The new HBO show Lovecraft Country premiered last Sunday, Aug. 16, to the delight of many. We at Midwest BSFA are fully on board and ready to see where the show takes us! Founding member Renee Tecco gives us her thoughts on it before the second episode picks up where we left off tonight. [NOTE: What follows is an in-depth review of the first episode for those who don’t have or plan on getting HBO and didn’t watch it on YouTube. Consider yourself warned!]
When we were teens, my friend Fran refused to see any scary movies with me. Carrie is on TV? No, she can’t watch it. No to The Omen, no to the Children of the Corn and a big no to the Freddie Krueger movies. She really did not like the energy these movies gave off.
One day while out walking and looking for something to do, two guys asked us if we needed a ride (we didn’t). Fran wanted us to accept because they were cute and she wanted to holla. She reasoned that if things went sideways there were two of us and two of them and we could fight them off. I was like, nah. And we kept on walking. Later, I asked her why she wasn’t afraid of strangers but she was terrified of the metaphysical world. She told me you can defeat humans but you don’t stand a chance against the supernatural. Lovecraft Country contends that the line between malevolent humans and monsters are one in the same.
Lovecraft Country brought a horror show with an African-American focus: African-American leads, African-American showrunner, and African-American storylines. Not sure if it’s the first African American TV show to focus on horror (I found the
miniseries Roots to be pretty horrific; it gave me nightmares as a child) but in the traditional sense of the genre, it’s the first of it’s kind (SyFy’s Superstition notwithstanding).
Based on the 2016 book by Matt Ruff, which I just started reading (don’t come for me, I have a big TBR stack), the show is produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and J.J. Abrams
(Westworld, Lost). The show runner is Misha Green who is best known for the TV show Underground. The series takes the racism of the author H.P. Lovecraft and reflects it back on the author and our society. So let’s do a recap highlight of episode one: “Sundown.” [IN CASE YOU MISSED IT AT THE TOP OF THE POST, THERE ARE *MAJOR* SPOILERS AHEAD]
The show opens up with our main character fighting on a battlefield. What war is this? It’s looking like it could be World War I from the uniforms and the setting but our handsome hero is in the trench fighting all comers. The voice-over, which also sounds like it comes from a 1930s war movie says, “This is the story of a boy and his dream, But more than that. It’s the story of an American boy…” Our hero climbs out of the trenches into an open field where UFOs are hovering above the area.
At that moment, my TV screen was looking like the cover of a 1980s sci-fi book.
An alien floats down from the spaceship and embraces our hero. I wonder if she has a real world counterpart but before we can think more about it, Cthulu comes onto the scene. From out of nowhere Jackie Robinson jumps up to knock the monster out of the park, two times. Our hero wakes up.
Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors) is traveling on a bus from the south. Atticus, also known as Tic, is sitting in the colored only section with one other Black rider there. Not soon after they leave the Jim Crow South, the bus breaks down and Tic and the Black woman have to walk the rest of the way to Chicago with luggage in hand. The Black woman asks about the book he’s reading and he tells her about A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. You may (or may not) know that Burroughs was the creator of the pulp classic Tarzan of the Apes, the story about an orphaned white child who lives in the “darkest of Africa” with Apes and depicts Africans as savages. The story lives on in celluloid form, popping up on classic TV, movie remakes and a Disney cartoon, So, you know, dude has his issues. A Princess of Mars has racist overtones, which the woman immediately picks up on when she hears that the protagonist is an “ex-confederate.” She expresses her disdain saying there isn’t such a thing as an ex-confederate, there’s no coming back from that.
Arriving in Chicago, we meet Tic’s extended family. The Freemans are straight up Blerds if the word existed back then. Tic’s Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) is the publisher of a travel guide that is similar to the Green Book (not the movie that tried to co-opt our history but an actual guide Black motorists used to keep us safe). Uncle George also owns a local bookstore. George’s wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), is an astronomer who also assists her husband with writing entries for the guide. Their daughter Diana (Jada Harris) is creating her own comic book called Orinthia Blue (looks pretty good, too. I hope HBO drops a copy online). And, of course, Tic is a Korean War vet and bibliophile. Like I said, Blerds.
Uncle George is getting ready to go back out on the road just as Tic has returned in search of his father. They get into a discussion about the pulp fiction that Tic loves and how Tic’s father tried to dissuade him from loving the horror classics because he found the genre racist. Tic relays a story of when his father caught him with H.P. Lovecraft’s book The Outsider and the Others, his father forced him to read the author’s poem “On the Creation of Niggers.” Looking at the spine of the book Tic notes the name of the publishing company Arkham is also the name of the place his father went to. Note on Arkham: Arkham is the fictional world of H.P. Lovecraft where many of his stories take place in this imaginary New England area. Arkham House is an American publishing house founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, which gets its name from Lovecraft’s fictional world. But upon further inspection, Tic discovers it’s not Arkham but Ardham that his father was referencing. Uncle George immediately recognizes it as “Lovecraft Country.” By switching up the name, the show is putting down its stakes up front, revealing that they are willing to mix it up and show what is really behind the stories.
