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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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