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Lovecraftian Book Review: Shoggoths and Sundown Towns – Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (2016)

Posted by Harbinger451 on June 10, 2017

The Lovecraftian CategoryShoggoths and Sundown Towns – Lovecraft Country (Matt Ruff, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2016)

First off: I assume that if you’re reading this then you’re a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, but whether you are or not I strongly advise that you procure and binge on this book, it is an all-round treat and surely one of the best ever Lovecraft stories not actually written by Lovecraft himself. It is a fun and funny romp through many of Lovecraft’s themes and ideas, deliciously refuting his unashamed racism by featuring a large, well-drawn cast of highly individual and wholly capable African American characters. The central, over-arching tale – each chapter is a story that could stand alone – focuses on a 1950s African American family, along with their friends and associates, who find themselves pitted against a classic Lovecraftian trope: an evil cult whose unscrupulous intention to achieve great occult power may endanger the whole of humanity!

Cover of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Cover of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff… nice antiquing there by the graphic artist.

Each chapter is based around a separate family member or friend, describing their particular experience of it all as the plot dashes forwards, with all of these aspects ultimately uniting in the grand finale. The protagonist tying all of this together is Atticus Turner, a name which some have conjectured is a portmanteau of the principled defence lawyer Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mocking Bird and the very real, bold and defiant enslaved African American, Nat Turner, who led an uprising of enslaved and free black people against the inhumane authorities in Virginia in 1831.

Author Matt Ruff

Author Matt Ruff.

This seems apposite as he demonstrates many of their central qualities along with some that are his alone, including being a veteran of the Korean War and an avid science fiction fan. This latter attribute leads to some wonderful exchanges with his similarly enthusiastic uncle and baffled father which surely mirror the experiences of any passionate fan of speculative fiction. Interestingly, some of the most successful chapters centre on female characters. This is not least because the writer has taken care to outfit them with strong, distinctive identities and allowed them proactive agency and personal motivations that can sometimes be over looked in the writing of characters of the female persuasion – in both genre and literary fiction. It’s almost as if this particular author thinks women are real people, which again feels rather wonderful as women feature very little in canonical Lovecraft. The fact that people of colour and women share centre stage in defiance of Lovecraft’s repressive approach may have the fan boys yipping about legitimacy – but that’s just what they do, isn’t it?

The author of this gripping yarn is the critically acclaimed cult novelist, Matt Ruff, a well-regarded American writer covering diverse areas of genre fiction including sci-fi, post-cyberpunk, speculative and alternate history. His fifth book The Mirage dealt sensitively with Muslim culture and characters.

Influential horror writer H. P. Lovecraft in 1933

1933 photo of influential (and undeniable racist) horror writer H. P. Lovecraft

And so Ruff’s premise tackles Lovecraft’s notorious racism head on. This notoriety recently lead to the World Fantasy Awards replacing the bust of Lovecraft they’d used as the trophy for winners with an innocuous (and rather uninspired) statuette of a tree, finally understanding that any winner who happened to be a person of colour didn’t want the face of an infamous racist staring at them from their mantelpiece. Ruff’s confident explorations of both sundown towns – where black people were (and sometines still are) subject to legal summary execution after dusk (cf. Trayvon Martin) – and shoggoths are equally disturbing.

Most of the action in Lovecraft Country doesn’t take place either there (New England) or in Jim Crow Country either but in Chicago, yet there is still plenty of racial abuse and aggravation to go around. This randomly ranges from traffic cops pushing their petty weight around to people of colour being unable to buy houses in certain areas to the afore mentioned summary execution as punishment for the unforgivable crime of breathing while black.

The cultists – the Order of the Ancient Dawn – do not hide their intentions and prejudices behind white hoods, instead their money and power shields them. Caleb Braithewhite, the main antagonist, is apparently not an avowed racist, even standing up to bigotry to some degree. However, with an impunity born of a life time of unquestioned privilege, he also reflexively uses all of the advantages society has afforded him as a wealthy, upper class white man against our cast of every day characters who just happen to be black, in order to expedite getting what he wants. This vividly illustrates that latent and systemic racism, the kind purveyed by people who don’t consider themselves racist, also warps, damages and destroys the lives of people of colour, just as the more blatant burning crosses and lynching variety does. Caleb himself is actually a bit of a weak point, he’s not a very good bad guy, if you see what I mean.

Ruff confronts and writes well of that moment familiar to many a genre reader when a writer you adore makes plain their racist, misogynistic or homophobic opinions and a part of you dies a little in response, creating an ambivalence about whether enjoying their work is to tacitly endorse hatred. What does it mean to consume the output of someone whose moral compass points to true bigotry?  Is it hypocritical to value the work of someone whose views you fundamentally disagree with, that you know to be wrong? And how much more potent is that dilemma when you, the reader, are a member of the designated and despised demographic upon whom much venom is spewed simply for being what you are? Are you betraying yourself and your background if you read and enjoy the non-prejudiced parts anyway? The worst kind of unashamed vile racism is the great sin that taints Lovecraft’s work and I cannot imagine how it must feel to be a Lovecraft fan and a person of colour reading the Lovecraft poem, ‘On The Creation of the [N-word]’ The fact that Lovecraft Country itself – in which that particular poem is discussed – is a sharp retort and a clever clap-back to HPL’s retrogressive opinions is yet another point in its favour.

