Matt Ruff’s previous book, The Mirage, was about a world where the various Arab states were united as a single country with a strong, secular representational democracy and the United States was divided up into smaller, poor, squabbling Christian fundamentalist nations that had more than a few terrorists shooting out of it. It was an interesting book, seeing the real-world USA and the Middle East essentially switch places with each other, but didn’t quite stick the landing.
Lovecraft Country takes another angle: the story follows a group of African Americans living mostly in 1950s Chicago, most of them relatives to each other, and has them dealing with the twin forces of evil. On the one hand, there’s the sorcerous cult with quasi-Lovecraftian overtones that are out for power and looking to use the protagonists as their own pathways to power. On the other hand, there’s the more real world problem of extreme racism the characters face every day.
SPOILER-FREE review after the cut.
The novel opens with Atticus Turner driving home to Chicago after a long absence. He’s been living in Jacksonville and has been estranged from his father Montrose for years. Montrose’s half-brother publishes a guide for black-friendly businesses all around the country, and Atticus is trying to get back without getting into trouble.
There’s real trouble out there. Atticus’ uncle George tells a story early on of a friend of his who got pulled over driving through a New England county and told by the cop, basically, that if he wasn’t outside the county by sunset, the cop would hang him from the first tree he could find. After a careful negotiation, the driver finds a way to get out of the county with only about 30 seconds to spare, since speeding would give the cop reason to pull him over and detain him until sunset. And while the cop does stop at the county line, that doesn’t stop him from taking a shot or two at the driver. Characters like Atticus and his friends and family have to be careful where they go and what they do because unfriendly racist whites are everywhere.
Here’s the thing: the racism, the thing that exists in the real world, is far more effective and scary than any sort of sorcerer cult. Yes, these people have designs on Atticus and the others, but those are at least problems the characters have a hope of solving. Racism isn’t going anywhere.
Ruff divides his novel into a series of shorter narratives, with each chapter save the last one focusing on a different character. As stated above, most of them are related to Atticus.
If anything, after the trip to the title location (sort of), the characters often seem more than capable of taking care of themselves. Yes, the creepy cult leader’s son keeps popping up, and while those elements make it seem as if everyone is out of their depths, the final chapter seems to wrap things up a little too easily.
With all that in mind, I’m giving this one eight out of ten shapeless horrors in the woods. The real world terrors were well-realized, but the rest not so much, and everything seemed to be settled a little too easily.