Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

lovecraft country

As I started to say in my previous post, Lovecraft Country, among other things—perhaps above other things—isn’t just an extended engagement with the fraught legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but deploys that legacy as an extended metaphor for the even more fraught legacy of race in America. And though I refer here to the novel by Matt Ruff, the first episode of HBO’s adaptation, “Sundown,” is very much on the same page.

Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago; a veteran of the Korean War; a son whose relationship to his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) is fraught to the point of estrangement; and a lover of pulp science fiction and fantasy. The opening sequence of “Sundown” is at once a flashback to his time in Korea, and a dream  wrought by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp authors, starting with visceral black-and-white hand-to-hand combat with North Korean soldiers, and moving into a technicolour attack by flying saucers, alien tripods á là H.G. Welles, and Lovecraftian, batlike monsters. The Cthulhu-esque tentacular beast confronting Atticus is suddenly split down the middle in a spume of green slime by none other than Jackie Robinson.

And then Atticus wakes up, on a bus taking him north, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars resting on his chest.

Atticus—or “Tic,” as others call him—comprises the central conceit of Lovecraft Country: a young Black man who knows as well as anybody the brutal realities of Jim Crow America; who served as a combat soldier in Korea, but doesn’t accrue any respect or gratitude for that from whites; but who is an enthusiastic reader of pulp fiction, in spite of the fact that those stories not only have little to say about him, but what they do have to say is racist and demeaning. Even the older Black woman with whom he ends up walking down a country road after their bus blows out doesn’t have much use for his choice of reading—pointing out to him that John Carter, the hero of Burroughs’ Mars novels, was a Confederate officer, and thus doesn’t deserve Atticus’ sympathies. Later, after Atticus makes it home to Chicago, he tells his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) that his father Montrose had tried to cure him of his pulp addiction by making him memorize a certain piece of doggerel by H.P. Lovecraft. (I won’t cite the vile title of the poem or quote it—typing “Lovecraft on the creation” into Google will take you to it if you’re that curious—but the most euphemistic way to summarize it is to say it suggests the gods saw a gap in creation between man and beast, and filled that gap by creating Black people). When the woman he met on the bus points out that John Carter doesn’t get to be an “ex-Confederate,” because “he fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that,” Atticus replies that, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”

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Coming as it does in the first minutes of the first episode, this assertion initially felt like a lame, mealy-mouthed defense, and Atticus doesn’t really speak the line with much conviction—it feels as though, more than anything, he’s trying to convince himself. “The flaws are still there,” the woman points out. “Yeah, they are,” Atticus concedes. On reflection, however—and on re-watching the episode—it strikes me that Atticus’ words, here at the outset, articulate a key theme of the series. For one thing, it becomes obvious that he’s talking as much about his father as about his beloved pulp stories—over the course of “Sundown,” we learn that his father Montrose is an abusive alcoholic who was himself abused by his father, but also that he loved Atticus deeply, even if he couldn’t express it—and that his loathing of Atticus’ pulp fiction addiction was of a piece with his rage at Atticus’ enlistment. Why give yourself over to these people who hate you? Why read fiction that extols whiteness and vilifies blackness? Why fight for a nation that makes you a second-class citizen?

While Atticus is an admirably nuanced and well-realized character in the novel—and Jonathan Majors’ performance so far promises to be extraordinary—he is also Lovecraft Country’s central conceit; that is to say, his love of fiction that doesn’t love him back, but which nevertheless resonates with him, is a poignant metaphor for the contradictions of the American Experiment. “In the beginning was not only the word,” wrote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, “but its contradiction.” That contradiction is baked into the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner. Black scholars and thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Ellison to Toni Morrison, have long pointed out this contradiction between the promise of America and its practice, and demanded that the promise be fulfilled.

