Like many young people, the protagonist of the 2016 novel Lovecraft Country devours entertainment that his father finds foolish and reprehensible. Atticus loves reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror—genres that, as his dad points out, are dominated by white authors and full of racist stereotypes. The tension inherent in Atticus’s fondness for such writers drives much of Lovecraft Country, which is set in the 1950s. And no author looms larger in Matt Ruff’s book, or in the HBO adaptation that premieres Sunday, than the one for whom it is named. Early in the novel, Atticus recalls a night when his father handed him a poem by H. P. Lovecraft called “On the Creation of Niggers,” which describes Black people as “semi-humans” and “beasts.” The verses are a departure from the late author’s hugely influential brand of cosmic horror and a succinct illustration of Lovecraft’s bigotry.
But Lovecraft Country inverts the xenophobic preoccupations of its titular author, suggesting that white racists—and not Black people—are the real beasts. Considering the long history of Black people being depicted as monsters throughout American cinema, especially in sci-fi and horror, this is an admirable premise that is often rendered vividly. When terrifying creatures appear on-screen in the HBO series, the threat they pose to the story’s heroes feels urgent and visceral. Like the novel, the show follows Atticus (played by Jonathan Majors), a young Korean War veteran on a quest to find his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), who disappeared en route to Massachusetts. Setting off from Chicago, Atticus is joined by his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), as well as his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), whom the series promotes to love interest. Along the way, the three face dangers both mundane and otherworldly, from encounters with Jim Crow–era racism to battles with bloodthirsty behemoths resembling the shape-shifting “shoggoths” of Lovecraftian lore.