Tic dreams of a war with Cthulhu

Lovecraft Country S1E1: Small-Minded Monsters Meet at “Sundown”

Did you just watch Lovecraft Country S1E1? It was great, wasn’t it! I’ll be here for the next ten weeks, putting the pieces of the puzzle together if you care to join me? OK, let’s start with a little background information.

Whether you’ve read any of his stories or not, you probably recognise the name H.P. Lovecraft as one of the most famous horror fantasy writers ever. He created the creature Cthulhu (spoken like Kluhl Hloo) which spawned many stories within the Cthulhu mythos. While he had a great imagination and talent for writing about monsters and aliens, he also had some fantastical ideas about people of colour, genuinely believing that they were beasts, and not human. His work is littered with blatant white supremacy and racism, for example in his 1912 poem, On The Creation of N*****s. 

It is a beautiful thing then that Misha Green, a black woman, wrote this teleplay based on the novel Lovecraft Country, written by Matt Ruff, which turns the mirror on H.P. Lovecraft, and all racists, showing them for the monsters they are. In Lovecraft Country racism is independent of the dark and fantastical and is in many ways scarier than the beasts lurking out there in the New England countryside. Monsters are no merely metaphors, even if some wear badges while others have tentacles. The monsters are real.

To counter every monster, you need a hero, and that title falls to Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (Jonathan Majors). An African American army vet who had been serving in the Korean War, Tic journeys home across the South to look for his estranged father, Montrose, who has gone missing. We’re yet to meet Montrose, but he will be played by Michael Kenneth Williams which is always a treat.  The year isn’t explicitly given, but the Korean War ended in July 1953, so it is somewhere around then.

lovecraft country baseball player

Straight off the bat, we experience what living in America as a black person in the segregated 1950s was like, and it’s not pretty. Tic shares the back of the bus with an older black woman. He sleeps and dreams of the war, of killing Korean soldiers, then the dream blooms from black and white to glorious technicolour—the kind described in H.P. Lovecraft stories. And that’s precisely what his dream is. Tic, the hero of his subconscious, is a massive fan of the author, despite Lovecraft’s clear hatred for people like himself. This, in itself, tells us a lot about Atticus as a person. He is forgiving and level headed, and able to separate the man from his stories—which feels like a suggestion for us, the audience, to heed too. After all, Lovecraft is long dead, and he’d be turning in his grave after watching this. There is some solace to be taken from that.

Atticus’ dream goes on to depict alien craft shooting fire at the soldiers in battle, UFOs lit up in green in the night sky, a beautiful red-skinned alien/woman projecting down to lure him into her arms, when a massive, million-toothed alien beast threatens to destroy them. Was that the first Cthulhu sighting? It doesn’t really count as it was in a dream, and a baseball player and his bat annihilate it, so not exactly what we’d expect from a Great Old One.

The dream comes to an abrupt end as the bus breaks down. Tic’s mind is filled with war, women, baseball and science fiction, like any man of his age in the ’50s. But from the way he talks to the woman from the bus—as they’re forced to walk the rest of their journey, when the truck that comes to collect the passengers has no room for segregation, and therefore no black people—you can tell that this guy is special. Perhaps he doesn’t know what makes him special yet himself, but it’s there,  along with some secrets that he’s carrying.

Tic reads a book while waiting for a bus

Tic eventually arrives back at his home on the south side of Chicago. Here we meet his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and Aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), a couple still very much in love despite their years. George publishes an essential travel guide for African Americans, which while not explicitly stated to be, is likely a reference to The Green Book, an annual segregation era guide book, which was published in the United States during the Jim Crow era of 1936-1956.

the negro motorist green book

The guides were a survival tool for people of colour as road trips were fraught with dangers because of racial segregation, racial profiling by police, the phenomenon of travellers just “disappearing,” and the existence of numerous sundown towns. Sundown towns, which incredulously still exist today (though perhaps not so blatantly), were towns, cities, suburbs or even entire counties that would not allow black people to be there after dusk. Sundown status meant more than just being unable to live in these towns. Any black people who entered or were found in sundown towns after sunset were subject to harassment, threats, and violence, including lynching.

