2016’s1 Lovecraft Country is the first volume in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country series.
Atticus Turner heads north from Florida to Chicago, summoned by a concerning letter from his estranged father Montrose. Atticus isn’t unhappy to leave the South behind. Atticus is many things (including an SF fan) but the thing that has the greatest impact on his personal safety is that he is African American.
Montrose is fixated on his late wife’s family history, something she was eager to leave behind her. Something has drawn Montrose from Chicago to the exquisitely obscure village of Ardham, Massachusetts. Having no better choice, Atticus and his friends follow Montrose to Ardham, narrowly escaping death by racist cop along the way.
Montrose is being held prisoner by Samuel Braithwhite, who, like Atticus, is many things. One thing has great influence on his life. Samuel is a sorcerer, descendent of Titus Braithwhite and head of The Order of the Ancient Dawn. Samuel is intent on carrying out a particular ritual for which a vital (but almost certainly doomed) component is a descendent of Titus. Unwilling to serve as a sorcerous fuse himself, Samuel nominates Atticus for the role. Atticus is also descended from Titus, through his late mother.
The ritual is entirely successful, although not from Samuel’s perspective. Samuel’s son Caleb is as ambitious as he is superficially charming. For Caleb to become head of the Order, his father and his father’s allies will have to go. Accordingly, Caleb provides Atticus with the means to survive the ritual. Samuel and his friends, on the other hand, are reduced to ash.
Caleb isn’t the sort of man who, having found useful cat’s‑paws, will let them go. Atticus and his friends leave Ardham for Chicago, but again and again, they find themselves drawn into Caleb’s schemes. The situation is frustrating and dangerous. It’s also one that Atticus and company appear powerless to escape. How to rid themselves of a wealthy, well-connected, seemingly invincible sorcerer?
The narrative is highly episodic. The book is really more of a collection of closely linked short stories than it is a standard novel. Novels sell better than collections — I blame the 1899 Hague Convention — but the only thing keeping me from calling this a fix-up is that as far as I can tell the components were not individually published.
One has to wonder how many of the readers thought background details like redlining, sundown counties, and pioneering were invented for the purposes of the novel. A non-zero number, I suspect.
A challenge for cosmic horror authors is to come up with a believable reason for characters to be involved with powers beyond human ken. Surely, any reasonable person would hear “eldritch forces” and sprint for the horizon? But there’s no story if they do that. Two solutions are featured here.
Generally speaking, people get entangled in this stuff for three reasons: they have no idea what they are getting into; they know what they are getting into but are sure they are sufficiently expert to survive; or they know what they are facing, don’t have a reasonable expectation of survival, but have no choice. The Order falls into the second category, oddly little deterred by the frequency with which members are reduced to ash. Atticus, having by necessity acquired a well-developed sense of caution, will never fall into the first class, but that’s not enough to keep him out the third.
What makes this particular cosmic horror novel of interest is that as dangerous as the occult is, it’s as not as dangerous to Atticus and his circle as are white people. To be endangered by the cosmic unknowable, one must seek it out. White people, in contrast, actively seek out African-Americans to persecute. Even if Caleb had no talent for magic, the fact that he is rich, white, and knows who Atticus is would make him dangerous.
1: This book was published within a few months of Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence. I wonder how many Lovecraft-themed books appeared in 2016?