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American Horror: Trump Country and Lovecraft Country

October 11, 2020


If you’re looking for a diversion from the non-stop horror show that is our daily newsfeed, may I enthusiastically recommend Lovecraft Country, the television series now streaming on HBO.

I have never been a big fan of the horror genre. Or, for that matter, of fantasy fiction and films. But there are exceptions, and this is decidedly one of the best. I had to reconsider my prejudices after seeing Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, in which he reimagined the horror genre as a pretty realistic way of viewing the black experience in America.  Peele’s brilliant insight was to use the conventions of horror films to illuminate the real life dangers of just being black in this country, where there are few places of real safety and a simple ordinary encounter with a white person or, worse, law enforcement can in an instant turn dangerous or even deadly. Where even seemingly friendly white folks can’t be trusted not to conceal some variety of monster with malign intent.

Peele followed that up in 2019 with Us, a more complex narrative that uses the horror genre to look at race, inequality, insecurity, and fear of the “other”–all issues that actually what our politics are all about. As he put it in an interview, “On the broader stroke of things, this movie is about this country. And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken by the fact we are in a time where we fear the other. Whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us.” It is a highly ambitious film and full of ideas, and I loved it even though it did not quite receive the critical acclaim of Get Out.

Now Jordan Peele is executive producer of Lovecraft Country, an even more ambitious undertaking that so far, in my opinion, is nothing short of amazing. A new episode is released on HBO every Sunday at 9 Eastern.

The series is based on a novel by Matt Ruff, who took the title from H. P. Lovecraft, an early 20th century writer whose “cosmic horror” style is reflected in the series, where danger lurks at every turn both in the normal realm as well as in the supernatural. But Lovecraft was a blatant racist and Nazi admirer. As the NY Times observed, Ruff (who, incidently, is white) “upended this legacy by centering Black characters and making the story a parable about throwing off the constrictions of white supremacy.” 

The showrunner, Misha Green (“Underground”), has taken the book and run with it. The series is unapologetically written from a black point of view and isn’t at all concerned about sparing white sensibilities.  And why should it be? The story takes place in the early 1950s just before Jim Crow began to crack, and its flawed protagonist Atticus Turner (played by Jonathan Majors, of The Last Black Man in San Francisco–count me as a total fanboy!) is a Korean War vet returning to a very racist and hostile country. Interestingly, the action mostly takes place in the supposedly more enlightened North, not the segregated South, and it also has a pronounced feminist theme throughout and complex female characters, led by Jurnee Smollett and Wunmi Mosaku as half-sisters Leti and Ruby. 

I won’t be a spoiler and attempt to summarize the plot, but I will say that each episode has layers and layers of references to literature, pop culture, music, and black history. Sometimes they zing by so fast that you can easily miss some of them on a single viewing. If you followed all of them up, they would amount to a very interesting course in American history. I would also recommend listening to the illuminating commentary on the podcast Lovecraft Country Radio after each episode is released. It is available on HBO on demand, as well as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Prime, and other podcast sources.

It’s nerdy, pulpy, sexy, horrifying, serious, and funny. Just simply great television. And most definitely NOT for the kiddies. Most of all, it tackles themes that we are very much still dealing with in our own real life daily horror show. Just go with it.

When the president is deliberately spreading a deadly disease which he insists is no big deal, when QAnon believers can be elected to Congress, when cops can burst into your home and kill you while you’re sleeping or kill you on the street in front of witnesses, when backwoods “militia” can plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Trump country doesn’t  seem all that different from Lovecraft Country. 

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