Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Atticus Turner, an African-American soldier returned from the Korean War, receives a letter from his father in Chicago. When he goes to check up on him, Attitcus discovers his father has gone missing while looking into the mysterious history of his mother’s side of the family. With the help of his Uncle George and friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to track down his father in New England. While already dealing with the dangers and terrors of segregated 1950s America, Atticus and his companions discover they are being watched and manipulated by the cultic Order of the Ancient Dawn, led by the Braithwhite family, which is connected to the Turners. Endeavoring to free himself from the machinations of these “natural philosophers,” Atticus takes extraordinary risks that endanger himself, everyone he loves, and possibly the whole country as he struggles against racism and cosmic horror.
One of the elements that works best within the novel is the marriage of two kinds of horror. The cosmic horror is of the H. P. Lovecraft variety, where shadowy cabals seek to use mysticism and the contacting of unfathomable, extra-dimensional powers for personal gain. Joined to this are the horrors of racism and the legally sanctioned discrimination of Jim Crow Laws. What helps make this pairing work so well is ultimately twofold. For one thing, it means there is no reprieve for the protagonists. They always have to be on their toes because even when they aren’t being menaced by horrors from beyond the stars, they still have to endure discriminatory housing laws, police mistreatment, “sundown laws,” and the constant threat of physical violence from bigoted citizens who can act with impunity. When a sorcerer threatens Atticus and his family, telling them that they'll never be safe, laughing, Atticus replies, "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" (366).
Secondly, one of the major thrusts of cosmic horror is that it creates terror by making the characters, and by extension the audience, feel small and mostly powerless in the face of incredible entities that are blindly destructive or antithetical to human life and reason. These are the same intended effects of Jim Crow Laws—to make African-Americans feel as though they are small, weak, and without intrinsic value.
While many of Lovecraft’s stories end with ambivalence or tragedy, his genteel, white protagonists still attempt to stand against these destructive forces. Ruff’s African-American characters have the same opportunity to stand for their humanity and sense of worth when confronting eldritch entities and social oppression. It also helps that the cosmic horror elements reinforce the elements of discriminatory horror. The ghost trying the frighten Letitia out of her new home parallels the discriminatory redlining and prejudicial neighborhood covenants that were used to force out people of color from certain neighborhoods. Horace deals with the fears of police surveillance and intimidation that just happen to be magic spells that function not too differently from obtrusive observation that creates panic and paranoia (338–340).
The tone of the novel is helped by the sense of irony and humor that runs throughout it. Letitia and Ruby are both practical and down-to-earth, so they often have pragmatic reactions that seem humorous given their circumstances. For example, when arguing over whether or not to purchase and move into a haunted house, Letitia’s counterpoint to Ruby is, “It’s got an elevator” (119). Letitia also continues to play dumb as paranormal manifestations become increasingly obvious in her new property. Similar comedic-yet-dangerous shenanigans ensue when George, Atticus, and the Prince Hall Freemasons engage in amateur art theft, trying to obtain a magic book hidden in Chicago’s Museum of Natural history.
With Strange Aeons
Lovecraft Country does have some elements that some readers won’t find as effective. While it is a novel in theory, it often reads more like a series of connected short stories, frequently switching between characters' points of view. While this technique isn’t inherently bad, it can make the whole story feel a bit disjointed. While Lovecraft wrote short stories that coalesced more on less into his Cthulhu Mythos in retrospect, few of his stories connect explicitly to make a single, longer narrative. It can seem like Ruff is trying to have it both ways—writing a novel with an overarching plot and creating the feel of an anthology of cosmic horror short stories as an homage to Lovecraft, August Derleth, and similar authors.
Structuring the novel in this way can feel off-putting to readers who want more of one technique or the other. On a related note, the ending comes across as a bit abrupt. The characters have worked a bit in previous chapters toward the goal of entirely breaking free of the Braithwhites, but the plan seems to some together a bit more easily than one might expect given the precarious nature of their situation and their prior reversals of fortune.
Should You Read It?
Ultimately, Lovecraft Country is an excellent novel because of its layered symbolism. Its historical details and aspects of cosmic horror reinforce one another effectively. The characters are all compelling, and the prose is precise and clear. Even readers who don’t know anything about H. P. Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos will find a lot worth reading in this novel.
Ruff, Matt. Lovecraft Country. Harper Perennial, 2016.
© 2020 Seth Tomko