Lovecraft Country doesn’t really grapple with its namesake

It takes a total of 120 seconds for Cthulhu to appear in HBO's new horror series Lovecraft Country. The Great Old One rears his unmistakable "octopus-like head" — now of bumper sticker lore — over our hero, Atticus Freeman, poised to take a bite, only to be sliced into a mass of writhing green goo by the chop of Jackie Robinson's bat. It's a blunt metaphor, but it mostly works: H.P. Lovecraft would have been driven "mad with indignation" by the scene of his Elder God getting sashimied by a Black man, Slate observes.

Unfortunately, it's also about as much as Lovecraft Country is willing to engage with the author who gives the show its name. Lovecraft today is remembered as both the "master of horror," a writer with a wondrous talent for giving words to the existential dread of the cosmos, and hideously racist, even for his time. The tension between these two facts has troubled writers, and particularly writers of color, for decades. But rather than be precise in its refutation of the legacy of Lovecraft, Lovecraft Country only takes the broadest possible swipes at the monster of racism, leaving the show feeling oddly one-note and shallow in the first five episodes made available for critics.

As the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Lovecraft's collected writings mildly puts it, Lovecraft "expressed prejudice against African Americans, Jews, and other minorities throughout his life." This sort of glossing-over doesn't do it justice: the author was an outspoken white supremacist, excusing Southerners for "resorting to extra-legal measures such as lynching," arguing "the Jew … must be muzzled [because he] insidiously degrades [and] Orientalizes [the] robust Aryan civilization," and sympathizing with Adolf Hitler. Lovecraft's views about "miscegenation" and racial "taint" bled into his work: "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," also known as the "fish people story," was Lovecraft's "not-very-subtle way of dealing with race-mixing," Matt Ruff, the author of the 2016 novel Lovecraft Country is based on, told the Los Angeles Times. Particularly vile were Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook," in which the monsters are the "Syrians, Spanish, Italian, and Negro[s]" of New York City, and his 1912 poem "On the Creation of [N-word]," which is as appalling in content as its title suggests. The poem also gets referenced in Lovecraft Country's first episode, an important recognition by the creators of who they're dealing with.

Lovecraft Country begins as Korean War veteran and sci-fi nerd Atticus (Jonathan Majors) — more commonly called "Tic" — returns home to Chicago from Florida during the 1950s. The occasion: Tic's father is missing. Soon, Tic joins forces with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia "Leti" Lewis (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on a cross-country trip to "Ardham," Massachusetts, in order to find him.

If you caught it, yes, that's another wink at Lovecraft: the fictional "witch-cursed, legend-haunted" Arkham was one of the author's favorite settings. As showrunner Misha Green has previously teased, "genre fans will definitely see those Easter eggs and influences throughout" Lovecraft Country. But "Easter eggs" are only the most cursory of acknowledgements; to meaningfully grapple with horror's troubling roots requires more involvement than passing, cheeky references.

Perhaps most revealing is the way the characters in Lovecraft Country behave nothing like Lovecraftian protagonists ever would. Tic and Leti repeatedly find themselves in situations they want to escape from. It's a classic trope of the genre: stick an unsuspecting character in a haunted house, or a murdery sleep-away camp, or a motel with an over-reliance on taxidermy for decor, and watch them try to get out. A hallmark of Lovecraft's stories, though, is that instead of running away from the nightmare, his characters try to probe deeper, to find the source of the horror even if it drives them mad. The makers of Lovecraft Country seemed here to have missed that memo; over and over again, the show shies away from meaningfully excavating the themes of race and horror that it raises. But as every horror fan knows, it is not the locked attic door that is scary; it's the potential of whatever is ultimately behind it. You can't have a horror story if no one ever bothers with an investigation.

Part of Lovecraft Country's draw since its announcement has been Jordan Peele's involvement as a producer, although comparisons to the Get Out and Us director's previous work don't do it many favors. Both of Peele's features, which dismantle liberal racism and class in America and our fear of the "other" respectively, are precise, airtight, and incisive. Lovecraft Country also attempts allegorical horror: What if a sundown town was literal, and monsters emerged at night? What if KKK Grand Wizards were actual wizards? Another episode uses a horror metaphor about housing segregation, while another tackles white privilege; there's even a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style caper about the colonialist history of museums and exploration. But this monster-of-the-week structure gives viewers no time to wonder why real-enough ghouls like bigoted police officers need the embellishment of also belonging to supernatural cults. The resulting effect feels a little like Scooby and the gang pull the mask off the ghost at the end of each episode and, gasp, it's our old nemesis racism underneath each time.

It may be that Lovecraft Country simply has no interest in its namesake beyond making a sweeping and surface-level observation that there are already monsters in America as terrifying as any of those dreamed up by Lovecraft. It ends up being a bit of a sandbox of horror tropes instead: there are bodily fluids aplenty, for example, including an Eraserhead baby look-alike birthed by a cow, a woman whose skin graphically sloughs off, and a lingering shot on the aftermath of an elevator-induced decapitation — but it also feels rote, gory because that's what horror is "supposed to be." At worst, this propensity results in the inclusion of an extremely brutal rape scene in the show's fifth episode (directed, notably, by the great Cheryl Dunye), which in practice comes worryingly close to seeming like it's supposed to be played for catharsis.

Either way, imagery alone doesn't feel quite ambitious enough to sustain a show in 2020. "The weight of fantastic imagery [like Lovecraft's] can and has been violently deployed against people of color," including in toxic narratives that persist to this day, Wes House wrote in an examination of the author's legacy of white supremacy for Lit Hub. But responding with a Black protagonist and unfocused observations about racism in America doesn't quite tackle this all on its own. "It's difficult for me to enjoy a whizbang romp through a horror fun house inspired by the historical (and current!) violence against Black people," Vanity Fair put it more bluntly. Besides, Lovecraft Country is hardly alone in subverting Lovecraft's vile viewpoints by using the author's own devices against him at this point; recent examples include Amazon's Carnival Row, N.K. Jemisin's new book, The City We Became, and the video game Bloodborne. Something more was required to set Lovecraft Country apart.

"Stories are like people," Tic says early in the series. "Loving them doesn't mean they're perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws." But it's also possible to overlook flaws to the point that one might start to wonder if you only skimmed the material. Lovecraft's horror endures as an influence on the genre in part because "the encounter with the nonhuman other ... [was] vitally shaped by [his] racism," as Lit Hub describes it. It's a complicated, tricky, and unpalatable truth, and worthy of being challenged and explored with precision. Instead Lovecraft Country swings, and strikes out.