Retroactive Continuity: Lovecraft Country

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Sometimes we choose to separate the author from the work; sometimes we choose not to. And sometimes, we don’t have the option.

The latter is really the case with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. He is notorious for his virulent, vicious racism, and like all racism his arises from a combination of needing an Other in order to define an Us, and fear of that Other, which is why an Us seems necessary in the first place. His fiction, meanwhile, finds horror in the alien, the unfamiliar, and the new; his most famous work begins with the depiction of human life as a “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.” His prose describes a universe of infinite complexity and difference, a universe full of people and things which do not follow the norms with which he is familiar or accord with what he expects, a universe in which there are an infinitude of ways of being other than those of a pathologically frightened little Anglophile nerd, and in response to those visions, he curls up into a tiny ball and wishes not to have to see it anymore. His stories are rife with aristocratic white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, who get a glimpse of a hint of the notion that their privileged existence is not the universal norm, and shatter into gibbering, helpless piles of purple prose.

There just isn’t any way to separate these two facts: he pioneered the literature of the terror of the unknown, and he was jaw-droppingly racist. His horror is, ultimately, the horror of being forced to acknowledge that not everyone is just like you. That’s what weird horror is–it’s horror about invaders from beyond the “normal” world, about discovering the world isn’t “normal” at all. And you know how we feel about “normal” in these parts.

This is, very clearly–indeed, heavy-handedly–what Matt Ruff is addressing with Lovecraft Country. The premise of the book is straightforward: a black family in the 1950s get tangled in the affairs of aristocrat white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, and find themselves being offered in magical blood rituals intended to summon forth the powers of creation, sent on interplanetary errands by ghosts, used as pawns in a war between sorcerers, and so on. Throughout, however, the greatest threats to their well-being remain what was, to Lovecraft, part of the “normal” world: cops, hospitals that refuse black patients even in emergencies, lynch mobs and racist neighbors. Lovecraftian protagonists–most notably, an amateur academic who is the young and ambitious heir to a line of New England aristocrats with a sordid past full of ill-advised “natural philosophy”–are their enemies, while Lovecraftian menaces such as a nameless lurking darkness in the woods, the ghost of a Hecate-worshiping sorcerer whose home one purchases cheap, and an alien tentacle monster end up helping them, usually by killing or terrorizing the white people who would harm them.

But despite that heavy-handedness–indeed, in part because of it–there are two ways to read this book.

On the one hand, it’s a clever reclamation of weird fiction, by reading the phrase “fear of the Other” differently. Instead of the fear engendered by the Other, Lovecraft Country looks at the fear felt by the Other–that is, to the fear that comes from being othered, of living in a society built for the benefit of people that fear and hate you. The Other can be beautiful, as Hippolyta’s experience with the “observatory” that opens into other worlds demonstrates. The Other can destroy that which needs destroying, as when the presence in the woods kills or drives off the racist cops. And by contrast, to be part of Us can be corrupting, as Ruby’s growing addiction to transforming into Hillary shows. Indeed, the only time an othered figure is depicted as actually harmful to one of the protagonists is when the “devil doll” hunts Horace–and that doll is a racist caricature created and animated by white men. It is, in other words, not a manifestation of the Other but of the fear of the Other, the same fear that drives all the racism the protagonists face and serves as the root of the weird horror genre.

But on the other hand, Matt Ruff is white, and he’s arrogating to himself the right to tell, not a story with black people in it, but the story of being black in America. It’s to his credit that he at least recognizes that it’s a horror story, but it’s still not his story. He is still a white person speaking for, and over, black people, and from his comments when questioned about that, it’s clear that he genuinely doesn’t see any problem with that.

Which is the problem, because claiming ownership of everything in sight is what whiteness is. It’s absorbing local gods and spitting them back out as saints. It’s capitalism and nationalism and colonialism. It’s manifest destiny and lebensraum. It’s genocide and slavery. Whiteness as we know it is inseparable from hegemony and fragility, a toxic combination of the power to tilt the playing field and an inability to tolerate any questioning of whether the playing field is flat. Ruff is, it seems, oblivious to the possibility that it might be wrong to set out to tell the genre-redefining story of someone else, and offended by anyone suggesting that it is wrong.

But the book is pretty good, is the thing. Which means we have a choice: to read this as a pretty good book that recontextualizes Lovecraftian horror by contrasting it with the experience of being black in America, or to read it as an act of appropriation by a white author who decides to tell the horror story of being black.

Or, as I’ve tried to do here, we can try to do both at once, and see how it shakes out.


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