Racism Is America’s Lovecraftian Horror
In 2020, the real terror arises from realizing there’s no good ‘normal’ to get back to
The weekend that Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country premiered on HBO, a house listing went viral on Twitter. The property is, at first, lovely, with marble countertops and hardwood floors. It’s old-fashioned but not rundown. Then you keep clicking through the realtor’s photos, and it happens: A door in the kitchen opens and you are descended, slide by slide, into a vast metal-lined basement, filled with rows and rows of jail cells. The floors are stained with something that might be puke, the metal toilets are covered by with police tape, the locks on the cell doors, as per the listing, still work.
The house was once the town sheriff’s appointed living quarters, back when the sheriff was expected to live on the grounds of the jail. Generations of families, most likely, ate their breakfast and read to their children and kissed each other good night with the groans and shouts of prisoners audible through their walls. I thought of that house often, watching Lovecraft Country, and during one scene in particular. Our protagonists, a Black family taking a road trip through rural America in the 1950s — Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), nephew Atticus (Jonathan Majors), and family friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) — have stopped into a reportedly Black-friendly diner, which George hopes to write up for his “Safe Negro” travel guides. The staff are white and unfriendly; the paint looks too fresh. When Atticus moves a floor tile with his foot, he sees burn marks on the floor. The old diner was burned down for serving Black families, the old owner is missing or dead, and the new staff are planning to kill them.
The horror of these scenes is both Lovecraftian and deeply American. (“Why is the White House white?” Atticus asks, right before the big reveal.) It’s been said that in a standard horror story, something “abnormal” occurs and has to be set right: A serial killer is set loose on a bunch of teens and has to be killed or captured; a demon enters a girl’s body and has to be exorcised. In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Lovecraftian genre he inspired, the fear arises from the realization that “normal” never existed. The universe is a fundamentally bad place, governed by…