When Lovecraft Country, HBO’s new series about a Black family confronting the social and supernatural horrors of 1950s America, premiers on August 16th it will have come full circle. That’s because before he penned the novel that the series is based on, Matt Ruff pitched his idea as a television series. Ruff’s novel was released to critical acclaim in 2016, and one year later HBO announced it was producing a television adaptation executive produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams with Misha Green serving as showrunner.
The most recent trailer for Lovecraft Country has many horror fans curious about the series and the novel it’s based on. To help them learn more I spoke with Matt Ruff about his novel, its inspirations, some of the differences between the book and the series, and why those changes have him excited.
“I needed a thematic bridge between paranormal horror and racism. Lovecraft is that. He’s a very important and talented cosmic horror writer, but he’s also a white supremacist.”
Dave Richards for Nightmare on Film Street: A lot of people might be coming to Lovecraft Country because of the title of the book and what looks to be Cthulhu in the trailer for the television adaptation. There is some mythos inspired stuff there, but from what I read the real inspirations were a classic ’90s TV show and a hike you went on in college.
Matt Ruff: Yes, the initial inspiration for this particular story came when I was invited to offer some television pitches around 2007. One of the ideas I came up with was Lovecraft Country. The initial idea was to do a show like The X-Files where I would have a recurring cast of characters having paranormal adventures. Instead of white FBI agents from the ’90s though this would be about a black family who ran a travel agency in Chicago in the 1950s. They published a fictional version of the Green Book called “The Safe Negro Travel Guide”. It’s a book that tells black travelers where they can find welcome around the U.S. in the time when segregation was legal.
So, the family would have paranormal adventures, but they’d also experience the more mundane horrors of life in racist America at that time. That’s sort of how Lovecraft came in. I needed a thematic bridge between paranormal horror and racism. Lovecraft is that. He’s a very important and talented cosmic horror writer, but he’s also a white supremacist. After giving it that title I brought in some other Lovecraftian elements.
And yes, the ur moment for what became Lovecraft Country was much earlier. When I was in college at Cornell I was friends with a guy named Joseph Scantlebury. One of the things I liked to do at Cornell was go on long walks. Cornell is located in Ithaca, and at that time it was a cosmopolitan island surrounded by rural farmland. So, I’d go out and get lost around the farmland and eventually make my way back to campus. One day, I stopped on the way home to talk with Joe. I said he should go on a hike and he kind of laughed and said, “Matt, I’m black; I can’t go wandering around the countryside, not if I want to live to see graduation.” I was like, “What are you talking about? We’re in the north.” He kind of laughed again and said, “I know that, but I still can’t go walking around the countryside.”
I thought about that the next time I was out walking and I realized that I didn’t see very many people on these walks, but the ones I’d run into were all white, and they were the kind of folks who drove pickup trucks with gun racks. I didn’t get hassled, but if I had looked like Joe I might have got a very different reception. If anything did happen to you there was nowhere to run. You’d disappear. So, I realized Joe and I may be in the same geographical space, but in a very important way it was an entirely different country for Joe than it was for me. That stuck with me. Joe also introduced me to Professor James Turner who was a teacher in the African Studies department. The things I learned from both of them stayed with me for many years, and it’s part of the reason that when I thought about doing an X-Files style show I thought it should be about black folks in America.
“…because they had this grounding in real-life trials and tribulations [of black Americans] when the fantastic starts showing up they’re actually kind of prepared in a weird way.”
As I said, I pitched it as a TV series, about 13 years ago. It didn’t go anywhere, but I liked the story so I found out a way to tell it as a novel. It was with the idea that this could work as proof of concept for a TV series. The book came out right around the time Jordan Peele was finishing up Get Out. He was thinking about what his next project might be and someone, I still don’t know who, sent him a copy of the novel.
So, one day my agent called and said, “We have a bunch of people who want to talk you about this. One of them is Jordan Peele.” He thought that was odd since, at the time, Jordan was known for comedy. I ended up getting on the phone with Jordan and Misha Green who had done Underground, which was a show I really liked. It was basically The Great Escape set on a slave plantation. We had a really wonderful phone conversation where it was clear we were all on all the same wavelength. They got what I was trying to do with the novel, and I was very excited to see what they would do with it. The first trailer for Get Out appeared shortly after that, and as soon as I saw it I understood why Jordan was interested. The other thing that was exciting was that it was clear this would be a very successful movie and it would make it much easier for Jordan to pitch Lovecraft Country. That’s kind of how we got here.
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The reality of Lovecraft Country’s setting means it’s a horror story where the characters don’t have very many places they feel safe. Would you say it’s the driving force of your characters to find safe places?
MR: One of the things that sort of sparked this was learning about the idea of the Green Book. If you were black in the 1950s, you couldn’t take a drive across country without planning it out like a military campaign. And this wasn’t just the south. It was all over the country. There were whole states where there might be one or two places you could be sure you could stop, get a meal, use the bathroom, and maybe get a motel room. It made everything so much harder. So yeah, one of the driving forces of the story is it’s about these very brave, resourceful people finding their way through this hostile landscape. That’s what the story was largely about.
Also, one of the problems with telling stories about racism in America is it’s so depressing. It’s important to know about, but at the same time do you want to watch people suffering like that for hours at a time? So, with this it’s not about the suffering. It’s about the odds are stacked against us. What are we going to do to make things work? It’s about people taking action and figuring out ways to have little triumphs and make it through the day. So, it’s honest, but it’s also hopeful. The characters are equal to the task.
