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Literature / Lovecraft Country

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Sometimes they stab me right in the heart.

"But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn't make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. But you don't get mad."
— Uncle George

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 novel from Matt Ruff. Set in the Jim Crow era, it stars the aptly-named Atticus Turner as a 22 year old African American army veteran, whose father Montrose goes missing in Lovecraft Country. Despite the threats posed by a secret order hiding in a village of questionable temporal geography with shoggoths roaming about the woods, Ruff effectively uses the Cosmic Horror Story as a foil to show just how horrific racism can be. A sequel, The Destroyer of Worlds, was published in February 2023.

Actor and filmmaker Jordan Peele and producer/dirctor Misha Green adapted the novel into an HBO television series that premiered in August 2020.

The novel contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Caleb Braithwhite is extremely friendly and charming and much less racist (or at least differently racist) than his fellow cultists, but he continually manipulates Atticus and his family and places them in grave danger. Similarly, while he's always generous in rewarding them every time he maneuvers them into completing a mission for him, he always holds over them the threat of violence from more racist and unpleasant parties. Which doesn't even get into the fact that his ultimate goal is to become a Sorcerous Overlord over America.
  • "Angry Black Man" Stereotype: Montrose is understandably resentful of the systemic racism African Americans of the period had to endure, but unlike all the other characters he is far more likely to lash out about it and berate his fellow black people for not fighting it tooth and nail. He goes as far as assaulting children on the street he doesn't even know over it.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Lovecraft's incorrect naming of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is lampshaded by Abdullah Mohammed, the head of the local Prince Hall Freemasons, and by Montrose, Atticus's father, who claims it's just "a white guy from Rhode Island trying to be funny."
  • Ascended Fanboy: The gang at one point need to retrieve a magic book from a museum. One of the people they bring along for help is a guy named Mortimer, who is a Lovecraft fan and becomes positively giddy when he witnesses supernatural phenomena.
  • Black Like Me: Caleb gives Ruby a potion than temporarily turns her white along with all the accompanying benefits.
  • Blood Magic;
    • The potion that turns Ruby white is made from the blood of the woman she turns into.
    • The curse put on Horace was drawn in saliva. Caleb says it would be near impossible to remove if it were drawn in blood.
  • Broken Pedestal: Invoked. When Atticus was a child, Montrose disapproved of his reading the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, and took great pleasure in damaging Atticus's view of the man by showing him Lovecraft's "comedic" poem "On the Creation of N——s."
  • Cessation of Existence: Atticus thinks about the trope during the ritual, understanding why some people would look forward to not existing but he wouldn't be one of them.
  • Cool Uncle: Atticus gets along much better with his Uncle George than with his father Montrose.
  • Creepy Doll: Horace was cursed with one trying to kill him.
  • Dirty Cop: Lancaster isn't just the head of the Chicago lodge of the Order, he is also the head of the Chicago PD's organized crime unit and entirely willing to use his detectives as his own personal enforcers.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Some readers interpret Caleb's character as being representative of subtler forms of racism that are much more common in the present day. Caleb rightfully looks down upon open bigots and happily takes advantage of their biases to trick them, but he takes advantage of the unfair system they instituted to pressure and manipulate his African American peers into doing his bidding, and only lifts a finger to subvert the system when it benefits him.
  • Eldritch Abomination: There's at least one lurking in the woods near Bideford and Ardham. Not to mention whatever was glimpsed briefly in one of the planets on Winthrop's orrery.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Caleb is a very dangerous sorcerer, but he shows no sign of open bigotry or prejudice throughout the entire novel, not even when Atticus and his family take away his power, which is quite impressive considering the kind of environment he was raised in and the era. He even seems to take pleasure in using his powers to help Atticus and his family in outsmarting bigots. He is not above taking advantage of the bigotry of his peers, however.
  • Enemy Mine: Hiram Winthrop was an abusive, racist bastard of a man when alive, and his ghost isn't any nicer. But he is all too willing to join forces with Atticus and his friends, despite them being African-American, if it means screwing over Caleb, the son of the man who killed Hiram.
