Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff (New York: Harper, 2016. 384 pp)
Matt Ruff (b. 1965) wrote his first novel, Fool on the Hill, from his senior thesis at Cornell University. His fourth novel, Bad Monkeys, received a Washington State Book Award for fiction, an Alex Award, and a PNBA Book Award. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Lisa Gold.
True to Identity
What scares you? Ask the average person this question and you’ll likely receive as many answers as individuals asked. Given our current society, some may say assault rifles; some may suggest weapons of mass destruction. Some people might fear ghosts; others might fear monsters. In all likelihood, most people wouldn’t propose ethereal, systemic, or philosophical concepts as the thing of which they are most afraid.
Yet these ideas present opportunity for fear. Racism, in particular, houses centuries of horror for the marginalized and disenfranchised. What if this systemic issue became a physical threat much like the ghouls, goblins, and monsters of classic horror genres?
Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country tries to find out.
Family, Friends, and Secret Societies
With each chapter highlighting a new character, Lovecraft Country avoids naming a protagonist, but principally, the story orbits around Atticus, an African American war veteran and Caleb Braithwhite, an old money, natural philosopher who has taken a special interest in Atticus.
The narrative kicks into gear when Atticus’ father disappears from his home in Chicago with the only hint to his whereabouts suggesting his presence deep in racist country.
Atticus and his uncle, George, with the help of family friend Laetita, set off in pursuit. The journey begins a harrowing look into racism personified, with the “natural philosophy” of a secretive society operating as the “big bad.”
“Initiates: The red book referred to them as Dawn Seekers, Sons of Adam, and Antenauts, ‘Sojourners to the time Before’ (as in, ‘Before the Fall,’ though the Antenaut’s Fall, like the Ardhamites’ Eden, was different from the one Atticus had learned about in Sunday school). The book didn’t use the word ‘wizards,’ but it was clear they were that too, or wished to be” (75).
Ghosts, Space Travel, and Alternate Dimensions
Chapter by chapter, Atticus and his family and friends spiral into conflict with these initiates. Over the course of the story, ghosts, time travel, space travel, and alternate dimensions transform a critical look into the racist underpinnings of society into an intense addition to the horror genre.
On the one hand, Ruff clearly illustrates the uphill climb the average African American faces in society. Consider a random traffic stop:
“Atticus watched in the rearview as the patrol card 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” (7).
Ruff paints horror in the opportunity for misunderstanding.
But systemic racism as horror represents only one level of horror in Lovecraft Country. Ruff personifies racism, creating monsters out of it. From early in the novel, the reader discerns a magical element to the story.
“Then he heard it. Out in the Wood, straight ahead and much closer than before: The beast. Definitely beast, he told himself, and big—big enough to knock down trees, or yank unwary deputies off their feet—but stealthy now, making just enough noise as it moved through the undergrowth to let Atticus know it was there” (54).
The characters consider this magic a “natural philosophy,” channeling the language of Adam into magical sayings that birth the worst beliefs and principles into the world.
While Lovecraft Country isn’t scary in the keep-you-up-at-night kind of way, the intentional personification of racism as horror creates a relevant and necessary novel.
Verdict: 4 out of 5