country Lovecraft

Lovecraft Country Stepped Up Its Game by Going Full Body Horror – Gizmodo

Jamie Neumann as Hillary Davenport.

Jamie Neumann as Hillary Davenport.
Screenshot: HBO

By framing H.P. Lovecraft’s own white supremacist beliefs as the ultimate horror plaguing its heroes, Lovecraft Country’s given itself a way of focusing on scares that are more cerebral and emotional than the vicious, tentacled monsters the author popularized in his stories. But with “Strange Case,” the show spends some much needed time getting into the kind of gory muck that first pulled so many people into the horror genre.

Illustration for article titled iLovecraft Country /iStepped Up Its Game by Going Full Body Horror

The latest episode doesn’t full-on pull back from Lovecraft Country’s larger exploration of the monster that is anti-Black racism, but rather tackles it from a new angle by placing more of its focus onto Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku), who up until this point in the series has been largely able to avoid all of the supernatural wildness her half-sister Leti’s been confronted with. “Largely” being the operative word here because “Strange Case” opens the morning after Ruby drunkenly decided to go home and hook up with Christina Braithwhite’s manservant William (Jordan Patrick Smith) who seems to have followed his employer to Chicago in pursuit of the ancient artifact she’s been searching for.

True to what Ruby said in “A History of Violence,” waking up hungover after spending the night with a strange white man she met at a bar isn’t what she would call a new experience for herself. But as she comes to, shock sets in when she realizes William was also being quite truthful when he promised her that he could change her life. As the fog of sleep clears from Ruby’s mind, she initially refuses to believe the truth that her eyes are telling her brain—that for some reason, her hands are unnaturally pale and unlike her own—but within moments of climbing out of bed, she realizes that at some point during the night, her body was transformed into that of a white woman (Jamie Neumann) who she doesn’t know at all.

What makes Ruby’s inexplicable transformation so profoundly terrifying to witness is that even as she’s wandering through the streets in very appropriate hysterics given the situation, the groundwork Lovecraft Country’s laid for Ruby’s personality makes you understand that she’s likely fantasized about something like this in the past. Ruby’s frustration over not getting her dream job at the Marshall Field department store is twofold in that: a) she initially believed that she wouldn’t be considered for the gig because she’s a Black woman, only to learn that b) a Black woman did end up getting the job because Ruby never bothered to apply. Though Ruby clearly loves who she is, the story takes that little voice that lives inside so many marginalized, non-white people that asks “What would life be like if I were like one of them?” and mines that question to arrive at interesting answers.

Scared as Ruby is now that she’s become a white woman, Lovecraft Country very smartly zooms out for a few beats to convey how scary the situation is for all of the Black people in the neighborhood white Ruby stumbles into. When Ruby, who’s having a total white woman breakdown, wanders up to the door of a Black barbershop, a man comes out to inquire if she’s OK as a number of onlookers gather to watch out of curiosity. Because Ruby still isn’t sure what to make of what’s happening, she panics and accidentally bumps into a nearby Black boy, knocking popcorn out of his hand and prompting a pair of white police officers to rush over and throw the boy to the ground believing that he somehow “molested” Ruby.

Ruby, living her best white woman life.

Ruby, living her best white woman life.
Screenshot: HBO

Even though the show very subtly nodded to the life of Emmett Till earlier in the season, this scene, in particular, lays bare the specific kind of danger white women have posed to Black boys and men, something Ruby’s able to bear in mind even in the midst of her episode. She has the wherewithal to tell the officers that the boy did absolutely nothing to her, which they’re both reluctant to accept as the truth, but before they can dwell on it for too long, the pair make a point of putting the still-transformed Ruby into the back of their cruiser and escorting her to her “husband’s” house on the white side of town.

Ruby’s sudden shift from being seen as a would-be accuser to being a sick woman in need of medication and her husband’s supervision encapsulates the ways that the power conferred by a person’s whiteness morphs depending on the situation they’re in and, in Ruby’s case, her gender. As a white woman existing near Black people, she was empowered to use her white womanhood as a weapon to cause devastating harm, but in predominantly white environments, she becomes just another woman meant to defer to the judgments of the men around her. The police think nothing of Ruby’s obvious fear of being brought to William’s home where he scoops her up only to lay her down on a floor covered in plastic as he goes to fetch a number of brutal looking tools. You can see that whatever magic that turned Ruby into her white counterpart is wearing off long before William starts to unceremoniously cut into her body as she wails in pain, but “Strange Case” also telegraphs that Ruby isn’t meeting her demise at William’s hand.

