Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff. HarperCollins, 2016. 9780062292063.
In Atticus Turner’s teen years, his father argued with him about reading H. P. Lovecraft stories, telling him that he shouldn’t read anything by a racist author. Atticus looked to his uncle George, who sympathized but gave Atticus some perspective on his father’s anger. (He makes a comment that will definitely resonate with readers: “But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect,” and when Atticus asks him why he doesn’t get as angry, “I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes. Sometimes they stab me in the heart.”)
Now it’s 1954, and Atticus Turner is back from the Korean War. He gets a letter from his father urging him to come to Massachusetts to learn more about his mother’s family. The letter appears to have come from a town called Arkham: the home of the nightmarish godlike creatures, ominous occultists, and corpse reanimators of Lovecraft’s stories. Atticus knows it’s a fictional place (and George is pretty sure it’s actually Ardham), but his father was last seen with a white stranger in a flashy car, which doesn’t seem like a good sign for a black man in 1950s Chicago.
Uncle George, now the editor of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and strong-willed family friend Letitia drive north with Atticus to rescue his father. Their journey is perilous: in Jim Crow era America they face sundown towns and the imminent threat of murder by the police. The new owners of a cafe George wants to review for the guide seem to have burnt out the previous owner and are ready to do violence to them. The possibility of facing down lethal extradimensional creatures and dark magic pales in comparison.
This starts a series of intertwined stories of Atticus and Letitia’s families getting caught up in a multi-generational feud as leaders of the Ardham and Chicago lodges of the Order of the Ancient Dawn struggle for control of vast magical powers. Like social an economic power, magic is firmly in the hands of old white New Englanders, and they use it against black people in similar ways. The ghost haunting a house and the house’s white neighbors both want the new black owner gone, a ledger detailing the money owed to an enslaved ancestor is ransomed for a powerful book of spells, a woman discouraged from studying astronomy finds a portal to other planets: each story combines everyday oppression with spooky otherworldly powers and high-stakes adventure.
I picked Lovecraft Country up because of the premise, then I couldn’t put it down: the creepy atmosphere and perilous battles kept me turning pages.