How do you, in an era fraught with fragile race relations, and white supremacy flaring up like a stubborn cold sore, even begin to update the iconic and enduring works of an infamously racist creator? By marrying the traditional cosmic horrors with the even more insidious and ancient terrors of systemic racism, of course. For the most part, this is a line that Lovecraft Country walks with finesse, exploring both the black experience in 1950s USA and themes of H.P. Lovecraft’s vast body of work, with only the occasional narrative wobble or pacing slump along the way.
As with most of the stories that it draws from, Lovecraft Country begins with a fairly human inciting incident: Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (Jonathon Majors), a Korean war veteran recently home, receives a strange letter from his missing father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). Joined by his old friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), Tic travels across Jim Crow America to locate his dad, but soon finds himself embroiled in an ancient mystery of power, lineage and life everlasting.
If that sounds a bit generic, it’s because it pretty much is. Adapted from Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, this series stands on two legs: one of mysticism and conspiracy, and the other of oppression and bigotry. As much as they try to link the more high-concept story beats back to the central conceit of cosmic horror racism, plots of immortality and global magical cabals still feel pretty weak, narratively speaking. Instead, Lovecraft Country finds itself most in the smaller, more intimate encounters between its sociological and supernatural threads.
Jargon-filled exposition dumps slow the pace right down, and draw attention away from the more compelling personal stories.
The nail-biting tension of the gang being pursued out of a sundown town by a rabid sheriff, trying to cross the county line before dark falls and hunting season opens, is by itself horrifying enough. So much so, that when a pack of Shoggoths (dog-like Eldritch Abominations) emerge from the woods, hunting black and white alike, it feels like a relief. Serving as the climax to the first episode, this is an opportunity for showrunner Misha Green and her team to make clear the mission statement of this series: there are much more monstrous things to fear than those that go bump in the night.
Similarly, themes of racial exclusivity are touched upon when a lodge of all-white wizards, collectively known as the Sons of Adam, clutch their pearls as Tic and George sit with them. But these themes aren’t effectively explored until the stakes become more personal, as they do with Leti’s sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku). In a Jekyll and Hyde-infused body horror arc, Ruby steps into the skin of a white woman, and experiences first-hand how the other side live, quickly finding herself seduced by the allure of freedom and status that the whitehood grants her.
That’s not to say that the narrative of Lovecraft Country completely lives and dies by the impact of its racial commentaries. There’s plenty to love in both the overarching history and mythology of the magical cult, as well as the creative blends of sci-fi and horror. Unfortunately, it’s also in these elements that the writing suffers the most, with a propensity towards jargon-filled exposition dumps slowing the pace right down, and drawing attention away from the more compelling personal stories.
Majors brings a captivating blend of introversion and integrity to the role, highlighting Tic’s vulnerabilities and strength as the story demands.
Much more consistent in quality than the writing are the actors bringing it to life. As nerdy bookworm turned jacked-up war vet Tic, Majors brings a captivating blend of introversion and integrity to the role, highlighting Tic’s vulnerabilities and strength as the story demands. As with the narrative at large, Tic’s emotional arc is always at its most resonant when dealing with his loved ones, particularly Leti, Uncle George and Montrose. The latter in particular draws some of Majors’ best work, as Tic deals with the echoes of all the abuse he suffered at his father’s hands.
The excellent chemistry between cast members feeds into one of the strongest elements of Lovecraft Country: its enduring sense of family. George’s wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), and their daughter Diana (Jada Harris) both have adventures of their own, with the former embarking on a sci-fi journey of self-discovery, and the latter being subject to some of the show’s most chilling horrors. As well as sharing a great, combative sibling relationship with Leti, Ruby also gets plenty of space to grow as a character by herself, with Mosaku exuding confident charisma throughout.
The most radical and emotionally engaging arc undoubtedly falls to Montrose, which brings with it both positives and negatives. A closeted homosexual, dealing with the nation’s homophobia as well as racism, Montrose is a character constantly at war with himself. Williams does excellent work with this struggle, bouncing between rage, despair and the briefest glimpses of vulnerability as he is confronted about his behaviour by his brother, his son, and his boyfriend, Sammy (John Hudson Odom). The latter is the first of the negatives, as their entire relationship is shrouded in shame, and Sammy quickly drifts into the background once Tic discovers his father’s secret.
Another queer character, Yahima (Monique Candelaria), a two-spirit Arowak person, is also mistreated. Introduced in a Sons of Adam prison, they seem to be important for a moment, only to be brutally murdered by Montrose, who fears that they will bring the wrath of the Sons of Adam down on his family. Finally, there’s Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung), a Korean woman who is possessed by a Kumiho spirit. Though an entire episode is dedicated to exploring how she met Tic and the story of her tentacley condition, Ji-Ah barely factors into the rest of the season, only showing up briefly for the final showdown.
The excellent soundtrack is complemented by some incredible, often highly disturbing, visuals.
As compelling as each of the individual narratives are in their own right, it’s when everyone comes together that the real magic happens. One such scene in the finale sees the whole family crammed in the car together, singing The Chords’ “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)”, while driving to face off with their magical antagonists. This small moment of fun, after a season’s worth of torment, is a bright light shining through all the gloom, and a reminder of what they’re fighting so hard for. It’s relatable as hell, and underlines the strong heart beating at the centre of Lovecraft Country.
Doo-wop karaoke car-rides aren’t the only aural delights to be found here. Most of the diegetic music is period-appropriate, with black legends like BB King and Etta James both playing during the first episode, and Ruby reuniting with Leti by singing a duet of Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Elsewhere, anachronistic tracks are used sparingly, with one particular highlight being Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word poem, “Whitey on the Moon” pointing out the racial inequalities as the Sons of Adam use Tic to try to open a magical portal.
In these more high-concept moments, the excellent soundtrack is complemented by some incredible, often highly disturbing, visuals. From the opening scene, in which Tic has a nightmare of a hellish warzone, beset by aliens and Cthulhuian monsters, everything from the Shoggoths to Ji-Ah’s tendrils look suitably monstrous. Special praise is due to the effects used to show Ruby’s transformation to and from her white form. Describable only as a snake shedding its skin, only way more visceral, these gruesome scenes of flesh-peeling are excruciating to watch, and all the more impressive for it.
Though it struggles in delivering its drier, more technical content, there’s so much to appreciate in Lovecraft Country, in between the heavy exposition dumps and bland aspirations of magical immortality. The characters are, for the most part, well-rounded and engaging, and the stellar performances of the lead cast make them easy to invest in. It doesn’t all come together as cleanly as it could, but as Tic so poignantly lays out at the start of the series, “stories are like people: loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.”
Verdict: 3.5/5 Paddles