2 Things I Learned About History’s Role in Writing from Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

All right, because I’m a nerd like that, I insisted on reading Lovecraft Country before watching the show. I’m only a couple episodes in – so no spoilers! Here are a couple things I learned reading the novel:

  1. Acknowledge Your Literary Tradition…and Critique It.

Art is not made in a vacuum. Every piece of writing is responding and engaging with work that has come before. That’s just the nature of the beast. I know I have artistic influences and I’m sure you do too.

Lovecraft Country has its influence right there in the title. H.P. Lovecraft. By many, he’s considered the Father of Horror. He created terrors beyond the stars. Cthulhu. His prose is full and complicated. And he was indisputably a racist.

In the interview in the back of my copy of Lovecraft Country, the author, Matt Ruff, says, “I wish he’d been a better person, or blessed with better mentors. But as a storyteller, I can still learn from him.”

And Ruff clearly took the Lovecraftian inspiration – monsters, cults, dangers-beyond-the-stars – and ran with it. I personally can respect stealing both artistic inspiration and technique.

But I also think it is equally, if not more, important is to level a critique of that “mentor’s” work. Ruff, knowing full well how negatively Lovecraft portrayed people of color in his work, challenged those portrayals by placing a Black family front and center in this novel. The cult members and devils are all white people – and the most horrific horrors aren’t supernatural. Often the most painful, frightening moments center on the terrors whites have perpetrated on Blacks. (I cried during Ruff’s scene of the Tulsa massacre.

2. Root Your Characters in History

Much like us writers, characters come from history. Sure, that history might be made up or it might be history which hasn’t happened to us…yet. but the character is a product of the world’s past just as much as their own backstory.

The characters in Lovecraft Country are definitely grounded in American history. The women’s options are limited exactly the way women’s options were limited post WWII. The characters must navigate segregation laws. The enthusiastic-reader characters only reference authors of the time or earlier. No Stephen King.

This novel is swarming with examples, but favorite is early on. (If you’ve watched the show on HBO this scene is in there too.) Atticus, George, and Letitia are visiting a diner which, previously, had been rumored to be safe for Black customers. Then Atticus notices fresh, white paint:

“Looking at the wall again, Atticus repeated a trivia question from that long-ago road trip: ‘Why is the White House white?”

‘War of 1812,’ George said. ‘British soldiers put the executive mansion to torch. Then later when the slaves rebuilt it, they had to paint the walls white to cover up the …’

‘…the burn marks,” Atticus finished for him…”

The character’s knowledge of history lets them know that the “friendly” diner was burned down. And in its place is a whitewashed, unfriendly restaurant.

History isn’t over yet. We’re still a part of it and so are our characters. Go make your mark.

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