Cthulhu Gon’ Slay: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is anthology-esque, a book of intertwining short stories about the spirited Letitia, brainy Hippolyta, restless Ruby, geeky Horace, determined Atticus, dedicated George, and frustrated Montrose. The through-line—but, importantly, not the star or even the thesis—is the manipulative and haughty Caleb Braithwhite. How they deal with his schemes sets the stage for grander adventures that will change them all in ways they never expect.

Atticus Turner, a 22-year-old Black Korean War vet, has just returned to his hometown of Chicago only to find his father, Montrose, has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Montrose and Atticus never got along very well, mostly due to the friction caused by how each man navigated the racial tightrope of living in Jim Crow. Guided by his Uncle George’s self-published The Safe Negro Travel Guide, Atticus, George, and Letitia, his friend from childhood, set off for the east coast to track down Montrose. Their trip takes them to a rustic white enclave in the backwoods of Massachusetts run by the wealthy Braithwhite family. Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb are keeping Montrose chained up in a basement, but Atticus is the real prize. He is a direct descendent of a powerful mage, via an illicit relationship forced upon a runaway slave girl.

The Braithwhites are part of the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a group of privileged white people with too much money and not enough empathy, and they need Atticus for a blood-fueled ritual that will grant them untold magic and power. The chaos that ensues from Atticus’ choices that night ensnares two Black families and their friends into a centuries-long battle of freedom and oppression, hope and hatred, racial intolerance and violent magic.

Lovecraft Country is a solid, entertaining book. The creeping tension reels you in and keeps you hooked page after page. Each story focuses on a different character and reflects a different horror genre conceit. Some tales are stronger than others and sometimes the themes therein are explored a bit heavy-handedly, but which story you prefer will largely be due to personal preferences rather than drastic shifts in quality. Hippolyta’s story was my favorite of the bunch, Atticus’ the best crafted, and Horace’s the most frightening, but as a biracial woman constantly straddling the white and Black worlds, Ruby’s story was the one that affected me the most personally. Her inner conflict between who she is, who she wants to be, how much of herself she’s willing to sacrifice to bridge that schism, and how much others will force her to sacrifice moved me deeply.

In the book, women thankfully get equal attention and footing as the men, and any man who dares claim woman’s inferiority is punished for his hubris. The premise itself is pretty interesting, but it’s the layer of H.P. Lovecraftian horror that kicks the book into high gear. The book thoroughly and effectively marries race and horror. It is a tense thriller, a terrifying nightmare, a heartbreaking tragedy, and a tale of holding onto aspiration and optimism even while being chased through the woods by a hellbeast from another dimension. The horror isn’t really the interdimensional demons, however, but the two-faced monsters willfully tormenting an entire race for no other reason than they can.

The experiences of Atticus and co. travelling across the country aren’t fantasy. There really were travel guides for colored people to help them pass safely through Jim Crow strongholds. My mother was only a few years younger than Horace in 1954, and the stories she’s told me about driving from the North to the South to visit her sharecropper relatives would leave you chilled. Frankly, I’d have to side with Ida—the Black housemaid condemned to another dimension—that a person with no regard for your life is far more fearsome than a monster willing to eat you alive.

Just as the leads shatter the tropes Black people are often reduced to portraying, Braithwhite too undermines his own stereotypes. He is a white man who appears to be better than his ancestors, a man who isn’t racist and who stands up to other bigots. Except he’s just a variation on the very supremacists he aims to defeat. He doesn’t aid Atticus out of the goodness of his heart or even to redress the crimes of his predecessors. He gives reparations as a bargaining chip and welcomes Atticus into his family only to exploit his bloodline. He uses his privilege against Atticus, Montrose, Ruby, and the others just like the rest of the white folks do; he just has the foresight to dress it up in progressive words in hopes to trick them into submission.

Ruff has a history of writing fiction that twists the norm into something new and unsettling. He lures you in with something recognizable then pushes you into uncomfortable territory by forcing you to confront tradition in ways you don’t expect in fantasy fiction. With Lovecraft Country, Ruff isn’t just playing on Lovecraftian themes with his book, but with Lovecraft himself. His Cthulhu mythos has defined fantasy horror for nearly a century and inspired countless writers, but he was also an avowed racist who never hesitated to be as offensive as possible when talking about African Americans.

We people of color have had to deal with problematic faves since time immemorial. Atticus and Montrose debate how much of choosing to stick with an artist who creates things you love while spewing vileness you hate is sacrificing your personal convictions for pop culture and how much is compartmentalizing socio-cultural quandaries. And given the vitriol over whether H.P. Lovecraft should be the icon for the World Fantasy Awards, that debate is still not over. So to not only set a story about Black American life in Cthulhu trappings isn’t just intriguing storytelling but a slap in the face to Lovecraft himself. And in this Black woman’s view, that’s a damn fine thing indeed.

That whole “write what you know” adage has always been nonsense, but Ruff proves that here. He has clearly done his research here, and writes the Black characters with so much depth, variety, and complexity that I kept forgetting he is actually white. With gems like Lovecraft Country, the excuses against diversity in entertainment get weaker by the day.

Is it too early to declare Lovecraft Country my favorite book of 2016? It’s only February, but every new book from here on out has a mighty high mountain to climb if it wants to even come close. I enjoyed every ounce of Ruff’s book. It is already on the top of my stack of loan-out books.

Lovecraft Country is available now from HarperCollins.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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