One commenter with a USA mailing address will get a trade paperback edition of Lovecraft Country.
I watched Season One of HBO’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country before I read Matt Ruff’s original novel-in-stories. I liked each of them, for different reasons. I will be comparing and contrasting here.
Ruff’s book came out in 2016. It embraces and honors the pulp era of speculative fiction, especially short fiction, especially the weird (the title is a clue). Ruff wanted one important difference from the weird fiction and comic books of the 1950s—he wanted Black main characters. Three linked families, the Berrys, the Turners and the Dandridges, encounter a centuries old coven of magical practitioners and weird magic, while navigating the “everyday” horror of a racist society. In the opening passage, Atticus Turner, recently returned from a military stint in Korea, puts Jim Crow country in his rearview (he thinks) only to find it’s everywhere… and it’s even worse in Lovecraft Country.
Atticus discovers that he is the final heir of a magical family named Braithwhite, leaders of the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn, who seek to open a portal to an alternate universe, which they believe will return them to the garden of Eden. Atticus’s blood is important to the Order; he is not, and the fact that his ancestor was an enslaved woman impregnated by an earlier Braithwhite lets the Order disdain him. With mysterious help from the son of the Braithwhite patriarch, Atticus, his father Montrose, uncle George and childhood friend Leticia Dandridge escape the clutches of the order before Braaithwhite Senior can sacrifice Atticus, but they aren’t out of the woods yet—Junior, Caleb Braithwhite, plans to stage a coup, and he demands (and extorts) the help of Atticus and his friends.
The growing cast of characters includes Hippolyta, George’s wife, their teenaged son Horace who wants to write comic books, Leticia’s sister Ruby and a group of Black men from the Prince Hall Freemason Temple. The cast of villains grows too, as we meet two adversaries of Caleb Braithwhite.
Roughly, each chapter contains an adventure written in a different pulp style. The opening chapter is filled with sinister magic and monsters in the woods that no one ever sees. Later episodes include a haunted house, a heist-adventure that would work fine in any Indiana Jones movie, a suspenseful section with a curse, travel to other solar systems, a trip to a haunted pocket universe, and a complex story involving Leticia’s sister Ruby and a transformation potion. Throughout it all, our heroes fend off the badguys, sometimes forced to work with Braithwhite, but always wary, because they know he can’t be trusted.
Ruff fills the book with useful snippets of history; Restrictive Covenants, codes that prevented Realtors from selling to Black people (Black people could live in the houses if they were servants), the Tulsa Riots, the treatment of Black soldiers in the integrated US army stationed in Korea.
In the book, our heroes ultimately prevail, at least in the short run, and they emerge from their adventures with tangible resources. And now they know the world they live in is even more dangerous than even they imagined.
HBO stayed with the bones of the story. They engaged in some genderswapping, which worked well for me. Specifically, Caleb, the Adamic Order scion, is now Christina, and as a woman unable to claim what she sees as her birthright. Horace, Hippolyta’s and George’s child, is now Diana. Key elements of the plot are different, and the visuals are different.
I will bet that some of the plot changes were tied directly to the contracts HBO had with the actors, some who did not commit to a second season. This led to some unintended consequences and a baffling finale. Other choices, like the monsters in the woods, were clearly based completely on TV being a visual medium. In the book, we hear rustling and panting in the trees, but never see a thing, although Atticus, a big Lovecraft fan, insists on calling them shoggoths. In the show, we see them up close and personal, pretty early on. The Braithwhite mansion is more Gothic and weirder than the book. In the third episode, Leticia deals with her haunted house in a way that is dramatic and highly visual, and carries a great deal of emotional satisfaction, but necessarily changes the plot of the story.
Spectacle takes center stage in the “Indiana Jones” episode. The search for the secret artifact in the museum involves puzzles, a precarious walk along a narrow board over a bottomless pit, and steadily rising water with no escape. It’s a tour de force.
Remembering that I hadn’t read the book when I watched it, I found Ruby’s story in the show to be the most compelling and disturbing. Ruby is approached by a wealthy white man who we recognize as Christina’s helper William. He buys Ruby a drink, they go home together, and Ruby awakens to find herself transformed in a way she never imagined. This temporary transformation gives her the freedom and power she has always craved. We watch Ruby struggle to wield it, and it’s a vividly human struggle. She flexes power and in one case hurts an innocent, because she can. Ultimately, she has to decide what kind of person she wants to be in any form. Actor Wunmi Mosako delivers an Emmy-caliber performance. The showrunners understood about Leticia and Ruby, and perfectly cast both of them; Leticia is slender and light-skinned while her half-sister, darker and curvy, is a constant target of racism. The resolution of Ruby’s journey in the show is disempowering and tragic. I’m speculating, but Mosako has quite a resume, and I’m guessing her dance card was full. For whatever reason, for me Ruby’s conclusion was a disappointing cliché that I had been praying wouldn’t happen.
Unlike the book, the finale of the show doesn’t really hold together. I still liked it, but I wasn’t convinced. On the other hand, I enjoyed the 1970s groovy trippiness of Hippolyta’s time-travel/cosmic goddess storyline, and the “demon doll” segment, where Diana is pursued by terrifying ragdoll-like demons (these things are scary) was gripping, and this was a place, again, where the visuals made the story feel more original that the demon-doll homage section in the book.
I liked both the book and the adaptation, understanding that they are very different things. I’m curious to see what HBO does with a second season, if they have one, and what direction they go, particularly with a completely new character, the nine-tailed fox.