Imagine that you’re driving home, and a cop pulls you over for no reason. He begins to search your car and finds a stash of rare science fiction books, including an Edgar Rice Burroughs first edition, giftwrapped for your uncle. The cop proceeds to mess up these books, while laughing at the title of A Princess of Mars.
That incident happens pretty early in Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, to African American hero Atticus Turner, and it’s one of the least upsetting incidents of racism—from the police, and from countless others—you’ll encounter in this book, which takes place during Jim Crow and conveys a gutwrenching sense of what it’s like to live in an openly racist nation. It’s a relatively minor thing, just having some old classic pulp novels screwed up, but to the audience of science fiction nerds who are likely to be reading Lovecraft Country, it’s a visceral moment of creepiness and violation. (And it comes right after Atticus and another black man have spent a couple pages bonding over their love for Ray Bradbury.) Ruff exposes his black hero to one of the worst indignities that most nerds could imagine undergoing—and then proceeds to show us, little by little, how much worse it could be, if you were a black man in 1950s America. So, so much worse.
Lovecraft Country is one of a whole slew of books that remix or reimagine the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the notoriously racist author of some of the most beloved works of horror and “weird fiction” of all time. Among many others, there’s been Nick Mamatas’ Lovecraft-meets-Kerouac Move Under Ground, Austin Grossman’s Nixon-in-a-Lovecraft-world Crooked, and most recently Victor LaValle’s “Horror at Red Hook” remix The Ballad of Black Tom.
Lovecraft is such a fertile source for these reimaginings, because he’s such an influential figure in genre, and yet his weirdness remains distinctly... weird. He hasn’t been assimilated and digested in the way that, say, Burroughs has. And then there’s the fact that Lovecraft’s racism and paranoia make him a potent symbol for the ugliness of America.
In any case, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff still stands alone, because Ruff has managed to create a brutally raw portrayal of America’s true horror. And he weaves this portrayal seamlessly with a story of other worlds, strange powers, monsters and eldritch forces, to create an even greater sense that his heroes—who are all African American—have the deck doubly stacked against them.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that Lovecraft Country is a lecture in book form, or a depressing slog through a few hundred pages of brutality and inhumanity. So here’s where I make it clear that Lovecraft Country is often uproariously funny, frequently thrilling, full of clever “firecracker” moments, and constantly surprising. The characters are not helpless victims—they’re not victims at all. They are smart and resourceful, and they get through some incredibly weird shit thanks to their ingenuity and bravery. This is a book that will leave you cheering, not weeping.
So in Lovecraft Country, Atticus and his uncle publish a book called The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which basically tracks restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other public accomodations in the South as well as the North where African Americans can receive service. Because other establishments might refuse to serve them, or worse. As the book begins, Atticus learns that his somewhat estranged father, Montrose, has gotten lured to Ardham, Massachusetts (which sounds suspiciously like Arkham, the home of many of Lovecraft’s monsters) with the promise of the truth about Atticus’ mother’s mysterious heritage.
Soon Atticus learns that he may be the heir to an incredible, uncanny power, because his distant ancestor was a slave-owner, who was a founding member of a secret society that tangled with forces from beyond our world.
That’s just the set-up, and Lovecraft Country covers a lot of ground. The actual story is broken up into a number of shorter episodes. These range from a “haunted house” story to a bizarre tale where one of Atticus’ relatives, Hippolyta—an aspiring astronomer—goes through a portal to another planet and nearly gets eaten by a horrific blob monster.
The main thing you need to know about Lovecraft Country is that it’s a thrilling story about people who survive incredible horrors and other-worldly nightmares, through a mixture of cunning, bravery and teamwork. It’s a heroic story that will have you pumping your fist. But it’s also an incredibly powerful portrayal of American racism—in which the entrenched oppression piles on, page after page, and meanwhile the secrets of a hidden world of monsters and power only add to the sense of—yes—eldridtch dread.
These characters include nerds and science geeks, but that’s just one of the many reasons that science fiction readers will easily identify with them. Ruff has created a story that’s as compelling as it is exciting—and the result is definitely one of the most important books of 2016.