“That’s not scary at all. We can outrun a blob,” Leticia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) shrugs to kick off the final act of HBO’s Lovecraft Country series premiere. Considering what Leti has just heard, she has every right to sound so casual. As she and her love interest/road companion Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) stand in the Massachusetts forest, the latter jokes that the strange sound in the distance is a “shoggoth,” or a terrifying “bubble” monster from an H.P. Lovecraft story. Both characters wordlessly agree such a theory is a fictional nightmare; something limited to the old horror novella from whence it came (1936’s At the Mountains of Madness).
Leti and Atticus have no idea a murderously racist sheriff is behind them, preparing to make the constant threat of violence a reality. The pair certainly doesn’t know they are minutes away from coming face-to-face with a bloodthirsty monster that sure looks a hell of a lot like a shoggoth — down to the “hundreds of eyes” that Tic mentions.
Up until this moment in Lovecraft Country’s premiere, the danger around Leti and Tic has taken a form they know well: racism so prevalent and systematic they can immediately recognise the signs of a building that was burnt down just because it was owned by a Black person. With the introduction of the shoggoth, Leti and Tic find a world so much bigger, scarier, and more magical than they could have ever imagined.
Like any great horror story, “Sundown,” set in 1955, doesn’t begin in the supernatural darkness. We first meet Tic as he wakes from a dream inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars (which will one day inspire 2012’s cinematic flop John Carter). Tic is heading to his hometown of Chicago from Florida, where he settled after serving in the Korean War. While Tic escapes the punishing institutionalised and legalised racism of the Jim Crow-era South when his bus clears the Kentucky border, he still finds possibly deadly bigotry on the other side of the state line in Illinois.
With Tic back in Chicago, we can meet the other primary players in this story. There is Tic’s uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), a thoughtful family man with a Green Book-esque side hustle. While we don’t meet Tic’s father Montrose (The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams) — his disappearance is what brings Tic home in the first place — it is obvious this relationship has an abusive past. And, of course, there is Leti, along with her sister Ruby (The End of the F***ing World detective Wunmi Mosaku).
After a joyful block party — which seems crafted to remind us Black life in 1955 was about more than strife — Tic, George, and Leti hit the road for their own reasons. Tic is desperate to find Montrose, who went to Ardeham (not Arkham), MA to look into Tic’s late mother’s mysterious ancestry. George wants to work more on his Black travel guide, although it is obvious he’s using his publishing goal as an excuse to help his nephew. Leti simply needs to settle somewhere new and hopes her brother, who lives on the way to Ardeham, will offer up that safe haven. He doesn’t, of course, or there would be no story. But Leti doesn’t know that yet.
On the way to Ardeham, the trio finds themselves in two violently racist towns. In Simonsville, Tic realises that locals burnt down a diner called Lydia’s just because it was run by a Black woman. The group’s escape from Simonsville is the first heart-pounding flight from a bigot — or, in this case, a pack of bigots — on fast wheels. The would-be lynchers of Simonsville are only stopped when a white woman (Abbey Lee) in a speedier foreign car cuts them off, forcing the racists’ vehicle into a deadly flip. This is Christina Braithwaite according to the IMDb, and we’re meant to realise she’s the woman who took Montrose out of Chicago. Her sleek international ride is the one everyone keeps talking about.
Then the group comes face to face with the sheriff of Massachusetts’ Devon County, Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris), a man with enough NAACP complaints to fill three folders. After a stressful-but-successful race out of town — which stands as a metaphor for all the damned-if-you-damned-if-you-don’t tendrils of racism — Hunt still drags our heroes out into the forest to execute them for the crime of being Black. What Hunt and his murder-happy good-ol’-boy sheriff pals don’t realise is that there’s something much scarier than them in the woods: those shoggoths we were talking about.
The final 15 minutes of the premiere follows the humans’ attempt to survive the night as the shoggoths pick them off in the pitch black. Unlike the sheriffs, the shoggoths don’t see color — only food. White villains and Black heroes have equal standing on the menu. Immediately we are meant to understand these creatures only hunt in the dark, which is why no one saw them earlier in the day. They also precisely fit the description of shoggoths in chapter twelve of Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, which reads, “It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train — a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light.” Someone has brought the creatures from the novella into the untamed woods of Massachusetts.
Uncle George, however, realises Mountains may not be the only “fictional” text that clarifies what the monsters are. Between their affinity for nighttime, their fear of light, and habit of making strange “music” in the night, George deduces the shoggoths also must have a lot in common with the mythology vampires. That means a weapon like the bright light of a flare — like the ones in Woody the car — might save them. George turns out to be more correct than he could have guessed about the vampire theory, as Hunt, who was chomped on by a shoggoth, begins turning into one of the monsters. Just like a character bitten by a vampire.
Atticus and George are only saved from being murdered by Sheriff Hunt — again — by Leti, who drives Woody into the racism monster-turned-regular monster. Hunt’s only recourse is to run into the night and join his shoggoth brethren. Yet, our protagonists aren’t completely saved, since the shoggoths surround them. The only barrier between the trio and the light-shy Lovecraftian creatures is a series of lit flares, which may just go out before sunrise. Then Tic, Leti, and George hear a whistle in the distance. Someone, or something, has called off the shoggoths. Someone is controlling them.
Could it be the frighteningly blonde man the bloodied group finds in a sprawling mansion when they reach Ardeham? It’s the job of next week’s episode to tell us for sure.
Lovecraft Country airs on Now TV and Sky Atlantic at 2am on Mondays