Seattle author Matt Ruff’s novel “Lovecraft Country” chronicles a group of African Americans battling both supernatural horrors and the terrors of living in America during the 1950s. He appears Feb. 16 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. and Feb. 20 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop.
Howard Philip Lovecraft’s early 20th-century short stories left an indelible stamp on the horror genre. To say something is “Lovecraftian” is to evoke gibbering madness inflicted on mere human minds exposed to the fundamentally hideous nature of the universe.
This type of fiction is also called “cosmic horror.” Part of its wide appeal is that the cosmos — and thus the hideous evil implicit in it — is everywhere. Certainly it’s inescapable for Atticus Turner, army vet hero of “Lovecraft Country” (Harper, 432 pp., $26.99), the latest book by Seattle author and award-winner Matt Ruff.
From the bigoted Indiana state trooper in its opening chapter to the nationwide network of sorcerers waiting to trap him at its end, evil surrounds Turner and his fellow African Americans — or “Negroes,” the label current during the novel’s 1954-1955 timespan.
The author of “Lovecraft Country” will appear at these area locations:
• 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, in conversation with Paul Constant, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
• 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com ).
• Noon Saturday, Feb. 20, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle; signing only (206-587-5737 or seattlemystery.com).
Turner, his childhood sweetheart Letitia Dandridge, his cousin Horace Berry, his Aunt Hippolyta and many others have a series of pulp-inspired adventures: Letitia buys a haunted house just outside the bank-sanctioned limits of their Southside Chicago neighborhood, Horace fights a curse making him the target of sinister dolls, and Hippolyta travels to a distant solar system via an eerie pseudo-observatory.
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Though white, Ruff writes plausibly from the viewpoints of his black characters. Their concerns — whether they confront faceless mobs or respond to surprise invitations from scions of America’s unacknowledged aristocracy — seem genuinely driven by their own agendas, not the author’s.
Ruff also avoids the common error of homogenizing the thoughts and feelings of these black “others.” There are real differences between the responses of young Turner and his father, Montrose, to their imprisonment by wealthy sorcerer Samuel Braithwhite; between the responses of 12-year-old Horace and his baby-sitter, Letitia’s older sister Ruby; to the spit-powered curse laid on the boy’s head. Age, gender and many factors besides race influence our interactions with the world, and Ruff is wise enough to depict this in his fictional creations.
Recently, the challenge of representing the world’s diversity in its literature has split the speculative fiction community into two camps. Some want to meet the challenge; some decry the effort of doing so as pandering to whiners.
A bust of Lovecraft, whose racial prejudice is legible throughout his oeuvre, was the World Fantasy Award’s trophy for 40 years. This year, after receiving a petition against its continued use signed by thousands, the World Fantasy Convention Committee dropped it. The decision was controversial, but black award recipients greeted it with relief.
Turner’s Uncle George sums up the troubled relationship between people of color and works by Lovecraft and his ilk: “ … stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect … They do disappoint me sometimes … Sometimes they stab me in the heart.”
Ostensibly struggling against a conspiracy of upper-class sorcerers, Turner and his doughty crew have just as hard a time surviving encounters with mundane white authority figures. Yet experience gained from these routine battles helps with the arcane war. Having defeated the leader of their magical foes, only to be warned they’ll be the target of hundreds more, they’re able to laugh at the warning long and hard.
Their glee echoes that of the Southern folk hero Brer Rabbit: they were born and bred in the brier patch of racial intolerance. They know how to navigate hate and take joy in their freedom to do so.
“Lovecraft Country” is bound to appeal to any reader who wants to delve into the strangeness of our land’s racial legacy.