Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re watching the first two episodes of Lovecraft Country, airing on HBO August 16 and 23, 2020. Spoilers ahead (but go watch first, because this show is amazing).
“At the dawn of time, just for a moment, everything was where and as it should be… it was nirvana… what was an elegant hierarchy became a mess of tribes and nations.”
Episode 1: Atticus Freeman is a soldier fighting in mean trenches. Planes streak overhead. Also flying saucers. An alien woman descends to embrace Atticus and summon Cthulhu. Jackie Robinson bats Cthulhu to bits, and Atticus wakes on a Chicago-bound bus, gripping A Princess of Mars.
The bus breaks down, and Atticus and another Black passenger walk on while the whites ride. About problematic fiction, Atticus says stories are like people, imperfect, but you try to cherish them anyway. Speaking of which, he’s going home to find his father Montrose, who’s missing.
In Chicago we meet uncle George Freeman (who publishes a safe-travel guide for Negroes), George’s wife Hippolyta, and their daughter Dee. Atticus reads Montrose’s letter, claiming he’s gone to “Arkham” to investigate his dead wife’s ancestry. George squints at the handwriting and corrects him: Ardham. He also describes the white man who took Montrose away in a silver sedan, and insists on coming along to Massachusetts—for guide book research.
Letitia Lewis, Atticus’s childhood friend, has also come home, and hitches a ride with George to stay with her brother. On the way, George stops to review a Negro-friendly diner. But the diner’s changed hands, via arson, and its patrons are NOT friendly. A truckload pursues the trio, rifles blazing. A silver sedan cuts off the truck, which magically somersaults through the air. Looking back, Atticus sees a blonde woman step out.
At Letitia’s brother Marvin’s house, he warns them of their destination, notoriously dangerous for Negroes: Bears or wolves (or just Sheriff Eustace Hunt) prowl the woods around Ardham. He and Letitia argue, and next morning Letitia travels on with the Freemans.
Unable to find the Ardham road, the trio get out, only to hear Something rustle in the woods. Maybe a shoggoth? Sheriff Hunt appears: “You’ve heard of sundown towns? This is a sundown county.” He chases them to the border, which they cross just as the sun sets. But no easy escape—Hunt now accuses them of burglaries. He and his deputies march the trio into the darkening forest and threaten them with rifles. Suddenly shoggoths attack—not the iconic blobs, but a cross between velociraptors and many-eyed toothy toads!
Atticus and Letitia run to a cabin. Hunt and one deputy follow, Hunt wounded. George arrives last, holding off monsters with flashlight. Letitia (a former track star) races for George’s car and safety flares. She barely makes it. Meanwhile, bite-infected Hunt turns “shoggoth.” He kills the deputy, withstands Atticus’ shotgun blast, flees when Letitia smashes into the cabin. They hold other monsters off until strange whistle disperses them.
Morning sees our bedraggled heroes trudging toward a manor house. A blond man (William) welcomes Atticus to Ardham Lodge.
Episode 2: Letitia dances around her Lodge suite, trying on perfect-fitting clothes. George revels in his private SFF library. Atticus sits pensive. William escorts them to lunch, claiming Montrose went to Boston with Christina Braithwhite, daughter of Lodge owner Samuel. Samuel will host Lodge members for dinner; Atticus will attend. William also offers historical tidbits: the Lodge replicates one built by Titus Braithwhite which burned in 1833, sparing one survivor.
Letitia and George remember nothing of the monsters. They walk to Ardham Village, a pre-modern farming community, and meet creepy constable Dell. (Generally, just assume everyone in Ardham is creepy, on a scale from “living Ken doll” to “ghostly banjos.” Dell’s at the banjo end.) Atticus suspects Montrose is imprisoned in a stone tower Dell calls a food repository. Heading back, George recalls Atticus’ mother mentioning an enslaved ancestress, Hanna, who escaped her master’s fire-engulfed house. Could Atticus be related to the Braithwhites?
