The history of American racism is so ugly that merging racism and horror-fiction elements seems like a natural idea … that could go horribly, horribly wrong. Fortunately in Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, it doesn’t (cover by Jarrod Taylor, all rights to current holder)
The story: Atticus Turner is a black man in 1950s America. He lives in a world where if you’re in the wrong county after sundown, you might get lynched. There’s no guarantee any restaurant or store will accept you as a customer. If you’re in trouble, you don’t look to the cops.
Then Atticus father gets caught up with an occult society, the Order of the Ancient Dawn. It seems Atticus’ ancestor was once owned by the group’s founder, they had a child and Atticus is currently his last descendant. This makes him a powerful McGuffin the cult plans to exploit in opening gateways to other realms. Fortunately cultist Caleb Braithwaite uses this to eliminate his rivals and take over, then sends Atticus on his way … Except whenever Caleb needs the Turners again, he draws them back into his machinations. And doesn’t accept no for an answer.
WHAT I LEARNED:
Writing the ugly parts of history has power. Raw hate and racism are something I flinch from writing; I don’t know I could write Southern Discomfort if conditions in Pharisee were as brutal for blacks as they were in reality. Ruff’s characters have to deal with a world as hostile as Yuggoth or R’lyeh. Which, of course, makes an effective subtext for the book.
At the same time, Ruff does a great job in presenting Caleb Braithwaite as more than just a racist monster. He is one, but it’s a benevolent, paternal racism, at least in his eyes. He treats Atticus and his family the way some Southerners would treat house slaves or favored employees, looking out for them and protecting them from outsiders. Caleb is genuinely surprised they’re not happy with this.
Novels that are really short story collections still sell. Like Daniel Polansky’s A City Dreaming, this isn’t really a novel as much as a loose collection of stories within a single universe, using a common cast. Lots of specfic novels were first published as inter-related short stories (some of Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, for instance) but I still find it odd to have a novel written as a single story structured that way. And like the Polansky book, I think it works against the story. There’s not a real dramatic arc, just a series of incidents. The last story isn’t a climax, it’s just the last story. Likewise there’s no real character arc, except perhaps for Ruby (see below). (UPDATE: Ah, in a post about the book, Ruff says he originally conceived it as a TV series, with each chapter an episode, which explains a lot. Although it doesn’t help)
Clickbait works in book titles as well as web pages. Their really isn’t much of Lovecraft in Lovecraft Country. Although Atticus alludes to Lovecraft in the early pages when they drive off to face the cult, and racism=horror makes the whole USA a nightmare world, it’s not particularly Lovecraftian as opposed to any other type of horror. But I doubt any other name would have worked as well — “Lovecraft!” carries overtones of horror and chills as much as “Karloff!” did eighty years ago.
I can forgive minor problems if I like the book. As I’ve mentioned before. Ruff’s story has a few, but nothing I can’t get over.
•Atticus cracks a joke about being the cult’s “magic Negro.” There’s no reason to make the quip except to nudge-nudge, wink-wink over the trope (the term didn’t exist back then).
•Atticus’ father disdains specfic as largely racist. When he catches Atticus reading Lovecraft, he goes to the library and brings home a racist poem HPL wrote about blacks. Given what a minor writer Lovecraft was back then (even in the 1970s when I discovered him, he wasn’t the brand name he is now), why would the library have the poem? Why would the father even know to search for it? It felt like a more serious nudge-nudge, Ruff showing he’s aware his black-centric story is invoking a virulently racist white guy.
•One story involves Ruby, a black woman, using Caleb’s sorcery to pass as white. It’s well done (she revels in walking into stores and not being watched by detectives or told to get out), but it treats passing as a unique experience. It wasn’t; lots of black Americans passed without using magic (as I’ve been reading about). Does Ruby know people who’ve passed? Is she too dark herself to pass? Did she ever want to before? We’ve no idea.
Overall though, this was very good.