Olga Stein

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Lovecraft Country: Monsters in America

Embarking on a review of Lovecraft Country, an HBO series currently trending on Crave, is, I suspect, either like coming to a celebration late, having missed all of the excellent tributes, or it’s like arriving in time to hear a great keynote speech and realizing that something can yet be added to fully mark the occasion. Lovecraft Country, the series based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, has already received a great deal of attention—from academics included. There are obvious and somewhat less obvious reasons for this. The televisual adaptation, a story that revolves around members of two African-American families living in 1950s Chicago and grappling with malevolent forces, offers a stylish and appropriately macabre homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s large oeuvre of dark fantasy or gothic or weird fiction (all appropriate labels for the Lovecraftian brew of fantasy and horror). With its monsters, human and supernatural, the series, like the novel it’s based on, is fanciful, gripping popular entertainment (though to be clear, its pop culture credentials by no means render it “low” entertainment; as I’ll explain below, this isn’t stuff that pulp fiction is made of, however it may reference it). Yet what accounts for the series’ favourable reception among ordinary viewers and critics alike is not that, or not just that; it is watchable and compelling because of its thought-provoking and sustained critique of America’s in-the-bone kind of racism. Moreover, the critique is clearly meant to be seen as applicable today as it is to the Jim Crow America of the 1950s, which is where most of the Lovecraft Country’s stories unfold. Its unmistakable message—that Black lives continue not to matter—is, let’s face it, exceedingly timely.

This brings me to what I deem to be the less obvious reasons for critics’ enthusiastic engagement with the series—reasons which also justify my own excursion into Lovecraft Country. To be effective, a critique of racism in America, then and now, must occur on several levels, including the formal one. This is a more complicated endeavor than many assume, and in this respect, the novel, in its very conceit, and the series, which closely adheres to it, aspires to much more than landing a few well-placed jabs. The critique on view here doesn’t merely point out the obvious; it appropriates some of the essential plot components of H. P. Lovecraft’s tales, and uses them to construct a radically different allegory. Put otherwise, it doesn’t just undermine the unexamined assumptions about American society and its ordering principles, which unquestionably animated Lovecraft’s storytelling. It upends them.

The protagonists’ road trip from Chicago to Arkham, Massachusetts (Arkham is the actual town of Oakham in thin disguise), and the racism that Atticus Turner, his uncle George, and childhood friend, Letitia, negotiate along the way, are perfect examples of these formal tactics. In the series, the sequence of scenes, depicting racial harassment en route, play out with a recording in the background of an historic speech James Baldwin made in 1965 in Cambridge (Baldwin framed racism as a metaphysical problem, since it determined a “system of reality,” a fixed way of understanding the world, which a vast number of Americans were neither able nor wanted to escape). The transition for the audience to the viewpoint of the Black travellers that these scenes effect is therefore key. Their anxieties in the face of pervasive aggression (potently conveyed by the trio of actors), and their courageous insistence on completing their mission to discover the whereabouts of Atticus’ missing father, subvert the typical Lovecraftian narrative. The result is that white male subjectivities are so successfully displaced by those of the empathy-provoking Black characters, that the America we experience on the way to Arkham, becomes a whole other country—one of cruel and murderous white men.

Nothing signals the minefield-quality of cross-country travel in the USA than the name of George’s publication, “The Safe Negro Travelers Guide.” George literally maps the American Midwest and Eastern Seaboard, so that Black motorists can steer clear of danger in the form of hostile proprietors and heavily armed white men (townspeople, sheriffs). The more arcane map that George and Atticus consult, which has something of a nautical itinerary about it, shows the way to Massachusetts, with a hooded figure drawn over Arkham. The sinister symbol—a mythic monster, or, perhaps, a member of the Ku Klux Klan—speaks volumes.

