A Known Horror By Jaimie K. Wilson
A reaction to HBO’s Lovecraft Country SEASON 1 EPISODE 1: Sundown
I don’t do horror. My mind is too potent. At 45, I still haven’t recovered from Aliens, Jaws, and The Swarm, and I’m uber repelled by bugs that burrow into your body thanks to The Wrath of Khan. So, when my editor asked me to write about HBO’s new Lovecraft Country series, you would think I’d take a hard pass.
Because this writer had not read any H.P. Lovecraft. I knew he was a famous writer, but that was it. And when I asked what type of show it was, my editor replied, “Black drama.” So, I said, “Sure!” because it’s kind of rad getting paid to talk about TV.
Did I know H.P. Lovecraft was famous for horror? Uh-uh. Did I know he was a virulent racist, terrified, and disgusted by the integration of blacks and whites? I did not. Was I aware that he had also penned a poem titled “On the Creation of Niggers,” with God placing them somewhere between Man and Beast? I was blessedly unaware.
I sat down to the first episode of Lovecraft Country, a series crafted from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, with a double dose of trepidation. I had not only agreed to watch an ENTIRE season of horror, but I had apparently also signed up to binge on a buttload of old-fashioned American racism – 1950s style. I get plenty of this from the daily news. It’s not something I tend to seek out in entertainment because, hey, I’m a single mom during a pandemic, and America is currently broken. I’m careful about what I watch and listen to. Too much can wreck you and I have kids to take care of.
So, I buckled in for Lovecraft Country with dread. And it was warranted. After a brief WTF intro full of space lasers and alien carnage, we wake from the dream of our main character, Atticus, to find ourselves seated back in the colored section of a bus. We’ve been here before.
When that bus breaks down and a pickup arrives to cart all the white folks off, we know the two black characters won’t be getting on – because we’ve been here before. We see our Atticus look at the back of the truck, where the white women are stepping aboard. We know what’s coming.
But it doesn’t.
There is no confrontation scene. There is no, ‘Now, hey there, boy…” It doesn’t get any dialogue. It’s so assumed, it doesn’t get seen at all. The next shot is simply an older black woman and Atticus walking with luggage past rows and rows of corn. We didn’t get that scene because everyone knew what was going to happen, what did happen, what does happen.
And as a POC, that’s what makes this so uncomfortable. You sit there, not only knowing what black folks went through back then, but what they continue to suffer in the present. You sit there and watch the characters check off a road safety list: spare parts, first aid, places known for safe passage – and it’s still something black people deeply understand. You sit there, watching, waiting for the inevitable, knowing the old song and dance that has to unfold. And when a white sheriff in a sundown town gleefully tails Atticus, his Uncle George, and Letitia to the border as the sun sinks low, it might as well be you behind the wheel.
If you’re black.
My grandfather grew up in a sundown town. I know that brand of fear far better than I knew him. I watch these folks trying to get to the county’s edge before sundown (without speeding) and I hate this show. I hate each terrible, slow second of it. And then they make the county line and I don’t know whether to throw up or cry.
It doesn’t matter, of course. More cops are waiting for them as soon as they cross the county line, and they are stopped and gleefully hauled off into the woods. And it is at that point – as our black characters plea face down in the dirt, the darkness pierced by chittering cries – that the horror bursts forth into our story.
Amorphous, slavering creatures rip through the police, sparing our crew from lynching. And as the survivors desperately scramble for cover, I suddenly realize I feel much more at ease.
Because I am far less terrified by upright, leech-faced monsters that gobble your guts than a white sheriff in a sundown town.
I thought that the racism and horror would be two edges of the same blade to cut me. Instead, the horror is somehow a relief. It counterbalances the racism, though the monsters come after our protagonists as well, and it is a strange thing… An odd comfort.
Lovecraftian fiction has become a term used to describe a subgenre of cosmic horror where the unknown crashes into the known and renders everything fubar. For H.P. Lovecraft, the raging terror and filth-encrusted disgust that bubbles forth in his works is intrinsically tied to his personal hate and fear. Some of his works were used to antagonize and frighten minority communities, so it feels like some kind of tasty karmic retribution that American racism, in this story, is far more disturbing (and fear-inducing) than the cosmic unknown.
Will Atticus and his companions become characters defined by more than their regret and fear? Who knows? But for now, I’ll keep watching and sipping tea.
The first child of a white mother and Black Japanese father, Jaimie K. Wilson felt she grew up in the margins of mainstream society. A sense of displacement fueled the search for her own identify, which is why her writing often centers around the quest to know oneself and how strongly someone’s history – when not taken from them – can guide their future.
Jaimie became a newspaper reporter after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1998 and won several SPJ awards for features on race, culture and family. She was also the recipient of an artist residency for poetry at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. A single mother of two, Jaimie now works as a freelance writer, contributing articles, essays and features to a variety of publications both for herself and various clients. Jaimie is currently working on her first adult fantasy novel, which she hopes to complete sometime before her children drive her completely insane.