Eli Joshua Ade / HBO

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.

But although the book dramatizes the wickedness of white supremacy without losing its Black characters’ interiority, the adaptation bears down on the cartoonish villainy of its white antagonists. Again and again, Lovecraft Country reminds viewers that ordinary racists can be transformed into something even more grotesque. In many cases, these sequences are literal: In the first episode, a white sheriff stops the central trio to inform them that they’re driving through a “sundown county,” a reference to the segregated towns where Black people seen after dark were often killed. After humiliating Atticus, the slur-wielding sheriff and two other white officers force all three Black characters to the ground and accuse them of robberies. That’s when monsters emerge from the forest, ripping one officer’s arm clean off his body and later turning the sheriff into a beast just like them. The sequence is satisfyingly pulpy, with dynamic pacing that builds legitimate intrigue and sometimes even dread.

It is unclear what animates Lovecraft Country’s main Black characters—Atticus, George, and Letitia—when they’re not fighting racists, whether man or beast. (Elizabeth Morris / HBO)

The HBO series, which was written and developed by Misha Green, has received heaps of early praise from critics, many of whom cite its usage of horror to dramatize the ugliness of racism. But Lovecraft Country stops short of deploying horror to convey new insights about the perils of white supremacy. Across the five episodes made available to critics, the show spends so much time focusing on its white characters’ near-comic monstrousness that it undercuts the development of its Black leads. It’s clear that the series thinks racism is evil, more so than even Lovecraft’s shoggoths. Through a convoluted subplot about a cultlike family of bigots known as the Braithwhites, the show also makes clear how intimately racism can figure into Black people’s lives. But halfway through the series, I’m still left wondering who Atticus, George, and especially Letitia (a classic “Strong Female Character” archetype) really are. What animates Lovecraft Country’s Black characters when they’re not fighting racists, whether man or beast?

It’s not enough to ask that viewers root for Atticus, George, and Leti just because racists are bad. For Lovecraft Country to be a series that successfully melds genre tropes and social commentary, the show needs its characters to be compelling even absent the threat of a sheriff’s loaded shotgun or a monster’s bloody jowls. As is, the show inadvertently simplifies the realities of white supremacy with its monster allegory, while treating the Black cast less as characters in their own right and more as vehicles for a sweeping critique of American racism.

To be fair, some of this disconnect isn’t necessarily the fault of the series. The dystopian dynamics of the current national reckoning on racism can make any supernatural depiction of bigotry feel underwhelming. Though white supremacy was certainly a danger at the time of the book’s release, daily life without a deadly pandemic and a virulently racist president felt altogether less eerie. When Ruff, who is white, published Lovecraft Country in February 2016, the country was in the twilight of the Obama years, only 18 months removed from the start of protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

The book also preceded a series of what one might call “racial-justice entertainment.” In the time since Lovecraft Country’s publication, an entire cottage industry of Black Lives Matter–adjacent books and productions have captured audiences’ attention by wrestling with the threats that institutional racism poses to Black life in America. These works have spanned genres and media—there are young-adult novels such as The Hate U Give and Dear Martin, police dramas such as Blindspotting and BlacKkKlansman, and period pieces such as Green’s TV series Underground.

The recent resurgence of Black horror and speculative fiction offers perhaps the most useful lessons for Lovecraft Country and future productions like it. Most obvious, Get Out, which was written and directed by the Lovecraft Country producer Jordan Peele, was an effective and entertaining film not just because of the brutality its protagonist faced, or even because of its allusions to contemporary and historical racism. The “monsters” hunting the film’s hero, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), weren’t pure evil. Unlike Lovecraft Country’s Braithwhite family, who are styled to look so Aryan that they nearly resemble demonic elves, the Armitages concealed their dark predilections under the veneer of NPR-loving, Obama-voting liberal niceness.

Chris, for his part, didn’t relate to other Black people only when targeted by white violence, nor was he sympathetic only when faced with the threat of a bodily takeover. When police lights flash on Chris at the end of the film—as when the Black hero of George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is killed by the white mob in that film’s final scene—the intractability and weight of racism are communicated without relying on horror conceits. Even Atlanta, Donald Glover’s Twin Peaks–esque FX series, toys with the supernatural and the surreal to underscore points about race made in its quieter moments. The mystical elements heighten and complicate existing dread; they alone don’t create it.

Racial horror is most effective when the central characters feel rich and fleshed out, when audiences are invested in them not just out of implied moral obligation. For Lovecraft Country to simply flip the usual script with new creatures, then, isn’t enough. The series needs to double down on its most spirited scenes, such as when it navigates a beautifully staged 1950s Chicago, where a broad range of Black characters populate the screen and make the story feel most alive. Spending time with Atticus, George, and Leti in more earthly realms—where the relatable challenges they face add as much to the story as the ravenous aliens do—would make the dangers lurking in Lovecraft Country feel more real, monsters and all.

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