Frederic Jameson, an important and oft-cited critic of contemporary culture and its postmodern manifestations, refers to urban theorist Kevin Lynch’s study, The Image of the City (1964), and his concept of cognitive mapping in a way that, I’d argue, sheds meaningful light on the representational function of the map employed by Atticus and George. Jameson is quoted below because readers may not fully appreciate the full, psychological implications of George’s “Safe Negro Travelers Guide,” or indeed, of his strange road map of Massachusetts. For Lynch, writes Jameson,

The cognitive map…is called upon…to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole….Yet Lynch’s work also suggests a further line of development insofar as cartography itself constitutes its key mediatory instance…. Lynch’s subjects are rather clearly involved in precartographic operations whose results traditionally are described as itineraries rather than as maps: diagrams organized around the still subject-centered or existential journey of the traveler, along which various significant key features are marked….(Jameson, pp. 50-1)

It’s a master stroke, this turning of the tables on white America, in a series that is indebted to the work of a writer for whom existential dread—his sense of danger and dark forces encroaching on his home turf—arose in part from the inescapable circumstance of having to share his country with people who were racially and ethnically different.

The title itself, “Lovecraft Country” evokes a time (of strictly enforced segregation), places (small towns strung along main roads, a predominantly white New England, the setting associated with many of Lovecraft’s stories), and, significantly, a particular state of mind—a reigning collective consciousness. Lovecraft’s own often expressed racism and xenophobia didn’t materialize out of nothing, it must be remembered. Born in 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, in his twenties, the precocious Lovecraft would have already been exposed to the writing and speeches of early 20th century American racists, nativists, and eugenicists—popular public figures like Madison Grant (1865-1937), Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944), and Harry Hamilton Laughlin (11, 1880 – 26, 1943). All of them issued warnings about “alien menaces” and predicted the destruction of America’s superior “Nordic” race.

In “Race and People,” Chapter 11 of Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote: “The Jew uses every possible means to undermine the racial foundations of a subjugated people. In his systematic efforts to ruin girls and women he strives to break down the last barriers of discrimination between him and other peoples.” The ideas Hitler promulgated had a clear line of descent. Less than a decade earlier, Charles Davenport asserted in a paper for The American Philosophical Society, “The Effect of Race Intermingling,” that “miscegenation commonly spells disharmony—disharmony of physical, mental and temperamental qualities and this means also disharmony with environment. A hybridized people are a badly put together people and a dissatisfied, restless, ineffective people” (1917, p. 366). A year before that, Madison Grant had made the impassioned claim that if the American “Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control,…[it would bring the] nation toward a racial abyss.” Miscegenation, he argued, always results in regression: “The cross between a white man and a negro is a negro….[T]he cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew” (1916, p. 228).

Clearly, we don’t need to rehash the many ways that the American eugenics movement came to be discredited, and its conclusions derided. It is a historical fact that despite the support it received for several decades, by the end of the 1930s it was fiercely rejected by the scientific community, along with its racist agenda and bogus methodologies. Yet America’s preoccupation with race and whiteness was and remains part of its grand narrative—part of the nostalgic, backward-looking, and self-deluding determination to return to some former moment of “greatness.” Lovecraft Country’s clever appropriation of the bugaboo of “miscegenation,” and the pivotal role that heredity plays in its storyline, is therefore truly noteworthy.

Atticus, to his dismay, discovers that he is the descendant of a slave raped by her owner, a powerful occultist named Titus Braithwhite. Titus’s surviving relative, Samuel Braithwhite, is likewise a powerful occultist, and head of an “association” of white men called Sons of Adam, a name that references Genesis, the greatest and oldest of grand narratives. As it happens, Atticus’s bloodline matters to Samuel Braithwhite. Atticus may be “darker than [Samuel] expected,” but as Titus’s only other surviving male descendant, Atticus is important because his sacrificial killing can make Samuel immortal. Later in the series, Samuel’s daughter Christina, hellbent on achieving immortality for herself, and by the same means, assures Atticus——in what is a merciless play on white women’s privilege—that she has nothing against him and his family. He, a Black man, happens to share with her some special familial DNA, and she needs to kill him as part of the sacrificial ritual she is scheming to perform. It’s “not personal,” she declares. Of course it isn’t.

