A Travel Guide to Lovecraft Country

Beata Gubacsi

While genre as such yields tremendous uncertainties, it is safe to suggest that the Weird tradition has descended from the Gothic, marking “a radical break with anything from folkloric tradition” (Miéville 512), an adoption of a more psychological approach, and the incorporation of American history and landscape. H. P. Lovecraft, influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Dunsany, and his followers such as August Derleth and Robert Bloch shaped the tradition. It is known that H.P. Lovecraft was a prolific writer of letters and he was keen to engage in critical discussions regarding literature, the psychology of terror and the philosophy of cosmic indifference, providing guidance to authors ultimately succeeding him (Joshi). Yet, the Weird has not become massively popular outside of its devoted readership of the Weird Tales until the ‘80s Horror boom when the elements of the Cthulhu mythos (such as the New England landscape and history, the monsters, and characters) provided new writers and other forms of media with inspiration.

                The Weird, and especially Lovecraftian Horror, tends to be interpreted as expressions of the anxieties of modernism, the economical and socio-political transformation of the Western world. Since the “Haute Weird,” dated around 1880-1940, or the foundation of Weird Tales in 1923 (Miéville 510), the New Weird has emerged in the early 2000s (VanderMeer xvi); since then it has become more political and actively engaged in the dangers of capitalism and climate change. Lovecraft’s work has been revisited and criticised heavily for racism, misogyny, and antisemitism expressed in his less-known poems and letters, bringing up difficult issues regarding canon formation and the exclusivity of popular culture and its fandoms. Matt Mikalatos in his 2018 article for Tor.com “Problematic Classics: Four Questions to Ask When Beloved Books Haven’t Aged Well” poses the following issues to consider:

1. Is this a work I can continue to recommend to others?

2. Is this a work I can continue to enjoy privately?

3. Is there another work that doesn’t have the same problems but occupies the same spaces?

4. Can I create a work that is corrective to the problematic work I love?

He discards H.P. Lovecraft’s writing and recommends Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016). It is certainly a difficult debate which puts a lot of responsibility on readers, writers, and scholars and emphasises the necessity to read as broadly as possible in order to be able to spot cultural bias.

                Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country shows how the Weird tradition and its toolkit can be used to educate and encourage tolerance and inclusivity. The book is set in 1950s’ US, governed by segregation policies. The protagonists are members of the Turner and Berry families, facing danger on the roads and discrimination in their jobs and housing opportunities. Atticus Turner upon receiving a mysterious letter from his father tracks him down in Ardham, Massachusetts where he and his family gets involved with the agenda of bicentennial coven of alchemists. The past of the Turners and Berries is inherently entangled with that of the cult through slavery – as much as their present through segregation. Their encounters with the Adamites are defined by racism but throughout the intrigues similar to a chess game Atticus and his family finds justice and independence.

Ruff utilises all the elements of Gothic and Weird fiction: from the obsession with magical manuscripts and tomes to ghosts and family lineage, secret societies, and ancient cultures – but applies them with a twist. He references H. P. Lovecraft’s works, creating a trace of Easter eggs for the readers and a subtle metafictional layer as the characters themselves reflect on their readership and fandom of Science Fiction and Horror. Atticus and his uncle George are avid readers of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and others. George’s wife Hippolyta is also a fan and an amateur astronomer, and their son, Horace, is an aspiring comic writer whose superhero is based on Hippolyta. At the beginning of the novel when Atticus is on his way to Chicago to see his family, he gets pulled over and the officer insists on searching his car:

                “What about the back? Anything in the trunk?”

                “Just my clothes,” Atticus said. “My army uniform. Some books.”

                “What kind of books?”

                “Science fiction, mostly.”

                “Science fiction? And this is your car?” (Ruff 8, original emphasis)

Atticus gets into conflict about his taste in literature not only with the law but also with his own father, Montrose, who never fails to criticise Atticus’ readings for their assumed or apparent racism. Their arguments reference H. P. Lovecraft as well:

“Shiggots?” Atticus’s father said, when Atticus made the mistake of telling him about this.

“Shoggots,” Atticus corrected him.

“Uh-huh. And the master race, the Elder Klansmen-“

“Elder Things. Old Ones.”

“They’re fair skinned, I bet. And the Shiggots, they’re dark.”

“The Elder Things are barrel-shaped. They have wings.”

“But they’re white, right?”

“They’re gray.”

Pale gray.” (Ruff 14, original emphasis)

A few days later Montrose shows a typescript to Atticus: “eight lines of comic verse by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The title was ‘On the Creation of Niggers’” (Ruff 15). Atticus’s reaction reflects on his “peculiar difficulties of being a black Science Fiction fan” (Ruff 373): “Sometimes they stab you in the heart…” (Ruff 15).

The juxtaposition of the predominantly white and upper/middle class literary tradition with the reality and terror of the segregation makes Lovecraft Country truly subversive. The tension and horror of the original Lovecraftian writing is connected to historic conflicts and indignities. It is demonstrated in the story of Victor Franklin who scouts for George’s publication the “The Safe Negro Travel Guide” in New England when he gets stalked by something in the forest. Moments later he encounters a sheriff who gives him seven minutes to leave the area until sunset before shooting him: “You are in Devon, which is sundown county. If I’d caught you here after dark, it’d be my sworn duty to hang you from one of these trees” (Ruff 22, original emphasis). Another example is the “Narrow House” chapter in which Montrose Turner shares his childhood memories of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 to a mixed-race ghost family who were murdered by their neighbours.

                The meaning of “Lovecraft Country” is versatile: it can refer to some of the New England scenery featured in the novel, the literary heredity of Lovecraftian Horror, and of course the abject racism of modernity which seems to creep back into the current political and internet discourse. To conclude, I would like to cite the very end of the novel when Atticus and his family have outsmarted the Order, he laughs at his adversary:

“Oh, Mr. Braithwhite, Atticus said finally wiping tears from his eyes. “What is it that you are trying to scare me with? You think I don’t know what country I live in? I know. We all do. We always have. You’re the one who doesn’t understand.” (Ruff 366)

Do we know? Do we understand? Do we want to live in “Lovecraft Country” governed by cosmic horror and indifference?

Works Cited

Joshi, S. T. H. P. Lovecraft: A Life. Necronomicon, 1996.

Miéville, China. “Weird Fiction.” A Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Eds. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, Sherryl Vint. Routledge, 2009, pp. 510-515.

Mikalatos, Matt. “Problematic Classics: Four Questions to Ask When Beloved Books Haven’t Aged Well.” Tor.com, Macmillan, 7 Aug. 2018. <https://www.tor.com/2018/08/27/problematic-classics-four-questions-to-ask-when-beloved-books-havent-aged-well/>

Ruff, Matt. Lovecraft Country. Picador, 2016.

VanderMeer, Jeff. “Introduction”. The New Weird. Eds. Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer. Tachyon, 2008, pp. ix-xviii.