This article was written by a special guest writer, Rebecca Phelps. Thank you to her for connecting with us for this. You can find out more about Rebecca Phelps and her debut novel, Down World, at the end of this article. Please enjoy her review of the first episode of Lovecraft Country, which you can see on HBO on Sundays.
There’s something lurking in the woods in HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country. Something sinister, grotesque. Something that won’t stop coming for you until you’re dead.
You never know what shape this aberration will take: an invading alien species, cunningly disguised as a former lover; a many-eyed monster greedily seeking out human flesh; a racist cop with a shotgun.
Because the main characters of Lovecraft Country are travelers navigating the most perilous of roads: they are an American Black family in the 1950s, and what we soon learn is that “safe” for them is an ephemeral condition.
The series starts by introducing us to young Atticus—the tongue-in-cheek reference to Atticus Finch is no accident—who is returning from the war in Korea, where he served his country despite his father’s protestations.
He makes it to Chicago, where his uncle runs a very special kind of travel agency, printing something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a direct reference to Victor Hugo Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book (of the much maligned Best-Picture winner fame).
The novel on which the show is based is told in a serialized style, much like the pulp fiction it draws from, interweaving several macabre tales of supernatural shenanigans. But it is the character of Atticus who emerges, both in the book and now in the show, as the heart and soul of the story.
Atticus is a man torn between many opposing loyalties: he’s a sci-fi fan who readily admits that most of the genre’s writers were white and notoriously racist (H.P. Lovecraft in particular).
He’s a proud veteran, forced daily to acknowledge that the country he fought for won’t even let him eat at most of its restaurants.
He’s a devoted son whose father—missing and apparently caught up in some Lovecraftian misadventures of his own—was an abusive and unloving parent.
“Stories are like people,” Atticus declares in the series (though in the book, the line belongs to his uncle—a lesson the young man has not yet learned). “Loving them does not make them perfect.” And so Lovecraft Country, a title that is itself a wink and a nod to the state of the union more than to the fictional town of its setting, declares its theme:
How can you love something that does not love you back?
The means by which Atticus and the other main characters will reconcile these dichotomies is both the point of the book (and now series), as well as the pulsing heart of the adventure. In this way, the story manages to fit well into producer Jordan Peele’s previous works: it is both a dissection of the genre, while simultaneously being a card-carrying member of it.
It remains to be seen how closely the series will hew to the source material. Author Matt Ruff had a lot on his mind when he wrote the novel, drawing upon references to everything from Greek mythology, to the Bible, to the Tulsa Massacre.
Without spoiling too much, it is worth noting that one key episode of the novel introduces the monstrous Greek villain of the Scylla, which must be tricked into submission in order to be passed. Again, Ruff’s use of this demon from The Odyssey is no accident.
In that story, Odysseus must choose between the many-headed Scylla, who demands a sailor’s life for each its gnarled heads, and the great whirlpool of Charybdis, who will inevitably swallow the whole ship.
“Any way you look at it, you lose,” as Paul Simon would say.
Which brings us back to that Safe Negro Travel Guide, a recurring theme, as well as useful MacGuffin that serves to get the characters out onto the road, throughout the book. As perfectly illustrated in episode one of the series, Black Americans have been forced from the get-go to find a safe pathway through the most inhospitable of terrains.
And like the hand-drawn illustrations of devils and sorcerers plaguing the map of the Travel Guide, sometimes the only way to proceed is through the narrow gap between one insidious presence and another. And in the end, whether it’s the cop or the many-eyed demon chasing them through the woods, their chances of escape are ever-diminishing.
So far, the adaptation has proven that it’s not afraid to take its time with some of these themes—fleshing out the characters, letting their inner lives and aspirations breathe a little (the choice to make Ruby a church-defecting Etta James-style singer is particularly inspired).
But the realization of the myriad-eyed creature in the woods, referred to only as a shadow figure in the novel, is particularly effective. With its blinking, bulbous eyes protruding from every surface, the creature is not unlike the Scylla itself, or even Lovecraft’s famous octopus-like Cthulhu.
Coming out to hunt in the dark, able to be defeated only by a shaft of light, or perhaps divine intervention, the creature of the show offers an apt metaphor for the story itself:
You can hide, but it will find you. You can make a map, but it will lurk just off the road. You can wait until dawn, but nightfall is only a day away.
The landscape of hatred is ultimately unnavigable. There is poison in the water. There are barbarians at the gate.
There are monsters in the woods.
Rebecca Phelps is an actress, screenwriter, and novelist based in Los Angeles. As an actress, she has appeared in films that premiered at Austin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Comedy Festival, and she was the joint recipient of the best ensemble award at the Breckenridge and Ashland Independent Film Festivals. As a writer, her screenplays have been finalists in Project Greenlight, Fade-In, and Austin International Film Festival, and her adaption of Mary Downing Hahn’s The Doll in the Garden (co-written with screenwriter husband Steffen Phelps) was optioned by Cole-Abbitt Productions. She is the co-creator of the website novel2screen.net which analyzes film and television adapted from other material and her debut novel, Down World, is the recipient of the Watty Award for Best Young Adult Fiction for 2019 and will be published March 30, 2021.