Twilight falls, monsters attack. Christina arrives on horseback to whistle them off, and again Letitia and George are monster-amnesic. Suite-confined, George discovers a hidden library holding the “Bylaws of the Order of the Ancient Dawn.”
Atticus meets Samuel, Christina sitting by. Samuel says Adam named all creatures, giving them their “proper places in the hierarchy of nature.” Then Eve brought entropy and death. Atticus supposes in the “ideal” hierarchy Samuel is God. No: Adam, who’s long waited to “return to paradise.” Atticus will remedy that in a ceremony at dawn.
Escorting Atticus to his room, Christina warns the Sons of Adam are dangerous—Atticus needs friends in Ardham. Atticus suggests his friend Christina should remove the amnesia spell. She complies, and we hear Letitia and George screaming. Atticus, magically confined, cannot help.
Still locked in, our heroes suffer visions. Letitia tells Atticus about her childhood abandonment before they embrace and (because HBO) Atticus (not actually Atticus) reveals a striking serpent-penis. A Korean woman in battle fatigues attacks the real Atticus. They grapple; Atticus strangles her. George sees Dora, Atticus’s dead mother. They dance until George repudiates his unreal ex-lover.
At dinner George ambush-addresses the all-white Sons of Adam: While the Order’s Bylaws bar Negroes, a loophole makes descendents of Titus Braithwhite “sons of sons” who may command “lesser” members. Atticus then orders all but Samuel to leave, and Samuel to release Montrose. Samuel sneers the loophole doesn’t affect him, adding Atticus is useful as a reservoir of Titus’s power, but not indispensable.
The trio rush to the tower to free Montrose. Dell intercepts them, but Letitia clubs her unconscious. Montrose, though has already tunneled out. All pile into Christina’s silver sedan (stolen by Letitia), but an invisible barrier wrecks it. Christina and Samuel arrive. Samuel shoots and seems to kill Letitia, then wounds George.
While villagers prepare Atticus, Christina explains that Samuel means to open the “gate to Eden,” thus gaining immortality. Titus failed; Samuel believes using Atticus’s blood, he’ll succeed. Atticus wonders why Christina would help the father who disdains her. Through a spell-window they watch Letitia revive—Samuel promises to heal George too, after Atticus is done with the ceremony. Christina offers cryptic advice: Forefathers don’t decide one’s fate; the most inconsequential thing might, if one seizes it.
In the ceremonial chamber, Samuel chants in Adam’s language and activates wizardly devices. Their focus, Atticus, bleeds life-energy into a slow-forming light-gate. Within appears a pregnant Black woman in 19th-century clothes: Hanna! Ardham Lodge begins disintegrating. Atticus reaches for Hanna, and the gate explodes, annihilating Samuel and Order members. Hanna leads Atticus to safety before vanishing, while the Lodge collapses behind him.
He’s reunited with Letitia and Montrose but, in his miraculously repaired car, George lies dead.
What’s Cyclopean: “Shouting in the language of Adam” may win some kind of award for informative subtitles.
The Degenerate Dutch: Historically accurate n-words all over the place—along with historically accurate segregation, sundown towns, and generally-overt systems of white supremacy.
Mythos Making: The opening scene is a dream sequence, just so Cthulhu can set the tone. Later we get Ardham-not-Arkham, with woods full of things that are probably not shoggothim.
Libronomicon: Princess of Mars and The Outsider and Others (strongly and incorrectly implied to include that poem in its contents) both make early appearances to illustrate the deep problematicity of the source material, and the soon-to-be-proven-inaccurate claim that black boys from the South Side don’t get to have fantastic adventures.
Also The Book of Names is not the same as The Book of Dead Names; don’t get them mixed up.
Madness Takes Its Toll: When only Tic remembers the monsters, Letitia wonders if he’s got shell shock.
Even more than Ruff’s novel, HBO’s Lovecraft Country terrifies me. Its people out-monster the monsters, while monsters do allowable monster things, like generating crap-tons of viscera.