With all this in mind, Uncle George is a brave man. His job leads him to scope the country finding out where is and isn’t safe to travel to or through as a black person, putting his own life in danger and likely saving the lives of many. Hippolyta would like to take the trip herself, but George puts her off, telling her it is too dangerous. While this is true, it feels as though there is more to George’s reluctance than meets the eye. There is quite probably a bit of misogyny in there, despite his love and respect for his wife and her strength, but I have no doubt he’ll learn a lesson or two from the women around him.

Tic and Uncle George discuss Montrose’s disappearance, and it becomes clear that Montrose is known for going on benders and being propped up at the bar for days on end, but this time he is nowhere to be found. The reason that Tic has returned home from Florida is that he received a letter from his father stating that he is going hunting for some insight to Tic’s late mother’s ancestry. From the grimace on George’s face, it appears that he might know more than he lets on about this situation, but doesn’t really want his nephew to get involved. Tic picks up a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s book of short stories, The Outsider and Others, from the shelf and sees that the spine reads Arkham publishers. He believes that his father wrote that he was heading towards Arkham, but George corrects him and tells him the letter reads “Ardham”.

the outsider book by Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider“, written in 1921 and published in Weird Tales in 1926, is a tale written from the point of view of a mysterious, miserable and lonely individual who has been holed up in his castle for as long as he can remember. He decides one day to leave the darkness to bathe in light and socialise. After climbing up his tower, he arrives at ground level and makes his way to a party at another castle that he finds “maddeningly familiar”. As he enters the partygoers cry out in fear and flee. The man searches for what frightened the guests, trips and falls into the ghoul. It feels cold to the touch and smooth like glass, and it is the most horrific thing he’s ever seen. It is, of course, the reflection of the man himself in the mirror. He tries to crawl back to his underworld castle/grave but can’t get back in, and so remains an Outsider for the rest of time.

Some critics have suggested that the story is autobiographical as Lovecraft had a low opinion of himself and particularly his looks, which probably stemmed from him overhearing his mother tell at least one person about her son’s “hideous face”. Ironically, this melancholy gothic tale speaks more to the plight of African Americans, especially during the Jim Crow era, who were deliberately kept away from rich white people, were looked upon as if they were monsters, and were absolutely treated as outsiders in the country that was just as much theirs. I wonder if Lovecraft ever realised the hypocrisy in his writing when he spoke of the fear of the party when they came across someone who didn’t look exactly like them, but was, underneath it all, just a man with feelings and the same needs as anyone else. That Lovecraft could empathise with and write so poetically about a walking corpse, but not that of living men, women and children purely because of their skin colour is absurd when you think about it.

Back on the streets of Chicago, there’s a block party going on. Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku) is getting the crowd jiving as she belts out some rock ‘n’ roll. You can really feel the heat of the summer night air and feel the jubilance of the revellers. Enter Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis; glamorous and gorgeous and with a camera in hand. It turns out she’s Ruby’s sister and Ruby isn’t best pleased to see Leti, who has shown up from nowhere having been AWOL for some time, leaving Ruby to pick up their mother’s funeral bill and having to move into a rougher part of town due to lack of funds.

Lettie smiles in a crowd

You can look at Leti (Jurnee Smollett) in two ways. She’s either unreliable, with her head in the clouds always chasing a dream, or she’s a bodacious woman who refuses to work for the privileged white and is determined to make a better life for herself no matter what society says otherwise. I prefer the latter, but I understand her sibling’s frustrations. With Ruby only allowing her two nights stay at her place, Leti decides to move on to her brother’s place and joins Tic on his journey to find his father, and Uncle George on his travel guide trip. Leti and Tic are childhood friends, but there is perhaps a small spark of attraction between them—they both check their grown-up selves out more than once, but has Tic left someone in Korea?

Before they leave, Tic does what he can to find out about his father’s last known movements in the town. Sammy, the local bar owner, tells him that he saw him with a white male, who wore an expensive suit, perhaps a lawyer, and that they both got into a very grand silver car that drove off rapidly. That silver car also happens to be following Tic on his journey. Whoever he’s with and wherever he is, is Montrose there willingly? If he’s searching for his late wife’s legacy what can a white person do to help or perhaps hinder? What big secret is being protected?

