Pulp fiction faces its racist history
Finally managed to read Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The book club I’m in read it a couple months ago but I was unable to join the conversation. I wish I had read it with that group though because having people to talk with about a good book “in the moment” is one of the greatest pleasure of reading.
Instead though, I’ll bore you with my thoughts after the fact….
HP Lovecraft, as we all know, was a terrible racist. A genius for creating frightening environs and mind boggling concepts that creep into your thoughts and dreams long after you put his work down, but a racist nonetheless. And not that there is ever any defense for racism, but when speaking of Lovecraft, not even the most forgiving apologist could get away with, “Well, it was a different time back then.”
For those more progressively minded horror writers, it’s difficult to balance the fact that one of the fathers of American Horror was an unapologetic racist with the fact that his work is inspirational. As a horror writer myself, I know this. I imagine most do. The difference between most of us and Ruff is that he faces this tragic reality and instead of awkwardly ignoring it, ignorantly defending it, or misguidedly explaining it, he brilliantly flips it.
And the results are fantastic.
With a pulp feel that puts Lovecraft’s racism — all of 1950s racism in fact — on display, Lovecraft Country, shows readers what can be done when writers use the things we hate about our heroes against them. In a collection of intertwined short stories about one Black family’s history mixed up in one white family’s history (thanks, slavery and rape), Ruff gifts readers with a hard look at some of Lovecraft and pulp fiction’s ugliness. But this book is more than just an anthropological exploration of racism in the 1950s United States. Lovecraft Country also weaves fantastical tales that fit snugly into the “weird fiction” genre and repeatedly point out how absurd racism is.
Atticus Turner’s family and friends find themselves dealing with the machinations of white men who worship old gods and fancy themselves the best kind of scientists. Of course, these white men also hold themselves above their black brethren. Of course, this gets them into trouble time and time again because every good pulp fiction villain is guilty of one universal quality: hubris. When conflict amongst the cultists arise we see the white men and their maniacal drive for dominance ironically juxtaposed against a Black family’s desire to not only survive, but thrive. Readers are then left to judge who is nobler (it’s an easy case to weigh). Though the heroes aren’t always 100% heroic and the villains aren’t always 100% villainous, the obvious tension, the obvious power discrepancy, the obvious racism is handled with a keen eye that sees it all and invites us to look as well. Racism is an ugly, stupid thing and Lovecraft Country, with its mix of historical accuracies and fictional fantasies takes one big step toward proving to even the most closed of minds that, despite Lovecraft’s popularity and prowess, there is no place for it in weird fiction and there never was.
With everything from witchcraft to space portals to magical dolls to shapeshifting, Lovecraft Country is a fun read that is simultaneously educational and, at times, enlightening…. But if you’re reading it right — and yes there is a right way to read it — this book that spotlights the ignorance of racism is always enraging.
Favorite line? Probably the most ironic thing I’ve ever read, as uttered by David Landsdowne, an NAACP lawyer standing on his front porch aglow from the light of a highly offensive flashing neon arrow pointed at him from his neighbor’s house: “But our current mayor is a Republican, so maybe there’s hope for the future.”