[It was at this moment in the drafting of this post that I abandoned the laptop and worked longhand, as I usually do when trying to work through ideas that aren’t easily gelling; I filled a few pages of a legal pad with several attempts to speak to the larger issues concerning race that have been brought to the fore in the past few months, and how Lovecraft Country bears on them. I have chosen discretion over valour, however, because (1) I want to get this post done in a relatively timely manner, and am loath to articulate thoughts on such topics not fully baked; and (2) I don’t want this post to be Tolstoy-length. Suffice to say, TL;DR: the timing of Lovecraft Country airing now is serendipitous, not least because we just saw the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the VP candidate.]

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Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta and Courtney B. Vance as George Freeman.

“Sundown” does an admirable job of establishing the world of the story and introducing its main characters: in addition to Atticus as his uncle George, there’s George’s wife Hippolyta, and their daughter Diana, who has her own genre obsession—she draws comics featuring heroic characters. George and Hippolyta publish The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists towns, restaurants, and hotels that are Black-friendly. And if that publication sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s based on the historical Green Book, which, as it happens, had its own movie not long ago. Writing for NPR, Glen Weldon lists the similarities and differences between the movie and the series:

Here is a list of things that the HBO series Lovecraft Country, premiering Sunday, August 16th, has in common with the 2018 film Green Book:

  1. Setting: Jim Crow-era America
  2. Acting: Subtle, nuanced performances (Viggo Mortensen’s dese-and-dose Green Book gangster notwithstanding).
  3. Subject: Story features a road trip involving a travel guidebook written to inform Black people where they can safely eat and stay. (Green Book: Entire film; Lovecraft Country: Opening episodes only.)

And here is a brief, incomplete list of the things that Lovecraft Country prominently features that Green Book emphatically does not:

1. A story centered on the lives of Black characters.
2. Black characters with agency, absent any White Savior narrative.
3. Shoggoths.

The second list is key: though Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country, is white, he scrupulously avoids injecting white characters into the story to act as saviours. Indeed, Atticus’ name is a wry nod to the longtime liberal custom of telling nominally anti-racist stories in which victimized Black characters are saved through the intervention of a virtuous white protagonist—the veritable archetype for this character being Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, immortalized in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film adaptation. Green Book was only one of the most recent examples of this tendency, mercifully eschewed by Lovecraft Country.

But to get back to the characters: we also meet Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), who ends up hitting the road with Atticus and George as they go looking for Atticus’ missing father. And we also briefly encounter Letitia’s older sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who doesn’t figure much into this episode, but, assuming the series remains faithful to the novel, will have a more significant role later.

We do not, unfortunately, meet Atticus’ father Montrose, but I’m fairly sure he’ll show up in episode two (Omar comin’!).

At issue in this episode, and in the series more generally, is Atticus’ genealogy: he has returned home from Florida, where he’s been living since his discharge from the army, because of a letter from his father. Montrose wrote to say he’d discovered something about Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry, which was somehow related to a Massachusetts town called Ardham. Atticus, with understandable perplexity, initially reads as “Arkham” until George corrects him. One way or another, however, as Atticus observes, their search is going to take them deep into “Lovecraft country”—both literally, in terms of the New England countryside in which Lovecraft set much of his fiction; and figuratively, insofar as they encounter the virulent, violent racism of a sheriff who informs them that Devon County—in which Ardham is supposedly located—is a “sundown country,” meaning that unless they can remove themselves beyond its borders by sundown, the sheriff will hang them.

Sundown towns were distressingly common, and were actually quite prevalent throughout the northern states. The consequences might not be as extreme as lynching—though that was not unheard of—but would certainly be violent. Hence the need for a motorists’ guide that would inform Black travelers about which such towns to avoid (one criticism leveled at Green Book is that it elides the fact that the north was actually worse for sundown towns, and that New Jersey—tacitly depicted in the film as friendly territory—was particularly inhospitable, and that Viggo Mortensen’s character, the driver hired to chauffeur Mahershala Ali for his concert tour, only starts to consult the titular green book once they enter the south).

