Lovecraft Country, HBO’s new horror series built on pulp fiction and Jim Crow Americana, teems with creepy moments — but even more with literary and pop culture references.
A pastiche of the many horror, supernatural fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, and superhero tropes that filled midcentury American life, Lovecraft Country places Black characters at the forefront of those stories and watches how they shift as a result. In Lovecraft Country, it’s the cosmic terror that’s banal; racism in daily life is the true existential dread.
Even the show’s title is a reference — to H.P. Lovecraft, the man whose work is synonymous with weird fiction, the subgenre of horror fixated on cosmic dread, and which infuses nearly all modern horror. Unfortunately, Lovecraft was also horrifically racist, and the new TV series is an attempt to acknowledge the debt that modern horror owes to him while repudiating the racism at the center of his work. The series is closely based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 horror novel of the same name, which Ruff wrote in response to the wider cultural debate about how to handle Lovecraft. Both the book and the show use a vast array of pop culture references to make you constantly aware that they are aware of the tropes they’re playing with.
The series’ first episode is especially overt in this regard. The entire opening sequence is a midcentury American geek’s dream, full of aliens and heroes and a stirring voiceover (that is, itself, a reference). This technique of using radio and musical voiceovers to narrate and underscore the action is one the show uses throughout its first season — and it’s just one more element that makes Lovecraft Country so fascinating.
Below, we break down each of the main references and callouts of the series, episode by episode.
Episode 1, “Sundown”
The opening monologue we hear in the first sequence of “Sundown” is a quote from the 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, a rosy recounting of the first officially acknowledged Black baseball player to join the Major Leagues. “This is the story of a boy and his dream,” the narrator recounts as our hero, Atticus, a.k.a. Tic, literally dreams of fighting a war, first against enemies in the trenches, and then against giant UFOs and flying Cthulhus. “But more than that, it is the story of an American boy and dream that is truly American.”
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
This is the book we see Tic reading on the bus in “Sundown,” the book that’s prompted his fantastical dream sequence. Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame, A Princess of Mars is the first installment of the series of sci-fi adventure novels known as the John Carter series. They’re also known as the Barsoom series, so named for the alien land that Carter, a “Virginia gentleman” and Confederate general, encounters when he unexpectedly finds himself on Mars. In Tic’s dream, he greets a beautiful alien who descends from a UFO, a likely reference to the book’s titular princess.
The princess speaks to him in a creepy unknown language. That’s a common trope of Lovecraftian fiction, so perhaps it’s the Lovecraftian language of R’lyehian. It seems more likely, however, that it’s a fragment of a different language — one we’ll encounter later in the series, and which Tic might not even know that he knows.
Weird Tales was a popular magazine that ran from 1923 to 1954, and thus fueled much of the geek culture zeitgeist for the first half of the 20th century. It published numerous works of horror by H.P. Lovecraft, as well as many other influential writers like Ray Bradbury. Perhaps more importantly, it helped give rise to the term “weird fiction,” which is still used today to describe the specific subgenre of cosmic horror infused with existential dread that Lovecraft popularized.
The Outsider and Others by H.P. Lovecraft
One of Lovecraft’s collections of short stories, The Outsider and Others, is an apt choice for the first textual reference to Lovecraft on the show. The book was very influential — it contains most of Lovecraft’s most famous short stories, including the heavy hitters like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” But many of these stories are home to Lovecraft’s most direct racist metaphors and allegories — what to Lovecraft were the horrors of other races, foreigners invading America, and miscegenation.
The image is blunt: To Lovecraft, Tic is both the Outsider and the Other — and Tic knows it. A few moments later, he reminds himself and his uncle George of Lovecraft’s racist beliefs when he references one of the author’s far less well-known writings: the 1912 poem “On the Creation of N*****s,” about which the less said the better. Tic’s father, Tic explains to George, made him memorize it so he’d understand exactly what he was reading.
Arkham was a fictional Massachusetts town that Lovecraft invented and then returned to again and again in his fiction — so much so that to this day, many people think it’s a real place. Arkham was also the name of the small press through which Lovecraft published many of his works; the name of the publisher is displayed prominently on the spine of the copy of The Outsider and Others that Tic is reading.
George refers to Arkham as the home of “Herbert West — Reanimator,” another reference to one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories: a 1921 tale about a scientist who tries to reanimate the dead with less than optimal results. The story was made into a cult hit 1985 horror film, Reanimator.
Arkham is perhaps best known outside of Lovecraft as the name of Gotham’s asylum in DC’s Batverse — but that, too, is a reference to Lovecraft, and especially the ongoing theme of madness that runs through the author’s works.
The “guide book” a.k.a. the Green Book
George publishes a fictional version of “the Green Book.” The Green Book was a real series of pamphlets that offered guidance to Black Americans living under Jim Crow regarding which American towns were safe for them to stay in while traveling. (The pamphlets became much more widely known after the 2018 debut of the frequently criticized film Green Book, which went on to clinch a frustrating Best Picture win at the 2019 Oscars.) The knowledge shared within the Green Book was especially important for Black travelers to have in the North, where local attitudes were often just as fiercely racist as attitudes in the South, but weren’t advertised as overtly.
One of the most pernicious ways racism manifested in the North during this period was through sundown towns, sometimes called sunset towns, which proliferated throughout northern states. They were places where Black people were unofficially forbidden to be after dark. This terrifying concept forms the basis for one of Lovecraft Country’s scariest scenes, both in the book and on the TV series, and which serves as a set piece of “Sundown” — when Atticus and friends encounter a racist cop who’s policing a sundown town.
