Fiction Review: Lovecraft Country
“Arkham,” Atticus said. “The letter says Mom’s ancestors come from Arkham, Massachusetts.” Arkham: home of the corpse reanimator Herbert West, and of Miskatonic University, which had sponsored the fossil-hunting expedition to the mountains of madness. “It is made up, right? I mean—”
“Oh, yeah,” George said. “Lovecraft based it on Salem, I think, but it’s not a real place . . . Let me see that letter.” Atticus handed it to him and George studied it, squinting and tilting his head side to side. “It’s a ‘d,’” he said finally.
Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an unusual novel - it is a collection of interconnected tales about Atticus Turner and his friends and family in the 1950s.
Atticus is an African-American from Chicago. He is from an upper middle class family, with an uncle who owns a travel agency and publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide, based upon the real world Negro Motorist Green Book which provided African-American travelers advice on what businesses would service their vehicles, where they could stay and eat on the road, etc. It's depressing as hell to reflect that there was a need for such a book.
Atticus is a veteran of the Korean War. He'd spent some time working in Florida but living in the south did not agree with him so when he received a strange letter from his estranged father he jumped at the excuse to head back home. Atticus loves science fiction, a love he shares with his uncle George. His father, Montrose, is less a fan of such works - he especially dislikes Lovecraft, having dug up some of Lovecraft's nastier writings on African-Americans.
However, Montrose is missing, having traveled to Ardham, Massachusetts, tracking down his late wife's family background. We learn that she (and Atticus) are descended from a powerful sorcerer and his slave - a slave who ran off around the same time that sorcerer performed a disastrous experiment. This makes Attiucs the sole surviving direct descendant of that sorcerer and of great interest to the sorcerers (they prefer the term "natural philosophers") who have reformed it. The current head is a member of that family, but not a direct descendant like Atticus.
The novel tells the tale of Atticus, along with his family and friends, as they deal with both the supernatural and the reality of being black men and women living in a world where racism is comfortably institutionalized. The stories in the novel run the gamut of HP Lovecraft's tales - secret cults, ghost stories, physical transformation, visits to far off alien worlds, etc.
I greatly enjoyed the use of Lovecraftian ideas in a story with African-American protagonists, given Lovecraft's own racist views. Montrose berates his son for his fondness of Lovecraft, uncovering Lovecraft's poem "On the Creation of Niggers" as evidence.
These stories also make for great inspiration for a Call of Cthulhu game. Atticus and company have multiple contacts with the supernatural over a period of several months, similar to how a group of Call of Cthulhu investigators will have multiple adventures.
Jordan Peele is making this novel into an HBO series. I think it has the potential to be a great show and will be looking forward to it.