Maybe people, too, just follow their natures—natures hideously augmented by nurture.
My stomach turns in anticipation of abuse whenever a white person approaches our heroes. Sometimes it’s “mild” abuse, as at an ice cream stand where servers ignore the Black customers’ line. It scales up from the bus-breakdown forced march, through the gas station jerk’s ape imitation and Hunt forcing Atticus to slur himself, to multiple physical assaults.
It’s a relief when “shoggoths” make their appearance, a greater relief when Hunt turns “shoggoth”—at least he isn’t a human monster anymore. What are monsters but metaphors, fantastic embodiments of malice safely distancing us from unbearable reality? Lovecraft Country breaks no new ground comparing made-up and true monsters. Invariably, for me, it’s the true—the human—abominations that scare.
It was hard to watch these first episodes, even as they entertained me. Still, I’m eager to see where the filmmakers’ changes will lead.
I’ll start with the least apparently-consequential change. The book-Freemans’ comic-mad kid is male, Horace, rather than female, Dee. No problem: The gender change does boost the Freemans’ coolness factor—they’re fine with a geeky daughter. Then again, both Freemans are geeks, George for SFF, Hippolyta for astronomy.
In the book Hunt chases one of George’s safe-travel employees out of Devon. Having Hunt chase our heroes instead adds immediacy. Characters not featured early in the book appear: Ruby, Letitia’s sister, and Hippolyta, George’s wife. Ruby has an important book-storyline, which the series (I expect) will explore. Same with Hippolyta. In the book, she’s first mentioned as already a road-researcher; in the film, George has kept her safe at home, writing reviews from his road-notes, a restriction that chafes Hippolyta. This change gives Hippolyta added importance, and supplies George with a growth opportunity—he calls Hippolyta from Marvin’s to propose she accompany him on his next research trip. Featuring Hippolyta “in the flesh” gives weight to her and George’s relationship, upping the poignancy of George’s fate.
The film adds to Atticus’ wartime experiences. His South Korea phone call and vision of a murder-bent Korean woman imply Atticus had an affair in Korea. Obviously it ended badly.
Pre-vision, George says Atticus’ mother Dora told him things about her ancestry that she kept from her husband and son. George’s vision reveals he had an affair with Dora, and Atticus may really be his son. As George lies wounded, it’s clear Montrose already knew he may not be Atticus’ father. This may explain part of the tension between Montrose and Atticus and lead to twists as the series continues.
The biggest change is the gender-switch of Caleb, Samuel’s son. My first reaction was, Oh hell, is Caleb now gorgeous Christina so Atticus can fall in bad-love with her? What about Letitia, whose chemistry with Atticus is sizzling? However, there’s no romance between Atticus and Christina.
A major plus for Caleb-to-Christina is that the Sons’ misogyny disqualifies Christina from joining the Order—an obvious reason for her to turn against Samuel, and for her to sympathize with Atticus’s exclusion-because-not-one-of-US. Not all whites are bigots, she says. Whether or not she can back that up, she and Atticus connect as proto-allies.
There’s a film scene where Christina delivers a cow-birthed “shoggoth,” then cradles it lovingly. What’s this all about? It does deepen sympathy for Christina (for shoggoth-loving me, anyhow.) It also intrigues: What are “shoggoths”? The film versions are far different from the book’s, which always remains amorphous shadow.
Amorphous shadows are less film-friendly than frog-velociraptors.
I’m good with Christina. That George dies so soon, not so much. The show builds so much sympathy for him—can his death merely be an angst-heightener?
I’ll stick around to see.
Cosmic horror takes place at a strange intersection between the impersonal and the personal. On the one hand, the core of the genre is an uncaring universe in which you, your civilization, your species, are utterly trivial. On the other hand, readers are usually human and do have a bias toward finding their own species kind of interesting. Story happens when impersonal indifference has a personal impact. Often that impact is psychological—how do you cope with life in a universe that isn’t what you thought, and isn’t on your side?
