Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country opens with twenty-year-old army veteran Atticus Turner heading back to Chicago after spending a couple of days in Florida. He is pulled over by a state trooper who is keen to know where Atticus is headed. The trooper checks through Atticus’s belongings and comes across a copy of the Safe Negro Travel Guide:
The trooper [...] thumbed through it, at first puzzled and then astonished. “These addresses,” he said. “These are all places that serve colored people?” Atticus nodded. “Well,” said the trooper, “if that doesn’t beat everything …” He squinted at the Guide edge-on. “Not very thick, is it?” Atticus didn’t respond to that.
This is America in the 1950s, where Jim Crow laws are still firmly in place throughout the South, and where finding a spot to eat for a person of colour can be a matter of life and death. It just so happens that the Guide the state trooper is thumbing through is curated by Atticus’s uncle, George Berry, with the assistance of his immediate family, including his nephew.
“All right,” the trooper said finally. “I’m going to let you go. But I’m keeping this guidebook. Don’t worry, [...] you won’t need it anymore. You say you’re going to Chicago? Well, between here and there, there’s no place that you want to stop. Understood?”
This scene with the state trooper establishes a number of key details about Atticus. The first is that he is pragmatic. Atticus might find it frustrating that when he’s not fighting wars on behalf of his country, he’s actively searching out safe places to avoid most of its citizenry, but he appreciates that this, right now, is the reality. We also learn that Atticus is not ashamed of who he is. He doesn’t take the bait offered to him when the state trooper jokes about the size of the Guide. Finally, we discover that Atticus is a fanboy. He collects science fiction novels and has just purchased a hardbound copy of A Princess of Mars as a present for his uncle. In fact the only time we get an indication of Atticus’s mental state throughout this scene is when the state trooper tosses the book back into the car, “Atticus dying a little as it landed splayed open, bending pages.”
We will come to realize that these characteristics are not unique to Atticus but extend to the rest of his family. For example, his devotion to the fantastic is sparked by his Uncle George, who introduced Atticus to Lovecraft’s fiction. This begins a love affair with “mostly white-authored genres,” one that’s shared by other members of the Berry household, including George’s wife, Hippolyta, and their son Horace, who draws his own comic books. The same can’t be said for Atticus’s father (George’s brother), Montrose. It's Montrose who makes Atticus aware of Lovecraft’s infamous poem, “On the Creation of Niggers.” Lovecraft's xenophobia upsets Atticus—“sometimes, they stab me in the heart”—but his pragmatic nature wins out; he’s not deterred from reading more of Lovecraft’s work, or genre fiction in general.
It’s worth noting at this point that while the book is titled Lovecraft Country, it is not Matt Ruff’s intention to dissect the author's xenophobia or reimagine his fiction through a racial lens.  It's also not a commentary on how sometimes the things we love stem from “problematic” sources. In fact, the novel’s title is a distraction,  one that diverts attention from Ruff’s true aim, which is to celebrate the early years of fantastic fiction. Lovecraft aside, Ruff draws inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson, EC Comics and Abraham Merritt (the author of the first killer doll story, Burn, Witch, Burn). The book references Edgar Rice Burroughs while also name-dropping Bradbury, Asimov, and Heinlein. And as if that’s not enough, Lovecraft’s Country’s mosaic structure—a suite of closely linked novellas and novelettes—mirrors the old time fix-up, novels pieced together from an author’s shorter fiction published in the pulp magazines. It’s a book that wears its passion for genre on its sleeve.
But what makes me smile—and this is a novel that often made me smile—is that while the book might have some of the same qualities of a fix-up, it avoids the pitfalls—those clunky bridges between two stories that were never meant to follow each other. And while Ruff’s narrative might draw heavily on the classics he provides a brilliant twist that more often than not highlights the second—and most important—aim of Lovecraft Country, detailing and critiquing the racial prejudice of the mid-twentieth century.
A case in point is the first story—a novella that borrows the novel’s title—which has the young veteran (following his run-in with the state trooper) reaching Chicago and visiting his Uncle George, with whom Atticus has a close relationship, more so than with his father. Conversation though quickly turns to Montrose and we learn about his ongoing obsession with the ancestry of Atticus’s departed mother, Dora. In a letter to his son, Montrose claims to know where Atticus's mother was born, and the identity of her father—“You [Atticus] have a sacred, a secret legacy, a birthright which has been kept from you ...”—and he wants his son to journey with him to Dora's birthplace, to the small village of—
“Arkham,” Atticus said. “The letter says Mom’s ancestors come from Arkham, Massachusetts.” Arkham: home of the corpse reanimator Herbert West, and of Miskatonic University, which had sponsored the fossil-hunting expedition to the mountains of madness.
Or to put it another way (as Atticus does), Lovecraft Country.
It transpires that it's not Arkham at all, but rather Ardham. Though, as Uncle George points out, it might as well be Lovecraft Country—a fictional utopia where the predominant colour is white—given the county's penchant for hanging black people from trees if they’re found on the streets after dark. Montrose, fuelled by his obsession, has already left for Ardham, compelling Atticus and George to follow him.
On arrival in Massachusetts the novella goes full Lovecraft. Ruff gleefully provides us with the staples: a creepy village surrounded by even creepier woods that may, or may not, be the home of something unspeakable, and looming over it all a manor house that happens to be the headquarters of the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn. But just before it all tips over into satire Atticus deduces that his mother's father was Titus Braithwhite, the same man who established the Order. And, as Atticus points out to a packed room of lodge members (all rich, all white), according to the Order's bylaws:
Men who are related by blood to Titus Braithwhite are automatically considered members of the Order. Not just eligible for membership—they’re members, period. Don’t even need to apply […] And there’s more! Braithwhite members of the Order are special members. How does the book put it? ‘Not just Sons of Adam, but Sons Among Sons.’” Atticus glanced up at the banner over his head. “Sons Among Sons, that’s a nice play on words … But what it means is, Braithwhite are club officers. They’re empowered to call lodge meetings—and to give orders to other members. Orders that must be obeyed.”
