How Lovecraft Country Uses Horror to Tell Black Stories

Lovecraft Country authentically captures the verity of being Black in a country that is built on anti-Blackness.

The Cast of Lovecraft Country
Photo: HBO

In Lovecraft Country, Atticus “Tic” Freeman is a Korean war vet, who went to war to escape the physical abuse he received at the hands of his father. But before that, he escaped into the imagined worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, and countless others. Reading stories wasn’t just something he did to pass the time; reading stories was survival.

Commercial books, film, and television, what we call popular culture, are gateways to the world outside of the small spaces we each occupy. We connect to each other across the globe through shared experiences in the media we consume. The stories that serve this function best, transcend genre. As Lovecraft Country’s Courtney B. Vance puts it to us in relation to HBO’s new radical horror: “I’m not a big horror film person because I’m a scaredy cat. I’m a story person. If you build it in a field of dreams, they will come. If you tell a great story, I don’t care what the genre is.” 

We form communities around the stories we love. We build our identities around the characters that touch us the most. Storytelling gives us access to different places, experiences, and points of view. During a recent roundtable interview for Lovecraft Country, I asked Jonathan Majors how Tic would feel about the emergence of sci-fi and fantasy stories that center Black people, and he had this to say:

I think Tic, he would be on cloud nine. I wonder if he would have seen it before the war, what he would have done. I wonder if he would have gone off to the war or if he would have just continued to live his life, having had seen himself already take it in and taking on that adventure, that soldier, that mentality. He wouldn’t have to escape reality, he’d just sit in the movie theaters and take in a different reality.

Stories also give us a way to better understand the world we live in. Through metaphor and allegory, we gain a deeper understanding of each other and ourselves. “Metaphor is one of the most universal ways of communicating a thought, I think,” Majors tells journalists. “I think it allows for people from many walks of life to connect to one singular moment, one singular image, one singular idea. I think that’s quite useful in making art.” 

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Our relationship to stories changes when we see ourselves reflected in them. Largely, the books Tic reads feature white heroes who move about the world unhindered by bias of any sort. A confederate soldier can go to Mars and unironically become a liberator. Tic, a Black man, cannot easily find himself in that character. The only way for someone like Tic to see himself in the adventure, as the hero, is to make that reality. Tic goes to war to escape his father, yes, but he also goes to war to put himself in the story.

Lovecraft Country gives us the opportunity to see ourselves, to see reflections of who we are. “Our protagonists are of African American descent,” Majors says. “That is a very novel thing, to be a part of a team, to be a part of a story that is holding up black people fully. There are things you will not like about Atticus, there are things you will love about him, and that can be said for every character in the piece. That is a beautiful thing.” 

Not only does Lovecraft Country authentically capture the verity of being Black in a country that is built on anti-Blackness, but it gives us a venue to explore our own power within that dynamic. Lovecraft Country gives us a world where we can tap into a power bigger than Whiteness, wealth, and all of the things that bestow inherent, unearned privilege. It is both an accurate reflection of the world we live in and a fanciful vision of the world we could live in, if the inexplicable was verifiable.

More than just entertainment, of which it absolutely is, Lovecraft Country is catharsis. What the show does so beautifully is juxtapose the fantastical against the practical, and use the absurdity of fantasy to highlight the absurdity of real life. It takes us on a journey that is both deeply personal and wildly incomprehensible. We connect to the characters because they are reflections of us, but we are removed from their experiences because those experiences are outlandish.

Lovecraft Country also gives the audience an outlet to work through its own shit by giving form to things that otherwise manifest as thoughts or behaviors that are difficult, if not impossible, to combat. Racism is a force with no singular face or voice, it is alive but can’t be killed. You can fight racists, but racism is a functional structure of power. But magic exists alongside it, and it is concrete power, inherent but not exclusive. Magic is potentially an equalizer.

Black folks watching Lovecraft Country are able to push past the trauma because the characters are able to. We see them not just survive, but take something from their enemy/oppressor. When Tic turns Samuel and the other Sons of Adams to dust, that’s a moment of pure unadulterated joy. When Ardham Lodge collapses in on itself, there’s a feeling of immense satisfaction. That’s the power of storytelling. It allows us to feel things without taking the pain into ourselves.

We aren’t all going to take the same things away from this show. We can’t. This is always true, even if the largely cishet white man-run world of cultural criticism would like us to believe otherwise. We come into a story with our identities, a specific lens that affects our perception of everything we consume. But Lovecraft Country doesn’t make space for everyone to be a hero, that is not the point. White viewers who have always been reflected in all their shades, with all their facets, aren’t supposed to find themselves among the heroes, because this is not their story. They have John Carter, Jonathan Harker, Indiana Jones… And we have Atticus Freeman and Letitia Fucking Lewis.