Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Those Cultists Have Awfully Red Necks

               As a little girl, I was a regular patron of our local second-hand book store. This was despite the fact that the owners had Rush Limbaugh and the 700 club blasting from the radio whenever I went there and that 80% of the stacks were dedicated to moldering Harlequin Romances. I went there because paperbacks went for ¢.10, and hardbacks went for ¢.50, and that was the kind of money I could easily pull together from weeding or raking. And finally I went there because in the very back room, there were shelves and shelves dedicated to science and science fiction. This smelly, dusty, moldy little hole in the wall is where I stumbled upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

                Twelve is pretty much the perfect age to stumble onto Lovecraft. At twelve, you’re young enough not to realize that pseudo-King James language is not a stylistic plus. You’re young enough to get grabbed right by the brain stem and into an endless sea of cosmic, impersonal horror. Lovecraft has informed my sense of what is pants-shittingly terrifying, so whenever I see a book that plays in this cold and uncaring sandbox, my interest is piqued. The fact that Lovecraft Country is by Matt Ruff, the author of Bad Monkey, a book about a bona-fide female anti-hero, only sweetened the pot.

                And then I turned over the book and read the summary. Atticus Turner, a WWII vet from Chicago, finds out his father has gone missing the summer of 1954. He and his Uncle George, publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, have to find him because, you know, Cultists. (For those who haven’t read Lovecraft, Cultists feature heavily in the dude’s fiction.) The premise sold me, 100%.

                Structurally, this novel is a lot of fun. It’s more of a series of short stories tightly interwoven with a subtle dramatic arc than a standard novel with a central protagonist, which was kind of what the book summary led me to expect. I feel like it was a more challenging narrative to craft, but Matt Ruff really managed to keep all those balls in the air. He gave just enough information to forestall confusion while keeping the level of suspense painfully high. I am a pretty disciplined person, but I have to admit blowing past my scheduled bed time more than once during the reading of Lovecraft Country. Back in the day, I would have joyfully pulled an all-nighter to finish this book. 

                The stories each have a distinct theme, some more overtly Lovecraftian than others, but the overall feel of the novel was more of a nod to 50’s pulp horror. If you’ve done any listening to radio drama from the period, narratives like Horace and the Devil Doll will feel particularly nostalgic. Holy shit snacks, he even drops in a reference to Das Kriegsspiel, the granddaddy of Dungeons and Dragons. But like a writer worth his salt, Ruff makes these classic tropes work for the narrative in some really interesting ways, examining issues of race and class in both the segregated south and the supposedly more liberal north.

                For all of the strangeness of Lovecraft Country, with its cultists and its doors into hostile, alien realms, the shadow that looms deepest over the lives of Atticus Turner and his family is racism. The 1950’s tend to get held up as a “more wholesome time” in white American culture, but there’s a lot of overtly horrifying stuff that gets swept into the shadows. Lovecraft Country is at its most unsettling not when the opponents aren’t natural philosophers trying to unlock untold power, but when the Turners are making their way in white American spaces. The threat of violence is always in the air. Always. At one point, Atticus is pulled over by a cop in Indiana and learns that he’s in a Sundowner Town with just minutes to spare before sunset. 

                Sundown in Indiana was of many points where Ruff could have taken a side road. Lovecraft Country could have gotten a whole lot grimmer. A whole lot more claustrophobic. It’s not so much a criticism I’m leveling here. Writers have to make choices that will limit what a novel can do. Ruff’s choices were legitimate, they served to make Lovecraft Country my choice of this summer’s good read. But there’s a novel out there that hasn’t been written yet, one in an entirely different Lovecraft country, where all the real monsters wear human faces, one that I think deserves to be written.