1. The book it’s based on is good.
Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel was a book I read with great anticipation and no small amount of worry. As a Black connoisseur of horror, I was worried if he, a white writer, would mishandle the Black ensemble cast of his book. As a writer of a Black Lovecraft novel in progress for the last five years, I was worried if it would erase my work. As a Black person period, I turned every page wondering when he was going to drop the ball. Good news: the book handles these characters with more aplomb, care and generosity than the show. If you don’t like what a character is doing in the show, you’ll probably find a lot more to appreciate about them in the book.
2. The show deviates greatly from the book.
If you go to the book looking for the same experience as the show or for history lessons, you’ll be disappointed. Or you may be rewarded if you think the show handles these things inappropriately. Great swathes of the show are not only different from the book, but are another story entirely. The show recognizes this, of course, and tips its hat later in the series at this observation, For instance, when Tic describes the book he brings back with him from another dimension called Lovecraft Country, the story he describes having read is exactly like Matt Ruff’s actual book. So technically, you should be watching the show as a parallel universe that happens to have some of the same characters. In short: If you read the book before watching, you will find the show leaves you wanting. If you watch the show and then decide to read the book, it can only upgrade your feelings about the story they both share.
3. There is nothing specifically Lovecraftian about the book or the show.
Matt Ruff’s book mostly used Lovecraft’s name – and conversely, his reputation as a problematic (read, racist) horror writer – as a target and philosophical skin for the story. Lovecraft isn’t just a random horror writer; his forte was cosmic horror with a brutally dystopian aesthetic. Lovecraft stories don’t do happy endings or dashing protagonists, and much of his body of work is infused with his many personal social ills. His coloring of the otherness of his creatures and the universe in which they inhabit has long been seen as a riff on his actual and real world racism and sexual issues. There has never been a question about his racism.
As far as the book and series go, neither of them tackle Lovecraft directly either. The book does so philosophically and politically by essentially throwing shade on Lovecraft’s legacy by making a Black ensemble cast the leads of its various genre stories (they’re not all horror, much like the series) but does not apply or dissect his work directly. It thumbs its nose at Lovecraft and his ilk, and seeks to address a longstanding wrong: the lack of diversity in horror. Yes, the book and series share some ingredients with Lovecraft material: occultists, magic, science gone awry, the occasional monster. But so does 95% of all horror. If you decided to start reading Lovecraft’s stories, you wouldn’t find much to connect to Lovecraft Country. It’s just a riff with heart. Lovecraft Country on either platform is to Lovecraft’s body of work as Flavor Flav is to Black Nationalism: there is a statement about Black Nationalism at play with Flav, but it ain’t quite lined up in his execution.
If you want to see a proper Lovecraft movie, watch the recent (and good) Color Out Of Space. THAT’S Lovecraftian. There is actual Lovecraft cinema out there if that’s what you want or if you need an education. But Lovecraft Country ain’t Lovecraftian in tone, spirit or design.
4. The show isn’t actually great.
There are things the show does pretty well (the casting is flawless and the set design is amazing), but that’s mostly technical and budget related. Throw enough money at a thing under the awning of a network that’s got a long history of amazing television and your bar will naturally be better than average. But let’s be clear: Lovecraft Country is a hugely flawed show. I need to clarify that this has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve read the much better written book. A book and a TV series are two different artistic experiences and I’m perfectly capable of divorcing the two and enjoying them on their own merits. But as a show it’s become extremely easy to criticize its pandering, its slingshot direction, its wildly divergent character behaviors and its muddy motivations.
