Zeitgeisty with a capital Z: that’s Lovecraft Country, HBO’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name. In the series, a Korean war vet from the South Side of Chicago discovers that his family’s roots are entangled with a group of diabolical conspirators. They are the Sons of Adam, based in a remote mansion in “Ardham County” Massachusetts.
The cast of Lovecraft Country must discover their connection to the blonde, blue-eyed members of this cult, led by the descendants of the fabulously wealthy explorer and slave-trader Titus Braithwaite. These villains, the whitest people this side of England, quest for immortality. They intend to crash the Gates of Eden and redo creation.
“Ardham” is a deliberate misspelling of Arkham, the shunned place that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) wrote about in novels and stories. Arkham is a name to conjure with. It is the site of the ancient Miskatonic University and its forbidden library, and it is the source of Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe.
In the opening, the vet — Atticus, called “Tic,” and played by the muscular and soulful Jonathan Majors — is riding out of the South on a bus in 1954. The lady in the seat next to him in the Colored Section notices a confederate general’s name on a bridge and comments, “He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of your name for that.”
Lovecraft has the same indelible mark on him. The writer’s fertile imagination was tethered to a narrow mind. He was the creator of the cephalopod-God Cthulhu, of Herbert West the Re-Animator, and of that accursed tome, the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon. His texts still give readers nightmares, but he was a virulent racist. His prose about elder gods and subterranean abominations was sadly informed by the kind of eugenic claptrap that was even bigger in the 1920s than it is now.
Here, ancient evil rhymes with the everyday terrors of American racism in a Jim Crow age, in “Sundown Towns” where Black faces are not to be seen after sunset. (Ardham is a “Sunset County.”) Not that the cities are any safer: as when the Chicago PD punishes a lady who crosses the color line with a “rough ride,” slamming her around in the back of a careening paddy wagon.
Tic is a big reader of pulp fantasy — he was a spectacled geek until he went into the military and buffed up. When he went in, it caused a rift between him and his bitter father Montrose (played by Michael K. Williams). A cryptic letter from the vanished dad spurs Tic’s journey into mystery. Atticus heads to Ardham with his warm-hearted uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), the editor of a Green Book-like travel guide. This guide book showed people of color where they could eat and sleep on the road. The subject is far more intelligently handled here than in the sentimental, redemption-soaked 2018 movie Green Book.
And in the early episodes, the show speeds along in a marvelous vintage car, a maroon 1948 Packard Station Sedan with wood panels. (After months of quarantine, one wants to overpraise any scenes of driving on an open road.) This is a Mystery Machine if ever there was one.
Looking good behind the wheel is one of the show’s standouts, Jurnee Smollett. She plays the gorgeous and untrustworthy Leti, Tic’s old high school friend, a fine-art photographer, and a reader of Lovecraftian horror herself. She’s in a prickly relationship with her half-sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), a saloon singer of the style of Big Mama Thornton.
I’d seen Smollett as Black Canary in Birds of Prey. There, she was a long-legged vigilante going around kicking guys in the chin, and I hadn’t thought about her twice since the credits ended. In Lovecraft Country, Smollett is even more physical than she was when she was a superhero. And as is the case for Charlize Thereon, there’s something about the 50s clothes and makeup that suits Smollett exceptionally well.
The cast returns to Chicago in the show’s third episode for a straightforward haunted house chapter. Getting the cast off the road meant that Lovecraft Country started to lose momentum. It’s a little frustrating since this show has so much going on. The deliberately anachronistic soundtrack works: Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets’ funny and corrosive “Whitey’s On the Moon” is dubbed over a supernatural ordeal. Alice Smith’s cover of Nina Simone’s version of “Sinnerman” on the end titles fits as well here as that song did at the end of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The production design is tops; consider all the work put in just to have a five-second exterior shot of the imaginary Denmark Vesey Bar and Grill. Wouldn’t it be something if we could toast the memory of slave-revolt martyrs in bars named after them?
The best quality of this Jordan Peele- and JJ Abrams-produced series is the way that it looks not to Stephen King but to August Wilson (Fences).
Show-runner Misha Green (Underground) focuses on bruised family relations, frenemies, and frustrations, which is more interesting than watching the ensemble fighting hell-beasts. Less scary than the howl of CG ghosts is the reality of a Chicago elevated train that shakes Montrose’s apartment, as if the place were having a fit of rage. There’s a dialogue in bed between George and his wife Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) that has some of the deftness of the bedroom scenes in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger.
Also impressive is Michael K. Williams’ performance as Montrose. Reconciling with his son, he’s good enough to sell some very ordinary dialogue. “You got to be a great man despite me. Your mother would have been proud.” Lovecraft Country is a strangely soft-spoken show until the eldritch critters turn up.
But then came the weakest episode yet, “A History of Violence.” The cast harrows an Indiana Jones-like death maze under a museum in Boston, to get some lost pages from “the book of names” — the infernal Necronomicon.
Cruel, square-jawed aryan racists make great villains. It’s always satisfying watching them get what’s coming to them, either from a shoggoth bite (a shoggoth is a saber-toothed, multi-eyed monster) or by a plummeting elevator that shears off their heads. Good riddance! White audiences deserve no credit for wanting to see a bigot’s guts scattered, because they know full well what’s in their own guts: what kind of racism was forced down their throats like colostrum, as they grew up in the U.S.A. The tactic this well-cast and provocative show takes is depicting racism as an evil spell, an indomitable curse in the tradition of New England horror.