  • Everyone Laughs Ending: A particularly dark example. At the end of the book, Caleb threatens the protagonists that if they don't help him they'll encounter other cultists who are less friendly and will never truly be safe in America. This causes them to crack up with laughter, since that's what life is already like for them in America on account of their race.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Early in the novel, the characters go to a restaurant that had been recommended in the Safe Negro Travel Guide for friendly and welcoming service from the white owners and otherwise good amenities. However, when they go there, they are met with silence and hostility, and as a seemingly minor difference, everything is newly whitewashed rather than the old red brick. Atticus is suspicious from the outset, and after noticing some signs of scorch marks, Atticus reminds his Uncle George of a factoid about how the White House got its name from being repainted after being torched by the British during the War of 1812. At this point, George understands Atticus's meaning and has an Oh, Crap! reaction, realizing that after the last visit, the place had been torched by a racist mob with likely fatal consequences for the former owners, and the new owners are coming for them.
  • Fictional Counterpart: The Safe Negro Travel Guide is a fictional version of the Negro Motorist Green Book, which served the same function in real-life Jim Crow America.
  • Genre Savvy:
    • Several of the characters are familiar (and even fans) of the work of H. P. Lovecraft, and don't fail to recognize the similarities between their situation and his stories.
    • After a few weeks of using an elixir to transform into a white woman, Ruby Dandrigde starts asking Atticus about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Although Caleb Braithewhite doesn't have any particular racial animosity, this doesn't make him a nice guy - he firmly believes that everyone is beneath him.
  • Haunted House: The new house Letitia bought at a suspiciously low price in a white neighborhood turns out to be haunted by its former owner, Hiram Winthrop, a sorcerer who appears in Letitia's dreams as a space suit containing a black void filled with tentacles.
  • Healing Magic Is the Hardest;
    • When Ruby asks Caleb why he can't use magic to heal Delilah, he said healing is a complex magic that he can't do and the healing a ritual has a high failure rate that could kill her or worse.
    • Hiram Winthrop's wife died after botching a ritual of regeneration to help her walk again.
  • Language of Magic: The Edenic language used by the cultists is the original language of humanity that existed before the Tower of Babel and consequently is comprehensible and pronounceable to anyone who looks at it for a sufficiently long amount of time. Because it's essentially the language used to call life into being during Creation, someone who knows how to use the language can use it to alter reality around them.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Letitia comes into some money at one point and uses it to purchase a home and become a landlord. This home is in a predominantly white neighborhood, and the neighbors are willing to commit serious acts of vandalism and threaten her life if it means scaring her and her tenants away. What they don't know is that the house is haunted by a malevolent ghost who becomes very violent whenever someone attempts to alter the home. They all barely survive, but their criminal intents were so blatantly obvious that the largely white police force eagerly arrest and charge them.
    • Ruby loses her job because the daughter of the owner of the catering company she works at frames her for stealing an expensive pair of earrings from a client. To better illustrate just how vile a woman this is, the next time Ruby sees her she starts a screaming match with a woman who allegedly is also involved with the man she's in love with, and the woman lies about them being engaged in order to claim the moral high ground in the argument. She's also wearing the stolen earrings. Ruby has been given a potion that changes her appearance into that of a beautiful white woman, and she manages to frame the woman for stealing from the store. The woman then assaults a cop and gets violently apprehended by several officers.
    • Back in 1945, the mayor and chief of police of Aken, Illinois led a white mob to murder Henry Winthrop, his black wife Pearl and their son, and then rigged the city's auction of their house so that the chief of police's son-in-law bought the property for peanuts. On their way back from celebrating the scheme, all three men die in a car accident in from of the house, caused by the ghosts of Pearl and her son.