There is more to Lovecraft Country than its monsters, eye-candy set designs, and colour schemes (the tints and tones of the street scenes resemble those of Fred Herzog’s sumptuous photographs of 1950s Vancouver). Lovecraft Country attempts to score some serious points, and, I believe, viewers can suss them out by referring to the (extra-textual) historical and real-world circumstances and people—those who conspired to maintain cultural hegemony by disenfranchising their fellow Black American citizens, for example. Historically speaking, eugenicists and their supporters were powerful, influential men. A large number of them wielded authority in political and academic milieus, and their ideas respecting the inferiority of non-white peoples, their nativism, and homophobia constructed a seemingly rational and moral worldview—a kind of grand narrative—that was embraced by large segments of the American public. Harry Laughlin, an American sociologist, aspired one day to be a member of an Institute of National Eugenics at the University of Virginia. In a letter to Wickliffe Preston Draper, heir to a textile fortune, and founder of the Pioneer Fund in support of the eugenics movement in the U.S., Laughlin mentioned that the U of V “has a tradition of American aristocracy which the nation treasures very highly.” Besides, the American South by and large would be a logical place for a eugenics institute “because of its historical background and traditional racial attitude” (Laughlin to Draper, draft letter; 18 March 1936).

Regarding Lovecraft Country, then, it is worth keeping in mind what the aforementioned philosopher of culture, Frederic Jameson, wrote about the subversive aims and conventions of postmodern literature and cinema: namely, that they can take on unexpected guises:

The Postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by [the] whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture,…its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply “quote,” as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance. (pp. 1-2)

What, for instance, does the mage (or Grand Wizard) Samuel Braithwhite and his secretive and exclusive society of white men, calling themselves “Sons of Adam”, represent if not a darkly funny amalgam of white supremacists, members of the KKK, eugenicists, and xenophobic business leaders. What is the magic practiced by the Braithwhite, its potency determined by heredity, if not the hocus-pocus of the eugenics movement. And who is Atticus if not the son of the sons and daughters of white men, a great great grandson resulting from the “miscegenation” wilfully practiced by plantation owners when they raped the women they came to own. Who is Atticus if not the embodiment of that violence—his beautiful body serving as its one and only redemptive outcome.

Jameson had another thing to say about fantastic works like Lovecraft Country, and this pertains to political praxis. It’s worth considering, given the current state of the world.

Fabulation—or if your prefer—mythomania and outright tall tales—is no doubt the symptom of social and historical impotence, of the blocking of possibilities that leaves little option but the imaginary. Yet its very invention and inventiveness endorses a creative freedom with respect to events it cannot control, by the sheer act of multiplying them; agency here steps out of the historical record itself into the process of devising it; and new multiple or alternate strings of events rattle the bars of the national tradition and the history manuals whose very constraints and necessities their parodic force indicts. (p. 369)

References

Barkan, E. (1992). The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.

Davenport, C.B. (1917). “The Effect of Race Intermingling,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 65 (1917), 366-7.

— Charles Benedict Davenport Papers (1874-1946). American Philosophical Society Library.

Grant, M. (1916). The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kenny, M. G. (2002). Toward a racial abyss: Eugenics, Wickliffe Draper, and the origins of The Pioneer Fund. Journal of History of Behavioral Sciences. 38 (3), 259-283. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jhbs.10063

Laughlin, H. (1937-9). Resolution in Reference to the Need of a Clinic in Human Heredity. In H. Harry H. Laughlin Papers. Manuscript Collection L1 (“E” Boxes). Pickler Memorial Library, Truman State University.

Schultz, N. L. (1999). Fear Itself: Enemies Real & Imagined in American Culture. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.

 

Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available online at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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