We begin this five-week horror media studies series by watching the first two episodes of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” Based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, this series first aired during the fall of 2020. Produced by Jordan Peele and helmed by Misha Green, this premium television adaptation and extension of the provocative novel initially received heavy buzz from the entertainment media. As the series aired and moved into the mainstream public consciousness, reviews and responses remained mostly favorable but also became somewhat more mixed. While there were definitely those who loved it, there were also those who were more lukewarm or even put off by certain aspects.
Luckily for us, our project here isn’t about evaluating “Lovecraft Country” in the way reviewers do, judging the quality of the directing or the acting or the script writing, measuring whether the social commentary and psycho-social explorations are correctly balanced with the elements of pure entertainment.
Instead, we can accept this series, and all the works we examine, at more-or-less face value. are what they are with or without our thumbs up or down, and without our having to assign them points on a scale.
These are existing cultural artifacts that present stories and characters and images as a means say things about the world. Our business here is to analyze them, to figure out what we think they’re saying and why we think that. Our interpretations might start as visceral, emotional responses. With horror this is more often the case and part of the fun. But as we process through what these works make us feel, we gradually articulate more reasoned responses. To support our conclusions, we revisit scenes, watch for visual details, and pick apart dialogue, all while searching for nuances of meaning to support our interpretations.
Each week, I post an introduction like this to get us started along with a short list of discussion questions. My intros and my prompts are never meant to tell you how to interpret the movies and shows we watch or the stories and articles we read. My ideas here are meant to open up our interpretative possibilities, never to limit or constrain our discussion, much less to enforce a particular reading of a work. So, I hope you’ll take them in that spirit.
This week, we’re watching the first two episodes of “Lovecraft Country.” The first is called “Sundown,” which is a particularly telling and evocative title in a number of ways. Not only does it reference Jim Crow laws as amply demonstrated during episode, but more generally the notion of the sun setting and darkness approaching suggests the perfect beginning of any horror tale. There’s a lot going on in this episode as it introduces our trio of main characters and sets the scene of a world that feels at once familiar and unfamiliar, both commonplace and deeply unsettling. The second episode ventures into more uncharted and unexpected areas, but it also contains elements that are eerily familiar.
The title of this television series, like the title of the novel, refers to Howard Phillips (or H.P.) Lovecraft, an early 20th-century author of weird cosmic horror fiction. While his writing has long been recognized as influential in the somewhat rarefied field of horror fiction and film, he hasn’t been that well known in the larger world of mainstream popular culture until the last couple decades. Coincidentally (perhaps), this more widespread awareness of Lovecraft and his writing has happened at the same time that writers and scholars have become increasingly critical of his virulent racism. While Lovecraft’s white supremacist attitudes are on full display in works like the poem recited in the first episode, the bigotry woven into his horror tales is mostly less overt. These underlying attitudes are certainly present, but in many stories they can seem subtle enough to avoid notice if you’re not looking for them.
Of course, none of that is to say that generations of writers who expressed enthusiastic admiration for Lovecraft’s writing while not recognizing or perhaps ignoring his inherent racism deserve a pass. However, if you weren’t familiar with Lovecraft before watching this series, it’s important to understand that he hasn’t always been viewed as he’s presented in the first episode. It’s probably also worthwhile to read one of his stories to get a sense of his writing style and the worldview of his cosmic horror.
The readings in this series are all optional, but they will enhance your experience of the things we watch. To that end, I recommend you read Lovecraft’s very short tale entitled “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920). Like many of his stories, this one features a bookish, lonely, and somewhat confused narrator (who could almost be a stand-in for the reclusive Lovecraft himself). The horrors here, as always in Lovecraft’s mythos, derive from a quest for elusive knowledge that results in a confrontation with the unknowable and the unspeakable, which then results in a loss of memory, loss of sanity, and/or loss of life.
“The Statement of Randolph Carter” is readily available in collections of Lovecraft’s stories, but since most of his writing has now passed out of copyright, you can also find it online, such as here: https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/src.aspx
Thanks for joining this horror media studies series. I can’t wait to hear what you think of these first two episodes of “Lovecraft Country.”