H. P. Lovecraft has had a bit of a resurgence lately. Not that the influence of his work has ever really been dormant in popular culture, but between recent explorations and debates on his work and his legacy of, let’s call it what it is, hate, the author has been again thrown into the spotlight. The latest chapter in this legacy comes from HBO in the form of Lovecraft Country.
HBO’s Lovecraft Country is adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. The show is produced by Misha Green, J. J. Abrams, and Jordan Peele. The show airs Sunday nights on HBO and is available on HBO Max.
As for the show itself, let’s get weird with it, shall we? The reviews will be recaps will be filled with spoilers, but you can look at the review section without getting spoiled.
The story so far…
“Sundown” opens with a dream sequence filled with a number of pulp references as Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) is riding the bus home. When the bus breaks down we see that we are in 1950s America, one of the last gasps of the Jim Crow era. Welcome to Lovecraft Country.
Atticus, returned from the Korean War is coming home to Chicago to find his father who has gone missing in “Lovecraft country.” Atticus recruits his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance, American Crime Story) and childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett, Birds of Prey) for a road trip to the town of Ardham; a name that is spun off from a familiar location in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, a figure who existed in the setting of the show and may not be writing fiction after all.
The road trip, under the guise of a research trip for a safe travel guide for black folks, published by George, immediately hits some snags. The show shows life across the midwest for the black community, juxtaposing their experiences with white Americana. The trio attempts to dine at an establishment, but make a shocking discovery and find themselves chased out of town by gun-toting racists. They are saved by a mysterious blonde-haired woman in a Rolls-Royce who stops the truck full of racists with what seems to be some power, flipping the truck and allowing Atticus and company to escape.
After some time learning what little there is to know about Ardham, Leti has a blow up with her brother who hosts the trio. They drive off the next morning, searching for the road to Arkham. Instead that find a racist sheriff and end up in the slowest, most tension-filled car chase to a county line ever.
Unfortunately, trapped by a roadblock of racist police, the trio are held at gunpoint in the woods and things go from bad to worse when mysterious multi-eyed creatures tear through four of the officers. The sheriff, de-armed by one of the beasts, transforms into one of the creatures inside a cabin where Atticus, George and an unfortunate deputy are hiding. The creatures, weak to light, are eventually fended off by Leti who brings the trio’s car to the cabin, flooding the space with light.
The next morning, Atticus and his band find the road into Ardham and arrive at a mansion. Atticus moves to knock on the door but it opens before he sets his hand on it. They meet a blond-haired man who seems to have been expecting their arrival.
How it worked out…
The show is a stylish period piece that features some great performances, generally strong visuals, and some moments of genuine tension. It’s a fun ride through and through and enough of one that I want to experience the next episodes. As a pilot, “Sundown” largely does its job by setting up the core leads, a long term conflict, and just a hint at the weirdness to come. It also presents the kind of alien horror people expect when they think Lovecraft, but I am not sure if it does it all that well.
My biggest issue with the show is that it has two monsters and really only makes one scary, though it is hard not to make that monster scary. The show is at its absolute best when it deals with the looming threat of living while black in 1950s America. The pilot is absolutely at its best and most horrifying here. The moments of terror inflicted on black Americans is far more intense and affecting than a five-minute CGI-fueled attack of the Shoggoths. The presence of white paint and a loose tile chills far more effectively than a special-effects reel.
Despite my misgivings with the action-approach, it is still a lot of fun. Lovecraft would have hated it, for obvious reasons, but perhaps less obviously, it turns his ideas into the very sort of two-fisted pulp adventures he routinely criticized in his letters. But that’s fine, honestly. Is the idea of a wolf-like Shoggoth any sillier than the gelatinous mass of a thousand eyes as described in his own work? It’s a suitable introduction to the themes and aesthetics. A sort of big-budget sketch of the weirdness he pioneered. It gets people interested and diversifies the weird genre and hopefully continues to bring new voices into the fold when it comes to Lovecraftian themes.
But ultimately some fans and purists are going to be let down about the Abramsification of what should be an utterly hopeless and relentless experience. I would not say that I am let down, but I do want to one day see a high budget adaptation of the world of Shoggoths and Yith without the need for guns-a-blazin’.
But you know what? I’ll take the action-adventure spin on the themes and enjoy them just fine.
Lovecraft Country, “Sundown,” rates in at four Cthulhus.(4 / 5)
In each review, I have a section where I include some miscellaneous thoughts that don’t fit in the structure of the review but I feel are worth mentioning.
I just really liked the name, okay?
- The road trip monologue you heard comes from James Baldwin’s 1965 debate against William Buckley, Jr. This show will be heavily tied to the Jim Crow era. George’s guide book, for example, is clearly based on The Green Book. Also, look up Sundown towns if you are unfamiliar with the concept and prepare to feel sick to your stomach.
- A fair number of Lovecraft references in the premiere, as to be expected. The Outsider and Others makes an appearance. We also see what seems to be Cthulhu in Atticus’ dream. We of course have the Shoggoths. Vampires, another creature Lovecraft dabbled in, also get referenced, but George’s reference is specific to Dracula. Oh, and a refence to Herbert West as well.
- A lot of other great references as well to other pulp literature. Take, for example, the Martian princess in the dream sequence, who seems to be played by Jamie Chung. We also have tripods from War of the Worlds, and what seems to be a Roman Centurian in the battlefield. I’d be hesitant to include The Count of Monte Cristo as pulp work, but the presense of Alexandre Dumas is definitely a welcome literary element. Can’t forget Jackie Robinson, either.
- Who was Atticus speaking to on the phone all the way in Korea?
- I feel I should also explain my “qualifications” when it comes to my criticism of how the show tackles Lovecraft. I earned my M.A. writing about H. P. Lovecraft and writing an interactive fiction story that revolves around decolonizing Lovecraftian themes. I am currently in production of a mobile game version of that interactive fiction piece. You spend a couple years studying the guy (horribly racist warts and all) and his writing you end up sort of insufferable, like me.
- My review is already on the long-side, so things I want to address will be saved for later reviews. I’ll just throw out that Courtney B. Vance is a great actor and elevates the performances around him.
Please join us next week for another recap and review of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Please let us know your thoughts on the show or this review in the comments.