5. Representation does not make a Black thing good.
This point is a tough one to make and swallow, and there is a lot to unpack within it that deserves its own essay (several, in fact), but this much has to be said now. It’s interesting to watch feedback on the show across social media. Not only do white fans and Black fans see it differently, but Black people who are watching (fans or non-fans or hate watchers) are split as well, and for a variety of reasons (see #6). But one of the common defenses that I see of the show is that, regardless of what criticism you may have of it, so many people are just served by seeing themselves onscreen doing something different. Now, I would argue that it’s 2020 and if you’re still out here looking for mere representation, you should read more. You could have gotten a better version of this story four years ago if you’d read the book. But in all seriousness, Black audiences should be well past the point of deserving mere representation. We should be expecting and demanding agency, not just for the creators happy to sit at the table, but of the stories themselves. It’s okay to want stories that represent you do so in ways that are productive. You can’t demand it, but you don’t have to support it just because it looks like you. We made similar decisions in the 70s: when blaxploitation films opened certain doors, we set its jive ass aside, which made room for Spike Lee, and so on, all the way to where we are now. We don’t have to settle for seats at the table anymore. It’s okay to have standards and range.
6. The Black trauma isn’t paying off.
I’m not one of those Black people who can’t handle difficult racial histories portrayed in art. I can watch 12 Years a Slave or Antebellum and deal with them. At the same time, Black history isn’t something to play with, mostly because a lot of what’s being unpacked in our art isn’t history; it’s still happening on some level. So when a show like Watchmen portrays the Tulsa Massacre or Lovecraft Country shows us sundown towns, we’re not entirely divorced from those experiences even today (gentrification, police brutality, medical racism, etc.). The question isn’t ever, “Are these things triggers?” but “Is this a trigger worth pulling?” And with Lovecraft Country, it turns out that it rarely is. It is admittedly a fine line, but the difference tends to come down to whether a scene or action is an actual story element (as opposed to ornamentation), and what questions or emotions the outcomes engender in the audience. Lovecraft Country is an intensely violent show on many, many levels. Much of its violence isn’t resolving in a way that helps its characters or its audience. Which is why some of the resolutions are so cathartic: it is (sometimes literally. Looking at you, Leti) a baptism of fire. And maybe we make it out of that fire. But what’s unavoidable are the scars that come with the singe.
7. Jordan Peele doesn’t really have anything to do with this.
Peele is to be applauded for all of the doors he has opened for creators of the non-white male variety. He has changed the landscape of cinema and television for the better and the impacts will be eternal. At the same time, I wish he’d put his hands a little more directly onto the things with his name attached to them. He is giving a lot of people who are new to this level of attention great resources and platforms. Certain struggles are not theirs to bear thanks to his influence. That leeway and creative freedom is not showing up in the quality of the ideas. In all fairness, there aren’t a ton of Black horror writers and directors to tap for something like this.
8. Lovecraft Country is more concerned with representation than quality.
Showrunner Misha Green has admitted that the show may not get some things right out the gate, and has offered at least one apology for the gross mishandling of an Indigenous gender-variant character. Part of why this happens in this show (and it happens a lot) is because the writers, producers and directors are more concerned with breaking barriers than telling solid stories that slyly or happen to break barriers. A lot of its politics are on the nose, on its sleeve and any other surface the creators can affix a deep observation to. And it smashes so many politics into every frame of an episode that the shows tend to topple under the weight of carrying so many histories at such an enormous degree per point. It means well, but it doesn’t carry what it means well. This will all make the show historically important, but not one that’s actually good.
9. You shouldn’t need a syllabus WHILE you watch it.
HBO uses weekly post-show podcasts on a lot of its content to extend their impact and audience, so the show doesn’t have much a choice in the matter here. That said, if there are elements of the show that are only clear with further explanation by its creators after the fact, that’s usually a sign that the storytelling is deficient. I don’t mean backstory (which is fun) or technical notes (which are cool). I mean things like character motivations. If people watch a show and are still asking why characters are doing things, the story isn’t doing its job.
10. The show’s Black creators are still operating under a lot of white gaze.
This is another point that deserves its own essay, but I want to get it to the table for further discussion. This show not only still has to exist on HBO, but still has a lot of white people working on it in key positions. When the show wraps up next week it will have had 9 directors over 10 episodes, most of whom are not Black. The primary audience for any HBO show is predominantly white. Genre television is a hotbed of racist dissection on social media. All of these things are playing into how the show is created. It’s not an indie project. Again, a LOT can be said here, and not just about Lovecraft Country. Just know that this is always happening behind the scenes.