The meaning of these two occurrences coalesced for a brief moment, and it seemed to me that in the first part of his novel, the way Ruff propels his main characters straight into the egregious racism of American life in the segregated ‘50s is a lot like the way Muhammad Ali bounded out of his corner of the boxing ring toward his opponent when the bell rang.
During the period in which the novel is set, 1954-55, Ali was a young teenager growing up in Louisville Kentucky. This was the tail end of the Jim Crow years (they officially ended in 1965) when all of the former Confederate States of America, including Kentucky, abided by state and locally mandated racial segregation. Ali thus grew up in a society that had internalized the perverse concept of “separate but equal”.
During those same years, in the Northern states where the African American characters of Lovecraft Country are destined to live and die, the practice of segregation, though not mandated by law, was nevertheless widespread.
Just like Muhammad Ali stood his ground as an African American man (or Negro in those years), refusing to back down from any fight he considered worthy, so do Atticus Turner, a Korean War veteran, his pugnacious father Montrose Turner, his Uncle George Berry and Aunt Hyppolita, his young cousin Horace, his friend Letitia Dandridge and her older sister Ruby stand up to enemies so powerful and omnipresent that Ali himself might have gawked in admiration.
Their story begins simply enough: Atticus, his Uncle George and friend Letitia set off in George’s car from their home in Chicago to a remote Massachusetts town which is eerily situated in an area referred to by sci-fi and fantasy aficionados—including Atticus himself and young Horace—as Lovecraft Country.
Their purpose is to find Atticus’ father (and George’s half-brother) Montrose, who was lured there by an affluent white man in a fancy car, and has since disappeared.
They’re guided by The Safe Negro Travel Guide*, which is basically a handbook designed to help African American travellers navigate—and avoid whenever possible—the hasards of stepping outside their own neighbourhoods and into White America, and which George updates and publishes every year.
This first part of the novel was hard reading for me because it was painfully real in its presentation of the hellish predicament that was the daily reality of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, generation upon generation.
The country depicted by Ruff is a deeply upsetting world in which the civil rights of African American citizens exist only on paper; where probable cause and the rule of law are almost exclusively the preserve of Whites; where vicious bigotry and criminal violence are the stock and trade of many police departments.
Its cruelty and injustice are relentless.
It’s a place where a black man or woman can be shot—or worse—simply for entering a town.
It’s utterly terrifying.
This is the peril that Atticus, his family and friends drive directly (and recklessly?) toward as they head to the New England town of Ardham, and it’s there that the narrative becomes very lovecraftian.
Upon their arrival—a feat in itself — Atticus, George and Letitia are introduced to Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb (they are as white as their surname suggests), from whom they learn of a blood connection between Atticus and the Braithwhites. They also soon realize that the Braithwhites are sorcerers and leaders of the Ardham coven, which is part of a network of white supremacist covens across the country, and that Montrose is the bait meant to attract Atticus of whom they have need for a ritual sacrifice.
The strangest thing about this over-the-top turn of events is that Atticus and his kin take it all in stride, working (and fighting!) together to extricate themselves from the supernatural mess they’re in.
It appears that there’s no evil worse than the one they already know, and that race relations in the supernatural world are predictably skewed.
The rest of the story is divided into fours parts that see Letitia, Hyppolita, Ruby and Horace, in turn, take on the malevolent conspiracy of sorcerers, each in their own way and always with the help of family and friends. Their assorted battles and encounters with sinister magic and deadly spells include a haunted house, a magical orrery, a portal to other universes, beasts that devour humans from the head down, and transmogrification.
None of these characters are saints, and they have no desire to be martyrs. The Turner men in particular are quick to throw a punch: they’re inhabited by a similar righteous indignation. In Montrose, the poison of years of oppression has hardened into an uncompromising, spiteful contempt for white society and appears to have burned away any capacity for joy or tenderness—even toward his son. But the perpetual struggle to live in freedom has lit a white hot flame of fury inside Atticus, which, when released, is devastating.
The battle for survival these characters are fighting is personal rather than political. It’s messy and sprawling and ridiculously overwhelming. Occasionally, they’re able to smile about it, but mostly, they endure, resist, and plan their next move.
Lovecraft Country is an imaginative, disturbing, cleverly satirical and, I think, brave work of fiction.
Blending elements of gothic horror, fantasy, sci-fi and even hard-boiled noir, Ruff lets his protagonists do the bloody job of taking on structural racism, violent intolerance, and the evil of white supremacy.
The novel’s title refers not only to the fictional geographical area where H.P. Lovecraft set most of his stories, but also to the fact that Lovecraft himself, like a large number of his white contemporaries, was an overt racist.
Lovecraft Country is a novel about blood, race, power and community at a time of abominable racist discrimination. The fact that its writing and publication occurred against the backdrop of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement is the saddest irony of all.
Note to readers:
Lovecraft Country isn’t yet part of the Library’s collection. However, it can certainly be obtained through interlibrary loan. Matt Ruff’s fourth novel, Bad Monkeys, is available at the Library.
Here’s a reading list just published on the Book Riot Blog, titled: “The Effects of Racism: a Reading List“ put together by Troy L. Wiggins.
Other writers who have grappled with the issue of race in America :
A recent piece by Garnette Cadogan which appeared at Literary Hub: “Walking While Black”.