Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve found that blogging less has made me much more productive as a book writer. I’ve churned out 25,000 words of my new book on midcentury panics in the past five or six weeks, and I am remarkably pleased with the results. However, I can’t let weeks pass without offering at least a few words about the new series Lovecraft Country, currently airing on HBO. The series, based on a 2016 novel I have never read (having a kid really cuts down on reading time), transforms traditional horror tropes by filtering them through the experience of midcentury Black Americans, directly critiquing the racism inherent in classic horror stories, especially H. P. Lovecraft’s.
To be entirely honest, I don’t have a lot to say about the show. I found the pilot episode to be excellent, carefully balancing commentary on American racism with parallels drawn from the xenophobia and racism inhabiting the stories of the notoriously racist Lovecraft. The Black protagonists’ uneasy trip across America, toward Lovecraft country in New England, painted a picture of existential horror for racial minorities every bit as bleak as the cosmic dread of a Lovecraft tale. But the second episode was notably weaker, falling back on horror clichés and secret cult melodramatics straight out of a 1970s exploitation film. It was decidedly and episode of TV, but it took a whole hour to do what a Night Gallery segment on similar themes would do in 25 minutes. The race-based material was too blunt, too obvious, almost cartoonish, but played seriously. It’s a bit much to expect a lesson in racism to come out of a speech about loopholes in cult bylaws at a black-tie dinner made of the liver of a still-living wizard hoping to open a portal to the Garden of Eden. For all the talk of being “free and wild and beyond good and evil,” occult practitioners are so very rigid about their rules.
Anyway, I found myself largely in agreement with Lauren Michele Jackson, writing in The New Yorker yesterday. She argued, correctly, that the show lacks a certain sense of the sublime, or, barring that, the ridiculous. It has the words but not the music, being either too serious or not serious enough:
But “Lovecraft Country” is not pulp (like “iZombie”) or soap (like “Buffy”) or tragicomedy (“Atlanta”). With fewer voiceovers from the annals of Black History Month perhaps it could have been camp, not of the knowing Ryan Murphy variety but something genuinely Sontagian—a “failed,” instead of slick, “seriousness,” etc. More Scooby Doo ghost chases, more impromptu intercourse, more sillies, more willies, more [Jurnee] Smollett grinning as if her cheeks might break. Green’s previous series, “Underground,” a delectable period drama loosely structured around exploits along the Underground Railroad, dodged the impossible burdens of representing slavery faithfully by drawing on telenovela techniques. (It was cancelled by WGN after two well-received seasons.) In “Lovecraft Country,” there are revelations but seldom awe.
Edmund Burke laid out the path from terror to the sublime more than two centuries ago, and it remains the classic template for creating a sense of transcendence through horror. Lovecraft Country forgoes the sublime, finding in horror not transcendence but trauma. It offers new ways to shout and kill and revel in suffering—physical, mental, social—without building toward something higher or greater. It needed to transform the conventions of midcentury exploitation horror movies and Lovecraftian fiction, not merely invert them while keeping the ramshackle apparatus wholly intact.
Lovecraft Country has a great concept, a powerful theme, and sterling production values. But it’s no Watchmen. That series transformed its source material by recontextualizing it as a parable for racism and the failures of America’s halting efforts to address systemic racism. Lovecraft Country, across its first episodes, is content to let its twin horrors sit side by side without quite merging into something new, something transcendent, something sublime.
8/25/2020 01:11:29 pm
"Lovecraft Country has a great concept, a powerful theme, and sterling production values. But it’s no Watchmen. That series transformed its source material by recontextualizing it as a parable for racism and the failures of America’s halting efforts to address systemic racism."
8/25/2020 05:18:59 pm
Saying that election of a black man as president dispels any notion of systemic racism is like claiming that coronation of a woman as queen dispels any notion of patriarchy in a society. Unforced error me boyo.
