“Lovecraft Country” on HBO
HBO’s timely new horror series tackles the twin American monsters of racism and … well, actual monsters. Based on Matt Ruff’s hit novel of the same name, “Lovecraft Country” uses the fantastical horror fiction of pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft as inspiration—while, at the same time, directly confronting Lovecraft’s more bigoted opinions. The notoriously reclusive New England author didn’t think very highly of non-whites. (It’s best to avoid any of his many, disgusting “opinion” letters.) But, man, could that racist conjure up a squamous, gibbering beast! As a result, “Lovecraft Country” reads like the eye-opening drama of Green Book’s road trip through history mixed (surprisingly smoothly) with the queasy cosmic revelations of The Shadow Over Innsmouth’s monstrous tourist stop.
“Lovecraft Country” takes us back to mid-1950s America and introduces us to our main protagonist, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, who impressed in The Last Black Man in San Francisco). Atticus is a black soldier, recently returned from the Korean War. Despite fighting for his country, he returns to a nation deeply segregated by Jim Crow laws. Heading back to his hometown of Chicago, Atticus discovers that his estranged father has gone missing. Pop has left a thin trail, stating that he’s gone in search of the “secret history” of Atticus’ mom’s family—a route that has led him to the fabled town of Arkham, Mass. (Turns out it’s actually “Ardham,” but the eerie, Lovecraftian implications remain.)
Determined to track the old man down, Atticus joins forces with his uncle, the editor/writer of a Green Book-like travel guide called The Safe Negro Travel Guide. It’s Uncle George’s job to criss-cross the U.S. looking for restaurants, motels and other businesses that cater to black people (no small task). Atticus and George (the always reliable Courtney B. Vance) are joined on their trip to Ardham by a plucky, down-on-her-luck reporter named Letticia Lewis (Journee Smollett from “Full House,” “True Blood” and Eve’s Bayou).
Although it’s clear that Atticus and company are on the trail of some dangerous supernatural secrets, it’s the real-world horrors they encounter along the way that hit hardest. Even in light of today’s touchy racial climate, it’s positively horrifying to confront what our country was like at the midpoint of the 20th century. America actually had what were known as “sundown towns,” all-white municipalities that banned African Americans after sunset. Any who were stuck there when the sun went down were subject to harassment, violence and even lynching. This “tradition” is on vivid display in the film’s rousing pilot episode.
“Lovecraft Country” milks plenty of tension and terror out of the racist sheriffs and shotgun-toting rednecks our protagonists cross paths with on their journey. But the show doesn’t scrimp on delivering CGI beasties either. Throw a pack of slavering shoggoth into this mix (as the show’s pilot does) and things ramp up excellently into full-blow monster action.
Though it confronts a wide range of horrors, “Lovecraft Country” isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s actually something of a blast. The characters are well drawn and celebrate black nerd (“blerd”) culture in all its glory. Our man Atticus is a rabid reader who revels in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy fantasy (and in a glorious opening dream sequence, somehow manages to mash up Jackie Robinson and Cthulhu). Letticia used to be a member of Atticus’ high school sci-fi club. And his young cousin (Jada Harris) loves to draw her own comic books. This is a winking, knowing, self-referential genre fiction universe that expands with each episode.
Mish Green (a writer on “Heroes” and “Sons of Anarchy” and a creator of WGN’s “Underground”) serves as the developer and showrunner. She’s joined by executive producers Jordan Peele (Get Out, “Twilight Zone”) and J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” Star Wars: The Force Awakens), ensuring that the whole of “Lovecraft Country” has a slick, expensive look and feel.
With the mass of talent in front of and behind the camera, “Lovecraft Country” makes for smartly crafted, occasionally heart-pounding thrills—a monstrously entertaining genre reimagination underscored by horrors both real and imagined.