Sunday, 20 December 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

I've been reading Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, a relative newcomer to the scene. He's been writing for a while, but keeps dropping off the map, and so his publication list isn't that long. First published in 1988, then nothing until 1997, then a gap, then a gap, everywhere a gap gap, old Matt Ruff he had a farm, and so forth. My copy is an uncorrected proof. When published, it will be via Harper Collins, and is expected to be a February 2016 release.

The central idea is fascinating. Ruff takes the tropes of Lovecraft's Mythos, and re-imagines the stories with African American protagonists. The setting is 1950s America, heartland of noir fiction, and the collection of short, interconnected stories opens with the tale of Atticus Turner, off to Chicago with a copy of the Safe Negro Travel Guide in his pocket, hoping to find his father. Except his father's gone missing, and all the clues suggest that he's gone to Arkham, Massachusetts, home of Lovecraftian horror. It soon develops that Montrose Turner is mixed up with a peculiar Order of the Ancient Dawn, who are themselves very interested in Atticus since he might be a direct descendant of the founder of their Order.

Things, as you might expect, get very complicated from that point forward.

I mentioned interconnected stories earlier. It wouldn't be entirely fair to call this a short story collection, even though it is a collection of several short-ish stories. There is a common long-term plot, however, and the characters are all related either by blood or by bonds of friendship. So in the first story Montrose is a relatively minor support character, but in a later story he becomes the main protagonist. Childhood friends, cousins, Brothers from the local Lodge, may all appear as fleeting glimpses in one story, only to reappear later as main characters. The Braithwaite clan and its magical machinations make up the main antagonists, along with its allies and rivals in the alchemical Orders that seem to spring up like weeds across America.

In and of itself the concept would be intriguing, but by combining it with Lovecraft Ruff manages to hit a very particular and sensitive nerve. After all, this is Howard Phillips we're talking about, the man who gave us Cthulhu but also gave us the comic verse On The Creation of Niggers, as Ruff reminds us very early on.

Recently the World Fantasy Awards statuette hit the news again. It's been pointed out, particularly in recent years, that having an award of this type made in Lovecraft's image is sending, at best, a mixed message to the world at large, and fandom in particular. "This is something people of color, women, minorities, must deal with more often than most when striving to be the greatest they can possibly be in the arts," said award winner Nnedi Okorafor, on discovering Lovecraft's reputation after receiving her award. "The fact that many of the Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."

It's been announced that future awards will not bear Lovecraft's image. Noted Lovecraftian scholar S.T. Joshi has been particularly outspoken in his disgust at this decision. "Evidently this move was to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors who believe that a 'vicious racist' like Lovecraft has no business being honored by such an award."

I lost a great deal of respect for S.T. Joshi after reading that piece.

There's no denying Lovecraft's hatred, of women, of African Americans, of pretty much everything and everyone except white Anglo Saxons and Gothic Revival architecture. He has created some very compelling art, worthy of study, worthy of approbation. That does not excuse the rest of it.

Perhaps it's time to admit that having his face on an award is exclusionary. That it sends a message, intentionally or not, and that message is an unpleasant one. 

Having touched on that nerve, however, Ruff lacks follow-through. There are many dark and complex scenes in these stories, but at the same time there's an undercurrent of light-heartedness that is at odds with horror. Frankly, there's more angst and despair in The Hobbit than there is in this book, and the main character of The Hobbit is a jolly little fellow whose sole ambition in life is to eat more dinners.

That's not to say the stories are bad. They're very cleverly done, and as a counterpoint to pure Lovecraft there's pleasure to be had in re imagining those stories with these protagonists. Even so, you have to go into this expecting that it won't be horror, as horror is usually understood. There's the suggestion of shoggoths off in the darkness, and weird things do happen, but these shoggoths have a low-fat label on the side with an encouraging nutritional message from the FDA.

An example, hopefully avoiding as many spoilers as possible: in one story, a character is told to choose whether or not to accept a benefit. That benefit, we discover, comes at someone else's expense, and that someone else is kept inside a large machine, apparently unconscious. We're told by the antagonist that this person is in a permanent coma thanks to a head injury, and feels no pain. What would make this really work would be if we didn't know whether the antagonist is telling the truth. Perhaps there is no coma, no head injury. Except as the reader we know that the antagonist is telling the truth. We saw that head injury in a previous episode, and from that we can infer the coma. Trouble is, knowing that undercuts the horror by removing the uncertainty. 

So would I recommend Lovecraft Country to Lovecraft fans, when it finally debuts? Yes. Just bear in mind, as I've said, that this is not a frightening collection. It has horrific scenes, and its depiction of historical events is all the more shocking because we know the truth of the matter. We also know that it didn't happen very long ago, in the grand scheme of things. For that alone it's worth reading. 

Even if it doesn't keep you awake at night, captivated by existential bleakness and despair.

No comments:

Post a Comment