  • Lovecraft Country: Obviously featured as a setting, and introduced into the story via a somewhat humorous Double Subversion. Atticus initially thinks his father was taken to the (fictional in and out of universe) Arkham, Massachusetts, but then his uncle reminds me that This Is Reality and notes that Montrose actually wrote he was in Ardham, Massachusetts (real in-universe but fictional out-of-universe), which turns out to be just as sinister and benighted.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Henry Winthrop fell in love with one of his father's black maids and ran off with her, eventually getting married and having a son together, but they had to face the scorn of their white neighbors. Said neighbors soon murdered all three of them, shooting Henry in the head and burning their house with Pearl and their son still inside.
  • Mama Bear: Ida was willing to murder Hippolyta via alien predator on the off chance that she might unwittingly lead the ghost of Hiram Winthrop to her daughter Pearl.
  • Matter Replicator: Hiram Winthrop had a machine in his off planet house that could replicate food. Sadly it doesn't come with a menu so the denizens had to type in codes trial and error and it can only be used every few hours.
  • Mundanger: Despite being in a Cosmic Horror Story, the African-American characters find themselves in mortal danger from run of the mill racists with distressing frequency.
  • Obliviously Evil: Caleb Braithwhite simply doesn't comprehend that Atticus might resent being manipulated and constantly endangered by his plots; if anything, he seems to think he's doing Atticus some favors.
  • The Order: The Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn, a.k.a. the Sons of Adam, are a group of "natural philosophers" (i.e. sorcerers) who seek power for themselves.
  • Police Brutality: All police officers in the story are all too prone to resort to physical violence during their interactions with the public, 'specially if the person they're dealing with is black.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Given the time period and setting, practically every villain is this except for the Affably Evil Big Bad (who isn't above using racist individuals and groups to get what he wants, but personally doesn't seem to care about anyone's skin color).
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The main ingredient in the formula that transforms Ruby into Hillary is the blood of comatose Dell, who is being kept in a magically induced stasis by Caleb. Caleb claims that it is better than letting her die or become a vegetable.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Caleb Braithwhite is full of this.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Caleb Braithwhite sabotages his father's ritual in order to kill him and the entire Ardham lodge of the Order.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Ida's choice to remain behind on the extra-galactic planet she's been trapped in for 20 years to prevent the ghost of Hiram Winthrop from using her to track her daughter Pearl, becomes this later in the book when it is revealed that Pearl was already dead. She, along with her white husband and child were murdered by a white mob for being a mixed family over 10 years ago.
  • Superpowerful Genetics: Talent for magic runs in families, and some bloodlines are more powerful than others. The reason the Braithewhites are interested in Atticus is that he is the last living descendant of Titus Braithewhite, one of the most powerful sorcerers ever.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: When Letitia moves into Hiram Winthrop's house, his angry ghost almost immediately tries to throw her down an elevator shaft. She holds on long enough to convince him that she'd be a hell of a lot more trouble if he makes her a ghost, and he saves her from falling. Later, the two of them play chess, and after Letitia wins, it's implied that Hiram will allow her and her tenants to live in the house under his protection so long as his study remains off limits.
  • Threat Backfire: See Everyone Laughs Ending. As Caleb finds out, nothing he can threaten the protagonists with is any different or worse than the typical African-American experience.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: The Book of Names, which is mistaken by several characters for the Necronomicon but is explicitly stated not to be. It's still bound in skin, though.
  • Villainous Rescue: Early in the novel, Caleb rescues Atticus and co. from the Bideford police who were going to murder them by siccing a Shoggoth on the officers.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: After Titus Braithwaite's death, the Sons of Adam splintered into dozens of lodges, all competing and fighting each other for every scrap of arcane knowledge they could get their hands on.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: At the end of the story Caleb Braithwaite has been stripped of his powers and run out of Chicago, but what does this mean for Dell, who was being kept in a magically induced coma by him and used as raw material for Ruby's transformations into Hillary?
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Montrose could be physically abusive with Atticus when his son was a child. He is also willing to slap a young boy he doesn't even know, just to make a point in an argument.
    • Lancaster has no scruples about putting a lethal curse on a 12 year-old boy just to send a message to Caleb.