Goodreads Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

3 star review, originally posted here on August 31, 2020.

I didn’t really understand the premise of the book before I started reading, but it became clear pretty quick: this is basically Jim Crow X-Files.

It’s pretty clear that the author had TV in mind. In each chapter our characters embark on a new adventure with a new paranormal entity. Running through all of these mini-stories is an overall storyline, with a mysterious antagonist who somehow ends up being involved in every strange thing we encounter. Each chapter also introduced us to a different kind of real-life monstrosity endured by 1950’s black Americans, and these monsters tend to paralel those in the stories. One of the most obvious examples is a chapter about buying a house: our heroine faces both the hatred of racism neighbors who don’t want a black woman living in their white neighborhood, and the hatred of a ghost who haunts the hosue and doesn’t want a living person living in its ghosts-only house. (I’ll also note that I appreciated that most of our stories call out racism in the north since usually all our focus is on official segregation in the south.) Overall, it’s a pretty neat idea, and one with tons of potential for creative storytelling.

The problem is, I just didn’t find (most of) the storylines very interesting. Maybe I would be more into it if I were a sci-fi fan (which I am not), particularly a fan of Lovecraft (who I have never read). But I’m not. The main plotline, that of a shady sorcerer from a secret sorcerer society who has some sort of designs on our protagonists, was uncompelling to me, which left me with just the individual stories. Some of these short stories drew me in more than others, and I think the key was which stories focused on people as opposed to setting or actions. Also, the closer the supernatural monster resembled or intertwined with the racist historic monster, the better.

This may be a good time to point out that, to my surprise, Lovecraft Country is a terrible canidate for Audiobook listening. Major actions are described very quickly, and the entire story spins 180 degrees within a single sentence or two. If you zone out for just a couple seconds, you lose the entire story. There are also chapters that rely heavily on your understanding of the physical space, which is quite fantastical at times. It takes my brain a moment to construct these new spaces, but because I was stuck going at the audiobook’s breakneck pace, I never quite assembed these spaces correctly. We have a chapter in outer space and another chapter involving tomb raiding that both kinda flew past me. And no matter where we were, actions were described so quickly that I just couldn’t get into them.

Stories that stayed grounded in our world, where the characters faced emotional in interpersonal challenges instead of physical monsters, and where they were battling both the real monsters and the supernatual monsters at the same time, worked the best for me. As such I found the haunted house chapter, the Jekyll and Hyde chapter, and portions of the vampire chapter to be the most interesting. But even the most interesting stories dragged in the parts where we rejoin the overarching evil-sorceror story.

All that being said, there’s potential for Lovecraft Country to work great as a TV show. The action-based stories should play much better on screen than on the page, and the fast pace is perfect for TV episode attention spans. And the disinterest in the evil sorcerer storyline is merely a personal preference, plus could be played up or down by the showrunners. So I’m going to give the new HBO series a shot.

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