Tic visits his father’s apartment and finds a book, The Count of Monte Cristo, with a picture of his family in between the pages. From the dents in the wall, it is clear that Tic and his father haven’t always gotten along, but it seems that Montrose loves his family very much. Does he drink because of his heartbreak? Or his estranged relationship with Tic? The fact that he wrote to his son now is curious—he wanted him to come looking for him, why? Is he in danger and needs to be saved, or is he luring Tic somewhere?

Montrose has left maps in his apartment, which he has marked with images of monsters. It appears that Montrose, like his brother, has been making a travel guide, but it’s not so much the racists that he’s plotting on the map but monsters (though the Ku Klux Klan are highlighted in areas on one page, and they are most certainly monsters). Tic sits on his father’s bed and makes a long-distance phone call to Korea. A woman answers, she knows it is Tic on the other end, but he doesn’t speak, as much as he wants to. He looks pained. Is she a girlfriend? An ex? In Tic’s dream, the fantasy woman who comes down from the spaceship has an Asian look to her. Is this the girl on the phone?

George, Lettie and Tic at a diner

The scenery is truly stunning as the trio drive across the Midwest, looking for the mysterious town of Ardham, which no longer exists on any map, but did two centuries earlier. Amidst the beauty lies the ugliness of the blatant racism that existed at that time. There are separate queues for whites and blacks, with the latter having to wait until every white person is served before they get a look in—if they get service at all. Posters depict the happiness of affluent white families living the American Dream, a concept that is impossible for any person of colour to achieve. The only partially positive advertising of a black person is for Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes, a mammy caricature, and her positivity was a lie. From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks—in this case, black women—were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laughter, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery. There were many more caricatures, which are now on display at The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which educates people about the various types of racism. It is an eye-opener and truly appalling. Perhaps even more alarming is that only now, in June 2020, have Quaker Oats who produce Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes, recognised that the branding is a racial stereotype and needs to be replaced. This was after the brand came under criticism recently amid protests across the United States and around the world sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

a line of black people queueing for a bus under a car ad for white peopleThe gang reach a town called Simmonsville in the Midwest. Tic gets a bad feeling as soon as they arrive and a German Shepherd trained to sniff out black people barks aggressively at their car, alerting the locals to their presence. George had a tip that there was a friendly cafe called Lydia’s they could have some food at, but when they arrive the name has changed. The white customers and serving staff look horrified when they enter. Tic soon works out that the cafe has been newly painted white, and that Lydia had been burned out of her business. Leti overhears the counter assistant on the phone calling for help, and the three run for their lives; Leti finally getting her chance to be behind the wheel, chased by locals with shotguns who literally run them out of town. Just when they think their luck is out, the mysterious silver car comes hurtling down a parallel road, pulling up in front of the hillbillies and making their car flip up into the air, killing all on board instantly.

white police point guns at lettie, george and Tic

From out of the silver car steps a stunning young woman. Blonde hair and blue eyes, she’s an Aryan Nation poster girl, at least on the outside. But she’s helping our heroes, why? We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover obviously, but this is a woman adorned in white privilege and clearly has a lot of money. Is she friend or foe? I noticed that when she pulled her car up to block the truck that was stalking Tic and friends, that the vehicle flipped way before it reached the silver car as if there was an invisible shield around it somehow. Alternatively, it could just be that the driver slammed the breaks on so hard that the truck flipped. It’s probably the latter, but I do love a good mystery.

Thankful that they’ve made it out alive, Tic, Leti and George drive to Leti’s brother’s house, and he has found where Ardham should be on the map, which is in the middle of nowhere. Marvin (Demetrius Grosse) interestingly shares the same surname as Ruby: Baptiste, whereas Leti’s is Lewis. Does she have a different mother or father to her siblings? Or is/was she married perhaps?  Marvin has also discovered some worrying information about where they are headed, in that the local Sheriff, Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris) is a white supremacist and several black people have just gone missing in his territory.

