HBO’s new drama ‘Lovecraft Country’ has everything fans of the horror genre look for. There are monsters, ghosts and haunted houses. It’s action-packed, mysterious and, at times, gasp-for-breath scary.
Misha Green (‘Underground,’ ‘Sons of Anarchy’) created and Jordan Peele produced the 10-episode series, which uses the genre to unpack the horrors of racism in the 1950s Jim Crow South.
The story follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he travels with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) in search of his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), who has gone missing. The series was inspired by the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, who used author H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional horror and historical racism in the United States as a framework for the story.
The early reviews for ‘Lovecraft Country’ have largely been stellar. TV Guide called it “captivating” and “compelling.” The A.V. Club praised it as a “stunning, horrific look at a grotesque legacy.” Shadow and Act summed it up as “an epic genre mashup of bloody brilliant proportions.”
HuffPost writer Zeba Blay and editor Erin E. Evans chatted about the series ahead of its premiere — they’ve seen five episodes, but there aren’t any spoilers here — and raved about the show, its characters and its themes.
The Bottom Line
‘Lovecraft Country’ forces audiences to look the horrors of racism directly in the eye, with fantastical creatures and monsters in human form at every turn. It is appointment television at its finest hour.
Zeba: So the trailer for ‘Lovecraft Country’ was amazing and intriguing, but I love that the show has turned out to be even more layered than the previews. There were things this show did with horror and race that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Was it what you expected?
Erin: In many ways, it surpassed my expectations, but I wasn’t surprised that I loved it. Misha Green created one of my favourite series, the short-lived ‘Underground,’ and I knew her talents — merged with Jordan Peele’s backing — was gonna make for a great series. I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to horror, but this show has really made me want to go back and watch some of the classics that Green says she referenced, like ‘Amityville Horror’ and ‘The Shining.’ Obviously there’s another layer here with conversations about race, masculinity and so many other themes.
Zeba: I love that you mentioned those references. There’s moments throughout the show that clearly pay homage to but also subvert genre tropes that we’ve seen countless times before.
You can see that there’s a really wide breadth of knowledge about fantasy and horror, a deep understanding also of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. The show does this really amazing but difficult job of telling one strong character-driven narrative while also playing with tone, with format. It’s this really interesting cross between a horror anthology series and a family drama. Speaking of which ― let’s talk about that. Because the monsters on this show are one thing, but the dynamics of the characters are a whole other thing.
Erin: Right. Especially in the first episode, you’re thrown right into this battle between Atticus Freeman and these monstrous creatures. But it all seems like fantasy through this dreamlike sequence.
Obviously, the “monster” of racism in the Jim Crow South is the whole other part of this. And seeing Freeman, along with his uncle George and childhood friend “Leti” Lewis on this action-packed journey really keeps your attention — while the other real monsters lurk in the shadows, literally.
The Cast And Characters
Zeba: I think I love every character on this show, even the “bad guys,” which is rare. Probably because they all hold so many contradictions, which is fun to watch. Like, Jurnee Smollett’s character, Leti, is such a badass. But she’s also afforded moments of terror and softness without it being played as weak.
Something that really struck me about the show is this question of inheritance that comes up over and over again throughout the series. So much of Atticus’s journey is about claiming his magical birthright. But it’s also about the trauma he’s inherited as a Black man in America as well. It’s like, in many ways, the indignities of that experience are somehow more terrifying than the supernatural stuff.
I had the chance to join a roundtable interview with Jonathan Majors, and he said that in his mind, Atticus’ biggest fear isn’t anything external. It’s himself.
So the show becomes this landscape where the characters are being forced to face their trauma because the supernatural circumstances around them demand it. That’s what I love about this show the most: It’s demonstrating the fact that these themes have so much potential to open up the horror and fantasy genre. I know we don’t want to spoil it too much, but I’m wondering ― what was a standout moment/performance for you in the series so far?