Sundown thus obtains a dual sense of dread—the real-world, historical threat it posed Blacks in such locales, as well as the horror-story fear of the dark that comes with night. For it is when Atticus, Letitia, and George have made their way into Devon County that these two threats intersect. While stopped in the middle of a forest as they vainly search for a road that will take them to Ardham, they find themselves confronted by Sheriff Eustace Hunt, who informs them of Devon County’s unwritten sundown law. Though they manage to cross the county line with seconds to spare, they are then stopped by more police. Sheriff Eustace, it seemed, called ahead. They are taken into the forest, forced to lie prone on their bellies, and accused of a string of burglaries while the cops hold shotguns to their heads. And then …

Well, then is when “Lovecraft country” becomes actually Lovecraftian, as they are all attacked by the aforementioned Shoggoths. Shoggoths, for those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fiction, are monstrous, amoebic blobs, dotted with many eyes. Or, as described in At the Mountains of Madness:

It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

The shoggoths of Lovecraft Country aren’t quite so blob-like as they are huge, hound-like beasts with round mouths forested with teeth, and quivering slimy skin with the consistency and complexion of dead fish. They do, however, have many eyes.

shoggoth

True to its pulp roots, Lovecraft Country doesn’t aim for subtlety in its metaphors—though to be fair, neither does much of the horror genre. Monsters are always representations of the most prevalent fears and anxieties in the cultural imaginary at a given moment. And people are often the worst monsters, even when there are actual monsters present to offer comparison. Lovecraft Country is about the monstrosity of racism, so when Sheriff Eustace, having been bitten by a Shoggoth, starts to transform into one, the point hits home quite plainly.

The presence of Shoggoths—or, perhaps more accurately, the suggested analogy between their beasts and the malevolent blobs of Lovecraft’s imagining—might also be read as a subtle dig at Lovecraft. In At the Mountains of Madness, the Miskatonic University exploratory team of scientists finds in Antarctica an ancient city of “cyclopean” proportions (one of Lovecraft’s favourite adjectives, meaning enormous). The city had been built by the Old Ones, ancient god-like alien creatures (like Cthulhu) who predated human existence on Earth. The shoggoths were created as a slave race to serve them, but ultimately rose up against their masters and destroyed them. Though the series is mostly faithful to the novel, some of the names have been changed: Atticus’ surname in the series is Freeman (with all of the significance that obtains), but in the novel it’s Turner—an allusion to Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Also, when looking for news of his father, Atticus goes to the bar that was his habitual haunt—which is named Denmark Vesey’s Bar. Denmark Vesey was a free Black man who was executed in 1822 on the charge of planning a slave rebellion.

It takes “Sundown” some time before the supernatural elements intrude—we’re four-fifths of the way in when the Shoggoths appear—but the narrative and thematic build makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the most poignant sequence is a montage of our three heroes driving from the Midwest to Massachusetts—a montage scored not to music, but by a speech delivered by writer James Baldwin in 1965 at Cambridge University. The speech was Baldwin’s rebuttal to William F. Buckley in a debate over the proposition “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” It is worth watching in its entirety, or else reading the transcript.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baldwin won the debate resoundingly.

As we hear Baldwin’s eloquent and mellifluous words, we see images of Atticus, Letitia, and George at various points in their road trip, and we see images of a segregated America. At key moments, the mise-en-scène precisely echoes photographs by Gordon Parks, a Black photographer who, among other subjects, chronicled segregation in Jim Crow America.

gordon parks

On the left: Gordon Parks’ photography. On the right: stills from Lovecraft Country.

One of the most infuriating moments comes when, as they’re paused at a gas station, a skinny white boy mocks Atticus—who is eating a banana—by making monkey noises. Atticus looks threatening for a moment, but Letitia holds him back. Atticus settles for throwing the banana peel in the asshole’s face, which only evokes more laughter from him and his friends—secure in their societally sanctioned safety, in spite of the fact that the impressively muscled, combat veteran Atticus could likely snap the boy in two with no great effort.

As they pull away from the station, we see a billboard advertising Aunt Jemima across the street.

aunt jemima

I think I’ll end this post here, not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because I could go on and on. The ending of the episode sets us up for the next one, so I’ll talk about that some time next week.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.

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