Once in awhile I’ll come across a book that stirs mixed feelings in me. Not in terms of whether it is a good story or not, but in the range of emotions it creates in me. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country brought up a tangle of feelings as I read the novel and tried to come to terms with the messages I took from it. Even as I now write about I find myself bewildered and frustrated with it.
The book takes place in early 1950’s America and centers on an extended family of African-Americans who have to deal with all sorts of monstrosities trying to destroy them. They are subject to unrelenting, furious racism, but must also resist the machinations of privileged white people and the cosmic powers that lie beneath the surface of our pitiful reality. In a series of linked stories the characters fight for their dignity and rights against oppressors mortal and supernatural. Ruff uses the pulp absurdism of Lovecraftian horror to magnify the effects and experience of racism in the era.
But the saturation of the book with pulp sensibilities and Lovecraftian dread left me ambivalent. Ruff writes in a clear, sometimes breezy style that never stops to more deeply engage the action of the stories or the implications of what happen to the characters. It is a literal black-and-white world with little complexity or nuance. Some of the characters, including the antagonist (who is a flat-out villain), are undeveloped, narrative elements going through the motions. The best story for me was that of Letitia, one of the main characters, struggling with new white neighbors and a haunted house.Letitia’s characters comes out wonderfully in her actions, and other characters look half-formed in contrast. Certainly this could be considered a Lovecraftian trope in itself, but Ruff’s purpose seems to be to tweak and sabotage the Lovecraftian aspects of his book. But what emerges seems facile and rote.
It’s amusing and odd to see characters react to the Lovecraftian aspects with resignation or eye-rolling. Despite some interesting situations the overall tone is strangely bland. Ruff works to ensure that his protagonists have ample agency, but this often dissipates any tension the book builds. There is an underlying conceit that dealing with constant racism has, in a way, prepared them for dealing with the existential ridiculousness of white men in robes praying for even more power from the beyond. The contrast of the real-world horrors of racism with the cosmic horror of Elder Gods and portals undermines the impact of both on the reader.
I find this frustrating as a reader, There is much more drama and meaning that this story could provide. But Ruff shies away from deep emotion or reflection and creates stories that have some entertainment value but feel unfulfilling overall. A few of the stories read like treatments rather then finished tales. Ruff has significant issues running through this book, but seems to keep them at some distance with the tone and the flattening of occurrences. There’s much more here that could be developed in the interplay of cosmic horror and earthly torment.
John H. Stevens is a writer, bookseller, and reviewer from Ithaca, New York.
Categories: Book Reviews