A fun evening turns sour when Leti and Marvin get into an almighty row. Their yelling is hard to ignore, and it brings up the topic of how Uncle George didn’t protect Tic when he was younger from his father’s rage. It is something that George clearly regrets, but he sticks by his decision not to get involved with family issues that are not his business. The next morning, Leti joins Tic and George back on the road. Neither of her siblings want her in their homes.

On the search for Ardham, they, unfortunately, bump into Sheriff Hunt, who Marvin warned them about. They have to get out of that town before sundown or risk by punishment death. They can’t race away because they’d be breaking the local speed limit, which would give the Sheriff an excuse to arrest them. Slowly they battle against the lowering sun, in a scene that reminded me of Coppola’s DraculaThey meet the rail crossing with just seconds to spare, but they’ve been tricked. The new territory they’ve just entered is also a sundown town. In fact, it’s a sundown county. They’re immediately stopped by the Sheriff’s men and dragged into the woods.

Imagine living like this, with the constant fear that you could be killed at any moment. Yes, Sheriff Hunt is a particularly nasty character, but even the more placid men of the law hold all the power. They could justify any reason to kill a black person and never face any consequences. Black lives mattered so little to the white men in charge of government and law enforcement that they were literally allowed to get away with murder. Not just in the Jim Crow South either. The sundown towns were scattered across the country from Ohio to Oregon. It wasn’t safe to be a black person anywhere in America during this era.

sign warning black people to go inside at sundown

Just when it looks as if they are going to get lynched a new opponent enters the ring. I don’t know what to call them, but when looking at H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters, the Shoggoth is perhaps the closest resemblance, purely for the number of eyes they have. But these beasts were not a mass of tentacles, more like trolls with a rabid dog attitude—just as Montrose had plotted on his atlas. Whatever they are, they are downright nasty. The majority of the Sheriff’s men are killed instantly as the beasts dive onto them, bite their heads off and tear up their limbs. Tic and Leti find shelter in a run-down log cabin which is very Evil Dead, but I guess you can’t be picky at a time like that. They are joined shortly afterwards by the evil Sheriff and one of his clan. He’s been bitten by a monster, and despite the fact that the enemy outside is far more dangerous than the people inside, he still can’t put away his hatred for them purely because of the colour of their skin. George finds his way to the cabin and shares his discovery that shining a light on the beasts prevents them from attacking. There’s a metaphor to be found in there.

Leti is sent by nasty Sheriff Hunt to get the car to blast the headlights at the creatures. In the meantime, Sheriff Hunt becomes even more evil as he, like a vampire, mutates into one of the creatures that bit him. These things definitely aren’t the sexy vampires I adore. They literally rip your throat out and tear you apart and they don’t care about your skin colour—these monsters are colourblind and afford white people no privilege at all. Leti saves the day by driving into the cabin with the lights on but they’re still surrounded and outnumbered. With that, a sharp long whistle is heard from somewhere in the trees, and the creatures all go home for their tea. These creatures are controlled by someone, and my bet is on the blonde.

But which blonde I hear you ask? Somehow, somewhere among the chaos, the team stumble across Ardham and wow, whoever lives there is wealthy, to say the least. The shell-shocked and exhausted gang make their way to the mansion covered in blood. After knocking the door, a blonde-haired blue-eyed man opens the door. He looks like a short imitation of Alexander Skarsgaard in True Blood, wearing a smoking jacket and cravat. He tells them that he’s been waiting for them and welcomes Tic home.

Well, a LOT has happened already, and this was just the first episode. I think we’re in for one hell of a ride folks. The show looks incredible; its colour palette and wide aspect shots are a treat for the eyes. The modern hip-hop score enriches the gravity of the experience and the acting is tremendous by the whole cast thus far. Yes, it feels like a play at times and I don’t mind that; it makes you feel like you’re immersed in a pulp fiction story from the ’50s.

sundown town lovecraft country

Join me same time next week, same place, for more adventures with Tic, Leti and George as they discover the horrors and the wonders of Lovecraft Country.

All images courtesy of HBO

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