Racism is a Greater Monster Than Cthulhu Will Ever Be – A Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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Late last year, the World Fantasy Award, one of the more notable award-giving bodies for genre fiction, decided that it would stop using a stylised bust of H.P. Lovecraft as its trophy.This was done in response to a petition started by author Daniel José Older, which in itself was in response to a blogpost by author Nnedi Okorafor, who won the WFA in 2011 for her novel Who Fears Death. Okorafor’s post generated much discussion among SFF writers, many of whom agreed with her: perhaps it was about time the WFA put “the Howard” aside and replaced him with someone else. After all, Lovecraft is hardly representative of the spirit of openness and innovation contemporary SFF espouses: even a quick look at Wikipedia will make clear just how backward Lovecraft’s politics really were (click on the sources for more in-depth discussion).

And yet, despite Okorafor and many others’ extremely valid points, and the WFA’s graceful acceptance of the criticism and its equally graceful decision to make the change, there were some who were not happy: most notably Lovecraft biographer ST Joshi, who announced that he was returning his award to protest the WFA’s decision to change the statuette’s design. To be fair to Joshi, once one really analyses his letter it becomes clear that his primary concern is that Lovecraft will now be pushed aside and forgotten, despite Lovecraft’s immense contribution to genre fiction. But in his letter, Joshi actually has the answer that ought to dispel all his worries: he clearly mentions Lovecraft’s “ascending celebrity”, by which he means Lovecraft’s enduring and increasing popularity in genre fiction.

In this, at least, Joshi is correct – Lovecraft and his works will endure, as he has created a legacy that reaches into not just weird fiction and the brand of horror that was named after him, but into practically every type of genre fiction, in almost all modes of storytelling. But Joshi has completely missed the point of Older’s petition and Okorafor’s blogpost: though readers enjoy, and will continue to enjoy, Lovecraft’s oeuvre and his vision of cosmic horror, they are also growing less and less willing to tolerate his rampant, virulent racism. Joshi – and others like him – seem to think that in order to honour Lovecraft, his admirers (readers and writers both) must ignore or remain silent upon his despicable politics.

But this year, two notable fiction pieces have been published that prove Joshi and the rest of his ilk completely wrong, showing that it is completely possible to honour Lovecraft’s legacy while simultaneously addressing (or maybe even redressing) his racism. The first is the excellent novella The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle: a revisioning of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”. In it, LaValle tackles not just the historical realities of being a black man in 1920s New York, but exposes Lovecraft’s racism by humanising the very people Lovecraft dehumanised – all in the span of one, compact novella.

The second is Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country. Set in the 1950s, it is a set of interconnected stories following a group of African-Americans related to each other by bonds of blood and friendship, as they try to negotiate the prejudices and violence of the Jim Crow era – as well as deal with a secret society that is trying to call upon incredible cosmic powers for its own, mysterious ends.

On the surface, Lovecraft Country does not look very different from any number of Lovecraftian novels, since it features many of the same elements; secret societies and cosmic magic are just the beginning. But what separates Lovecraft Country from the many other Lovecraftian homages is that, time and again, Ruff shows the reader that the true monster is racism. Take, for example, the following scene:

“Sorry to disturb you,” Atticus said, “but I’ve had some trouble. I need to buy a tire.”

The big man glared at him for a moment, then said flatly: “No.”

“I can see you’re busy,” said Atticus, as if that might be the problem. “I’m not asking you to change it for me, Just sell me the tire, and I’ll—”

“No.”

“I don’t understand. You don’t want my money? You don’t have to do anything, just—”

“No.” The big man crossed his arms. “You need me to say it another fifty times? Because I will.”

And Atticus, fuming now, said: “That’s a Wolfhound tattoo, right? Twenty-seventh Infantry regiment?” He fingered the service pin on his own lapel. “I was with the 24th Infantry. We fight alongside the 27th across most of Korea.”

“I wasn’t in Korea,” the big man said. “I was at Guadalcanal, and Luzon. And there weren’t any niggers there.”

Scenes like the one above would have been common during the Jim Crow era, the time period during which the novel is set, and given that most of the characters are black, some readers might dismiss scenes like the above as merely an attempt at realism or period flavour. But Ruff puts this scene, and others like it, into the novel for another reason: to show the reader that though there are eldritch horrors in this book, they come in second (albeit not a very distant second) to the prejudice his characters face frequently throughout the story. Some of it is overt, as in the scene above; some of it, however, is more subtle:

For a while she tended a fantasy of becoming an astronomer without a college degree. Clyde Tombaugh had done that, winning his job at the Lowell Observatory on the strength of his amateur observations of Mars and Jupiter. But when she confided her ambition to a guide at the Hayden Planetarium, he dismissed it with four simple words: “You’re a Negress,” he said.

