It is no secret that the USA was notoriously built on the backs of black slaves. The systemic racism that persists in America today is historically enforced, and complimentary, to the supernatural monsters we encounter in the first episode of Lovecraft Country. Based on the novel by Matt Ruff, this series, fresh from HBO’s ever-expanding catalogue, is produced for the small screen by Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out) alongside J.J Abrams (Super 8, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)).
It’s the 1950s, Jim Crow Era. The bespectacled Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) – an ex-soldier, sci-fi buff, and main protagonist of Lovecraft Country – is in search of his missing father. A letter directs him to the notorious Devon County to a place known as ‘Ardham’. Accompanying him on this journey from Chicago is his Uncle George (Courtney B Vance) and friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett). Oh, how little do the trio know, about the horrors that await them.
The horror writer H.P Lovecraft, to whom the series owes its name to, was a profound and accomplished writer with a strange legacy. The man was a powerful influence on the science fiction genre. He was also, regrettably, an outstandingly bigoted individual. Lovecraft Country makes the writer’s importance clear in both avenues of cultural indoctrination. As an avid reader, Atticus admires the Lovecraftian works when he was younger, much to the dismay of his now-estranged father, Montrose. In one scene, Atticus describes how his dad forced him to memorise one of Lovecraft’s most disturbing poems (“On the Creation of N*****s”). If you’re not familiar with what the poem entails, count your lucky stars, and only seek it out if you’re really really curious. Mentioning this poem as a childhood memory serves as an explicit reminder of Lovecraft’s unsettling world views, views that Atticus will need to deal with his entire life.
Following this, there is one immensely perfect, yet simultaneously harrowing sequence in Sundown. On the trip to Devon County, we are assaulted by scenes of historical bigotry, the imagery of painful real-world suffering, segregation, and grotesque racist mockery. Additionally, the real-life words of James Baldwin echo in the background. It is a quietly potent montage, reminding us (as viewers), that this show is not going to be a pure, silly sci-fi adventure. All three actors give tremendous performances that serve their characters equitably for an establishing episode. Still, I was most intrigued by the background of Letitia. We are set up, alongside the tension created in this boiling pot of racial hostility, the familial drama between her and her siblings, the driving motive in her accompaniment with George and Atticus towards Ardham.
As an initial step, Sundown successfully proposes troubling themes which will explore one of the most significant conflicts between artist and consumer: Can excellent genre writing, and the monsters that Lovecraft birthed, truly be appreciated with the knowledge of what he was like as a person, and will Lovecraft Country allegorise his supernatural monsters to expose outdated attitudes? Those who are fans of Lovecraftian monsters can rest assured, this episode displays no missed opportunities of total, gory carnage. However, the CGI monsters are not the only creatures that haunt the (once) genuine reality of the ‘sundown town’. A confrontation between the trio and the police makes this distressingly clear.
Lovecraft Country’s first episode both entertains, shocks and saddens. The all-too-real terrors of systemic racism make an intriguing backdrop to, as what the latter half of Sundown alludes to, a scary sci-fi romp. One hopes that Lovecraft Country will continue to potently explore these themes with elegance, carefully balancing Lovecraftian creatures out with the psychological torment faced by the severely oppressed.