Anyone who’s a serious fan of horror knows their way around H.P. Lovecraft. Love him or hate him – and while most love him, he’s got his detractors – it’s hard to deny Lovecraft’s influence and impact on the horror genre. From his Cthulhu mythos to his surreal, nightmarish worlds, Lovecraft’s imagination inspired a generation of authors. And yet, as famous as Lovecraft’s writing is (and I do count myself a fan of it), there’s also the other aspect of his reputation that you have to deal with: his virulent, toxic racism, which lurks beneath the surface of so much of his writing, and often peeks through the text when you least expect it. It makes him a problematic author, one whose influence is legendary, whose talent was remarkable, and yet whose social and personal views are repellent and nauseating.
All of which brings us to Lovecraft Country, which takes the two aspects of Lovecraft’s life and combines them into something wholly unique and fascinating. Lovecraft Country is undeniably a horror novel, and one inspired by Lovecraft; it’s about a family who is summoned to an ancient estate, where they learn about the horrifying rites that are performed there, and end up trying to deal with a group working to unleash demonic forces to reshape our world. That’s pure Lovecraftian pulp, and although Lovecraft Country often feels a little more conventional in structure than your typical Lovecraft tale, there’s no denying the influence. But what makes the book work is that the supernatural side isn’t the only source of the horrors. No, Lovecraft Country is also a book about Jim Crow, where the protagonist and his family are African-Americans dealing with racism, discrimination, and fear for their lives on an everyday basis – fear that makes dealing with the supernatural a piddling task in comparison.
It’s an unusual union, but Matt Huff makes it work, marrying the fears of black Americans to the fears of unstoppable powers, and reveling in the comparisons between the two. It doesn’t hurt that Huff seems to have a knack for unsettling images and tension; whether it’s the slow emergence of a ghost through the elevator of a house or the rush to get out of a county before the police catch you committing the awful crime of “being black after sundown,” Huff treats each with equal horror and anxiety, and the parallels allow him to dive into some rich territory.
Huff’s other smart move is the choice is basically divide Lovecraft Country into a series of stories, rather than one single narrative. Mind you, all of the stories are connected to an overarching plot, but each stands alone a bit, and each feels slightly different, inspired by different works. There’s a spectacular homage to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that works as one of the book’s finest sections, in which a black woman is given the chance to tap into a very different side of the world through a transformative potion. Another section works more as a ghost story, although one that feels more akin to Shirley Jackson or Richard Matheson than it does Lovecraft’s otherworldly nightmares. Another piece ties more into sci-fi tropes, and so on. And in each, Huff finds new ways to draw parallels to the race issues he’s interested in, all while paying his chosen genre the respect it deserves.
If there’s a flaw to Lovecraft Country, it’s the sense that it never quite comes together into something truly great; the whole feels like less than the sum of the parts, and it all ultimately comes together into a more conventional, traditional climax than you’d hope from the wild book that precedes it. But none of that really detracts from the power of what you’re reading along the way, or how wonderfully ambitious and fascinating the book around it is. It’s just a bit of a letdown to get to the end and feel like the book ends without the richness you’ve come to expect from it. And yet, the ride along the way? Very, very much worth it.