April 23, 2016

Review: Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and right up there with the best of 2015. It is so many things–a mystery, a horror story with callbacks to, of course, Lovecraft (although you never actually see Cthulhu or any of the Elder Gods–there’s just a suggestion of a black shadowy something coming through an intradimensional door in the last battle, turning the bad guys to ash and retreating again), and above all an unflinching, brutal examination of racism, both in the time of Jim Crow and echoing down to our day.

You might think this last is presented in a heavy-handed way, but it isn’t. This is because of the author’s prose, which is restrained and straightforward, almost Hemingwayesque. (He’ll never be accused, to use Stephen King’s memorable line, of paving his road to hell with adverbs.) Given the subject matter–both the horror elements and the social–this approach is necessary, I think. There’s also elements of humor; very dark, to be sure, but I was startled into laughing at least once or twice. The characterizations are subtle, and demand a careful reading; and in any case, this is not a book to rush through. It’s structured as a series of interlinked novellas, not chapters as such. You might think one or two of the novellas in the middle section have nothing to do with the overall plot, but keep going. When you get to the scene where all the characters sit down and tell each other their parts of the story (and how often have we read books where we say, “I wish these characters would just talk to each other”? Well, in this book they actually do it!), everything clicks into place, and the author’s meticulous plotting becomes evident.

It occurred to me as I read the final pages that the title is more than just a metaphor for the book’s horror elements. To me, it’s also a metaphor for America as a whole, with its continuing racism and fear/hatred of the Other, both in this book’s setting of 1954, and, to our shame, still today.

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