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Lovecraft Country Is An Unsatisfying Jumble Of Metaphors, Tones And Genres

Lovecraft Country review — for all its profound depictions of the ache of segregation, the show falters in its efforts to use horror and the supernatural as metaphors for racism and oppression. Episode 5 has just aired. 

Lovecraft Country review — an American horror drama television series developed by Misha Green, is now halfway through its debut season. Adapting the 1920s supernatural tales of H.P Lovecraft to the segregated America of the 1950s, the show tries, with some success, to explore themes of prejudice, destiny and deliverance. HBO‘s Lovecraft Country certainly looks great: the cinematography and set design are excellent.

Watch: Lovecraft Country Radio: Strange Case | Episode 5

This podcast is produced by HBO in conjunction with Pineapple Street Studios | Lovecraft Country Radio, hosts Ashley C. Ford and Shannon Houston discuss Episode 5: “Strange Case.” Eric Eddings, host of The Nod Show and For Colored Nerds, joins the conversation to discuss how black male anger is portrayed in the episode. | Video Credits: HBO
Lovecraft Country Episode 5 ‘Strange Case’ A Show That Can’t Find Its Thematic Footing.

The interiors of tenement buildings and working class housing, especially, are well rendered, evocative of the 1950s stage plays of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and, perhaps more relevantly, James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr Charlie and August Wilson’s Fences. The block parties and street culture, the period furniture, record collections and the rhythms of domestic life are all nicely realised, if perhaps a touch stylised. 

Lovecraftian horror is less about gore than it is visceral experience of fear, particularly fear of the unknown, and it is this dynamic that charges the show, where the black experience of systemic oppression and the threat of violence are brought to the fore.

The ever-present strain of prejudice, the threat of altercations, informs the series to such an extent that the viewer begins to feel a kind of desensitization, and this is the show’s greatest strength: lending insight into the experience of how numbing such a prevailing mood might effect someone over the course of a lifetime. The banality and pettiness of low-level racism, the constant slights and inferences, even the dismissive looks, begin to resonate more and more, becoming the very medium of the character’s lives. This is, to a surprising degree, educational and illuminating, and, of course, evokes contemporary tensions.

Lovecraft Country Episode 5 ‘Strange Case’ mixes its metaphors.

Layers of Lovecraftian Horror  

It is an unusual thing to overlay on the distinctly staid, distinctly white, occult writings of the very nativist H. P. Lovecraft, whose output was mostly in the 1920s.   

Much of Lovecraft’s writing was full of science fiction and horror staples, usually to appease the editors of the pulp and genre magazines he was submitting pieces to. Lovecraft Country draws on the characters, settings and themes of Lovecraftian horror, with many pastiche elements of horror and fantasy, and it’s here where Lovecraft Country becomes a little jarring and problematic. 

Pastiche and genre elements are interwoven with serious subject matter: hauntings, seances and exorcisms mix with Baptist hymns and religious reverence and deliverance; jump-scares and body-horror featuring ghosts and ghouls mix with more visceral depictions of racial physical assault; the colourfully supernatural mixes with gritty urban realism; pursuit by fantastical gothic creatures mixes with more period-conscious pursuits by prejudiced sheriffs and officers; narratives of social oppression are mixed with melodramatic tales of fate and prophecy; the fanciful power structures of supernatural cults mix with depictions of the very serious historical entrenched power structures of white America. 

Rules of Engagement

As a viewer, you have to constantly adjust your engagement – at one moment invested in the socially conscious depictions of prejudice and social struggle, and the next moment taking in the somewhat camp and melodramatic supernatural material.Lovecraft Country – DKODING Review

The constant swaying between drama and lighter genre entertainment makes for a somewhat uneven and unsettled experience. Neither of these two aspects really enhances the other. In the midst of moments of historical, social commentary about the African American experience at the height of segregation, we are supposed to maintain, in the back of our minds, the background threat of a cabal of Aryan occultists, hellbent on gaining access to the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps the intended effect here is to use the disembodiment, the surrealism and the trauma of Jim Crow violence, and the cloaked power structures of white power, and transpose it into a higher metaphorical key of the occult: the macabre as metaphor for the vicious spirit of segregation, its rituals and incantations always just below the surface. This would be in keeping with the Jordan Peele notions of race and the horror genre. The problem is, as viewers, we’re never really quite sure how deeply to invest in such metaphors and ideas. 

Lovecraft Country | Season 1 | Episode 6 Promo | HBO max

Lovecraft Country | Season 1 | Episode 6 Promo | HBO max