Horror While Black: Race in Matt Ruff's 'Lovecraft Country'

H.P. Lovecraft, along with Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, is one of the most chilling horror writers in history. He also was a raging racist. Although obscure within his lifetime, the last few decades has seen the Rhode Island native receive a critical re-appraisal, and with that comes the perspective of modern eyes. His private writings revealed consistently negative thoughts on Irish Catholics, German immigrants and African-Americans, including a 1912 poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers” that described black people as “beasts…in semi-human figure” who are “filled with vice.” It is appropriate, therefore, that Matt Ruff’s 2015 novel Lovecraft Country flips many horror genre tropes, some created by Lovecraft, on their head by focusing on African-American characters and experiences, including “driving while black” and what it means to “pass” for white.

Lovecraft Country starts in 1954 and follows friends and family of Atticus Turner in a series of vignettes. Turner is a 22-year old Army veteran, having returned to the United States after fighting in the Korean War. After working in Jacksonville, Florida he returns to Chicago, where most of the main action takes place. The first section, however, details him and his uncle George taking a road trip to “Lovecraft Country”, the mostly fictionalized New England region where the author’s books take place, and getting continuously harassed by police. Later in the novel Ruby, a side character up to that point, uses magic to become a white woman. This is a fascinating opportunity to explore not just how race was treated in 1950s America (and today), but also what it’s like to be a woman.  

It’s okay to enjoy Lovecraft. His life and opinions cannot be changed, and very much in the vein of his characters his works should be viewed anthropologically, as history.

First of all, a caveat: it’s okay to enjoy Lovecraft. His life and opinions cannot be changed, and very much in the vein of his characters his works should be viewed anthropologically, as history. All readers can do is learn from said history and find a balance between loving the work and respecting its influence while not condoning the author. One result was last November, the World Fantasy award trophy was changed to not bear the likeness of Lovecraft anymore after a campaign the previous year, launched by Daniel José Older, argued against it. Whether or not that was appropriate is up for debate, but it seems more productive to engage directly with Lovecraft like Ruff does here, reconceptualizing the old tropes in a more progressive manner for the modern day.

Atticus is a science fiction buff. He loves all of the old stuff, especially anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and that is in fact what creates a rift between he and his father. Montrose believes that it’s colonial literature written by white man, and chides his son continuously for it. He also hates H.P. Lovecraft, and tracks down evidence at the library of the author’s prejudice to hold over his son. That’s where the novel starts, with a letter from Montrose convincing Atticus he needs to come home after a long estrangement. But that means driving across a broad swath of the United States, a stranger in a strange land.

Driving while black is, of course, something very topical in 2016. Just in the last month there have been multiple cases of black men gunned down because the police automatically view them with suspicion. This form of racial profiling was, of course, much, much worse 60 years ago. For that reason, Atticus has a copy of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, published by his uncle George.

The Safe Negro Travel Guide is kind of the linchpin of the book. It’s exactly what it sounds like, with listings of gas stations, restaurants and hotels that will serve black people all across the United States. George and his employees travel all around gathering data, as this was back before GPS, in order to update the Guide. Therefore, George’s extensive knowledge of safe passage, just two years before the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 would finally create easier access across the country, is why he accompanies Atticus to Massachusetts. That, and the fact that Montrose is George’s brother.

Before that, however, Atticus passes through Cincinnati on his way home and as soon as he enters into Indiana he encounters trouble. His ‘48 Cadillac Coupe gets a flat and a white mechanic won’t sell him a tire. But what’s worse is 52 miles from Chicago he is pulled over and harassed. This situation hauntingly echoes the news of this last year (or really since the first black man got a driver’s license):

Atticus watched in the rearview as the patrol car made a U-turn onto the road. He got the Cadillac's registration and bill of sale from the glove box and put them on the passenger seat along with his driver’s license, everything in plain sight so there’d be no confusion about what he was reaching for. Lights flashed in the rearview and the police siren came on. Atticus pulled over, rolled down his window, and as he’d been taught to do in his very first driving lesson, gripped the top of the steering wheel with both hands.

One can’t help but think of the likes of Philando Castile, shot three times for a busted taillight in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Or the continuing controversy over Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. The police officer proceeds to order Atticus out of the car, frisks him roughly, and then goes through the trunk without permission. The entire scene is played with an atmosphere of desolation, with the tension that these two are alone. No one will save Atticus on this country road, and anything can happen as the trooper grips his side arm.

