Loving Lovecraft Country

Perhaps the show I have been most eagerly anticipating this year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country (adapted from Matt Ruff’s terrific 2016 novel). High expectations can often lead to bitter disappointments, but after watching this week’s season premiere, I am already mesmerized.

“Sundown,” the pilot episode, presents a great cast (the always-stellar Michael Kenneth Williams hasn’t even appeared yet), portraying likable, believable, stereotype-defying characters. The costume and set designs are first-rate, bringing mid-1950’s America to vibrant life. And the plot appears quite faithful to the source novel (save perhaps for a scene involving the transformative effect of a “shoggoth” bite).

Most admirably of all, the series reflects Ruff’s skillful handling of racially-charged subject matter (as the real, historical horrors of slavery, segregation, and discrimination are juxtaposed with imagined cosmic nightmares). The worst aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s racism are bluntly acknowledged, via character reference to the writer’s notorious poem, “On the Creation of N—ers.” But Lovecraft Country engages with its eponymous weird-wordsmith (and pulp-era genre fiction in general) in a way that is critical without ever turning tendentious and entertainment-ruining. The protagonist Atticus Freeman sounds a telling note when his reading choices (specifically, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars) are questioned early in the episode: “Stories are like people,” he asserts. “Loving them does not make them perfect. You just try to cherish ’em, overlook their flaws.” Such a perspective is no doubt refreshing, especially in the current (cancel-)cultural climate where Lovecraft-bashing has become oh-so-fashionable, and expressed readerly appreciation of the classic Cthulhu Mythos tales can easily serve as an open invitation to indictment.

For fans looking to drive deeper into Lovecraft Country, there’s a companion podcast, Lovecraft Country Radio, that is well worth the listen.

Lovecraft Country airs Sunday nights on HBO.

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