The Nuances of Language and Symbolism That Drive “Lovecraft Country”

HBO’s Lovecraft Country is a gem stocked full of symbolic references that appeal to horror and science fiction fans, while speaking on the evils of racism.

HBO premiered it’s brand new, drama horror show- Lovecraft Country– on August 16, 2020. Based on Matt Ruff’s eponymous novel, Lovecraft Country follows a young, Black man, named Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), as he learns about his family history, searches for truth, and battles against mythical and every day monsters.

Written by Misha Green, the television show creates an immovable life force with its story and pacing as it takes our main characters through the terrifying mazes of Jim Crow-era America and a secret, witch cult named the Sons of Adam. What really elevates the show to new, heightened levels is the incorporation of symbolic references that add on to an already linguistically and thematically nuanced storyline. It makes you think. It keeps you on your toes, finding new information and Easter eggs with each re-watch.

The first episode, “Sundown,” introduces you to Tic- the main character who is a young, Korean War vet and a lover of pulp fiction novels. Pulp: a genre made up of lurid and exploitative stories that usually involve one of the main characters being a hero. Tic enjoys immersing himself in stories of science fiction and horror, where the heroes get to go on adventures, defy the insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, and save the day. A hobby such as this is ridiculed and demeaned by his father, because of the stereotypes and racism shrouding the Black characters of these stories. For Tic, however, losing himself in his favorite books takes him to a world and puts him in a role seemingly impossible to a young, Black man in America. The first reference provided to audiences is a book that Tic is reading- A Princess of Mars, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story tells of a young man, John Carter, who is transported to Mars, becomes a hero, and gets the girl. The rest of the episode (and the series, for that matter) continues this exploration into pulp-y heroism, as well as a deep-dive into ancestry and familial ties- starting with the relationship between Tic and his father.

Tic is returning to his home town because his father Montrose (played by Michael K. Williams), has gone missing. So he goes on a trip through sundown America with his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) to find him. Another symbolic reference seen in the episode is The Outsiders and Others, a collection of stories written by HP Lovecraft. Many of Lovecraft’s popular fantasies and creatures dwell in this book, but one that definitely stands out the most in regard to the show is the tale of the Outsider. “I know not where I was born…” The Outsider tells the tale of an individual who has no memory of himself nor where he comes from. He lives alone in a mansion castle, where his only connection to humanity is through books. Tired of his prison, he breaks free into civilization just to find he will always be an outsider. “I know not where I was born…” It’s important to reiterate this line from the story because of the show’s inspection into personal history.

Image still from Lovecraft Country- Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, and Vance B. Courtney staring at the camera.
Image courtesy of HBO

Showing her dedication to nuance, Misha Green brings in another work from HP Lovecraft. It’s mentioned by Tic as talks about how he was forced to memorize Lovecraft’s less notable piece- On the Creation of N-ers– as punishment by his father. This particular poem written by Lovecraft is his idea of the creation of Black people. They were an afterthought of God- less than human and a bridge between man and animal. The brilliance of a show that uses the excitement of the horror and sci-fi genres to explore racism, elevates to a new level when you consider it’s delve into Lovecraftian lore and his own abhorrent racism.

As the first few episodes continue, so does this accomplished nuance. Audiences experience racist sheriffs and monstrous shoggoths- gigantic, vampiric hound dogs. The word “sundown” becomes a double entendre, representing two dangers of the night- racist towns known for murdering Black folks after sundown and creatures that lurk at night. Both devouring outsiders and tourists into nonexistence. Scenes of car chases and escaping the grasps of trigger-happy white boys are just as intense as those with ghosts and boogeymen. The lines bordering the definition of “monster” are blurred. Fear is found in the real life, sometimes more than the fiction. Why do you need to tell the difference between blood thirsty racists and face-eating mongrels when they both want you gone, dead, and bleeding? What’s the difference between either of them murdering you in the woods at night? That’s what really takes this show to new heights! It’s in a whole new masterclass of storytelling, taking from all that we admire about horror and its symbolic themes, and bringing it to life.

The exploration of ancestry is also done so well, especially in episode 2- “Whitey’s on the Moon.” As audiences learn more about the Sons of Adam and its founder, Titus Braithwhite- the “notoriously kind” slave owner- they are also taken into a lesson of Tic’s own family history. Which is something he did not even know about, himself. His brandishing of “outsider” takes on a new meaning. There was a subtlety used to present the topic, allowing the audience to make the connections on their own before the big reveal, and it makes it all the more impactful. I felt that the magnitude of the evilness was shown without bluntly saying so. It gives you the chance to ruminate the horrors on your own. It’s a path I hope to see explored more, as ancestry and family history continue to be a driving force of the show. Traditions from the past are broken, and new paths seem to be forging for our characters.

Image still from Lovecraft Country- Jurnee Smollett as Leti carrying a bat and getting ready to break the windows of a car.
Image courtesy of HBO

Episode 3, “Holy Ghost,” seems to take on its own kind of climax centering around the show’s favorite gal- Leti. As she battles poltergeists and violent, white neighbors in her new home, her own familial ties are explored a little more. Perhaps the greatest display of nuance is shown in this episode. Leti’s home lies on a plane, where both the mythical and the realistic enter to attack. Jurnee Smollett dominated the episode. Her acting and passion of each scene takes on a singular entity that moves the episode forward. I feel that there is so much more to her character and the others that have yet to be explored. The depth of their relationships and history have barely scratched the surface.

There’s honestly so much more that can be investigated with just the past few episodes… much more than I have even talked about here. The lore and the direction of the story seem to be limitless. There also seem to be hints of influence from other directors and writers, like Jordan Peele, weaved in its seams. The use of classic and modern music in every episode came off as strange to me at the very beginning, but as the show continued, it seemed to modernize it in a relevant way. The context no longer seemed like that of a time long ago, but something that could easily happen tomorrow. The acting from each person gives you so much to love and cling on to with the characters. Jonathan Majors continues to be the heart of the story, but last episode, Michael K. Williams seemed to really steal the spotlight. They all have so much to offer. Every aspect pairs perfectly with all symbolism of the writing. I can really see this being HBO’s next big thing. I’m only more excited to see how more tables turn and how more nuances are discussed (especially with the women of the show.)

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