Revisiting Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country is one of my favorite books. If I recall correctly, it was the first fantasy book I ever read, that took place in a world somewhat like our own, where the Black heroes got a happy ending. It’s a truly brilliant compilation of all the things I love about the fantasy and sci-fi genres. I take comfort in them because for every evil wizard there is a counter spell. For every demonic creature there is a holy weapon. For every alien invader, there is a plague or a laser cannon or maybe we even find out they’re not actually here to destroy us. In a world where the bad guys win seemingly almost all the time, where the forces of fascism and white supremacy threaten to roll back every win made by a disenfranchised population in the past century, imagining these worlds gives me hope.

What’s different about Lovecraft Country is that while magic exists in this world, so too does racism. And it very eloquently speaks to racism as the thing that haunts my dreams at night. How do you destroy a monster like that? It’s utterly absurd. It mutates so you must constantly come up with new strategies to fight it. Meanwhile, Black people are treated as if we’re seeing ghosts and told that racism is just a figment of our collective imagination. Seeing this played out on the page (and onscreen) both literally and allegorically is vindicating. And also comforting. Because when I see these characters win I can imagine that in real life, maybe we can too.

That last part is why the TV adaptation of Lovecraft Country was ultimately disappointing for me. Jordan Peele bought the rights and picked a Black woman, Misha Green, as showrunner. Surely this was going to be epic! And despite my personal feelings, I won’t deny that it was a history making show that was rightfully critically acclaimed. The characters were compelling, the script was engaging, and the cinematography was nothing short of artful. But. . .

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT AHEAD! (I know it’s been forever, but there are so many shows out that I’m perpetually behind on something. So if you haven’t gotten around to watching (or reading), this is your last chance to click away from this post. Come back when you’re done!)

They changed it.

A lot of Black pain and trauma is added to the show. Characters are personally involved in historical events or acquainted with historical figures. For instance, Atticus’s niece (nephew in the book) is personally acquainted with Emmitt Till and Lettie goes back in time and witnesses the Tulsa massacre. (To be fair, they also add in a lot of positive Black history easter eggs as well.) These changes, by themselves, work to make the story seem more grounded in real life. But it crosses a line into nihilism. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of bad shit happened in the book, and evil isn’t totally vanquished. But the book wasn’t just trauma after trauma after trauma. There was joy and humor too.

The show keeps the essential premise of the ending: magic gets taken away from white folks, permanently. But in the show, our protagonist Atticus makes a Christlike sacrifice and dies in order to achieve this, while his paramour Lettie is left to raise their child as a single Black mother. Book Atticus gets that win, gets the girl, and stays alive to enjoy both victories. Additionally, instead of the book’s fairly straightforward romance between childhood friends turned adult sweethearts, Atticus’s first love is a Korean woman he met in the war. He romances her, and pulls strings to set up a makeshift private cinema showing her favorite movie, an American musical. They have a whirlwind romance right up until they split. By the time he and Lettie begin dating, Atticus has PTSD. Lettie doesn’t get a fancy date or pretty words; he just grabs her and they have rough s3x in the back of a mechanic shop.

But wait, there’s more! Atticus’s beloved Uncle George (who also survives in the book) gets killed. Uncle George’s child is terrorized by jigaboo haints and ultimately losing an arm to their hex. The child is also the one to deliver the “kill shot” to the villain, because the adults neglect to make sure the spell Atticus died to complete did its job. In the book a possessed doll tries to kill the kid, but they survive physically unscathed even though they might be emotionally scarred. Atticus’s father–emotionally distant, angry and judgmental in the book–is out and out abusive in the show, along with being an alcoholic and closeted gay man. The latter change adds depth, the former is just unnecessary. Lettie’s sister Ruby, who is seduced by the white sorcerer Caleb Braithwaite, does temporarily abandon her family to live life as white woman with the assistance of Caleb’s transformative potion. But in the book she comes to her senses and uses that power to get reparations of a sort by purchasing a home for Lettie in a white neighborhood, and working as an “inside man” to take down the Braithwaites. In the book, she totally gives herself over to the allure of whiteness and ends up losing her life for it. Not to mention the insertion of a sibling rivalry between Lettie and Ruby based significantly on colorism, rather than just the sisters’ opposing temperaments which lead them to live very different lives.

The old saying, “If you don’t know your history you are doomed to repeat it” is true. It’s true that America has yet to fully face the nightmare legacy of 400 years of slavery. And ultimately, Misha Green seems to believe that it is her mission to make sure we look that legacy in the eye, unblinking, in all of its bloody horror. The quote below really struck a nerve with me but it’s worth listening to the entire interview if you can.

Host: So when you talk about the sacred and us being able to sort of decide what the sacred is and what it means, how do we then think about the consequences of our sacrifices?

Misha Green: “To what you just said, I simply go, ‘what else are you gonna do?’ . . . If you don’t decide what’s sacred and what is worth sacrificing, what else are you gonna do? If you’re not walking up to an altar to sacrifice yourself for something, what is your purpose? . . You are on this earth, and you have to do something. So why wouldn’t you try to do the best thing you can possibly do, the most important thing you can possibly do?” Lovecraft Country Radio Podcast, Episode 10: Full Circle, 44:00 (interview starts at the 23:00 mark)

My problem with this thinking is this: white people started this mess, so why is it always Black people doing the sacrificing? We’ve been doing all the bleeding and dying! I know that power concedes nothing willingly, and there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution. But I feel that life is not worth living if my sole purpose is to be cannon fodder for the cause. We need hope. If we can’t even imagine ourselves surviving and thriving, how do we find the will to fight for that in our real lives? The book does a wonderful job of showing that while sacrifice is necessary and you can’t avoid the hard things, there is also joy in the morning.

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