Tic goes to a bar to find out more about his father’s disappearance. The establishment is named after Denmark Vesey, the same Vesey who started a slave revolt and was hung as punishment. The proprietor, who was in the alley having fellatio performed on him and wasn’t too happy about being interrupted, told Tic that his father left two weeks back with a man that was so white he could get misplaced in a snowstorm. Flip over to the block party where we meet Letitia Dandridge (Jurnee Smollet) and her sister Ruby Dandridge (Wunmi Mosaku). I wonder if the surname is a shoutout to Dorothy Dandridge whose mother is named Ruby. The mid- to late-’50s was definitely Dorothy’s heyday. But anyway, Ruby is performing and tearing up the stage when Leti comes upon the scene. Everyone wants to see the sisters perform together and you can tell Ruby isn’t really with it but she relents. After the performance Ruby basically lets her little sister know that she’s not happy that Leti blew off their mother’s funeral. Leti tries to convince her to let her stay with her — suggesting she can get a department store, a place that Ruby has already been trying to procure a job. Ruby really ain’t on her little sister’s stuff and let her know she can stay with her for two days then she can bounce. If she was unhappy about it she can go stay with their brother, Marvin. Leti notices Tic and comments on his change. Back to Tic and his uncle, they are making plans to travel to Lovecraft country, pulling out the Atlas that Diana has made artistic notations in (not sure how she knows but hopefully that will be explained later). Uncle George comments how he got two shattered kneecaps outside of Anna, Illinois, which is a real place and has as vile a history as the show infers. Anna is a sundown town (go back and peep the name of this episode) Where they are headed to in New England, Diana has notated the area with a drawing of the apparition Death.
Before embarking on their journey Tic brings out his copy of the book The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas The story is about a man who is being unfairly imprisoned. Makes me wonder if this is going to foreshadow something. As he pulls a photo out of the book he makes a long distance phone call, apparently to Korea because when the phone is answered a woman’s voice says, “Yeobeoseyo.” She asks if he went home and says that he shouldn’t have. Again, is this foreshadowing?
Jump to the next day and we find Leti jumping in on the trip with Tic and Uncle George. Tic says he’s down with her joining up with them since she was the only girl member of the “Southside Futurist Science Fiction Club.” (You gotta love that!) Instead of a soaring instrumental as they travel across the country, we hear James Baldwin voice speaking of racial inequities as we view the montage of various racial disparities:
● A sign reminding Black people they are entering into a sundown town
● A long line of Black people waiting for a bus the billboard above them is a car sign toting the catchphrase “World’s highest standard of living; There’s no way like the American way“
● A white teen making monkey noises and movements to Tic and Leti while they pump
Our trio are hungry and since they are near Simmonsville, they decide to eat at a restaurant named Lydia’s that Uncle George knows serves Black people. Diana’s drawing on the atlas for Simmonsville has trolls (for real, how does she know that?), but they ignore the warning and head there anyway. When they drive into town they get stared down by some white people who can’t believe the audacity that Black folks would just roll up into their area. They get to Lydia’s, which is now renamed the Simmonsville Cafe. When they go inside there’s only one customer who immediately runs out like he saw a ghost. Leti heads to the restroom and when making her way back to the table, she overhears the waiter talking to someone, promising he hasn’t served them because he didn’t want whatever happened to Lydia to happen to him. Meanwhile Tic is examining his surroundings and notices that something seems off about the paint so he asks Uncle George to remind him why the White House is painted white. Uncle George: the Brits lit that bitch up in the War of 1812 then Black people who were enslaved had to whitewash it to make it seem like nothing ever happened. (OK, I paraphrased. But basically white Americans like to whitewash facts. Y’all know how they do.)
Just as Tic finished kicking up the linoleum that exposed a charred floor, our girl Leti runs out saying they need to get the fuck up outta there. They hear sirens so they bounce.
And I mean really, the fire department is rolling up on Black people, too? Like, damn? Why? So they speed down the street, fire truck got stuck (ha!) but the good ole white boys in the truck stayed on their trail. As Leti was booking it down the road my heart was in my throat. They see a silver Rolls coming up on their right so they speed up even more to let the vehicle get between them and the truck. The Rolls was definitely intentionally blocking the truck and then stopped suddenly on both lanes, making the truck flip over the silver car. I was not sad to see that truck crash. They pause a moment to see a white woman emerge from the car and give them a look? Was that allyship? Was it solidarity? Was she just tired of good ole boys trying to get near her pristine car? What was up with that?