The story shifts to a helpful scene establishing Atticus, Leti, and Montrose were at the boarding house not long after Montrose murdered the two-spirit magical being Yahima. Sudden as Yahima’s death was (within the span of the same episode they were introduced in), Lovecraft Country wants you to grasp the guilt Montrose feels over his actions, even though he committed the murder out of a desire to protect his family from the Sons of Adam. But what Montrose doesn’t want to accept is that Atticus sees learning more about the Sons of Adam and his connection to them as a means of protecting himself, and so long as Montrose stands in his way, he won’t hesitate to fight his father. It’s unclear at first whether Atticus knows Montrose killed Yahima, but when he comes to the conclusion that his father definitely destroyed Titus’ pages from the Book of Adam, he flies into a rage that leaves his father bloodied and their relationship more strained than it’s ever been.

Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman.

Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman.
Screenshot: HBO

While Ruby makes a valiant effort of pretending to be asleep (surprise, she’s alive) in William’s bed as he strolls back into his bedroom after having had a shower, he soliloquizes about the nature of his transformative, potion-based magic that mimics the metamorphosis caterpillars undergo to become butterflies. When Ruby drops all pretense of being asleep and she and William begin to talk frankly about what happened and what he did to her, there’s an honesty between the two of them that cuts through the abject weirdness of it all. Traumatized as Ruby is, both she and William understand the level of freedom she was able to experience in her brief time masquerading as a woman, and on some level, they both know that part of her wants to feel that sort of freedom again. When William leaves another vial of his potion on the nightstand next to a wad of cash, he’s leaving the choice up to her, and it doesn’t prove to be a difficult one to make as the episode cuts to a montage of Ruby, in her white skin, relishing the opportunity to have a day to herself walking out in public completely unbothered and able to move as she pleases.

“Strange Case” repeatedly returns to the idea of sex being one of the most ultimate exchanges of power as the episode takes Atticus and Leti’s relationship to the next level and Ruby—in her Black skin—and William cautiously circle one another knowing full well that there’s a fair degree of attraction between the two of them. Leti and Atticus hooking up with one another comes as little surprise given their history, but the episode complicates things by having the pair get together only after Leti comes to Atticus revealing that she managed to take photos of Titus’ lost pages before Montrose had a chance to destroy them. Atticus’ quickness to anger as of late is easy to comprehend given everything he’s been through, but the ease with which he’s able to direct it at Leti (and the fact that, as of the last episode, he was quite ready to skip out of town) makes it hard to say whether or not Leti’s setting herself up for more trouble by becoming closer to him.

Ruby and William’s dynamic remains more explicitly transactional as she presses him about why he’s giving her access to his potions and what he’s inevitably going to want in return from her. William insists that Ruby’s simply the woman who happened to catch his eye, which we know to be an obvious lie given that Christina’s also pressing Leti, but Ruby allows herself to give in to the fantasy of it all and uses her newfound trick to get ahold of something she’s always wanted.

With Cardi B’s “Money” anachronistically (but very effectively) playing as her backdrop, white-Ruby, now going by “Hillary Davenport,” returns to the Marshall Field department store with plans finally get herself the job she wants, and in the end, Ruby’s resume is what ends up truly sealing the deal. Over the course of her interview, though, her new boss (Robert Pralgo) takes special care to bring up the fact that a number of the store’s employees quit in protest after corporate management made the decision to abolish its policy barring Black people from working there. The way the man brings this up is meant to work as a sort of temperature gauge to determine how “Hillary” feels about Black people, but for Ruby, it only serves to remind her that the mask she’s wearing is just that—a mask, and not who she really is. The episode spends time examining how the newfound freeness she feels as Hillary has the potential to become so intoxicating a force that it blinds her to the ways that whiteness encourages her to hurt people.

On Ruby-as-Hillary’s first day on the job, she makes a point of singling out Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), the store’s only visibly Black employee, and putting her on the spot in a way that Ruby/Hillary at first believes to be somewhat encouraging. Ruby’s insistence that Tamara hold onto her confidence and belief in her own professional abilities are well-meant, but coming out of the mouth of a white woman, they land like thinly veiled threats. Things take an uncomfortable turn when Tamara admits that she, unlike Ruby, never graduated from high school. In that moment, Ruby’s self-loathing for having not applied to the job has a chance to morph into judgment of Tamara, even though the truth is that Ruby really should have just applied. Instead of using her position of authority to potentially make the company a more inclusive space, Ruby/Hillary instead finds herself bonding with her white colleagues and, for a time, becoming almost too comfortable in her new skin.

Ruby, freshly back in her own skin.

Ruby, freshly back in her own skin.
Screenshot: HBO

As plot-dense as it is, “Strange Case” makes the solid choice to fast-track through its plots involving Atticus and Leti, and Montrose, in favor of focusing on Ruby. While Atticus and Leti fight over whether or not the magic they’re both hunting for is evil, it’s revealed that Montrose is, in fact, queer the way Tree insinuated in the last episode. In two separate scenes, you see Montrose’s relationship with the barkeep Sammy is sexual, but not exactly intimate, as he refuses to kiss him during a slapdash sex scene that’s pulsing with shame. Later in the episode, though, you see that Montrose does find emotional support and comfort in Sammy and his group of drag performer friends, and for whatever reason, the things Montrose has been going through most recently finally puts him in a headspace where he can be open about his feelings for Sammy.

