Lovecraft Country: Sci-Fi as Commentary

HBO’s new series, Lovecraft Country, had its season finale on October 18, and many fans are still reeling from its intensity. A deft mix of horror, historical fiction, and sci-fi, Lovecraft Country has become a fast favorite. The show follows Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), a young African-American man living in 1950s Chicago, as he discovers his sinister and mystifying family history. Accompanied by his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), Atticus sets out across Jim Crow America to find his missing father, and encounters an eldritch mystery complete with horrific monsters, magic, and secret societies.

Although the monsters are terrifying, many viewers agree that the show’s real power comes not from its fantasy but from its stark portrayal of the realities of segregation and discrimination. The series leans heavily on its historical setting, addressing issues from the Tulsa Massacre to the Korean War. In many cases, the most frightening scenes to watch are not the characters’ battles with twelve-tongued creatures, but their interactions with racist and violent White people. For instance, in the first episode, the characters find themselves in a sundown town, where they are warned that Black people are not permitted in the area when the sun sets. If they are still there at dusk, the police chief threatens, they’ll be killed. The resulting chase and abuse by White police officers is so disturbing that it almost makes the gruesome beasts that appear in the next scene seem manageable.

 And, unlike the monsters, the racism is real. Sundown towns, where people of color were not welcome once the sun set, were common across the US for many years, as Franklin U.S. History teacher Greg Garcia explained. “Here in Oregon, we had several famous sundown towns, including Lake Oswego and Corvallis,” he told me. Garcia, as a history teacher, paid close attention to the historical accuracy when watching the show. “A lot of people of the dominant culture see the 1950s nostalgically and as a goal to strive for, but it doesn’t play out that way for many different communities, especially African-Americans, as seen in the show,” he stated. From segregation, which was at its peak during the 1950s, to the kind of overt violence on display in the show, this time was rife with racial tension as well as suppression of women and LGBTQ+ people, all of which the show addresses. Garcia believes shows like Lovecraft Country can be vital in bringing historical issues to the forefront, saying the show serves as an excellent conversation starter for needed discussions. Of course, racial discrimination has not gone away, and the message of the show is extremely relevant today, especially its depictions of police brutality and White supremacist groups. 

The show, like the novel it’s based on, is named for H. P. Lovecraft, an early 1900s author often hailed as the mastermind behind cosmic horror. As the creator of “The Call of Cthulhu” and many other classic monster tales, Lovecraft is known for his eerie stories and has had a huge influence on popular culture, inspiring countless movies, shows, and games. But often ignored in his legacy is the extreme, undisguised racism present in many of Lovecraft’s writings. An admirer of Hitler and an unrestrained user of the n-word, Lovecraft made little attempt to hide his bigoted beliefs about White supremacy, and though his artistic works are still celebrated today, many contain references or overt statements that reflect this repulsively prejudiced perspective. Both the novel Lovecraft Country and the show explore this, taking Lovecraft’s monsters and placing them against the backdrop of segregation and rampant racism. This forces viewers to acknowledge the author’s extreme intolerance, as characters Lovecraft would have looked down on face two evils: cosmic beasts on the one hand, and the everyday strain of life as a person of color in the 1950s on the other.

This speaks to the message that the show is trying to present, emphasizing the horrifying truths of racism in this country. The idea of using science fiction to explore societal issues is admittedly not a new one— sci-fi shows have been grappling with difficult topics for years. In fact, sci-fi was often used as a tool to expose the public to political commentary without being censored. Garcia, a self-proclaimed science fiction geek, sees this social awareness as an essential component of sci-fi. “Good science fiction is complex,” he stated, “especially with the issues.” He thought that Star Trek (the original series) and The Twilight Zone both achieved this particularly well. Through the lens of aliens and futuristic technology, these shows were able to explore issues from election interventions to authoritarianism.

Lovecraft Country follows a similar mold, but it is unique in just how real it can be. The show incorporates science fiction and fantasy elements cleverly, using them to enhance what the characters go through in the real world rather than to dominate the narrative. “The sci-fi makes it more interesting to watch. It’s crazy and scary and you kind of never know what’s going to happen,” Corinne Bradley (12), a Franklin student who’s been watching the series with her dad, said. But the imaginary aspect doesn’t take over, which means that the show can attract a wider audience than just die-hard sci-fi nerds. “I wouldn’t say that I usually gravitate towards science fiction,” Bradley admitted, “but I really enjoy this show.” 

Another thing the show does well is its portrayal of complex characters. Each episode follows one character more in-depth, really examining their story, so that there are truly no background characters. Instead, every person in the series is shown to be multi-dimensional, with their own unique experiences and perspectives. These characters are made even more powerful by their unique status as people of color, a group which is often under-represented in media like this. As a producer of this show as well as the director of several horror movies, including Us and Get Out, Jordan Peele has sought to fill this gap in the industry and ensure that people of color get the representation they deserve. Shows like this, that lift Black voices and shed light on the Black experience, are so vital both because of the stories they tell and because of the conversations they can start, and Lovecraft Country does a groundbreaking job of bringing racism to the forefront.

All ten episodes of Lovecraft Country’s first season are currently streaming on HBO Max. The series is rated TV-MA, and viewers should be warned that some scenes are very graphic! Overall, though, if you’re looking for a show that will scare you, disturb you, and make you think more deeply, Lovecraft Country will not disappoint. 

An artistic rendition of a shoggoth, one of the monsters featured in HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The series combines science fiction elements like these creatures with an exploration of the realities of racism. Illustration by Bijou Allard

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