecraft name ensures controversy and attention, but unfortunately if you are a reader that can separate creator from the created, many that hate Lovecraft the man are willing to criticize you quite strongly for enjoying his works in an attempt to educate you to their way of thinking.
And for that reason, Lovecraft Country is a Jaffe.
Lovecraft Country could entirely work without any reference to Lovecraft. It has very few direct references to Lovecraft and could stand entirely on its own without them. While this is the first book I have read by Matt Ruff, it is clear that he does some thorough research and he is clearly able to write an interesting story. Lovecraft Country is generally well written, and the backdrop of Jim Crow America makes for an interesting and hostile environment. Good characters suffer, and in Lovecraft Country, they suffer.
If you are approaching Lovecraft Country as if it were a part of The Cthulhu Mythos though, you may well feel disappointment. Most of what makes the works of H.P. Lovecraft appealing is absent. Cultists and monsters and magic books are not Lovecraft exclusive elements. Lovecraft Country is definitely a Jaffe, too – and that means its popularity may result in your discomfort.