The night that Montrose accompanies Sammy to a bar where they’re able to feel safe and free enough to kiss one another in public, Ruby-as-Hillary, along with Tamara and all her white colleagues, happen to also be out on the town after the white Marshall Field workers insist on traveling to the Southside to go on “safari.” Whether it’s Ruby’s discomfort seeing her white peers treating the Black nightclub like a playground or her guilt over her treatment of Tamara, something compels Ruby to crush the vial of her transformation potion when her previous dosage wears off and she starts to revert to her normal state in the alley. Light on blood and guts as Lovecraft Country’s been up to this point, “Strange Case” puts Ruby’s metamorphosis on full display, and you see that the process, though magical, is disgusting and involves Ruby quite literally bursting out of Hillary’s body in a cascade of molted human flesh.

Just after returning to her old self, Ruby happens to witness her boss cornering Tamara in the alley and attempting to sexually assault her, but because Ruby’s naked and covered in guts, all she’s really in a position to do is to flee as Tamara breaks free and runs for her own life. Were “Strange Case” to have more tightly compressed its final handful of twists, the episode might have managed to land on a slightly more shocking tone. When Ruby, bloodied, exhausted, and reconsidering just what kind of mess William’s gotten her into gets back to his mansion, she’s alarmed to run into Christina who knows a great deal about what Ruby’s been doing with William’s help. Even though Ruby’s instinct is to call it all quits and put distance between herself, magic, and William, Christina’s able to make her consider whether she merely wasn’t using the potions to achieve her true goals.

When Ruby-as-Hillary returns to Marshall Field the next day to tender her resignation from the store, her supervisor’s stunned and confused until Ruby-as-Hillary convinces him that she’s only quitting so that she can safely act on her burning desire for him. Ruby’s former boss absolutely falls for it because, despite his outward appearance as a family man, he’s a depraved creep. She gets him onto his knees, partially bound and gagged in what he mistakenly believes to be the prelude to some sexually gratifying submission. What happens instead, though, is that Ruby begins to shed Hillary’s skin while using the heel of her stiletto to rape the man. When she’s through, she makes sure that he gets a good look at her knowing that even if he were to tell anyone what happened to him, no one would believe him.

Ruby’s exact motivations for assaulting her boss are open to interpretation, with the most obvious of them being that she went after him in retaliation for Tamara, who he almost assuredly would have raped if he’d had the chance. But the flashes of vindictiveness that surfaced in Ruby while she was living as Hillary suggest that might not be the whole story and perhaps there’s something more to William’s potion than he let on, a solid assumption considering what Ruby learns about him during their next encounter. The moment that Lovecraft Country introduced two platinum blonde evil villains and didn’t immediately establish what the exact nature of their relationship was, you could deduce that something was up with the show. Ruby’s shocked as she witnesses William go through the body-warping shift that she’s become so accustomed to over the past few days, but the moment when Christina steps out of William’s ruined form lacks the holy shit factor the episode is going for. Of course they’re the same person. The real interesting thing now is what’ll become of their relationship now that Ruby knows the truth.

“Strange Case” closes out by bringing its focus back to Atticus as he’s in the throes of deciphering the few pages of the Book of Adam he has access to thanks to Leti, and much to his surprise (but honestly, not anyone else’s who’s been paying attention), what he discovers is more than a little unsettling. When Leti mentions earlier in the episode that the magic Atticus is trying to figure out might be evil and one of the devil’s tools, she’s being a bit extra, but perhaps not wholly off the mark. The deeper they get into this Lovecraftian mess, the more imperiled they all become.

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country Lovecraft

‘Lovecraft Country’ Premiere: The Monster Mash – Rolling Stone

A review of “Sundown,” the series premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed earlier this month), coming up just as soon as my life is saved by Jackie Robinson…

“I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, defy insurmaountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day.” -Tic

A television show doesn’t have to lay out its themes, style and/or influences in its opening scene, but it never hurts. Think about Jimmy McNulty hearing the sad tale of Snot Boogie at the start of The Wire, or Walter White’s pants floating through the air to kick off Breaking Bad, or Fleabag talking to us throughout her booty call with Arsehole Guy. Those scenes certainly didn’t introduce every character or plot point, but they more or less laid out the kind of series you’d be watching.

