In the new HBO show Lovecraft Country, stark lines are drawn between markedly different worlds. Neighborhoods, buses, and ice-cream store counters are segregated Black and white. A county-line delineates the space in which a Black man can be legally lynched before sundown. And a portal opened in the middle of a spooky mansion by an immortality-seeking wizard marks the difference between present-day life on Earth and biblical Paradise.
Lovecraft Country, based on the novel of the same name and adapted by Misha Green, borrows H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology of multi-eyed shoggoth monsters, wizards, and ghosts, to build a world of unknown horrors that seeps into the lives of the show’s main characters, but it’s a supernatural horror tethered almost always to a landscape of real-life violence. The show begins with Atticus Freeman (The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jonathan Majors)—a buff, sci-fi obsessed nerd and ex-soldier—and an opening a peek inside his brain as he imagines alien invasions and a princess from Mars. Along with his friend Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) and uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), the three head out of their hometown Chicago and in search of Atticus’s missing father, driving through the backroads of Jim Crow America, where they encounter as many monsters as they do racists. They use George’s guide for Black travelers a la The Negro Motorist Green Book as a compass, seeking out their own portals into safety from the hostile white towns they ride into.
After the first two episodes, Lovecraft Country’s installments feel more standalone, each exploring mini-stories onto themselves that twists the horrors of American racism with fantasy soundtracked to Rihanna and Frank Ocean. A promising new house comes with a crowd of lost souls banging around in the basement, but it also comes with white neighbors who park at the front lawn, their cars blaring nightly to intimate the Black residents from staying there. A group of literal wizards is encountered, their white hair and pale skin positively Aryan, but their magical world-building isn’t so enlightened that they entertain a world in which Black people are their equals. The format allows for a breadth of scary stories to explore, but it also keeps the show from feeling like the cohesive ensemble production it seems to covet.
On paper, Lovecraft Country is a subversion of a genre that has often erased Black creators, a reimagining of not just a history of sci-fi and horror with Black leads at the center, but one that remakes the canon of horror god and virulent racist Lovecraft. But there’s something mechanical about Lovecraft Country’s horror, both real and supernatural. The show’s 1950s racism, rampant with cartoonish suburban villains and terrifying police officers, is realistic to the time period but ultimately too familiar in execution. The show comes to life a bit more when it actually digs its heels into its sci-fi and horror aspirations, as Atticus and Letitia wander spooky mansions and cob-webbed secret tunnels for hidden treasure, and are forced to fight off flesh-eating monsters in dark woods. There’s a campy, almost Scooby Doo lightness to a lot of these scenes as if ripped straight from a comic book, but they don’t exactly make for innovative horror.
Lovecraft Country may not subvert sci-fi and horror so much as it filters it through the experience of characters who have never been centered in such trope-defining stories, to begin with. “In these fictional worlds, anything could happen: magic, dragons, travel through space and time,” Ashley Nkadi wrote for a 2017 piece at The Root about the erasure of Black people in fantasy. “Anything, that is, except diversity.” Lovecraft Country has diversity, but it doesn’t own the limitless possibilities of horror and sci-fi that have come before it.