The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: 'Sundown'

Illustration for article titled The Safe Negro Guide to iLovecraft Country/i: Sundown
Screenshot: HBO (YouTube

If you clicked this link, you probably watched “Sundown,” the first episode of Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country on HBO on Sunday (if not, go watch). Now, ahead of next Sunday’s episode, you’re interested in becoming more than a casual viewer as you recognize that the series is an incredibly subversive piece of historical fiction with literary and visual references aplenty.

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Well, I’m Dr. Kinitra Brooks, a professor and horror scholar, here to be your guide into the deep universe of Lovecraft—and this shit goes deep. Like, white boys roleplaying Call of Cthulhu until 3 am deep; like busty white chicks dressing up like Dejah Thoris deep. Now, I promise I won’t go that deep—I also prefer the Blacker Harlem Unbound (which we’ll dig into later)—but I have immersed myself in all things Lovecraftian so you don’t have to (and I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum—but again, you should watch).

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“Shoot the Motherf*cker!”—I know we’ve only seen one episode so far, but this is officially my favorite quote of Lovecraft Country. (A close second is Jurnee Smollett’s Leti clapping back at Courtney B. Vance’s Uncle George with “My name is not ‘girl!’ It’s Letitia fucking Lewis!” as she maniacally drives to save them from the racists on their tail after daring to eat in an all-white diner.) Yes. FINALLY. We have our protagonist, Tic (Jonathan Majors), yelling at the person with the gun exactly what us LoudBlackFolks™ have yelled at televisions and movie screens since time began.

The command to shoot comes at the climax of the first episode of HBO’s new series, which places Black folks in the midst of pulp fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft’s vast mythological world. Lovecraft Country, based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff and adapted by Misha Green, is a part of the contemporary arts movement that media professor John Jennings coined as “Racecraftian,” inspired by Karen and Barbara Fields in their 2014 book, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life.

H.P. Lovecraft was an unabashed white supremacist; his stories speak of Black folks and POC as “savages” and “natives.” He also castigates any type of miscegenation, often using the monsters of his story as a metaphor for Blackness and/or racial impurities. He was so cavalier about his anti-Blackness that the name of the cat in his short story, “The Rats in the Walls,” is “Niggerman.” Tic speaks of this when he remembers how his father forced him to memorize Lovecraft’s infamous poem, “On the Creation of Niggers,” upon discovering Tic reading the author’s stories.

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But Lovecraft was also a creative genius who possessed the forethought to make his complex mythologies of creatures he named the Elder Gods, Shoggoths, and weird New England horrors open-source. Accordingly, other authors began to write stories of “Cthulhu” and the Necronomicon—all Lovecraft creations—long after his death, thus legitimizing and sustaining his acclaim. So many writers and creators have incorporated his ideas, from Stephen King’s It (1986) to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator (1985) that once you know his mythological universe, you see it everywhere.

Racecraft is an attempt by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and progressive white writers like Matt Ruff to take on the products of Lovecraft’s literary brilliance while simultaneously pushing back at his racist themes. The central problem in Racecraft remains: How does one reckon with the beauty of the tales we love that also reinforce the white supremacy that suffuses our daily lives? It’s a common problem across artistic genres; for instance, many Black women and Queer folks love hip hop even as its lyrics are filled with misogynoir and homophobia. Similarly, Black fans of science fiction, fantasy, and horror—like Tic and his Uncle George—love a genre that either actively excludes or oppresses us; Victor LaValle, author of The Ballad of Black Tom (2016), dedicates the novella to both Lovecraft and his conflicted feelings about him.

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Jennings believes in creating a discourse with Lovecraft, something he has done with his Lovecraftian graphic novel series, Box of Bones. Professor Jennings also admits to being petty AF, saying: “I know he’d hate for people of color...messing around with his work..[laughs]...and that’s one of the things I dig about it, that he would hate this I’m a do this [recreate and revise his work]” (h/t the Inverting Lovecraft podcast). Racecraft is actually a part of a long tradition of Black folks remixing and revising those things that were meant to exclude, oppress, and denigrate us. And the most beautiful thing about Black folks is that we rarely if ever accept the dominant narrative—we are experts at reading and creating against the grain. We see this in our theologies, our fashion, and even our ways of knowing. “Racecrafting” our own stories has always been here and it ain’t going nowhere.

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The Ballad of Black Tom has been optioned by AMC, but Lovecraft Country is the first adaptation of Racecraft for television, and I’m excited to see how Green continues to adapt and evolve the episodic nature of Ruff’s novel. The coming scenes tease multiple story arcs starring the various characters introduced in the first episode. Each character will experience their own brush with Lovecraft’s supernatural worlds, so be prepared for shifts in tone, pace, and perspective as the series continues. I’ll meet you there—and back here next week.

Glossary: a list of terms and descriptions to help you along your journey into Lovecraft Country.

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The Old Ones, aka The Elder Things - Similar to the Greek Titans, these are the gods who existed before everything whose absence influences the interconnected worlds of Lovecraft’s stories. These interdimensional beings are promised to return and must be sated by the occasional human sacrifice from their followers.

Cthulhu, aka The Sleeping King -The most well-known of the Old Ones, who lies asleep at the bottom of the ocean. He makes an appearance in the first scenes of Episode One during Tic’s dream. He is easily recognized by his tentacled face and octopus-like appearance.

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Shoggoths - A hybrid slave race meant to act in service to The Old Ones and those that worship them. “A Shoggoth is a huge, oozing, multi-cellular mass, typically black in color. As it needs or wills, it produces or dissolves temporary eyes, vocal apparatus, or other organs within its form. It commonly communicates by whistling and piping noises, imitating the speech of former masters, the Elder Things,” reads page 55 of S. Peterson’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors. We get a wonderful introduction to them in the first episode of Lovecraft Country, as well as the hint that others are able to communicate and control them.

Recommendations: If your interest is piqued and you would like to take a deeper dive, here are some media suggestions that will help you better understand the Lovecraftian universe.

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Film:

The Evil Dead (1981), Sam Raimi

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Robert Rodriguez

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), Drew Goddard

Short Stories:

At the Mountains of Madness (1936), H.P. Lovecraft

The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936), H.P. Lovecraft

Reference:

S. Peterson’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors (2015), Sandy Peterson


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Kinitra Brooks is a New Orleans native who writes about conjure women, monsters...and Beyoncé.

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The Final Days of Gawker Have Come

And, if you are so inclined, Bloodborne on PS4 or Call of Cthullu on multiple platforms (i played on pc).

Hell, the Bloodborne DLC practically takes place in Insmouth.

Hey, if we are listing The Evil Dead, we can def add some video games to the list.