The Eldritch Horror of A Sleeping Demon: Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country”

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

(H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulu”)

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories often present main characters who gradually gain knowledge of Earth’s prehistoric past, when Elder Gods ruled and created humans as slaves, and about the evils that lie in wait at the edges of the universe to destroy it. Such revelations often drive his protagonists to the very brink of madness. Keeping the truth hidden is essential if humanity is to remain sane. And in the same way, many people today would like to ignore the truth of our racist tendencies, our quiet prejudices against foreigners that still live in our hearts and laws. We’d prefer to believe that such attitudes and practices are firmly in the past or in other people; it’s easier to keep things as they are and stay sane.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country centres on an extended African-American family in the mid-1950s. The book’s chapters each focus on a different main character and their own experiences that all ties together into a coherent whole. It’s an exciting way to structure the story, letting us go deeper into characters who may have initially seemed peripheral while pieces of the overall narrative fall into place like a detective story. The main antagonist is Caleb Braithwhite, leader of the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn, a secret society of sorcerers bent on using magic to restore order to a chaotic world. Like many rich young white men, he seems affable and even benevolent, but his agenda is only for himself; when he wants something, he sees nothing wrong in simply taking it.

The book is firmly fantasy, using the tropes of supernatural horror and a dash of science fiction to portray the fears of being black in a society that has yet to be desegregated — or even that allegedly is (since most of the story is actually set in the North rather than the South). A young boy in the story illustrates a road atlas showing the United States as a fairy-tale land filled with shining fortresses and dragons’ lairs.

Less friendly parts of the country were populated by ogres and trolls, vampires and werewolves, wild beasts, ghosts, evil sorcerers, and hooded white knights. In Oklahoma, a great white dragon coiled around Tulsa, breathing fire…

This kind of allegorizing isn’t revolutionary in fantasy fiction, but it is used to striking effect here. A sorcerer’s mark of immunity embodies the idea of white privilege; an artifact of racist colonialism becomes a demon-possessed talisman; and a black woman who buys a haunted house must fend off the Klansmen in the neighbourhood as well as the resident ghost.

But the novel also goes deeper into issues of personal identity and the evil that lies inside of us all. Racism is not simply a horror ‘out there’, lurking in the dark to grab us. It lies sleeping, like Lovecraft’s demon Cthulu, within out hearts and we can’t control when it will wake to consume us. One of the main draws of the speculative genres like science fiction or fantasy is that they let us explore the human condition by taking it to imaginative extremes. In Lovecraft Country, this happens when Ruby, who works as a housemaid, wakes up one morning with white skin.

She discovers the meaning of privilege when she walks down the street encountering no suspicious glares and when store clerks are unexpectedly helpful. But when her attempt to exercise a little petty revenge against her white employer’s daughter turns into a police beating, she discovers the dark power her privilege gives her — and also that the ugliness she’s always been a victim of can live inside herself. Like Eve she is tempted by the serpent of self-determination to forsake her God-given black identity and explore who she is supposedly free to be. And I’m not entirely sure if Ruby fully considers that she seems fully capable of being petty and vindictive no matter what colour she is painted.

That the characters have this kind of depth exemplifies perhaps the novel’s best quality: it isn’t a political tract or a sermon about social justice. It is a character-driven narrative. We spend some time with some people who are walking through the world. It’s a dangerous world and they aren’t perfect people. They don’t have a larger agenda, but necessity forces them to fight for survival. And yet, by this narrative, we’re led down roads of thought and experience that perhaps we hadn’t considered before. It leads us to uncover realities that might otherwise have remained hidden, revelations that — in the opposite of Lovecraft — might actually help to heal the madness of the world and drive us into sanity.

In every heart a sleeping demon lies,
Yet with strange aeons, even Hate may die.

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