What made that especially interesting for horror was that because they had this grounding in real-life trials and tribulations when the fantastic starts showing up they’re actually kind of prepared in a weird way. Their lives are already fairly surreal with some of the stuff they have to deal with. So a monster under the bed or a Shoggoth is not that big a departure for them. The other thing is that my protagonist, Atticus, and his uncle George, are both nerds. They love horror, science fiction, and fantasy. So, if they encounter a monster they might know the rules for dealing with it.
“Lovecraft is sort of the ultimate challenge for somebody who wants to love this kind of fiction even though it’s spitting in your face.”
By having George and Atticus be nerds you’re also able to comment on the works of authors like Lovecraft who were skilled, but often fueled by vile ideas.
MR: Yes. Some hardcore Lovecraft fans feel like the book set out to put him on trial. That wasn’t the point. What I wanted to do here was dramatize as economically as possible that there are just as many black science fiction fans as white ones. It’s just harder for them because these are genres that didn’t love them back or have a place for them. They’re constantly being overlooked or insulted by the text. So, Lovecraft is sort of the ultimate challenge for somebody who wants to love this kind of fiction even though it’s spitting in your face. That’s one thing I dramatize in the book.
One of the interesting aspects of the novel is that it’s a complete narrative, but it’s almost an anthology spotlighting different characters and different types of horror.
MR: Yeah, with the X-Files structure you always had the “monster of the week” and the alien conspiracy arc. I wanted to replicate that partly because I thought it would be cool to take old weird tales, retell those stories with black protagonists in the ’50s, and see how that changed things. I wanted to keep that element for the novel, but I didn’t want to write a book of short stories. Eventually, I came up with the idea of a hybrid work that’s the literary equivalent of binge-watching a season of TV.
Each chapter is a different, self-contained episode starring a different member of the cast, but it also dips into the larger story that pays off in the end. It gives every character in my ensemble cast a chance to shine. You learn about their personal desires and then they get to do something cool like find a teleportation machine, or break into a museum and steal what is essentially a version of the Necronomicon. So, that gave me a lot of opportunities to develop the characters and tell different stories.
Do you know if that’s how the TV series will be structured?
MR: I haven’t yet seen the completed show, but just from looking at the trailer and the episode descriptions that have appeared online it seems pretty clear that they have done a version of that. The first chapter of the novel will probably be the first couple episodes of the TV series. It looks like the third will be the second chapter of the novel “Dreams of the Which House,” where one of our characters buys a haunted house in a white neighborhood. So, she’s got to deal with both a ghost and neighbors who don’t want her there.
Can you comment at all on any of the differences between the novel and the TV series? I noticed that for the series, Caleb Braithwaite has become Christina Braithwaite.
MR: I find it more interesting when adaptations are faithful to the spirit of the story, but not shot for shot recreations, because you’re seeing someone do something original with the same material. So, I’m curious to see how changing that character to a woman will change things. It will certainly affect the dynamics in interesting ways, and the actress playing her, Abby Lee, is going to bring an energy to it that will be different than the Caleb from the book, but I’m interested in seeing where that goes. Plus, the novel is pretty gender-balanced, but making the Caleb character into Christina tilts it a little more. It’s almost evenly men and women at that point.
In the book, Caleb is a white man and the role of a white man and white woman are different. So, Christina is a bit more sympathetic because she’s struggling under a certain degree of oppression as well, as a woman. Although her challenges are obviously different from those faced by the black characters. I can see other things from watching the trailer too and it’s fascinating. In the book, the Winthrop House is a building that’s described as resembling a public school from the outside. In the show, it looks like more of a Victorian mansion. So it will be cool to see how that played out.
“I’m generally not a sequel guy, but this has stayed with me and at the moment I’m working on a possible sequel.”
The end of the book leaves the world open for more exploration both in prose and other mediums. So, would you like to return to the world of Lovecraft Country?
MR: The main reason I had an open ending in the book was because I knew the characters were still going to wake up black in America the next day, so a happily-ever-after ending would have felt unrealistic. I needed to end it on a note of tomorrow is a new day full of challenges, but these characters are equipped to face whatever life throws at them. So, I could return and do more with it. I’m generally not a sequel guy, but this has stayed with me and at the moment I’m working on a possible sequel. The main issue I have is that if I do go back to the story I’m not going to want to do just one book. I’m going to want to do at least two, possibly three, more. And because I write so slowly that’s a big commitment on time and for my publisher. I’m going to take a run at it and see either way. So, there might be a sequel.
I hope people check out the Lovecraft Country series, and if they want to check out the book it’s different enough that the two will complement each other. Anybody who wants to read a sample of the novel there’s a link on my website, bymattruff.com, where you can download a PDF sample of the opening of the book. That should give you a pretty quick idea if it’s your thing.
Finally, you have a new novel that came out earlier this year, 88 Names, which appears to be about real-world intrigues and online roleplaying games. What can you tell us about it?
MR: Like most of my work it’s a departure from what I’ve done previously. The protagonist, John Chu, is what’s known as a ‘sherpa,’ a paid guide to online RPGs. He gets a new client who he suspects may be North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The first two-thirds of the novel are set entirely in virtual reality, and most of the people Chu deals with are folks he’s never met in person and whose true identity he’s forced to guess at. So it’s this cyberthriller cat-and-mouse game that starts in VR and eventually spills over into the real world.
“I hope people check out the Lovecraft Country series, and if they want to check out the book it’s different enough that the two will complement each other.”
Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country is available now, wherever books are sold. The Lovecraft series, adapted from his novel by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams premieres on HBO August 16, 2020. Have you read Lovecraft Country? Are you excited to see watch Lovecraft Country? Continue the conversation with us over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.