Of course, the second part of that question only makes sense if you thought the universe was on your side in the first place. That is, as we’ve discussed before, a rare thing. Cosmic horror written from a position of oppression, rather than privilege, has to find new questions—or new takes on “a universe that isn’t what you thought.”
One of the ways that an impersonal universe gets personal, in Lovecraft, is by undermining the stories people tell about their special-ness—and in particular about their families. What’s more personal than the family that shapes you? The ancestors who show what you might become? Tic Freeman starts Lovecraft Country with ideas about who his family is, and about who gets stories, that his experiences undermine in thorough cosmic horror fashion. Turns out, kids from the South Side of Chicago do get adventures. And turns out, too, that he’s descended from a family of monsters.
Part of not starting from a false center—from imagining the universe somehow on your side—is knowing already that you’ve probably got a monster or a few in your ancestry. (Dealing with that nastiness, for example, is part of why Judaism is matrilineal.) However, those monsters don’t usually impose on their n-generations-removed descendents the way the Braithwaites do on the Freemans.
The general outlines of this imposition are similar in Lovecraft Country the book, and Lovecraft Country the show. But the details added and changed in the show make the challenges of dealing with tainted ancestry—literary and literal—far more intense. Much of this is down to Misha Greene, Jordan Peele, and the other producers and writers of color who did the work of taking a well-researched story by a white author, and turning it into an even more well-researched, yet viscerally #ownvoices, epic. And much is down to the Black actors who inhabit and shape the characters. (A certain amount is also down to the caucasian actors who throw themselves fully into the “terrifying Barbie doll” aesthetic of the Braithwaites, and into getting across exactly how frightening all-white towns actually are.)
So what is different? For a start, the show draws a sharp contrast between the “here there be monsters” territory of the Green Book, and the messy, loving, neighborly community of the South Side. That—not Lovecraft’s little white corner of Providence—is the bubble of safety amid a world of malevolence and indifference. Then there’s the spectacular soundtrack, both connecting fantastic events to that familiar background, and drawing parallels between the fantastic dangers and the all-too-mundane threat of sundown towns and sheriffs. I particularly loved, played over the Braithwaites’ attempt to reconnect with paradise over Tic’s dead body, the “your triumph is not my triumph” bitterness of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon.”
And then at the climax of that ritual, the show branches dramatically away from the book. In the book, Tic uses Braithwaite Junior’s gift to shield himself from the deadly light of creation and get it all over the rest of the Sons, and walks out to his family, waiting and safe. Here, not only cult but house collapse, Usher-like, and Tic escapes by following the image of his non-monstrous ancestor, Hannah, out through the falling rubble—with the implication that she was in a similar position the night she escaped. Some of your ancestors may have been monsters, Tic realizes, but some weren’t—and you can choose which side of that story you let shape your own actions.
His family, however, doesn’t come away unscathed in this version: his escape has a price that seems likely to echo through the rest of the series. Rare among adaptations, the show is moving in deeper and more nuanced directions than the book—and tough as that may be on the characters, I’m very much looking forward to seeing where it goes.
Looking back over 300 issues, we’re excited by how far we’ve come, and eager to do more. However, we have come a long way—from a literal reread of Lovecraft’s work to an overview of the full history and range of weird fiction, most of which is new to us. Thinking about that—and about recent discussions of how Lovecraft is far from the only author central to the cosmic horror—we’ve decided to change the title of the column from The Lovecraft Reread to Reading the Weird. Along with the title change, we’re at last responding to audience requests to cover longread favorites. From this point forward, we’ll alternate short story weeks with making our way through longer works, starting with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House! Our short story weeks will continue to cover the same expansive range, and we’ll continue to track important metrics of cyclopeanness and degeneracy.
Next week, we’ll kick off the new title with a look back at how authors (including Lovecraft) define the weird. And then, on to Hill House!
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.