8/25/2020 05:55:01 pm
"it would appear that a certain politically motivated establishment is hellbent on bringing it back; if only to win an election and without care for the chaos they're causing."
8/25/2020 08:09:38 pm
Wait a minute! Isn't Lord Vad... I mean... Obama our 44th white President? Or are we still doing the One Drop thing in this timeline? Where is John Titor when you need him?
8/26/2020 12:33:26 pm
Today, class, we learn that Joe Scales refuses to acknowledge the self-evident existence of "systemic racism." He obviously does not live in a southern state, or a conservative part of the United States.
8/26/2020 01:48:41 pm
I remember well the many valiant Wisconsiners who lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy. As they used to say on Hee-Haw, sa-lute!
8/27/2020 11:21:05 am
The most racist place I ever lived in was Boston, and it is of course ignorant to assume that racism only permeates southern and "conservative" states.
8/27/2020 04:33:30 pm
What a sad argument.
8/27/2020 05:41:35 pm
"simply because their parents applied for immigration into the US and they are not white."
Straight offa death row
8/27/2020 11:15:02 pm
Simple Joe doesn't understand the concept of racism. It would be racism if a majority voted for an Asian american based on the belief that asians are inherently good at math so an asian american president would be the best suited to balance the budget.
8/28/2020 08:26:50 am
Trumpy should make the Corona virus against the law, that would eradicate it in a second.
8/28/2020 10:56:27 am
Nope. Systemic racism remains a political weapon, born from a fear that the comforting reliance upon the fruits of identity politics is waning. That you cannot see this is due to your partisan blinders. Your inability to see the big picture outside of yourself. And of course... your imbecility.
8/28/2020 01:05:35 pm
"laws permitting blacks to vote."
8/29/2020 11:33:33 am
8/29/2020 11:50:13 am
As follow-up, Baldus's work might be viewed as somewhat data given the time-frame of his research and writing. However, more recent published work by Gross as well as Johnson (Iowa Law Review) demonstrate that a problem still exists. But perhaps Mr. Scales's published research on the topic offers a different perspective?
10/2/2020 12:33:59 pm
racism is gone? funny since its a form of xenophobia baked into mankinds dna. i dont think people really under stand what systemic racism means. even through the worst times in americas history black ppl have had some success.
8/25/2020 02:22:51 pm
I felt the same about the book. It was a great read, and made me feel the terrors of being black in a white supremacist society, but the various strands never really merged into something greater.
8/26/2020 02:58:44 pm
I've never read the book.Yahoo had an article in relation to the movie, about" Sun Down towns', saying they all aren't in the South. I never heard of them out of in the Deep South., and even the Southwest. My dad grew up in Hot Springs,Arkansas in the 1920s and 30s, before my grandparents moved back to Milwaukee
8/27/2020 06:45:23 pm
8/30/2020 08:16:11 am
I was born 30 minutes’ drive from the Canadian border, in New York State. The town I grew up in was a sundown town until the early 1970s and there’s a significant portion of the population there who are very vocal that it still should be.
8/25/2020 11:06:47 pm
Personally I think the second episode failed on its lack of character depth and poor pacing, rather than its disregard for the sublime. See, I actually don't have a problem with the fantasy/sci-fi that results from Lovecraft minus the cosmic indifference, but what I saw on Sunday played like someone tried to cram a thousand pages of Stephen King into 58 minutes. If I hadn't read the credits, I would never have guessed Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams were attached. It should have been spread across at least a few episodes to give it the fleshing out it needed.
8/26/2020 01:22:36 pm
This article doesn't mention Lovecraft at all, but all the more reason to see that there is a new genre of film-making catching -- or should I say spooking -- the White Zeitgeist.
8/26/2020 02:17:16 pm
I wonder how they will handle phrases like "the black arts" which are common in horror fiction.
8/31/2020 12:00:30 am
I think such shows should be easily placed on the BBC.
voiceovers from the annals of Black History Month? yeah coming a little close to being offensive with that line Lauren Michele Jackson
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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