Whether you are watching HBO and Sky Atlantic’s new series Lovecraft Country as a sci-fi fanatic or someone without any knowledge of his work, you might not know the full extent of how influential horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s tales are deeply steeped in exclusion and racism. To keep the audience out of the dark, the show shines a light on the writer’s racist history while also bringing his monsters to life.
Showrunner Misha Green, using the template of the Lovecraft Country book by Matt Ruff, turns Lovecraft’s monsters and his racist past into a prestige, big budget HBO series featuring Black actors in a genre they rarely lead. To fully understand the significance of the series, we have to take a look at the meaning of Lovecraft Country and how Lovecraft’s disturbing beliefs play a major role in his legacy. Here’s everything you need to know about the history of Lovecraft Country and how the series builds from it.
What Is Lovecraft Country? And Where Is Lovecraft Country?
At the beginning of Lovecraft Country, Atticus, our hero who is obsessed with science fiction and horror, receives a letter from his father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) who tells him that a secret birthright is waiting for our protagonist in Ardham. Atticus initially misreads the letter and thinks the legacy is in a fictional town called Arkham. The “mistake” is really a reference to the imaginary town Arkham, Massachusetts where Lovecraft set many of his horror tales. Atticus, with the company of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollet), then journeys from Chicago to the New England area to find this inheritance and his missing father.
The Arkham Lovecraft invented is based on the Massachusetts town Oakham. He grew up in New England, in Providence, Rhode Island to be exact, and was inspired by his surroundings. In his writings, he often mentioned well-known or made-up versions of New England cities. He used his extensive knowledge of New England’s culture and geography to create the real-world setting where his gruesome monsters, including the famed Cthulhu, could exist.
What’s In H.P. Lovecraft’s Racist Track Record
Mythological demons and creatures were at the centre of Lovecraft’s books but there’s something you won’t find in his spooky short stories and novels: Black people as main characters. Lovecraft’s contribution to the horror genre is associated with his toxic, racist beliefs that he didn’t keep secret. He wrote a poem in 1912 called “On the Creation of N-----s,” which is referenced in a recent Slate article about Lovecraft’s racist past. In the writing, he refers to Black people as “a beast” in “semi-human figure.”
The author was also xenophobic, anti-semitic, and a white supremacist. Lovecraft supported Adolf Hitler and believed lynchings were necessary to prevent interracial relationships. In one of Lovecraft’s letters included in Lord of a Visible Word, an autobiography of his writings, he wrote, “Anything is better than mongrelisation,” in defense of lynchings in the South. The letters also include hate-fuelled, racist language about Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, and Latinx people as well as other racial and ethnic groups.
Aware of the author’s well documented and offensive beliefs, writer Matt Ruff wrote his 2016 novel using monsters from Lovecraft’s fiction but inserted them into a story about a Black protagonist, Atticus, living during the United States’ Jim Crow Era. He centred a Black man in a genre that Lovecraft explicitly tried to keep people of colour out of.
How Misha Green Reinvented Lovecraft Country For HBO
Showrunner Green, along with executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, adapted Ruff’s book for HBO and took his message a step further. During an interview with The New York Times, Green shared she has read Lovecraft’s work, but she, understandably, “wasn’t a huge fan” of his writing since she knows of his racist opinions. So, instead of exploring more of Lovecraft’s mythology in her series, she decided to broaden Ruff’s story by including the words of Black writers like James Baldwin and Ntozake Shange in the show.
She shared her initial reaction to Ruff’s book in a Q&A with HBO. “I was blown away. I thought, ‘I want to explore these characters and their journeys,’” Green said. She also compared Lovecraft Country to her previous series, Underground, explaining how both series tap into similar ideas and questions: “What are we willing to do for our freedom? And what does freedom actually mean?”
While the horror drama, and the book it’s based on, include Lovecraft’s terrifying concepts and creatures, Green is careful not to praise Lovecraft or his work. “I think it was that thing that Matt was doing that I was really intrigued about, which is this idea of reclaiming it and not saying that we’re going to honour all of your contributions to this genre — and there are many — but we’re going to take that, we’re going to acknowledge who you are as a person, as well, and we’re going to move forward,” Green told the Wrap in August.
Green used Ruff’s book as a “jumping off point,” she said in her HBO interview. She saw endless possibilities when transferring the novel to television. The TV format allowed her to make a “Goonies”-style episode, then sci-fi, then mystery, then a ghost story; go bananas and reclaim all of those storytelling styles for characters who’ve typically died at the beginning of those stories.” She added, “One of the reasons I love horror so much is— when it’s done well – you can keep peeling away the layers and see something new every time.”
Green’s series overturns Lovecraft’s exclusionary, racist world and designed one that is just as scary. She is helping create a new path in the sci-fi/horror genre where Lovecraft and his small-minded, prejudiced beliefs are, thankfully, no longer welcome.