Lovecraft Country Blends Pulpy Horror and Family Drama Into a Story About America's Demons

Jonathan Majors as Atticus Free and Jurnee Smollett as Letitia “Leti” Lewis.
Jonathan Majors as Atticus Free and Jurnee Smollett as Letitia “Leti” Lewis.
Image: HBO
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HBO’s Lovecraft Country is a story about its heroes fighting for their lives as they make their way across 1950s America. It’s also a multifaceted family drama that embraces the idea that the people you share blood with are often the same people who hurt you the most. And yes, monsters. Of all sorts.

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The various narrative themes woven into showrunner Misha Green’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country are as recognizable as they were in Matt Ruff’s original novel. The story blends Lovecraftian science fiction, horror, and the realities of anti-Black racism into a heady tale about the kind of demons that have always plagued the United States of America.

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Like the most prominent eldritch cosmic entity to feature in H.P Lovecraft’s stories, Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) is a dreamer of the highest order. Like so many Black veterans throughout the 20th century, he returns home not to warm thanks for his service, but to second-class citizenship status. Atticus is only able to withstand this treatment because of the support of his family and because of his overactive imagination, something he constantly feeds with a steady stream of books like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness. Though Atticus is enthusiastic in his love for fantasy, it’s tempered with a sharp understanding of how important it is to know what kind of people created those stories so that he can form his own ideas about what he’s reading.

In that sense, Lovecraft Country as a whole is an unsubtle remixing of Lovecraft’s mythos that brings his widely known, virulent racism to the fore rather than letting it be just a footnote. By blending historical facts like segregation with chthonic fiction, Lovecraft Country immediately sets itself up to be the sort of show (somewhat similar to Watchmen) that ends up teaching certain audience members some ugly truths about the past. But long before it gets around to otherworldly embodiments of institutional racism, it brings the rest of its cast into Atticus’ midst as he makes his way home to the South Side of Chicago.

George, Atticus, and Leti waiting for service at a white-owned diner.
George, Atticus, and Leti waiting for service at a white-owned diner.
Image: HBO

Harsh and dangerous as most of the country may be, Atticus’ home is a sort of refuge. His uncle, George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), specializes in guiding Black travelers there with The Safe Negro Travel Guide he and his wife Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) publish; it lists motels and diners across the country that will serve Black customers. Where Atticus and his father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) have a history of being distant with one another, there’s a closeness between him, George, and Hippolyta. That relationship stems, in part, from their shared love of genre fiction—something Lovecraft Country repeatedly reminds you that they have. Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) is a nerd in her own right, but where Atticus grew up keeping his family close before running off to play soldier, Leti struck out on her own to pursue her varied passions much to the disdain of her half-sis Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku).

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Though Lovecraft Country feels as if it might be all about Atticus as the season begins, you come to find out that’s far from the case. The moment he lands back in Chicago and causes everyone to gravitate more towards one another, you can see the various divergent character arcs the season has in store. Though Hippolyta loves and trusts George, she yearns to go on scouting missions for the Travel Guide on her own because she’s an explorer, and while Ruby’s glad to see Leti alive, she can’t help but feel resentment over the way she blows in and out of everyone’s lives.

As much as Lovecraft Country’s advertising plays up the potential for romance between its two leads, Smollett and Majors’ performances expertly steer clear of any sort of hero/damsel dynamic in favor of something almost competitive. Similarly, you can feel that the tension between Leti and Ruby isn’t just nondescript bad blood, it’s shot through with years of hurt and anger stemming from colorism and the way their parents treated them differently.

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George, Atticus, and Leti realizing they’re not alone in the woods.
George, Atticus, and Leti realizing they’re not alone in the woods.
Image: HBO

While no one can understand it at first, they’re all on the brink of major personal upheavals that begin when Atticus realizes that his father’s gone missing. All he left behind was a cryptic note explaining that he was headed out to “Lovecraft Country,” the chunk of the upper northeast where many of the horror writer’s stories were set. As Atticus, Leti, and George set out hoping to locate Montrose, they know that the farther away from their neighborhood they travel, the more vulnerable they become and stops on the travel guide act as important oases as the gravity of their quest. That’s where Lovecraft Country’s otherworldliness begins to set in.

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For those who signed up for monsters, the series’ first episode is subtle in the way it introduces them because it wants you to understand that the things slinking around in the dark aren’t all there is to be afraid of. The jeering racists, threatening signs, and armed gangs of white people they encounter are every bit the menace as the things waiting for them in Lovecraft Country proper. But the former, at least, are demons Lovecraft Country’s heroes know and have experience with. When the literal fanged monstrosities start slithering their way out of the woods and making their presence known, Lovecraft Country becomes a wholly different kind of high-stress horror. At that point, there’s no way for Atticus, Leti, and George to really run, and it’ll be too late for you to turn the channel.

Lovecraft Country premieres on HBO on August 16.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

I can’t wait to watch this once all the episodes are available. I still hate the way HBO does these weekly episode drops, especially since you have no guarantee that a show will remain consistent.

Take Watchmen, which started out very strong, then slogged for the middle episodes, only to majorly fumble the ending (like so many Dean Koontz novels).