A later encounter is even more perilous, but luckily a monster intervenes that attacks the police and Atticus and George are able to escape. The two have been invited to a mysterious estate in the unincorporated community of Ardham by Montrose but at the gate they’re accosted by a sheriff and his two deputies: “The next few moments unfolded with a grim familiarity: They were ordered from the car; struck, screamed at; searched; struck again; and finally marched to the back of the Packard and made to sit on the rear bumper with their hands behind their heads and their feet crossed in front of them.” They’re accused of being burglars and car thieves, but luckily as they’re marched into the woods a beast, what Atticus had earlier joked was a “shoggoth,” intervenes.

And that’s the grim fatalism of the black male experience. They’re constantly emasculated by bitter white men on power trips. They’re told so many times that they are criminals, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Atticus has served his country, but when his first instinct is to reach under the seat for the Colt .45 revolver brought along for protection, he has to hold himself back for fear of getting shot on the spot. 

The black female experience, although different, has a similar kind of inevitability. Ruby Dandridge is sister to Letitia, who accompanies Atticus and George on their road trip and who has a supernatural experience of her own with a haunted house she buys, and finds herself granted the gift of whiteness by a wizard. This is after she is fired from her job as a server for a catering service when she is accused of stealing earrings. The real thief, however, is her manager but Ruby can’t win that fight. In a slump, she plans to attend Letitia’s New Year’s Eve party, but  encounters Caleb Braithwhite, whom she doesn’t know is a powerful practitioner of the dark arts.

First of all, the chapter is entitled “Jekyll in Hyde Park” and is accompanied by a provocative quote from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.” That’s a potent word choice, and it also hints at Ruby’s transformation as a negative. After a night out with Braithwhite she awakens in bed on New Year’s Day having literally shed her skin. Covered in blood, she discovers she is now a lily-skinned, ginger-haired woman.

Looking at her reflection in a department store window, she decides this is a body of a “take-charge girl, used to giving orders.” This is a fascinating phrasing, considering the manager that got her fired is described as loving “having the chance to boss other people around, and she never used a kind word where a mean one would do.” She renames herself Hillary Everest, after the mountain she now thinks she can climb, something not afforded her as a black woman. Hillary subsequently gets her old manager into trouble, with the help of a policeman that wouldn’t have given Ruby the time of day.

This new life is brought into stark contrast as she’s running away. She bumps into another policeman, who asks her if she’s been given trouble by a group of black youths. For a moment, she’s drunk on power: “Ruby felt her stomach give another lurch, and she thought: I could tell him anything at all right now and he’d believe me. I could get those boys killed, if I wanted to. I could…” Instead, she gets lunch with the policeman. She’s only been a white woman a few hours and is immediately overcome by its temptations.

One might think this is setup for a lesson Ruby has to learn, about appreciating what she’s got, or that the tale might end with some dark, eldritch punishment. Instead, Ruby’s story is buttoned up with her remaining a white woman and meeting with an employment agency. She had previously entered the facility, signing her name as Hillary Earhart, but at the end she introduces herself as Hillary Hyde. She has embraced this identity, turning her back on her people, and sees a future of freedom and opportunity as a, as she puts it, young, unmarried woman without plans for starting a family.

It must be considered what Ruff is trying to say here. He is a white man, after all, and seems to be addressing his privilege throughout the entire book. His characters run the gamut of personality, so one can’t accuse Atticus of “acting white” because he reads science fiction, when Montrose is portrayed sympathetically as a proud black man. Letitia, meanwhile, doesn’t give up on her house, even going so far as to tame the racist old ghost that inhabits it. So in a book that engages so heavily with race, and flips Lovecraft’s own generalizations about black people as being savage and uneducated on their heads, what does it mean that Ruby becomes Hillary and is happier for it?

Perhaps it’s just a sad truth. The Civil Rights movement hadn’t happened yet, and black people certainly didn’t have the kind of voice they have today. Atticus and George may get stopped by police, but they’re still men and have found a way to navigate, safely, through the world of 1954. As Ruby wakes up a white woman in 1955, she knows that times will still be tough, but maybe just a little less than before.

And that’s the real horror about Ruff’s book: sixty years later, things haven’t changed all that much.

Image of Lovecraft Country: A Novel
Author: Matt Ruff
Price: $25.64
Publisher: Harper (2016)
Binding: Hardcover, 384 pages
Bart Bishop

Column by Bart Bishop

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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