Roush Review: ‘Lovecraft Country,’ Where Racists Are the Real Monsters

Lovecraft Country

It’s hard to know what’s scarier: the grotesque monsters and spirits leaping from the pages of pulp and classic horror fiction, or the flesh-and-blood racist ogres of 1950s Jim Crow America, who also torment the heroes of Lovecraft Country, HBO’s latest stylish dive into supernatural allegory. (Actually, it’s not that hard to get the point: Racists are worse, because they at least know what they’re doing.)

Where the sexy and saucy guilty pleasure True Blood used ostracized vampires to symbolize inequities in the Deep South, the more heavy-handed Lovecraft reminds us that even north of the Mason-Dixon line, in the Northeast and Midwest, times were tough for Blacks facing segregation and “Don’t let the sun set on you here” billboard warnings if they wander too far from home. But that will be the fate of the show’s protagonist, bookish Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (a stolid Jonathan Majors), whose daydreams are the stuff of lurid paperback fiction.

“I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, defy insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day,” he tells an acquaintance. (No, the foreshadowing isn’t especially subtle.) Tic gets his wish once he returns home to Chicago’s South Side, where his uncle George (the effortlessly engaging Courtney B. Vance), also a fan of the macabre, publishes a Green Book-style safe-travel guide for African-Americans — with the busted kneecaps to show for it. He offers to use his “research” as cover for a perilous journey to New England to look for Tic’s missing and estranged dad, Montrose (a reliably intense Michael Kenneth Williams).

Lovecraft Country

(Credit: HBO)

Joining them for the ride is Tic’s childhood friend Letitia, who’s the life of Lovecraft‘s party as played with wonderfully sultry wit by Jurnee Smollett. Their road trip into rural America to investigate Tic’s Mysterious Birthright— you had to suspect he was a man of destiny — is fraught with peril on two fronts. First, the virulent racism, when they’re hounded off of a small town’s Main Street with gunfire, and second, a series of freaky encounters that George describes as “like a scene out of a [Ray] Bradbury novel.”

Or, more to the point, the garish stories of influential but controversial fantasist H.P. Lovecraft, whose multi-tentacled monsters make their presence savagely known in gory attacks that provoke screams and laughs in equal measure. What a heady start to this story, and I wish Lovecraft Country stayed on that path longer.

But after the first few wild episodes, the series becomes as tonally muddled as it is surreal, with nods to Jules Verne and other genre giants once Tic & Co. return to Chicago, where one episode becomes a haunted-house story and another a cliffhanger escapade into secret passages and tunnels worthy of H. Rider Haggard or Indiana Jones. (I figure if the show lasts enough, they might eventually wind up in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.)

Lovecraft Country

(Credit: HBO)

If nothing else, Lovecraft Country is timely, with its obvious subtext of systemic racism extending to subplots exposing sexism and homophobia. The fifth episode (the last made available of the 10-episode first season) is a knockout, focusing on Letitia’s ambitious sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku). She finds herself in a Twilight Zone-like situation — the Zone reboot’s Jordan Peele is an executive producer — when she is gifted the ability to shape-shift (gruesomely) into a white woman’s skin, experiencing the job advancement she covets while also learning, as usual, to be careful what you wish for.

Where Lovecraft Country begins to lose me is the backstory for Tic, which intersects with a sinister quasi-religious cult that’s seeking to learn “the language of Adam” and the secret to immortality. I think. Best not to sweat the details and just cover your eyes as necessary.

Lovecraft Country, Series Premiere, Sunday, Aug. 16, 9/8c, HBO