I got an advance copy of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country from HarperCollins because the description made it sound interesting, with supernatural elements. It is, but what I didn’t expect is the way the author includes Lovecraftian horror as just one of the many kinds of horrors lurking around every corner for African-Americans in 1954.
We start out with a story from the point of view of Atticus, an African-American man and former American soldier who is trying to drive from Florida to see his father in Chicago. He has a book entitled The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which I was not surprised to find had a real-life counterpart, The Negro Motorist Green Book. When Atticus has a flat tire in Indiana, he walks two miles to a service station where he is refused service, then two miles back, and then spends a long afternoon waiting for a mechanic to drive 50 miles from Indianapolis, where the nearest negro-owned garage is located. There’s a kind of horror for me in understanding that things like this still happened routinely when I was a child.
When Atticus gets to Chicago, his father has already left to find his deceased wife’s relatives in “Lovecraft Country” in (Arkham or) Ardham, Massachusetts, so he follows, along with his relatives George and Letitia. They run into trouble in Simmonsville, NY, where the Safe Negro Travel Guide has not been updated recently enough. A mysterious silver car with smoked windows shows up to help them, and because of it they are able to make their way to Ardham and the manor house of Samuel Braithwhite, who owns the silver car. Atticus discovers that the Braithwhite family owned one of his ancestors, a maid who ran away the night “there was some kind of calamity at the house.”
The calamity turns out to have been a Lovecraftian encounter with the supernatural, capped by an explosion. Then Atticus discovers that he is the last direct descendant of Titus Braithwhite and acts on it to escape another Lovecraftian encounter, one that leaves Samuel dead and his son Caleb in charge. When Atticus, George, and Letitia leave, they’re driving a car on which Caleb has conferred “a dash of immunity” so that “from now on, you should find you’re much less likely to run into trouble on the road. Law enforcement officials, in particular, will tend to treat you as though you’re invisible to them.”
The novel’s point of view begins to switch, at this point, first to the story of Letitia and how she bought a haunted house—Winthrop House–in a white neighborhood, with what turns out to be Caleb Braithwhite’s help. And then comes the story of the book of George’s ancestor Adah, who had totaled up how much her former owner owed her for the work she’d done and the “insults” she’d suffered: “Whippings. Beatings. Other.” When the book goes missing, George finds that Caleb wants to trade it for a book that has been in the keeping of a “former lodgemaster of Chicago,” the Book of Names. When they retrieve it for him, he not only returns Adah’s book, but pays off the debt of her former owners.
Next is the story of how “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” when she visits an observatory listed in a book she has discovered in Winthrop House. She finds a doorway that opens onto a different planet and discovers the last surviving member of Mr. Winthrops’ household staff, left there after preliminary questioning after a black maid had run off with Mr. Winthrop’s white son. Hippolyta and the survivor, Ida, figure out that Mr. Winthrop must have been killed in a confrontation with Mr. Braithwhite soon after leaving them on the planet.
A longer story, “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” is told from the point of view of Letitia’s sister Ruby, who meets Caleb Braithwhite and learns how to turn into a white woman, righting wrongs and enjoying white privilege. At the first party she attends as a white woman, she
“relaxed, realizing that these folk too were inclined to take her at face value. Nor did they seem especially alien to her, the main difference between them and other rich, self-important white people she had encountered being their willingness to converse with her. About necromancy. But even the talk of magic wasn’t that peculiar, for most of them spoke of it as they would of money, or politics, or any other means of bending the world to their will.”
Ruby finally concludes that Caleb is “the devil,” but he replies that he is simply “a man who knows what he wants—and how to get it.”
“The Narrow House” is a story about Atticus’ father Montrose, who helped get the Book of Names and who Caleb then asks to help him track down the books that Winthrop’s son Henry took with him when he ran away with Pearl. Montrose finds out that Henry and Pearl and their young son were burned in their house in Illinois by the mayor and the chief of police, who didn’t want black people living in their neighborhood. When Montrose takes a trip to the house, he has a talk with the ghost of Henry.
Montrose tells Henry Winthrop the story of a riot and lynch mob in 1921, where “the negroes were outnumbered something like twenty to one” and his father came back to the house with “blood all down his sleeve” to tell Montrose’s mother to pack the car, just in case. Montrose was seven years old and took off after his father when his mother wasn’t looking. When his father finds him, he starts running home with Montrose in his arms, but then
“a car came up behind us, moving fast….A white man leaned out of the back with a pistol and fired two shots….
I thought the shots had missed us. I knew I wasn’t hit, and my father didn’t break stride. He ran on for another block or so and then he just stopped. He put me down, careful, put a hand on my shoulder like to steady himself. Then he fell over.
We were on the grass in front of someone’s house. The people inside heard me yelling and the porch lights came on. I saw my father had been shot in the side and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He had this look on his face. Horror. Horror at the universe. I was too young to understand it. I thought he was afraid because he was dying, but that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t until I had a son of my own—a son who wouldn’t listen—that I understood what he felt.
He wasn’t afraid for himself. He was afraid for me. He wanted to protect me. He had: He saved my life, getting me away from that gunfight. But the night wasn’t over and he knew he wasn’t going to be there to see me through it. That’s the horror, the most awful thing: to have a child the world wants to destroy and know that you’re helpless to help him.”
Winthrop tells Montrose his own awful story of his life with Pearl and his son as “Henry Narrow,” and then gives him the books Caleb Braithwhite is seeking. Montrose tells Atticus that “we found nothing. The Narrows are dead, their house is burnt, and we didn’t find a damn thing. That’s what we’re going to tell Braithwhite. And that’s what we’re going to believe, so if he looks inside our heads he doesn’t see different.”
The next story, “Horace and the Devil Doll,” is told from the point of view of a child, Montrose’s nephew and Hippolyta’s son, who is being used by Caleb Braithwhite’s Chicago lodgemaster, Lancaster, to find out how to defeat him. Caleb uses Horace as bait but later takes Lancaster’s magic mark off of him so he will no longer be terrified by animate objects.
In the final story, “The Mark of Cain,” Horace’s entire family—everyone who has been in the stories so far—realize that Caleb means to use them to help him get rid of Lancaster. They tell each other the stories of how they know Caleb, and they make a plan to get free of him and his magic. As Ruby says, “I’ve seen enough of him to know he’s good at getting what he wants. But I’ve also seen enough to know that what he wants, can’t be good.”
Together, Atticus and George and Letitia and Hippolyta and Horace and Ruby and Montrose and all their relatives defeat both Lancaster and Caleb Braithwhite. Atticus works the spell that gives Braithwhite a new mark of Cain, “but a different one, the new a pun upon the old.” He no longer has any powers, and he has given Atticus’ family enough money to buy Letitia’s house, educate all the children, and keep them safe–or as safe as any black family in 1950’s America could be.