Now that I’ve read two novels by Matt Ruff, I feel I can safely say that the man has a knack for captivating fantasy novels with a social conscience. His novel, The Mirage, flipped our world on its head to point out the violent absurdities of the War on Terror. In Lovecraft Country, Ruff redresses a long-held genre problem. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are mighty white genres—especially before Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany started getting published*. In Lovecraft Country, the family and friends of Atticus Turner get dragged into a war between two scrabbling lodges of magicians. The linked stories are set in 1954, mostly in Chicago, but while Turner and his family and friends are dealing with the magicians, they also have to deal with virulent, institutionalized racism.
The Braithwhites and the Ancient Order wouldn’t have bothered with Atticus Turner if it hadn’t been for the fact that he’s descended from the order’s founder, Titus Braithwhite. After his father disappears in Ardham, the Braithwhites’ seat in Massachusetts (in the middle of a sundown county), Atticus travels up from Florida to figure out what happened. Things get rapidly weird. There’s something very off about Ardham and that something is off enough that when the Braithwhites turn out to be magicians messing around with forces they barely ken wot of, it’s not much of a stretch for Atticus to just roll with it.
The first chapter of Lovecraft Country just sets the stage for the struggle between the Turners, Greens, and Dandridges with and against the Braithwhites and the other lodges of the Ancient Order. Each chapter after Atticus’ first clash with the Braithwhites centers on one of Atticus’ relatives or close friends. His father and uncle have their arms twisted into recovering an artifact from a natural history museum. His nephew gets hexed. His aunt accidentally travels to another galaxy, while his friend, Letitia, ends up as the landlady in a haunted boarding house. The tension ratchets up as the stories progress. Fortunately, the ending is very, very satisfying.
Throughout the book, Ruff uses actual history to remind readers that it wasn’t all that long ago that neighborhood covenants and redlining kept cities de facto segregated and black people sometimes traveled with books like The Negro Motorist Green Book, which would tell them about safe places to stay and eat. (Atticus’ uncle publishes a similar travel guide.) One of the most troubling chapters in Lovecraft Country tells the story of Ruby Dandridge. After she loses her job, she’s approached by Caleb Braithwhite with a job offer. The salary doesn’t tempt Ruby; the potion that Braithwhite offers does. This potion will transform Ruby into a white woman for a few hours. With white skin, Ruby is not automatically distrusted and discounted by everyone. She’s not stuck in the role society at the time forced on black women. But the very notion that Ruby has to change to be treated like a human being galls and infuriates. It should gall and infuriate.
While being entertaining and original, I love that Lovecraft Country also wears its social justice warrior heart on its sleeve. Some readers may be annoyed, but I felt like I was getting two novels for the price of one with Lovecraft Country. It’s amazing what Ruff was able to accomplish here.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 16 February 2016.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who don’t think that white privilege is a thing.
* In fact, the World Fantasy Award organization recently announced that it would change its trophy statue to something other than a bust of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was notoriously racist.