Erin: Ah, that’s such a good point about inheritance, and especially when we think about conversations around Black people and the legacies they hope to leave for future generations. Jonathan Majors is extraordinary in this role, and I’m glad to see him in this after loving him in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Da 5 Bloods.”
And, of course, Jurnee Smollett is also spectacular. As a child of ’90s television, I feel like I’ve grown up with her, and to see her take on these strong and powerful characters lately from her work on ‘Underground’ to ‘Birds of Prey’ to this series, I’m just truly in awe of her. There’s such a force within her, and you can feel it through the TV when watching her at every turn of danger in this show. Also, Aunjanue Ellis always brings it in anything she’s a part of. And while we’re at it, I can’t wait for the conversation around the storyline behind Wunmi Mosaku’s character. Cause ... whew!
The Little Things That Stand Out
Erin: The show also has these light touches that are really compelling. Like, a James Baldwin speech plays in the first episode. Were there any other technical/cinematic flourishes that you appreciated?
Zeba: Oh, yes, the music and the soundscape of this show is incredible. I always think, if done well, anachronistic music in period pieces can become such a powerful part of the storytelling.
I love the tapestry that it creates. One moment, there’s a James Baldwin speech, and the next moment, there’s Cardi B’s ‘Money’ or a gospel song. The show is centering Blackness in a really intentional, creative way.
There’s also one moment — I won’t say when or where it happens — where an establishing shot actually recreates a famous Gordon Parks photograph. Little Black easter eggs like this are so fun and in keeping with the spirit of the genre. It’s such a fantastic weaving of the past, the present and the future in a sense.
Obviously, the show is set in the 1950s and gives us a look at an America that was different, yes, but not as different as some people would like to believe. It reminds me of “Watchmen” in that respect. What conversations do you think the show might spark once it debuts?
Erin: OMG, yes, I loooove that Gordon Parks moment. Truly spectacular in the most simple and understated yet powerful way.
The Bigger Picture
I’m happy you brought up ‘Watchmen.’ It was my favourite show of 2019, and ‘Lovecraft Country’ is surely my favourite show of this year. I think there will be a lot of awards talk for the series and its actors. I also think that because every single episode unpacks so so much that there’s so much space for several pieces of analysis out of each one. I’ve already read a lot of pieces exploring the horror genre as it, in many ways, can aptly unpack the Black experience on-screen.
As a critic and editor, I’m looking forward to reading and writing pieces that really get into the nitty-gritty of unpacking the art of this stuff. And I know there’s more to come.
I mean, Janelle Monáe’s upcoming film, ‘Antebellum,’ uses the horror genre to explore slavery. Then the new ‘Candyman’ gets more at the intersection of social commentary and horror. In the coming weeks, there will be a lot to dig into there. I’m excited to consume as much of that critique and also just pure praise of some of these great filmmakers. But ultimately, I hope that these filmmakers get more and more and more opportunities to tell these big, exploratory stories. It’s past time.
Zeba: Agreed on all points. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is the fact that racism/white supremacy lacks imagination. It views the world in these strict, arbitrary binaries, literally black and white, so that the concept of a show like ‘Lovecraft Country’ or ‘Get Out’ feels novel when it really isn’t. I think it’s so fascinating and exciting that works like “Watchmen” or the work of someone like H.P. Lovecraft can be adapted and subverted in these ways.
Like, there’s something sort of beautiful, and deeply American, about the fact that ‘Lovecraft Country,’ both the book by Matt Ruff and now this TV adaptation, were inspired and informed by the work of an influential but famously racist writer. The fact that Misha Green, a young Black woman, is the one who gets to come along and challenge this genre and create new visual iconography is amazing. I can’t wait to see more.
So Should You Watch It?
Erin: Absolutely. It should be appointment television for everyone. Fire up that HBO Max subscription.
Zeba: Yeah, you should definitely watch it. This is going to be the show of the summer.
“Lovecraft Country” premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on HBO and HBO Max.