by Matt Ruff
Harper (384 pages, $26.99 hardback, $7.99 digital, February 2016)
Pam Noles grew up the daughter of a mother who was very active in the NAACP and a father who, because of his color, had to sue their city after being turned down eight times for a firefighting job. Noles also grew up loving all things science fiction — books and B movies — even though nobody on those book covers or in those movies resembled her family.
On Saturday nights Noles watched schlocky movies hosted by an Elvira knockoff called The Ghoul, backed by a cast of weirdos (every big market had something similar — in Philly we had Saturday Night Dead, hosted by Stella “The Maneater From Manayunk”). During breaks in the movie they performed skits.
Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we’d lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.
Dad had his own names for the movies.
What’s this? ‘Escape to a White Planet?’
It’s called ‘When Worlds Collide.’ I’m sure I sounded indignant.
‘Mars Kills the White People.’ I love this one.
Daaaaad. It says it right there. ‘War of the Worlds’. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.
Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn’t get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn’t bring it up again until a skit came on. I can’t remember if it was a ‘Soulman’ skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.
Matt Ruff credits Noles as inspiration in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Lovecraft Country, and it’s easy to see why: her father’s acuity echoes throughout in the voice of the character Montrose Turner. Much like Noles herself, Montrose’s son Atticus has been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tom Swift, pulp magazines — and like Noles’s dad, Montrose never stops pointing out the implicit racism of that media; on the covers Nordic he-men rescue blonde damsels from villains of darker complexion while inside fair-skinned men save the world from ethnics and monsters. When a young Atticus describes his newfound love of the writer H.P. Lovecraft, Montrose responds with a trip to the library. His voice has “the perverse mix of anger and glee” when he returns home with a certain infamous 1912 poem penned by Lovecraft to show his son. The doggerel ruins Lovecraft for him.
Nowadays Lovecraft’s legacy is mixed nuts. The Library of America has published a thick collection of his work, the unpronounceable name of his most well-known creation is a Twitter hashtag, and there’s a line of beers dedicated to him; and yet after 40 years the World Fantasy Convention remodeled their awards, shaped as a stylized bust of HPL, over complaints of his racism. All of this makes 2016 either the best or worst of times to release a novel set in 1950s America about Atticus and his African-American friends and relations caught in a Lovecraftian conspiracy.
Ruff addresses the chamber pachyderm in chapter one. When Atticus complains to his uncle about Montrose’s constant harassment over his choice of reading materials, his uncle reminds him that “stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”
With that mic dropped, Atticus and company depart for the wilds of Massachusetts in search of Montrose, who has been abducted by cultists for sinister purposes. What follows is a series of connected short stories and novellas, each featuring a different member of Atticus’s circle as its protagonist, as the group struggles to extricate themselves from a war between dueling — and, more notably, Caucasian — sorcerers. There’s fewer tentacles and asylum incarcerations than Lovecraft fans might expect; with its haunted houses and devil dolls and weird science, it’s more Trilogy of Terror than “Dunwich Horror.” But as each chapter bled into the next, I found it increasingly unputdownable.
The real malevolence Atticus and the rest confront is the same shoggoth Montrose continuously stabs at with a yardstick, a gibbering Great Old One of police harassment and Brown v. Board of Education and this morning’s news. Theirs is the landscape Lovecraft inhabited rather than the one he made up. When two black boys try to buy a Coke from a machine outside a store called Perch’s that advertises White Customers Only, Montrose pushes them away. “‘This here?'” he says of the machine. “‘This is a slap in the face. Every time you put in a nickel, you’re telling Mr. Perch, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ A man who respects himself will never do that.'” But the boys don’t get it — they insult him and run away. Like Noles, they won’t understand until much later.