Ruff does not limit himself to the past, either. In the next excerpt, Ruff takes a dig at the “Magical Negro” trope, which even contemporary writers, like horror novelist Stephen King, are guilty of using in their works (King’s The Green Mile is a notable example):

“Hey! Hey, you kids!”

The call, raspy and low, came from a boarded-up storefront they’d just passed. A white man stood grinning in the open doorway… “You kids want to make some money?” he said. “One of you come here a second, I’ll give you a dollar.”

“A dollar for what?” said Curtis.

“I want to rub your head.”

“What!?” Horace squawked.

“Just come here and let me rub your head.” The man held up his right hand, curled loosely into a fist, and shook it; they heard the rattle of dice: “For luck.”

The above scene is just so wrong that it is almost impossible not to physically cringe when reading it. And yet this, too, is important: a reminder to the reader that racism need not be as overt as refusing to offer products and services to a person just because of the colour of their skin; it can be small things, subtle things, that might seem funny, or at least innocent at first, but are actually far more damaging than they initially appear to be.

At this point, the reader might be wondering: where are the eldritch horrors? After all, a lot of people likely picked this book up in order to experience Lovecraftian chills and thrills. Fortunately, they are present in this novel. Sometimes, the references are quite overt, like in this excerpt:

The man with the rifle had noticed it too. He approached it, switching his gun to one hand and making a fist of the other, as though intending to rap on the side of the black sphere, which was as tall as he was. But he was still more than an arm’s length away when the sphere suddenly burst open like an orange turning inside out, dark rind splitting to reveal a wriggling white pulp. Dozens of pale tentacles shot out, wrapping around the man’s limbs, torso, neck, and head, and yanking him forward to be swallowed whole before he could cry out. By the time his companion realized something was wrong and turned around, the sphere had closed up again.

Other times, the horrors present themselves a bit more subtly:

Then he heard it. Out in the Wood, straight ahead and much closer than before: The beast. Definitely beast, he told himself, and big—big enough to knock down trees, or yank unwary deputies off their feet—but stealthy now, making just enough noise as it moved through the undergrowth to let Atticus know it was there.

And sometimes, they are not straightforwardly Lovecraftian at all, and lean more towards weird horror than anything else:

The heads themselves were not that scary. They weren’t severed heads, just heads that lacked bodies. They were alive and didn’t appear to be suffering; most of them look bored, or were asleep. The unnerving thing was that none of the customers in the store seemed to find them at all remarkable. They pushed their carts past the display without a glance, or if they did look, they regarded the heads with indifference, as if they really were nothing more than a bunch of watermelons. Horace kept wanting to speak up, to point out that no, in fact, these were boys’ heads. But at the same time he as afraid to draw attention to himself, certain that something awful would happen if he did.

Still, despite making use of many of the tropes and images Lovecraft himself used in his own stories, and which have become the hallmarks of Lovecraftian horror, Ruff does not forget to fire a shot across the bow of Lovecraft’s racism:

“The Necronomicon?” said Pirate Joe. “What’s that?”

“A book of black magic,” Mortimer said enthusiastically. “written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred…”

“The stuttering Arab, more like,” said Abdullah. “It’s ‘Abd al’ not ‘Ab-dool’. Abd means ‘servant’ and al is ‘the,’ so Abd al al-Hazred would be ‘servant of the-the Hazred.’”

Pirate Joe blinked his eye. “What’s a hazred?”

“A white guy from Rhode Island trying to be funny,” said Montrose.

However, whatever the case may be, no matter how creepy the stories get, no matter how terrifying the monsters, Ruff never forgets that this book is, first and foremost, about reminding the reader of the horrors of racism, both in the past and – perhaps more importantly – in the present:

“What is it you’re trying to scare me with? You think I don’t know what country I live in? I know. We all do. We always have. You’re the one who doesn’t understand.”

Overall, Lovecraft Country is proof-positive that it is entirely possible to tell a Lovecraftian horror story that is a true homage to Lovecraft’s works, while simultaneously critiquing his politics. At the same time, it reminds the reader that racism is not a problem of the past, but a problem of the present, and unless action is taken, will continue to be a problem in the future. Though the individual quality of the stories told in the novel is somewhat uneven, with some stories better-told than others, there is no denying that, taken as a whole, this novel is a spectacular addition to the great constellation of works that owe their existence to Lovecraft’s imagination; at the same time, it elevates that body of literature, showing that it is possible to take the best of Lovecraft’s legacy, while offering a more thoughtful look at the worst.

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