Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Sundown” | Aired August 17, 2020
Putting the Lovecraft in Country
“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.”
—H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
Most H.P. Lovecraft stories go the exact same way. A white male, usually in New England, discovers that the world isn’t what they thought it was. Some paranormal force exists. And that discovery turns their world upside-down. Usually this monster, or demon, or force, slowly chips away at the protagonist. Eventually, the story ends with the main character entirely broken, physically, mentally, or both, by the revelation. The world isn’t what they thought. Reality is bigger than they ever dreamed. They aren’t as safe as they thought they were.
In its first episode, entitled “Sundown,” Lovecraft Country asks a very clear question: “What if reality wasn’t built to protect you?” More than that, what if a sudden, dramatic change to reality would actually help you? Then, how would you view these stories?
It’s a question that deserves to be asked. After all, it is well documented that H.P. Lovecraft was a horrible racist. It’s a part of his legacy which fans of his grapple with. With many public figures, they develop a loyal fanbase before the world finds out that they are secretly a terrible person, and fans are left reeling about how to separate the art from the artist. With Lovecraft, racism was always part of his career. A few of his works are explicitly about race. But even his more mainstream stories are filled with a morality that makes “goodness” and “whiteness” inseparable.
But more than that, the question Lovecraft Country asks is a question that is perfectly timed for this moment. By writing stories that consistently valued the status quo and made anything outside of the New England countryside demonic and evil, Lovecraft inherently valued white America. In a time when many white Americans have suddenly jolted out a deep sleep to engage with the issue of racism in this country, Lovecraft Country is perfectly timed to investigate the ways in which the ways white people think about “reality” in this country are only a point of view.
Understanding Lovecraft Country
“If you’re treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.”
Lovecraft Country follows the main character, Atticus Turner, as he leaves the Jim Crow South in 1954 and heads home to segregated Chicago. A Korean War veteran, Atticus has not heard from his father since before he left for the war. But when Atticus’ uncle writes to tell him his father has gone missing, Atticus is forced to head home and investigate the mysterious disappearance.
Upon reaching Chicago, Atticus quickly learns that he must head toward New England, into Lovecraft Country if he wants to find his missing father. He’s joined on his mission by his uncle George and childhood friend Letitia. Uncle George is the publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a version of The Negro Motorist Green Book. And Letitia has recently blown into town and, with nowhere to stay in Chicago, is eager to blow out again just as quickly.
If “Sundown” is asking us to question the nature of our reality, each of the show’s three main characters goes deeper on that theme in some critical way. We can see from the first scene that Atticus has a keen eye, observing everything that’s going on around him and understanding how it will affect him. George’s job requires him to go on frequent road trips to investigate reports on safe havens for black travelers across the country. And as the most streetwise member of the group, as well as the only woman, Letitia is the most attuned to possible threats. Unlike Lovecraft, none of the characters in Lovecraft Country are content with the status quo. They are always asking questions, trying to understand what is really happening around them.
What Reality Do You Choose?
There is a gut reaction to feel that Lovecraft Country isn’t doing enough. In the wake of the truly incredible Watchmen last year, it might feel like a genre show about race in America that is using the works of a famous racist as a jumping-off point isn’t good enough. But that’s unfair for a lot of reasons. First, despite the obvious similarities, Lovecraft Country is not Watchmen Season 2. And treating it like it is isn’t going to make anybody happy.
But more importantly, Lovecraft Country is pushing viewers to a much more difficult and much more specific place than Watchmen ever was. Watchmen was content to take its source material and build on it in all kinds of interesting ways that left audiences surprised and delighted. Lovecraft Country, like the novel it is based on, is taking the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and deliberately upending them.
Where Lovecraft’s protagonists were cold and isolated introverts who should’ve stayed at home, the heroes of Lovecraft Country are filled with wanderlust and an appetite for life. In Lovecraft’s stories, the menacing threat lurking in the shadows was always a break with the status quo. But the heroes of Lovecraft Country would love nothing more than to see a major change in society. The highest praise fans of Watchmen could heap on the show what that Alan Moore would probably love it if he’d give it a chance. H.P. Lovecraft would probably hate everything about Lovecraft Country, and that’s kind of the point.
In one of the first scenes of “Sundown,” Atticus is telling a woman about the book he is reading, Princess of Mars. He tells how the hero of the story, John Carter, was a Captain in the Army of Northern Virginia before he was transported to Mars. When the woman questions how Atticus can enjoy a story whose hero is a Confederate officer, he tries to explain himself. “Stories,” he says “are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are not perfect. They are overflowing with racist ideas and troubling thoughts that can make even the most charitable reader question if they should just put the book down. But Lovecraft is also a genius who created some of the most unique monsters and indelible hallmarks of horror to this day. This is why so many fans of the genre, myself included, struggle with whether or not to read his stories.
Lovecraft Country, I suspect, also isn’t perfect. But “Sundown” is a beautifully haunting episode that sets the tone for what promises to be an excellent season of television. The story it wants to tell, and the way it wants to tell it, are uniquely exciting. And if it can use Lovecraft’s creations to tell a story about embracing the unknown, the result will be something totally unexpected.
Lovecraft Country airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO and streams on HBO Max. It might be on other HBO streaming platforms. I’m not sure. That whole situation is still pretty confusing.