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Bookends: A Black Family’s Occult Adventures in Nineteen-Fifties America January 31, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: A Black Family’s Occult Adventures in Nineteen-Fifties America

By Dan Davidson

lovecraft-couuntrySeptember 9, 2016

– 810 words –

 

Lovecraft Country

By Matt Ruff

Harper

384 pages

$29.49

e-book editions: $15.99

 

Given that Lovecraft Country is unrelentingly about the African-American experience in the United States during the 1950s, it surprised me to discover that Matt Ruff is not a Black man. This does not mean that he has committed a misappropriation of culture, but rather that he has produced a careful reflection on the problems faced by another race, using the framework of the science-fiction /horror adventure tales to do the job.

Maybe I need to explain the title of the novel and the way it’s structured. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror story writers in the history of the genre. No one who works in this genre can avoid having been influenced by him or by one of his contemporaries: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E, Howard and, in some cases, Ray Bradbury.

“The Call of Cthulhu” introduced the idea that Earth was once ruled by demonic elder gods, who were somehow banished from the planet, but are just itching to find a way back. Lovecraft piled on the tension and the atmosphere in a manner similar to E. A. Poe, and was deliberately old fashioned in his use of language, at least when he wasn’t ghost-writing things for other people.

He was also a notorious racist and white supremacist in his personal views, and often worked those ideas into his stories in fictional form. So, “Lovecraft country” is a place where eldritch magic and racism come together, something that is made very clear in the first story/chapter in the book, when Atticus Turner is carded by a racist highway patrol officer while on his way home between Florida and Chicago.

I wrote “story/chapter” because of the way this book is set up. The cover resembles an old pulp magazine illustration, and it was common, once upon a time, for writers to tell a series of stories with a common protagonist, or background, and when they had enough of them to make up a book, they created what is called a “fix-up” novel, with some bridging material to string it all together. One of the most famous of these would be Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Ruff has created a novel which resembles this pattern, but is actually much more tightly plotted that that. Atticus, his relatives, and other people who are connected to the family, are the central characters in nine independent short stories which are, nevertheless, a novel when taken together.

In the first story, Atticus, his father, his uncle George, the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and a young woman named Letitia, are tricked into travelling to Ardham Lodge (a clear reference to Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham) where the membership of the Order of the Ancient Dawn intend to use him as the catalyst (and sacrifice) to open a dimensional door and let the Elder Gods come back. Their plan fails, due to the intervention of young Caleb Braithwhite, a powerful sorcerer who will turn up in several other stories before the novel reaches its conclusion. Just because he helps the Turners out few times does not make him a good man.

This is perhaps the most Lovecraftian part of the book. The other sections are generally written as homages to other pulp fiction horror/science fiction tropes. There’s a haunted house story, with a nice twist to it. There’s a kind of treasure hunt/caper story. There’s an adventure in another dark dimension, a distinctly different take on the ideas behind Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, a ghost story, a tale of demonic possession, a showdown that gathers all the plot threads together, and a tidy epilogue that gives us a time frame. The various events in the book take about a year to play out.

As I noted, much of this book is a homage to the works of various writers, many of whom are name-checked in the narratives, who were big names in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. What’s unusual about each of the stories is that the central character in each case is a black man or (even more unlikely at that time) a black woman. In each case this racial identity creates some problems that would not have been faced by the mostly white protagonists that populated the pulps during those years.

So, while Ruff has given us a fascinating series of adventure stories that add up to more than the sum of their parts, he has also given us a commentary on a specific era in American history. The combination is very effective. He discusses some of his intentions in several interviews that are worth a look on his website.

 

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