In his Cthulhu Mythos, H.P. Lovecraft created a universe that is actively hostile, constantly threatened by a terrifying and unknowable “other” beyond the realm of human understanding. At best, Lovecraft’s cults and monsters view humanity as something vaguely useful to manipulate. At worst, they are actively malicious, and eager to hurt us directly. Lovecraft was, of course, a massive xenophobe. His version of existential dread remains more or less a first-world problem, an idea of an encroaching Other that seems to only affect white people.
In Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff uses his trademark sense of humor and versatile control of narrative form to satirize both the hoary genre tropes of Lovecraft’s Gothic style, and the issues of racism and xenophobia that sadly remain an inextricable part of American life. It focuses on the three families, each facing their share of terrors, but instead of Lovecraftian gods and monsters, the Elders are a group of privileged whites who view anyone unlike them as a pawn, if not a target of active malice. It isn’t the supernatural, of course, but it becomes benign and occasionally beneficial next to the larger and more realistic systemic threats.
In a linked series of stories, each one drawing from gothic horror traditions but hopping and skipping across genres from comic fantasy to pulp adventure, Ruff follows three black families in conflict with the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn. Where the (white) protagonists of Lovecraft’s tales were driven to death and ruin by incomprehensible forces, the families in Lovecraft Country are frequently able to turn the tables on their supernatural foes through a combination of resourcefulness, genre savvy, and, as “other” themselves, simply being unfazed by the Other.
The novel’s greatest strength is its thematic playfulness, as Ruff recontextualizes and reshapes each story to explore race and racism. “The Dreams of the Which House” explores the hardships of being the first person of color to move into a white neighborhood. “Jekyll in Hyde Park” marries the structure of “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to a story about white privilege. The title story might be about supernatural forces and ancient cults, but the real issue at its heart is far from imaginary: police brutality and institutionalized racism across the United States.
Even the villains speak to the larger issues at play. In one story, a young black man is cursed by someone claiming to be a police officer. The “curse” resembles severe PTSD, causing shortness of breath, nightmares, extreme terror at recalling the event in question, and an inability to tell anyone what happened. In the larger meta-narrative, the leader of the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn seems to believe he’s owed some sort of reward simply for treating the main characters as if they are humans worthy of respect. Even then, the mask slips, and he resorts to threats and manipulations warped by the lenses of his occult knowledge and white privilege.
Ruff excels at giving his frequently outlandish scenarios personal stakes. Stock horror elements become truly terrifying, his racist poltergeists, forbidding houses, and Zuni fetish dolls regaining some of the menace they’ve lost through years of overuse. Ruff expertly constructs each set piece, building tension and playing with our expectations, sometimes playing it straight, sometimes flipping the script for comedic effect. He even uses the same plot point twice, once as horror, and once as slapstick comedy.
Lovecraft Country is a genre-bending attempt to address the severe problem of race in modern America, skewering the prejudices of older pulp works while maintaining their flavor, but it’s also a compulsively readable horror-fantasy in its own right: timely, terrifying, and hilarious.