If the recent television adaptation of Lovecraft Country (2017) is anything like the source material, I think I’m going to enjoy it immensely. Matt Ruff’s novel of interconnected tales is well-written, compelling, horrifying (all the more so because the Lovecraftian horrors experienced by the novel’s African-American characters are not that much worse than the everyday evil of Jim Crow-era America), insightful, and, at times, even funny.
Korean War veteran Atticus Turner, a fan of pulpy sci-fi and horror novels written by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Clark Ashton Smith, takes a long road trip from Jacksonville, FL to meet with his father in Chicago, keeping a wary eye on his uncle’s labor of love, The Safe Negro Travel Guide. The guide can’t keep him completely out of trouble — while it’s an undeniably useful book, it’s not a magical talisman granting him invisibility from white supremacists — but he gets to his destination only to discover that his father, Montrose, has been missing for a week, last seen in the company of a strange white man. The only clue is a letter from Montrose directing Atticus to follow up on some information about Atticus’ mother, whose people came from Ardham, Massachusetts (which Atticus, initially and understandably, mistakes for Arkham). Accompanied by his uncle George Berry and childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, Atticus sets out in search of his father, who turns out to be held captive by Samuel Braithwhite and the Order of the Ancient Dawn — and that’s only the start of this strange, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional tale.
Samuel Braithwhite has a son, Caleb, who has some moderately modern ideas about how the Order should operate. There are other factions and figureheads within the Order who are exactly as awful as one should expect, whether taking American history or the origins of Lovecraftian horror into account. But Atticus has his own allies, each with their own stories and Weird experiences within Lovecraft Country, and it’s both chilling and gratifying to watch Letitia wrangle with a haunted house, her sister Ruby discover the pleasures and perils of walking in another woman’s shoes, George’s wife Hippolyta follow her astronomical dreams, and so much more, all while bearing very much in mind that it’s not just the Order of the Ancient Dawn that’s terrorizing them. Every day is already a fight for survival for the Turners, Berrys, Dandridges, and countless other folks like them; throwing devil dolls and The Book of Names and Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon into the mix only heightens the stakes.
Ruff’s choice to make Atticus and his friends aware of Lovecraft’s work was a smart one; instead of wading through pages of exposition while Atticus figures out what’s going on, his familiarity with the subject matter gives the text brevity, leaving more room and time for Ruff to create atmosphere and tension. Moreover, this tactic gives Atticus an advantage over the Order, using their refusal to treat him as an equal to provide numerous opportunities for him to catch them off-guard, a theme Ruff explores repeatedly throughout the stories of various characters, each with their own compelling struggles and foibles. And the conclusion was pitch-perfect, satisfying in ways I hoped for while still surprising me.
Ruff mentions in an afterword that he might like to come back to these characters and tell more of their stories, which I sincerely hope he does at some point. (He also mentions that he originally conceived of Lovecraft Country as a television pitch! It’s so interesting how, sometimes, life comes full-circle.) But even if this novel doesn’t gain a sequel, I highly recommend it to anyone looking for other perspectives on Weird tales, American history, or good-old long-overdue comeuppance.