Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff book review

The master of weird fiction gets a deserved homage in Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country Matt Ruff

The list of authors inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft is nigh-on endless, but we can’t remember the last time we read an homage this intelligent and entertaining. Matt Ruff offers plenty of weird fiction thrills and chills, but here he’s using eldritch dread to explore a less supernatural American evil.

Told as a series of connected stories, Lovecraft Country spins a fittingly Lovecraftian tale of ancient others and ambitious sorcerers to tell a story about Jim Crow-era racism. Life in 1954 is dangerous enough for our characters as black men and women living in the US, even before they stumble upon the Braithwate family and their dark secrets.

The book begins with returned veteran Atticus Turner travelling with his uncle George and old friend Letitia to find his father Montrose, who has disappeared while investigating an old piece of family history. It transpires that the Turners are connected to the Braithwaites, a wealthy East-Coast family with a keen interest in the occult and a plan for their guests.

The story acts as an introduction to the people whose lives are explored further in other tales, all of which use their supernatural element as a mirror for the mundane horrors our characters routinely face.

When Letitia buys a house in a white neighbourhood, she must contend with the unquiet spirit of the former occupant, as well as the locals, who will do anything to scare her away. The book containing the history of Atticus’ great-grandmother’s time in slavery becomes the leverage used by Caleb Braithwaite to convince Montrose to steal a book of spells. A living puppet is just another tool of intimidation to keep the terrified teenage Horace quiet.

All these tales, from Jekyll & Hyde riffs to trips into other astral planes, function both as highly entertaining horror stories and canny depictions of a horrifying time in American history. The racism inherent in society at the time is violent and awful, and horribly mundane in its omnipresence. The supernatural, when present, is often a surprising respite from the dangers that come from simply walking down the street or driving into a different county.

Despite their near-constant peril, and the fact that the stories flit between different characters, Ruff does not fall into the trap of making his protagonists victims or ciphers. While some don’t feel quite as vivid as others, there’s a real sense of history and affection between them, and their victories are genuinely touching. One of our favourite stories, ‘Hippolyta Disturbs The Universe’, finds the titular character finally achieving her childhood astronomy dreams by stepping onto an alien shore.

There’s also some sharp discussion of the problematic legacy of fantasy authors and the often-upsetting subtext to be found in these classic works, as genre fan Atticus is confronted with his father’s disgusted reading of these tales. “They do disappoint me sometimes,” his uncle George tells him. “Sometimes, they stab me right in the heart.”

Rich, intelligent, sensitive and massively entertaining, this is an absolute pleasure.