/ Cory Doctorow / 5 am Tue, Feb 16 2016
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  • Matt Ruff's "Lovecraft Country," where the horror is racism (not racist)

    Matt Ruff's "Lovecraft Country," where the horror is racism (not racist)

    Matt Ruff is a spectacular and versatile science fiction writer who is perhaps most commonly considered an absurdist, thanks to his outstanding 1988 debut Fool on the Hill, but whose more recent works have highlighted his ability to walk the fine line between funny-ha-ha and funny-holy-shit. The Mirage was one such novel, but as brilliant as it was (and it was), it was only a warm-up for this book, Lovecraft Country, a book that takes a run at the most problematic writer in today's pop culture canon and blasts right through him.

    HP Lovecraft, father of the Cthulhu mythos, was, even by the disgusting standard of his day, a scumbag racist pig. Seriously. Even Robert Howard couldn't let Lovecraft's vicious invective pass without comment. David Nickle's novel Eutopia pulled down Lovecraft's pants and showed us all his shame.

    Lovecraft Country doesn't stop at the clothing.

    The novel involves a large, extended, accomplished African-American family living in Jim Crow Chicago. These characters -- a young soldier, a radical printer, a grifter's daughter turned landlady, a travel agent, a budding comics creator, and many others -- don't need Elder Gods to experience horror. They live it in their daily lives, through harassment, violence, expropriation, and the legacy of slavery that is anything but ancient history for them.

    Each character gets their own novella, a series of linked tales that both illustrates, at a visceral level, the terrors of the black American experience, and the family's relationship to another family, former enslavers who are Lovecraftian sorcerers, obsessed with the taming of ancient mysteries and sacrifices to unknowable Elder Gods from beyond our universe.

    Ruff inverts the Lovecraft horror, which turned so often on "miscegenation" and the duty of advanced humans to trample those around them in their drive to recapture this lost wisdom (and humanity's lost grace). His Lovecraftian horror is the horror of the people whom the Lovecraftian heroes viewed as subhuman, expendable, a stain on the human race. By blending real history (such as the Tulsa riots) and Lovecraftian tropes, Ruff's characters shine as active protagonists in their own story who have lives, have dignity, and have indomitable spirit that they use to fight back against the power structure that Lovecraft lionized.

    In his afterword, Ruff notes that he was inspired by Pam Noles's 2006 essay Shame, about her experiences growing up both black and geeky, and the way her family made her interrogate the portrayal of race in her favorite media. The essay is a must-read, presaging much of the debate underway today.

    Ruff started his career as an absurdist, with a light touch that made his debut a breeze as well as a hoot. Though his subject-matter has gained gravity over the years, his touch has, if anything, gotten lighter and quicker. Lovecraft Country doesn't just race along, it tears, demanding that you keep turning its pages without interruption. I read the second half of the book while walking in my neighborhood, holding the book with one hand and clutching bags of groceries in the other, and then finishing up in bed with a small LED lamp after my wife had fallen asleep. It's one of those books.

    But on the other hand, there really aren't any books quite like it.

    Lovecraft Country [Matt Ruff/Harper]

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    Notable Replies

    1. Ruff's characters shine as active protagonists in their own story who have lives...

      So, nothing like Lovecraft then.

    2. I've always thought the argument that racism was kind of at the heart of Lovecraft's horror was interesting - fear of the Other, fear of the Not Understood, fear of the Alien, fear of intelligence and education and knowledge leading to madness and instability. "Don't learn about other people," it suggests, "they might be fish-people. Be ignorant, it's safer that way."

      One of the reasons I thought this was an interesting way to look at it is because it suggests that racism and fear/horror/ignorance are intimately linked, that to have one is to have the other. All this angry racism then is embedded not in arrogance or judgement, but in a terror.

      That suggests that one of the most powerful ways to fight racism is to dispel fear. Which can be hard for those of us who fight racism to acknowledge sometimes. When someone makes a racist comment, I want them to feel opprobrium, shame, and judgement, so that they don't do it again. But what might be more effective is to somehow find the root of fear that germinates this racism-sprout, and to sever it with compassion and safety.

      The idea that the response to "Affirmative action is reverse racism!" is not "You're a dipshit," but rather "What are you so scared of?" is a powerful one.

    3. Norzhi says:

      Knowing about Lovecraft's life, it's easy to see what made him a racist. How he was pretty much a hermit and how foreigners represented change, which he didn't like and feared. But to give him credit, he was changing towards the end of his life. He went out more, met people and was frankly becoming less of a racist.
      I must admit that I get annoyed when people simply lump his entire life under "he was a racist pig" and ignore everything else. But that's just my problem.

    4. Because he was adorable.

    5. I think we can also accept that people are complicated. I think we can acknowledge things like racism, which as @nungesser correctly points out was pervasive (this was the era of the KKK being a major force in US politics, the height of Eugenics, the nadir of race relations, the era of the Great Migration, the era of fascism, etc) and still like Lovecraft.

      But, @nungesser, I'll also point out that while racism was rampant, that doesn't mean there weren't other voices. This period saw a strong wave of anti-racism and anti-colonial movements, not just here, but around the world. This was the era when the NAACP was getting it's feet under them, when WEB DuBois was writing his master works, when African Americans were traveling to the Soviet Union, when Japan was becoming a global, colonial power, despite not being a "white man's country", when there were numerous anti-racist conferences happening. So, the era was not without dissenting voices on the issue of race.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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