James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley
In 1965, eminent Black writer and scholar James Baldwin was invited to Cambridge University to debate the question, “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” with prominent conservative William F. Buckley. Baldwin emphatically won the debate, in a speech that would later be titled “The American Dream and the American Negro.”
In “Sundown,” an audio excerpt from Baldwin’s speech is overlaid with a montage of the group’s road trip, as they encounter slices of Americana, often overshadowed by implied and unofficial social segregation under Jim Crow.
Elder Gods and Shoggoths
When our heroes first encounter the otherworldly monsters in the woods, George identifies them as “shoggoths.” This is a reference to one of Lovecraft’s hierarchies of monsters — groups of creatures from other dimensions that he classed into oddly named hierarchies like Shoggoths and Yog-Sothoth. At the top of the monster chain sits Cthulhu, his most famous creation — basically a giant winged tentacle monster. Shoggoths, however, are more slug-like, with fewer tentacles and many eyes.
It seems unlikely that the fast, agile creatures our heroes encounter are shoggoths, but they may very well be Elder Gods, a typical Lovecraftian term for the ancient creatures who loom out there in the cosmic void.
“The children of the night ... what music they make.”
As Tic notes after George recites it, “The children of the night ... what music they make” is one of the most famous quotes from Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel Dracula. The vampires inspire our crew to use lights to drive away the creatures that attack them in the woods, until sunlight returns them to (relative) safety.
The photography of Gordon Parks and Margaret Bourke-White
Several times throughout the episode, particularly in the montage of Black life we see as the group road trips across America, Lovecraft Country artfully pays homage to real photographs by seminal Black photographers. Gordon Parks, who later gained broader fame as the director of Shaft, was a renowned photojournalist who captured some of the most iconic images of mid-century life amid Jim Crow and a segregated nation. “Sundown” visually references two of his most well-known photos, Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, and Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.
An even more famous reference appears when we see a number of people waiting in a long line under a cheery billboard. The reference is to Black photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s famous Depression-era photo of displaced Black residents seeking work relief after a flood in Kentucky in 1937.
Yes. From Margaret Bourke-White for Life Magazine in February 1937.— James Paul (@curiousjamesp) August 17, 2020
On the LEFT, the original. On the RIGHT, from #LovecraftCountry. https://t.co/2S86nIrXox pic.twitter.com/5NLu47Jcq0
Episode 2, “Whitey On the Moon”
The authors George discovers within the Braithwhite library: “Blackwood, Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith"
These are all major authors in the subgenre of horror that Lovecraft wrote in and popularized, Weird fiction. (See Weird Tales above.) Algernon Blackwood wrote supernatural fantasy tinged with plenty of horror in late 19th century Britain; among his most famous tales are The Willows and The Wendigo, and many of his tales involve stories of men having terrifying encounters with a kind of sentient nature. William Hope Hodgson was another British writer of the same era, known for his ghost and sci-fi/fantasy stories. And Clark Ashton Smith was an American writer who was hugely influenced by Lovecraft, with whom he was close friends. The Braithwhite mansion seems to hold a treasure trove of Weird writing.
The House on the Borderland — William Hope Hodgson
George recaps the ending of this 1908 gothic horror novel, which we’re told is one of his favorites. What elevates its story of a man who becomes psychologically entangled with his dilapidated sentient mansion from the realm of typical haunted house stuff is Hodgson’s phantasmagorical writing, which had a huge influence on horror writers of the 20th century. Think House of Leaves for Edwardian hipsters.
The plot of this episode winds up mimicking the plot of Hodgson’s novel as George describes it, with the entire mansion ultimately collapsing, just as the house on the Borderland does in the end.
Order of the Ancient Dawn
This is the fictional cult that the Braithwhites belong to, but it’s also probably a meta-reference to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a famous turn-of-the-century occult society populated by influential new-age types like Aleister Crowley and Pamela Colman Smith, as well as Weird writers like Blackwood and Arthur Machen.
This is one of Lovecraft’s most famous inventions — the fictional book of the dead, a book so notorious many people think it’s real. But it actually appears in a Lovecraft short story from 1924, then recurs — like most of his story elements — throughout his work.
This episode contrasts it with the fictional “Book of Names.” As George points out, the Necronomicon is the book of “dead names,” while the Book of Names is the “book of life.” Beyond being a list of names, both books seem to have great occult powers. But precisely what kind of power is unclear, which is just how Lovecraft wanted it, probably.
The Count of Monte Cristo
We’re told that this famous 19th-century novel by Alexandre Dumas (also of Three Musketeers fame) is Montrose’s favorite novel — and its tale of a man who plans for years to execute a daring jailbreak clearly inspired Montrose’s own tunnel dig out of the jail where the Braithwhite cult confines him.
“Whitey On the Moon”
Spoken-word poet and jazz artist Gil Scott-Heron penned this shrewd 1970 opus — which gives us the reference for the episode’s title — as a way to critique the sharp disparity between the ambitions of white and Black America during the age of the space race. The work experienced a cultural resurgence after its appearance in the 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic First Man.
In Lovecraft Country, its appearance as a voice-over serves to brilliantly undercut what would ordinarily be the climactic scene where a rich madman achieves his lifelong goal of opening a portal to another dimension, or something similar. The song completely overshadows everything that’s onscreen with a reminder that the antics of rich white people are supremely detached from reality.
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