The title of episode five, “Strange Case” strongly echoes the titles of several H.P. Lovecraft tales (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” for example. This resonance is apt since the episode’s parallel narrative both deal with forbidden knowledge and secret identities. However, somewhat surprisingly, this episode turns our attention away from our two main characters of Atticus and Letitia, focusing instead on two storylines about characters who have seemed minor so far. One story is about Ruby who has started a new relationship with William, and the other is about Montrose who we discover has been hiding a romantic relationship with a partner we hadn’t previous encountered in the series.
While the story arcs of these two narratives don’t actually seem to intersect, I would like us to consider why they’ve paired together in a single episode. You notice that one of my discussion questions this week asks you to think about possible connections.
Now, spoiler alert.
Okay, it’s actually not too much of a spoiler because the fifth episode actually begins with it in the opening scene, but I do have to reveal a surprise about the episode in order to discuss it here. Consider yourself warned. Ruby awakens to find herself transformed into a white woman.
As we discussed last week, “Lovecraft Country” continues to explore a lot of different themes and motifs that arise and grow to prominence in American literature during the 19th century and early 20th century. For example, we talked about how in making its impassioned argument again slavery, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s great American novel of the 19th century Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850) employed many familiar elements of “race melodrama” to elicit pity, sorrow, and admiration for the characters. Lovecraft Country certainly has some prominent elements of race melodrama as well, which has earned it some rather harsh reviews. For example, in her scathing New York Times piece “The Unintended Racial Horror of ‘Lovecraft Country’” (Oct. 19, 2020), Maya Phillips claims the series “uses Black trauma as narrative currency” in the hopes that “adding in allusions to and scenes of Black grief may increase the series credibility as a woke depiction of Blackness in America.”
Of course, similar charges were leveled at Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, whatever its shortcomings as a work or “high literature” or a “woke depiction of Blackness in America” that Stowe’s novel became an important part of the national conversation leading up to the Civil War and the end of American slavery remains undeniable. How HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” will affect our current national conversation about race is yet to be seen, but it clearly means to comment on many of the strong themes present in American literary history.
So, it’s not a surprise that the episode “Strange Case” turns its attention of issues of “passing” which became another major strand of American literature that responded to the realities and anxieties created by an increasingly mixed-race population confronted with the dominant historical notion (and legal fiction) of a “one-drop rule” where a single drop of “Black blood” was deemed enough to designate a person as Black. Writers like Mark Twain addressed the issue of race indeterminacy in his quasi-detective novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) about a white baby and a Black baby that were switched at birth. No one can tell the difference between the babies’ races, so the white one is raised as Black and the Black is raised as white. James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man about a mixed-race man who “passes” in order to ensure his personal safety and his career advancement actually panicked reading audiences of its day.
Anxieties about race and race indeterminacy also found their way into horror and gothic fiction. For a very good example of this, I recommend you read Kate Chopin’s short story “Desiree’s Baby” (1893), which is available online: https://storyoftheweek.loa.org/2010/09/desirees-baby.html
As you can tell from the length of this introduction, we’re going to have plenty to explore in our discussion of “Strange Case.”
This week, we’re also watching “Meet Me in Daegu” (episode 6), which flashes back to Tic’s experiences during the Korean War where he meets and falls in love with a Korean young woman named Ji-ah. This story of demonic possession should also provide us with a great deal to explore. I’m particularly intrigued about what this episode suggests about how evil things that are done to us can “infect” us with their evil.
Enjoy our two new episodes this weekend. I can’t wait to discuss them with you next week.