Lovecraft. There are few genre writers that have been as influential as Howard Phillips Lovecraft, but in terms of directly adapting his works, no author has had a harder time being represented on screen. The recent adaptation of Color Out of Space by Richard Stanley is notable for being a rare success in the realm of Lovecraft adaptations, making it consumable for the average movie fan while capturing the themes and ideas that made Lovecraft so renown. In the new HBO series Lovecraft Country, the author is name-checked, his influence is felt, and while his works is not directly adapted, his ideas certainly are.
At the core of Lovecraft’s work is the idea that humans are nothing in the face of universal forces. We’re pinballs in the machine, over-matched by monsters, and spooks, and incomprehensible things that are at best unexplainable, and there’s nothing we can do if they decide that we’re in their way. It’s easy to see why the stories of Lovecraft would appeal to storytellers interested in capturing a sense of the Black experience in America, especially in the Jim Crow era. In Lovecraft Country, it’s both a place and a state of mind.
“Lovecraft Country has said boldly with episode one that it’s the fantasy story for our time…”
The series is based on a novel by Matt Ruff, and is created by Misha Green, who created the drama Underground, which turned the Underground Railroad and fighting slavery in the pre-Civil War into a kind of serial thriller akin to 24 or Prison Break. Lovecraft Country has a similar flare, it’s got the smart social commentary of executive producer Jordan Peele’s breakthrough film Get Out, and it’s all contained in the well-worn mystery box of other series created by Peel’s co-executive producer J.J. Abrams. On the surface, it’s a show built for the so-called peak TV era.
Under the surface, there’s so much going on. Our hero is Atticus Freeman, who just left the army after serving in the Korean War and has arrived home in Chicago in search of his missing father. Montrose Freeman, who we do not meet in this first episode, left Chicago a few weeks earlier in search of family information about Atticus’ mother, information that led him, apparently, to Ardham, Massachusetts. For Atticus, a great fan of the works of Lovecraft, the name of the town is a little too close to the fictional Arkham, home of many of the author’s stories, but Ardham and Arkham seem equally fictional after some research.
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But what is Atticus hiding? Well, we know he’s hiding something. We know that he’s changed from his years in the army having shed what’s inferred to be a more nebbish and nerdy visage. Of all the books on his shelves at home, the one he seems drawn to now is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, a famous tome of revenge, and it makes you think that Atticus might be planning revenge on someone. And then there’s the call he makes to South Korea. A woman picks up and says, “You went home. You shouldn’t have,” which seems to make Atticus jump out of his skin. If monsters are in his future, Atticus has got ghosts in his past.
When Atticus finally gets out on the road with his Uncle George and his old friend Leti they’re exposed to the all-too real horrors of 1950s America. White kids mock them with monkey noises, they drive through towns that welcome you with a sign that tells Black people in not-so-nice terms to be out of town by sundown, and they see the grim inequities of time far from the relative safety of their south Chicago home. Along the way, there are touches of irony, like that Aunt Jemima billboard where they encounter those racist kids, or the long line-up of Black people waiting for the bus under the billboard of a smiling White family in their car.
“The first episode of Lovecraft Country was a ride, expertly paced and shot […wringing] out every drop of tension to make you feel the danger of White America…”
While the first part of the episode is kind of detective story as Atticus tries to find out where his father went, the second half leans hard on the scares. First, we see our trio getting chased out of a town for daring to stop for lunch, a nail-biter of sequence that involved a fire truck being used as an accessory to lynching, and then later we get the slow, yet intense, chase sequence as Atticus and the others try to literally get over the county line of Devon before the sun sets. If you thought that the blockade of sheriff’s department deputies was the end of the episode, you were wrong because you were about to be introduced to the double meaning of the episode’s title, “Sundown.”
Enter the Shoggath, who were first mentioned in Lovecraft’s story Fungi from Yuggoth, but were given more attention in, famously, At the Mountains of Madness. An attack of Shoggath stops the cops before their able to kill Atticus, Leti and George for being out after dark while being Black, and its George that puts together that the Shoggath are not fond of light since they didn’t attack during the day, and they didn’t attack him while running through the forest with a flashlight. And the racist cops? They were either eaten and killed, or they were bitten and turned into Shoggaths themselves, which is totally an appropriate fate for racist cops to be turned into fat little blob monsters with many eyes and sharp teeth.
The episode ends with the blood covered Atticus, Leti, and George arriving in Ardham at the place that is supposedly the point of origin for Atticus‘ mom. A White butler-looking guy answers the door of an opulent mansion and says, “Welcome home,” which literally opens the door to so many new questions as we fade to black.
The first episode of Lovecraft Country was a ride, expertly paced and shot by White Boy Rick director Yann Demange who knows how to hit the throttle hard when there’s action, but can ease back and wring out every drop of tension to make you feel the danger of White America as you watch our heroes walk on racist-triggering egg shells. The question is can the series keep up this pace over the next nine episodes? More than the details of Atticus’ family, and how Lovecraft’s imagined monsters exist in this real world, Lovecraft Country has said boldly with episode one that it’s the fantasy story for our time, but will that bear out in the weeks to come? Stay tuned…
What are your thoughts on Lovecraft Country? Excited to see what monsters will rear their ugly heads in the episodes to come? Continue the conversation with us and be sure to let us know all your thoughts on the dark shadow looming over the characters of Lovecraft Country on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.