The author HP Lovecraft made an indelible mark on popular culture. Described by Stephen King as the “greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale” in the 20th century, the pulp writer created a world of ancient deities and weird monsters that – despite the schlocky style of the writing – has influenced countless authors and film directors ever since his stories were first published in the 1920s.
Even today, his work – especially the vast mythology he created around the winged octopus-like creature Cthulhu who waits under the waves for the day when he can “bring the Earth again beneath his sway” – remains incredibly popular. Lovecraft’s short stories and novels are constantly in print and there is an enormous community of fans who devour any new adaptation of his work, whether it be a graphic novel or a new book pitting Sherlock Holmes against Lovecraft’s elder gods.
But Lovecraft, who died in 1937 aged just 46, was also an unabashed racist. A supporter of Hitler, he openly condoned lynching, used non-human races allegorically and negatively in his work, and once composed a poem called “On the creation of N-----s”, in which he referred to black people as “beasts”, “in semi-human figure, filled with vice”. He was also vehemently opposed to interracial relationships, writing that “anything is better than mongrelisation”.
Fans used to turn a blind eye to his unsavoury opinions, or argue that the man was separate from his work. But then in 2015 the organisers of the World Fantasy Award dropped their traditional prize of a bust of Lovecraft for the winner, after a campaign by authors, and ever since, literary supporters have been struggling to find a way to square their love for the writer’s brilliant creations with his poisonous prejudices.
Now a new HBO drama series has come up with a stylish solution to the conundrum. Lovecraft Country, which follows the journey of a young Korean War veteran and bookish sci-fi and fantasy fan, Atticus “Tic” Freeman, through the deeply segregated US of 1955, is simultaneously an exploration of Lovecraft’s fantastical imagination and a sharp social commentary on his vile views. And if there are shades of the recent race/horror films Get Out or Us, that’s to be expected, with those films’ creator, Jordan Peele, serving as an executive producer alongside J J Abrams and writer Misha Green.
This Lovecraft Country is thus beset by both the ghoulish, tentacled monsters of Fifties horror flicks, and the human monstrosities of that decade’s segregated, Jim Crow society. Atticus, having fought for his country in Korea, must sit at the back of the bus on his return home. Restaurants and lunch counters are far from welcoming. White supremacists and secret societies ride high, supported by violently racist police officers.
“It would p--- [Lovecraft] off perfectly to know that there is now a series that has his name that is about black folks and gives black folks space to talk about and explore who they are in their history,” says Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Hippolyta Black, Atticus’s adventure-hungry aunt.
Thirty-year-old Jonathan Majors, who plays Atticus, is equally pleased with the project. The drama is also some form of cosmic justice; his grandfather was a veteran of the Korean War and victimised on his return to America. Pulling up at a petrol station in his native Dallas, Texas, one day, Majors, who was only six at the time, saw ‘big Andy’ as he was known, “get bullied by a group of white men, who called him a n-----. And I saw the rage on his face as he put us kids back in the truck and drove us to the farm,” he says.
“To see your hero compromised, and not because of anything he did or said, but because of the way he looked, that’s when I realised, ‘OK, we’re different’, and once you learn something like that you can’t unlearn it.”
Falling somewhere between a series and an anthology, with individual episodic stories underneath a larger narrative arc, the engine of the show is Atticus’s journey through a mysterious area of northeastern America in an attempt to track down his errant, alcoholic father, Montrose (Michael K Williams), who survived the Tulsa massacre of 1921, before moving to Chicago’s historically black and poor South Side.
The series does not stint on the Lovecraftian schlock horror, but it is the witty, self-awareness that is the real draw. As well as skewering HP’s racism, the drama has characters wrestle with the work of other problematic authors, including Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs (who described Africans in the jungle as having “huge mouths and flabby hanging lips”), and Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, who has also been accused of racism.
“I think it’s important to be aware of who these artists are in their entirety,” says Jurnee Smollett, who plays Letitia (Leti) Dandridge, Atticus’s childhood friend. “What you choose to do with that, how and whether their art impacts you, that is the individual’s choice, but you cannot be ignorant to who they were.”
Lovecraft Country seems almost impossibly well timed, launching as it does in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. But its creator, Green, has asserted that she was talking about “the same things and the same themes” four years ago in her period thriller Underground, about the Underground Railroad of secret routes used by slaves to escape into free states and Canada in the 19th century. “Now, I feel like there are more people aware of what’s going on who didn’t have to be aware of it before,” she has said.
British actress Wunmi Mosaku, who plays Ruby, Leti’s hustler sister, is one of few non-Americans in the almost all-black cast. “In the UK, we don’t talk about racism enough,” she says. “I think we’re just now becoming open.” While some have claimed that the UK’s history is not so problematic as that of the US, she would beg to differ.
“I feel like I’ve been gaslit my whole life up until this moment, because people wouldn’t acknowledge racism,” she asserts. “They wouldn’t acknowledge that they won’t see you for this role, that you won’t get this job. It gets hidden behind class and other things.”
And she believes the context in which the show is landing, on both sides of the pond, is significant. “It still would have been watched, but would it have actually been digested and absorbed in the same way? I’m not sure.”
“The tragedy of our nation is this could have been released on any weekend, any month of any year since 1619, and the themes explored within Lovecraft Country would be relevant,” adds Smollett. “The reckoning we are in right now is that we cannot fight it on our own. We have to fight it together.”
Lovecraft Country will be available weekly on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from Monday