It’s nothing new to point out that H.P. Lovecraft was a disgustingly racist person. Just look up the name of his cat to confirm it. Media based on Lovecraft’s work in the past few years has generally come around to acknowledge this racism. What’s often missing from these conversations is actual engagement with the ways Lovecraftian style itself has strong ties to racism and various other bigotries. HBO’s Lovecraft Country confronts this messy legacy head-on and turns it on its head.
What does make the Lovecraftian work is its creeping dread — the sense that there are powerful forces lurking just outside your view which pose an existential threat to you. These threats don’t come through an immediate attack, but instead, they slowly infiltrate, taking over a place and eventually making it unrecognizable. You see this is The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a short story where creatures from the sea mix with the people of a fishing town in Arkham, Massachusets and slowly take it over, using it as a platform from which they can invade the United States.
These ideas are ostensibly silly and pulpy, but the focus on an invasion through the pollution of pure blood with the monstrous rings eerily similar to racist paranoia about miscegenation which fuels the Great Replacement Theory and its derivatives. These racist anxieties fuel the violence perpetuated against non-white migrants and the draconian border policies both in the U.S. and overseas. That’s even before we get to how the recurrent ideas of pagan secret societies, common to the genre, run parallel with deeply antisemitic tropes which manifest themselves today in cries of cultural Marxism and insinuations that George Soros or other prominent Jewish peoplle control world politics.
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The point of anti-blackness is always to dehumanize. If Black people are savages, or three-fifths of a human, then the acts of violence both systemic and personal become justifiable — or even righteous.
Lovecraft Country counteracts that. It centers Black people and continuously asserts their personhood. Each of its characters has a fully developed internal life, which it puts front and center. They aren’t just hapless victims of racism or of the monsters themselves. They’re fully embodied people with a full spectrum of emotions.
Nobody has to be a saint, either. Instead, they’re all complex people who make choices which can range from the deeply selfish to the outright heroic. You also feel the humanity through the connections.The fractured connection between Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) and his missing father is given just as much time as any secret societies or ancient magical threat.
These relationships at points lean into soap opera territory. This ends up actually being fundamental to the show working against its genre’s underlying racism. The incredible cast and their chemistry ensure all these interpersonal moments land.
Crucially this isn’t the same as shallow representation politics. There’s a world where this show has Black protagonists, and that’s it. Instead Lovecraft Country is deeply culturally Black from head to toe. The show consistently establishes a world of Black people outside of the main cast in the Jim Crow America that we are constantly brought back to. We get some fun parties with swing and blues and huge crowds of Black people having fun in a way you so rarely get to see in media about this era. With this, Black people aren’t a faceless horde of “semi-human figures,” but instead complete people living their lives, trying to get by. There’s also a variety in the forms of Black existence. Instead of homogeneity, we are shown how queerness and womanhood both modulate the Black experience and people of these identities are given their own space to breathe.
In portraying a fully realized and complicated Blackness, Lovecraft Country reframes existential threats around structural and systemic oppression. These violences deliberately differ from person to person, ranging from misogynoir to colorism to policing, again providing complexity to the experiences presented. Instead of the threat coming from a white supremacist fantasies, it comes from these overwhelming anti-black powers that exist far beyond what any individual cursed homunculus or house haunted by hordes of rats can produce.
The most terrifying scenes aren’t when they’re confronted by the various Lovecraftian creatures, or even magic and cultists. As scary as those are, the most deeply terrifying scenes are the ones where they’re confronted with the stark violence of 1950s America. It’s sundown towns, burning crosses, and racist sheriffs which constitute the real terror. You can’t escape that with some daredevil driving or finding the one hidden weakness of the monster of the week. It’s ever-present and seemingly undying. You feel that undercurrent pulsing throughout.
At the same time, these monstrous threats are never detached from the issues of racism the show covers. There is never the illusion that anything that happens in the U.S. can be meaningfully detached from race. Instead the show leans into it. Many of the horrors these characters face are directly affected by their Blackness. The interweaving of racial dynamics and Lovecraftian horrors also adds catharsis when the cast overcomes them — often in gleefully gory ways. In many cases they overcome these horrors because of their Blackness, rather than in spite of it. A lot of this ability to overcome is gained through Black intergenerational power teaching back to slavery, both in the tangible and the spiritual sense, meaningfully counteracting the derision of Black heritage that is fundamental to creating Lovecraft’s racialized Other.
Lovecraft Country never seeks to rehabilitate HP Lovecraft or his work. It explicitly calls out his racism in the first episode. Through its repeated assertions of Black humanity, however, the show deconstructs the racist foundations of his work. From those parts it makes something new which empowers and humanizes the people Lovecraft feared and hated.