They head over to Leti’s brother’s house who was happy to help them out with research and gave them the 411 about the area that they were heading into the next day, Bideford. Bideford was named after a British city that was known for burning witches and the American namesake was settled by witch hunters. Plus travelers are attacked in the woods by grizzlies or wolves and people are going missing around the area and they think it has to do with their Sheriff, who looks like a maniacal asshole just from his picture. Like you know how Jim Carey looked in Me Myself and Irene — kinda like that but more evil.
Short comment about family because they have two family moments. Leti and Marvin about her missing her mother’s funeral and what she did with the money her brother sent to her and then Uncle George and Tic about how Tic’s dad messed him up. Uncle George blames it on his father but Tic ain’t buying that. I guess we will see what’s up when we catch up with Montrose, Tic’s dad. They leave the next day, Leti with them ‘cause her brother said she needed to get on up outta his house. Poor Leti.
But the crew is still together and they drive around all day looking for the bridge that was supposed to lead them to Ardham. Leti and Tic get out of the car to survey the area and hear a noise. Tic jokes it might be a shoggoth which is a big blob with eyes. A few minutes later a police car pulls up. And when you are Black, you know they ain’t never good no matter if it’s 1950s, 1980s or 2020. It’s Sheriff Jim Carey looking bloodthirsty and fake pleasant. He basically makes the crew beg to leave and refers to Tic as a smart ass nigger. He gives them the craziest parameters to get out of his county — they got 6 minutes to make it to the county line and they can’t speed. He allowed Tic to make a U-turn and then gave them a head start before he started to barrel down on them. Tic made sure not to speed so as not to give Sheriff Jim Carey an excuse to pull them over.
Then the Sheriff started ramming their car. Still Tic didn’t lose his cool and they made it over the line just in time. They turned around to look at the Sheriff Jim Carey left behind but then they went some yards to find a police blockade.
They get dragged out to the woods by the police, where the sheriff and his cronies plan to
murder them. As they have our crew laying face down on the ground they hear a noise and before the cronies can execute them on trumped up charges a shoggoth comes and snatches an officer, leaving nothing behind but an arm holding a flashlight. Tic and Leti jump up to run, making it into an abandoned cabin for safety. Soon after, Sheriff Carey and his sidekick demand to be let in and like every good ole boy with a gun, he shoots his way in. Tic and Leti let him in and the white officers stay in their racism. Before the
pandemic, people might have pushed back against this scene but I think now we definitely see that when there is a choice between fighting the enemy together or elevating racism, white racists will choose whiteness and racism each and every time. Sheriff Carey was even denying that there were monsters although one basically gnawed up his right shoulder.
Uncle George, who again has shattered kneecaps, makes it to the cabin and they let him in. Uncle George tells them that light frightens the shoggoths and Sheriff Carey divests him of the flashlight he took from the killed officer. Tic wants to run for the car but the racist sheriff is like, “Nah, you gonna leave us to die. Let her go.” Now he just saw that Tic was willing to go out and rescue his uncle so why would he leave his uncle behind? I mean damn, wasn’t that some mess? Leti said, Yeah, I can run this. I’m fast. So she goes. And she flies, she’s fast. But the blobs were also fast. Jumping from tree to tree and getting close.
And bay-beeeeeeee! When she made it to the car then flashed the headlights I was glad but then the thing dug under the car and jumped up on the hood and I screamed.
Back at the cabin Sheriff Carey is looking bad. He was definitely chewed a bit by the shoggoth and they were watching him change. Tic and Uncle George were yelling at the deputy like “Shoot that motherfucker!” I was also yelling to shoot that motherfucker, trying to will my power to the screen, ya’ll! The deputy was like, “Noooooh, he’s still a white maaaaaaaaaaaan!” (OK, he didn’t verbalize that but he basically did that). And because he chose to stay on the side of whiteness, which is now literally a monster, he got snatched up and ate up. I think that might be an allegory there for current times. *insert shoulder shrug here*
So the monster was about to come for our peeps but then Leti crashes through the wall and runs over one of the creatures. The noise brings more shoggoths to the area. Tic and Leti put out flares but I ain’t think they were gonna make it. Those things were surrounding them but suddenly a high whistle called all the monsters away.
Next scene the bedraggled trio found the bridge and they were walking wearily up to the big house. When they knock on the door a really pale guy opens the door and tells Tic they have been waiting for him. That’s it.
So what did you like about the series premiere? What did you think of the storyline? And most importantly, what are your predictions for Sunday night’s second episode? I am going to leave you with a few recommendations:
Read Changeling by Victor Lavalle — it connects, trust me — or Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen
Listen to “Black Love” by Salaam Remi, Teedra Moses & D-Nice in honor of the love between Uncle George and Hippolyta — is he going to get home to his beloved wife? We gotta believe!
Eat: Drunken Popcorn. This show needs popcorn and alcohol so you might as well combine them.
Until next time…