HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Merges Fictional Horror with Historical Fact

Even horror has a darker side.

lovecraft country
HBO

For a Black family living under the boot of Jim Crow, there's plenty that's scarier than any alien beast or vengeful ghost or phalanx of bloodthirsty Martian warriors that even our most lurid fiction writers could put into a book. A white police officer on a lonely road, perhaps, or a white businessman following a Black woman down an empty alleyway, or even a white woman ready and willing to use her whiteness and womanhood as a weapon. The genre of horror has nothing on the fear of what any random person on the street might do to you simply based on the color of your skin, which is where HBO's new series Lovecraft Country comes in, following two Black families living in Chicago in 1954, unwillingly caught up in a centuries-long battle for supremacy between two warring Lodges dabbling in the esoteric dark arts. Here's what else you need to know about the series before it airs on Sunday.

It's based on a book

Lovecraft Country is based on Matt Ruff's 2016 horror novel of the same name, which actually started out as a pitch for an X-Files-like monster-of-the-week TV series, where a cast of Black characters would be traveling the countryside and constantly fighting off otherworldly terrors while also dealing with your run-of-the-mill racist human beings. The book's main character, Atticus Turner (played by Jonathan Majors in the show) is a genre fiction fan, having spent his youth gobbling up tales from H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but loving that literature comes at a price.

"One of the many forms of exclusion African Americans faced was being shut out of the popular imagination," Ruff said in an interview with Harper Perennial's P.S. "For as long as genre fiction has existed, there have been Black genre fiction fans, but most of the time they were either ignored or insulted." 

What's the plot? 

The show follows two families, the Freemans and the Lewises, who are unwillingly made the pawns in a much larger game orchestrated by the Braithwhite family, who are members of the Freemason-esque Order of the Ancient Dawn, obsessed with magic and immortality. It begins with Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) receiving a letter from his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) to come and find him in a place called Ardham, in Massachusetts. When he, his childhood friend Letitia (Journee Smollett) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) road trip across the northern United States to rescue Montrose, they meet the creepy Braithwhites and Atticus discovers that, because of his birthright, he is instrumental in the Braithwhite patriarch's scheme to become the most powerful literal wizard in the country. This encounter sets off a string of adventures where the monsters and ghosts Atticus and Letitia and their families encounter are only a smidge scarier than the oppressive reality they live in. 

Is it different from the book?

There are a few distinct changes from the book -- most notably that its antagonist, who is Caleb Braithwhite in Matt Ruff's source material, has become Christina Braithwhite in the show (played by Mad Max: Fury Road's Abbey Lee). Christina vamps around, bending the Freemans and the Lewises to her will, disguising it as charity and trying to convince them that she's got their best interests at heart when really the only interest she's interested in is her own. The change is clever: on the surface, Christina is a powerful woman making her way in a sexist world (the Order of the Ancient Dawn is only interested in male power), but her feminism -- her white feminism -- has no room for the Black people she not-so-subtly threatens, uses, and casts off in her quest. 

What's with the Lovecraft stuff?

Atticus's love of genre fiction, and H.P. Lovecraft in particular, was always a sticking point between him and his father Montrose, who derided his son's love of books written by and for white people, where people of color were, at best, portrayed as primitive, and, at worst, coded as the monsters the white heroes fought to destroy. Lovecraft himself was famously racist, sneaking his prejudices into most of his stories and even publishing poetry that made his hatred of Black people much more overt. The phrase "Lovecraft country," which is used in the show to describe a region of New England where Lovecraft based his stories (Atticus even initially misreads the location of the Braithwhites' estate as "Arkham," a fictional town Lovecraft based on Salem, Massachusetts), has, naturally, a much broader meaning. The show, like the book, makes no mistake about its intentions: packs of many-eyed "shoggoths" in the woods and murderous ghosts that haunt a mansion are one thing, but it's the tyrannical systems that these people live under that are the real horror. When you're Black in America, you're in Lovecraft country no matter where you live. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.