As the dust settles on a drawn-out US election, one thing that is clear from close counts across the country is that America is a divided nation, grappling with its history and identity (and democracy).
In the last 18 months we’ve seen two American television shows blend the speculative and the historical to explore the roots of America’s identity crisis: multi-Emmy-award-winner Watchmen and HBO stablemate Lovecraft Country.
Lovecraft Country — executive produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams — transplants horror tropes like monsters, ghosts and magic into 50s America.
The show’s African American protagonists are equally pitted against supernatural powers and the real horrors of racism.
So what — and where — is this Lovecraft Country?
Early in the series, protagonist Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, Da 5 Bloods), AKA Tic, describes the city of Ardham, Massachusetts — one of the story’s key settings — as “Lovecraft country” because it is where influential 20th-century American horror and fantasy writer HP Lovecraft set many of his tales.
In fact, Ardham does not exist in the real world — it is a reference to the fictional town of Arkham, where Lovecraft set many of his stories.
And Arkham IS based on a real place: Salem, Massachusetts, the site of the notorious 17th-century witch trials.
What’s this got to do with the series?
The series begins with Tic, a returned Korean War veteran, on a mission to find his estranged father Montrose (Michael K Williams, The Wire), who has gone missing in “Lovecraft country” after unearthing secrets about the family of his wife (Tic’s mum).
Tic’s quest takes him on a road trip from Chicago, Illinois to Massachusetts, accompanied by his uncle George (Courtney B Vance, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett, Birds of Prey).
On the way the trio encounter monsters — fantastical (including shoggoths) and real (racist law enforcement) — and a creepy occultist family.
Over the 10-episode series, Tic’s aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis, When They See Us), cousin Dee (newcomer Jada Harris) and Leti’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku, Luther) join the fray, embroiled in an adventure that includes a haunted house and a kumiho, race-swapping, time travel and Spielbergian treasure-hunting.
Is this an adaptation of an HP Lovecraft novel?
Series creator Misha Green based Lovecraft Country off a 2016 book of the same name by Matt Ruff, and both the book and the series have references to Lovecraft’s stories.
Ah, so it’s a tribute to Lovecraft?
Not so much — in fact, it’s kind of a f*** you.
Lovecraft has been hugely influential on the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres — but he was also racist, and espoused white supremacy.
In contrast, Ruff’s book and Green’s TV show put black characters at their centre.
Green has described her series as “an opportunity to bring People of Colour to the front of genre pieces”.
“We do not see People of Colour being the leads in things like this.”
Screenwriter and Lovecraft Country commentator JustLatasha describes the series as “a nice, big fat f*** you to HP Lovecraft and all of his racist historic work”.
So is this about racism? Or monsters?
It’s about both and also they’re one and the same, buddy.
As Dr Denise Chapman, a Monash University scholar specialising in critical race media literacies, explains: “These monsters represent these really deep internal fears that my ancestors, my grandparents, my parents, and myself, as a person of colour, as an African American [have].”
“These monsters are real for us and we can feel them; they’re monsters of oppression, and those monsters are invisible — but in Lovecraft country, they’re visible.”
It sets this up from the first scene of the series, a nightmare sequence where Tic, on a battlefield in space, witnesses Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball, using a baseball bat to knock out a Lovecraftian Cthulhu.
“But this monster … really represents white supremacy, racism,” Chapman says.
As an Australian, what historical references should I be aware of?
Much of the story draws on America’s racist history, from Sundown Towns and the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, to the 1921 Tulsa massacre (which was also a key part of Watchmen).
The series is bursting with cultural and historical references that Chapman says are “specific to the black experience”.
Visual references include billboards advertising Aunt Jemima products (which were only rebranded this year) and Gordon Parks‘ iconic photography of segregated 50s America.
Then there are the recordings that are dotted throughout the series, including Ntozake Shange‘s groundbreaking “choreopoem” For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, James Baldwin‘s famous words from his 1965 debate with William F Buckley, and Gil Scott-Heron‘s powerful 1970 spoken word poem Whitey on the Moon.
Latasha says many references and events will be familiar — and potentially triggering — to black American viewers.
“[The show’s creators were toeing] this really fine line,” she says.
“You want to honour history, you want to be representative of today’s culture, and you want to uplift Black people who for so long were not even allowed to be on set, to be the creators, to be the storytellers, to be in charge of their own narratives.”
Ultimately, Latasha believes “Lovecraft Country is a great and necessary watch for 2020 … [which] for me inspired this internal power, a very real power that came from Black American history“.
What are critics saying?
Lovecraft Country has certainly been divisive.
Stop Everything! co-presenter Benjamin Law says the show’s “dialogue is some of the worst I’ve ever heard — and yet I also believe it’s one of the best shows of the year”.
Mike Hale in The New York Times writes that Lovecraft Country is “something that’s been done before, going back at least to the original Night of the Living Dead, but perhaps not this thoroughly and inventively”.
Lauren Michele Jackson in The New Yorker writes that “there are revelations but seldom awe” in the series.
Reviewers — including Jackson — have pointed out that the show’s white villains are “cartoonish”.
But Chapman argues that African Americans and black people globally are often portrayed in the media with “this sense of flatness”.
“And so I actually think that it’s a flip, it’s a counter-narrative that we’re seeing [in the show].”
The show has also been criticised for its storyline involving an Indigenous two-spirit character, which Green has since apologised for.
Will there be a second season of Lovecraft Country?
While it’s unclear whether there’ll be more Lovecraft Country to devour in the future, Chapman recommends fans tuck into Toni Morrison’s horror/speculative fiction Beloved (both the 1987 novel and the 1998 film adaptation) and black horror films Candyman (1992), Tales from the Hood (1995), Eve’s Bayou (1997, also starring Jurnee Smollett) and Get Out (2017).