“Arkham,” Atticus said. “The letter says Mom’s ancestors come from Arkham, Massachusetts.” Arkham: home of the corpse reanimator Herbert West, and of Miskatonic University, which had sponsored the fossil-hunting expedition to the mountains of madness. “It is made up, right? I mean—”
“Oh, yeah,” George said. “Lovecraft based it on Salem, I think, but it’s not a real place . . . Let me see that letter.” Atticus handed it to him and George studied it, squinting and tilting his head side to side. “It’s a ‘d,’” he said finally.
This summer, HBO is releasing a series based on Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. This review is about the novel which the series is based upon – and is being written before I’ve seen any episodes of the show.
While called a novel, I would more consider Lovecraft Country a collection of related novellas and short stories about Atticus Turner and his friends and family in the 1950s.
Atticus is an African-American from Chicago. He is from an upper-middle-class family, with an uncle who owns a travel agency that publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide. This book is based upon the tragically real-world Negro Motorist Green Book that provided African-American travelers advice on what businesses would service their vehicles, where they could stay and eat on the road, etc. without needing to fear humiliation or risk of harm.
Atticus is a veteran of the Korean War. After the war, he spent some time working in Florida, but living in the south did not agree with him, so when he received a strange letter from his estranged father, he jumped at the excuse to head back home. Atticus loves science fiction and weird fiction, a love he shares with his uncle George. His father, Montrose, is less a fan of such works – he especially dislikes Lovecraft – to prove a point to Atticus, he once dug up some of Lovecraft’s nastier writings on African-Americans.
However, Montrose is missing, having traveled to Ardham (note the spelling), Massachusetts. Montrose is tracking down his late wife’s family background. We learn that she (and Atticus) have a connection with (and are of great value to) the Order of the Ancient Dawn.
The novel tells the tale of Atticus, along with his family and friends, as they deal with both the supernatural and the reality of being black men and women living in a world where racism is the norm. The stories in the novel run the gamut of HP Lovecraft and his circle’s weird tales – secret cults, ghost stories, physical transformation, visits to far-off alien worlds, etc. The protagonists for the tales vary – a supporting character in one story might be the protagonist in another. The Order of the Ancient Dawn frequently tries to use them as pawns – and sometimes succeeds – but the family has its own agency and strength. Their main antagonist is Caleb Braithwhite. When we are introduced to him, he is a senior member of the order. As far as evil sorcerers go, he’s not too terrible a guy – he has a certain charisma, which makes him an enjoyable character to dislike. He treats Atticus’ circle with a certain amount of respect, but always with an air of superiority.
These stories also make for great inspiration for a Call of Cthulhu game. Atticus and company have multiple contacts with the supernatural over a period of several months, similar to how a group of Call of Cthulhu investigators will have multiple adventures. Traveling the country to do research for the Safe Negro Travel Guide would seem a great hook for a nation-spanning campaign. Atticus and his circle are a great example of a group of people who lack supernatural powers but are able to use their intelligence, connections, and resilience to persevere. While none of the tales takes place in Harlem, Harlem Unbound‘s discussion and guidance on race and racism in America (and its mechanics around racial tensions) would certainly be of value.
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