Having heaped all of that praise upon it, however, this is where I kill the buzz by pointing out that the book is not perfect. Although the characters are sensitively portrayed and the central idea of ‘who cares about tentacle monsters and blind albino penguins when I live in a society devoted to degrading, abusing and dehumanising me for every minute of my entire goddamn life?’ is a particularly effective one, it is not entirely successfully explored. The book has generally been well received but there are some lingering criticisms. Some felt it had nothing new to say on the issue of race, some felt exploring racism through the work of a notorious racist was in questionable taste.

A Shoggoth by Nottsuo

The existence of a shoggoth – as depicted here by Nottsuo – is not something you would take in your stride.

My personal criticism is this: in his eagerness to counteract Lovecraft’s position of reactionary hatred, which is a perfectly laudable aim, Ruff has created not characters but Platonic ideals of humanity, paragons almost totally without flaw, who are altogether too pat, too good, too perfect and in that they lose something of the messiness of what it means to be human. Perhaps this is a consequence of the idea that all victims are righteous? Atticus and his family and friends are all brave and clever and never confused or even slightly overawed by bizarre happenings, no one ever splutters, ‘Huh?’ or ‘What!?’ or ‘Wow!’ they merely take it all in their stride. For example, I’d be rather taken aback to accidentally discover – and reluctant to unquestioningly jump straight into – an interplanetary portal whether or not I was an astronomy enthusiast like Hippolyta who finds herself in such a situation which of course she deals with handily, remaining as they all do ever insouciant. They all drip with savoir faire and aplomb, never showing fear, cowardice or doubt. They lack any major character flaws and they never seek to turn situations to their advantage or in fact claim anything more than what they’re owed when others might well seek to leverage the situation. These incorruptible exmplars of humanity at its most faultless therefore lack the speck of authenticity that would have made them leap off the page and into a permanent place in the reader’s affections. Because of this they came off as a little pious and that is never a good look; it is an attitude that is also a trifle dull. It certainly put this reader off a little bit and I found myself longing for one of these goodie-goodies to come down with a severe case of self-interest or become even a teeny bit corrupted by the power they wielded so conscientiously. But no such luck.

Incidentally, there is no mention of Cthulhu – which is strange as that particular great old one has turned into a real media whore these days – and even the shoggoths are all off stage but people seem to forget that they mostly were in Lovecraft’s work too. And of course it would be difficult to plausibly remain preternaturally calm in the face of a gargantuan octopus god from beyond the stars, thereby breaking character.

The director of the amazing film, Get Out, Jordan Peele is to team up with JJ Abrams to make Lovecraft Country into an HBO TV show and I think the book’s episodic format should translate wonderfully, I very much look forward to seeing this novel transferred to the small screen which I think will suit the nature of the material better than a movie would. Prestige TV here we come!

[side note: Jordan Peele has said that the classic and much underrated horror movie ‘Tales From The Hood’ helped inspire ‘Get Out.’ TFTH also features a cast of black characters battling supernatural as well as racist horror, linking it to Lovecraft Country; if you haven’t seen it already, you really should seek it out.]

Of all the post-Lovecraft Lovecraftian material I’ve wolfed down over the years and, reader, that is a LOT, this book has come closest of all to matching the eerie dread Lovecraft so successfully strove to infect us with. The fact that the cause of that dread is the inescapable racism of people and society, rather than a monster the size of a house or a deadly, infectious colour says a lot. In the end, Matt Ruff has achieved something special and rare with this hugely enjoyable caper through Lovecraft’s mindscape that really has a unique perspective and something meaningful to say.

The Lovecraftian’s Rating: 9/10 (Extremely Good) – If you only read one Lovecraftesque novel about a 1950s African American family battling an evil cult this week, make it Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

Buy Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff at Amazon.com
Buy Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff at Amazon.co.uk

Please feel free to comment on this review – or, if you’ve read the book, add your own review – by replying to this post.

More Lovecraftian stuff…

Go HERE for a full list of Lovecraftian film and TV adaptations. We have an expanding section of our website dedicated to The Lovecraftian – purveyor of all the latest news, updates, chatter and trends from the field of Lovecraft lore – the man, his works and his weird worlds of Yog-Sothothery.  Stay up-to-date with the news and join The Lovecraftian’s adventurous expeditions into the world of the Cthulhu Mythos by following him on Twitter where fact and fiction become entwined! The Lovecraftian’s main webpage can be found HERE.

Also: Check out The Lovecraftian Herald, an online newspaper concerning all things Lovecraftian in the world of social media and beyond. Published daily by us here at Harbinger451.

For the uninitiated:

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an influential and prolific American writer of early twentieth century cosmic horror fiction who saw himself chiefly as a poet – though many believe that it is his immense body of often literary correspondence that is in fact his greatest accomplishment – he wrote over 100,000 letters in his lifetime. He inspired a veritable legion of genre writers then, and to this day, to set their fiction within his strange cultish world.

The Cthulhu Mythos: Lovecraft, somewhat light-heartedly, labelled the “Mythos” that he created in his body of work Yog-Sothothery – and also, on rare occasions, referred to his series of connected stories as the Arkham Cycle. It was his friend August Derleth who coined the term “Cthulhu Mythos” (named after one of the monstrous beings that featured in Lovecraft’s tales) to encapsulate his epic vision of a chaotic and dark universe filled with unspeakable horror.

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The Horror of it All








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