Not only is this scene wonderfully unexpected—the sacrificial lamb turning the tables on the crazy cult—but it's a more overt example of Atticus's pride in his cultural identity. He understands what it means for a black man to stand before a group of entitled, power hungry white men and tell them that actually he's the one in charge. And while it’s only a temporary situation, Atticus’s pragmatic nature (and his sense of self preservation) sees him agreeing to assist Caleb Braithwhite (also a grandson of Titus) in the overthrow of Caleb’s father, Samuel, for control of the Adamite Order. But that glorious scene, with Atticus confident and proud, sets the tone for the rest of the novel. While each story makes clear the prejudice of the time, whether it’s the challenges of traveling across the country or buying a house in a mostly white neighborhood, each of these tales highlights the Berry-Turner family’s limitless capacity to draw strength from who they are. My favourite of these is the tale involving Atticus’s Aunt Hippolyta, whose dreams of being an astronomer and her thirst for knowledge empower her to step out into the unknown via a dimensional portal.
There are two stories, though, not told from the perspective of the Berry-Turners. The first of these, involving Atticus’s friend Letitia Dandrige, fits right into the Berry-Turner mould to the extent that Letitia could be confused for being a member of the family. Letitia moves into a house that she quickly discovers is haunted by an angry and entitled ghost (another rich white man, Hiram Winthrop, whose family plays a significant role in the overarching plot of the book). Rather than capitulate to the ghost’s cranky behaviour, Letitia confronts Hiram, gives him a good dressing down and then promptly turns the home into a safe haven for those less privileged. However, Letitia’s older sister, Ruby, is a different story and it’s here that Ruff provides us with an interesting contrast. Ruby wakes up one morning to discover she’s a white woman. After recovering from the shock, Ruby chooses a new name for her identity—Hillary, in honour of that "white man" who climbed Everest. As a white woman—and an attractive one to boot—she begins to notice a change in the attitude toward her:
Many white people, men especially, smiled at Hillary as they went by her, but what was really noteworthy was that the ones who ignored her, ignored her in a different way than they would have ignored Ruby. There was no side-eying, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention. She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.
The story is an unabashed riff on Jekyll and Hyde, with a healthy dose of Faust. Ruby's transformation isn't permanent but the result of an elixir supplied by Caleb Braithwhite. He's willing to keep providing her with the potion as long as Ruby/Hillary spies on his competitors. A question posed to Ruby, both implicitly and explicitly, is who does she want to be? And it's the fact that Ruby doesn't have an immediate response, that she is tempted by the freedom of being white, that distinguishes her from the rest of the Berry-Turners and her sister. Whether it be Atticus or Letitia or Montrose we are in no doubt as to how they would react to Caleb's offer. Ruby, though, is still struggling with her identity.
As our “big bad” of the piece, Caleb believes that faced with a greater power the Berry-Turners will capitulate, that their desire to find those roads well-travelled by black folk—as evidenced by the —is proof that they lack courage, that they look to avoid conflict. And it's true that for parts of the book, during the course of individual stories, the family does follow his commands. But rather than providing an example of submissiveness, George Turner's publication of The Safe Negro Travel Guide illustrates a practical willingness to find a solution when a problem presents itself. When Caleb presents himself as a problem, when he simply won’t leave the Berry-Turners alone, they find a way to navigate themselves around his schemes and manipulations. And again, because they are proud of who they are, but also realistic of what it means to live in a country that actively suppresses the human and civil rights of people of colour, the Berry-Turner family know that beating Caleb Braithwhite won’t suddenly change their lives, that at best it will return things to what they were. This is why Atticus and his family burst into laughter when a beaten and outplayed Caleb threatens revenge:
“What?” Braithwhite shouted, looking at them as if they were crazy. “What’s so funny?” But for a long while they were laughing too hard to answer.
“Oh, Mr. Braithwhite,” Atticus said finally, wiping tears from his eyes. “What is it you’re 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.”
Lovecraft Country is a brilliant novel—one of my favourite books of 2016. It’s a novel that takes great joy in playing in a sandpit constructed by so many great (and infamous) genre writers—even if they are mostly white. And while it’s a book that confronts the racial attitudes of America in the 1950s, it does this by introducing us to a family, the wonderful and memorable Berry-Turners, who teach us that the only defence against racists laws and attitudes is to be proud of your heritage, to be proud of your identity, and, most of all, to push back against those who would threaten your community. It's an especially important and pertinent message for right now. But then it always has been.
- The actual Guide, as distinct from the fictional one that appears in this novel, was first published in 1936 by a New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green. It was called The Negro Motorist Green Book and, like George Berry’s, book for three decades it described those establishments that were willing to serve people of colour. It says something about my own blinkered view of the world that until I read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country I had no idea that such a guide once existed. Needed to exist. [return]
- If you're looking for recent works that do precisely that, you might want to check out the very funny I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas, or the superb The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle. Also excellent is The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, though the Lovecraft reimagining is more focused on gender than race. [return]
- I’m aware of more than one person who refused to buy this book because of its association with Lovecraft, weary of another “take” on his fictional universe and his odious politics. [return]