The Lovecraft Country pilot, written by Misha Green and directed by Yann Demange, opens with a scene on a far grander scale than any of those, but it still gives you the show in a nutshell. The picture is black and white, and we are at war, as a unit of African American soldiers battle it out in the trenches with their North Korean opponents. As the combat intensifies, we hear the sound of old-timey movie narration, and audio clips of scenes of a black man enduring racist insults. These are passages from 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story — in which Major League Baseball’s first black player was cast as himself, opposite Ruby Dee as his wife — and their inclusion will make sense in a few moments. First, though, an explosion brings color to the screen, like out of an ultraviolent remake of The Wizard of Oz scene where Dorothy opens the door to Munchkin-Land. Now our military movie is a science-fiction movie, with flying saucers and War of the Worlds-style tripods filling the screen. A beautiful alien woman with dark red skin descends from one of the saucers and hugs our hero, right before they are threatened by an enormous winged monster, which is promptly split in two by…

Jackie Robinson himself, his trusty Louisville Slugger covered in green alien blood?!?!?!

Suddenly, our hero, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors from Da 5 Bloods) wakes up from an absurd nightmare into a far more ubiquitous one: He is a black man in mid-Fifties America, sitting in the back of a segregated bus headed north from Kentucky.

And that is how you make an entrance, ladies and germs.

It’s all right there in that wonderfully wild opening. Lovecraft Country will blur boundaries between eras, genres, and subjects. Tic’s very real service in Korea is transformed into a vision from his beloved pulps. But unlike the tales from his favorite — and extremely racist — author H.P. Lovecraft, this is a version where black men get to be the protagonists, and where Number 42 himself is an outright superhero. If outfielder Enos Slaughter’s raised spikes or manager Ben Chapman’s vicious taunts couldn’t stop Jackie from conquering the Big Leagues, then what hope does a winged monster from outer space possibly have? And in the cut from fantasy to reality, we are quickly reminded that real-life monsters — even low-level ones, like the truck driver who doesn’t want Tic and a fellow black passenger riding in the back of his pickup after their bus breaks down — are often far worse, or at least far tougher to conquer, then the imaginary kind.

It’s a contrast of which “Sundown” remains conscious throughout, as Tic reunites in Chicago with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and old friend Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) to go off in search of his missing father Montrose (longtime HBO all-star Michael Kenneth Williams, glimpsed in family photos).

Tic’s stay in the city with George, Aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and their young daughter Diana (Jada Black) is a relatively peaceful, even fun one. There’s time for him to open the fire hydrant at a block party and enjoy watching Leti and her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) inject a bit of extra soul into their live performance of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He gets an unglamorous picture of Montrose’s life when he visits his father’s favorite watering hole to ask after him. But the city has a vibrant, relatively protected black community. It’s a haven compared to what the trio encounter on the road to Ardham, the remote Massachusetts community to which Montrose has apparently journeyed.

Jada Black, Aunjanue Ellis, and Courtney B. Vance


The Chicago scenes, and the characters we meet there, feel warm and fully realized. There are tensions between the sisters, and anxiety between George and Hippolyta about her desire to join him on the road to help research the guide book he writes for black travelers. We get a strong sense of the Freemans as a literarily-inclined family. Both Montrose’s tiny apartment and the garage that George runs are full of books, and among the sources of tension between Montrose and Tic, we learn, is Tic’s fondness for Lovecraft, even as Montrose pointed out the disgusting, racist language the man employed in his work. Diana writes and lavishly draws her own line of comic books with black heroes and heroines that the others gladly bring to read on the trip.

But once the group piles into George’s ancient, seemingly invulnerable old woody wagon (nicknamed, of course, Woody), they are no longer in the familiar embrace of the neighborhood, but out in the ugly, segregated reality of America at that time, when the deck is stacked against them and danger lurks in seemingly innocuous places, like Main Street diners and old country roads. And as the familiar violence of this racist world mounts, a more unsettling, supernatural blend starts to meld with it.

The beginning of the trip is one of the pilot’s masterstrokes. Visually, it’s constructed like a traditional montage meant to compress the relatively uneventful part of a long odyssey into a few lively minutes. Ordinarily, though, such a sequence would be accompanied by a song, perhaps something upbeat and period-appropriate. The pilot has already broken the laws of time by playing “Clones” by Tierra Whack as we see Tic explore the old neighborhood, though other songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and Sarah Vaughan’s “September Song” (which Tic plays on Montrose’s phonograph) are era-specific. The montage, though, eschews music altogether and is instead paired with a monologue: James Baldwin’s opening remarks from his famous 1965 debate with public conservative William F. Buckley. (The passage excerpted starts around here.) It is, like “Clones,” a moment out of time, but one that so clearly speaks to the images on display on this voyage: of the separate line for black people at the snack bar or the movie theater, of a sign threatening travelers like the Freemans not to be found after the sun goes down (foreshadowing the episode’s climax), of the racist pump jockey comparing Tic to a monkey (with a smiling Aunt Jemima billboard in the background), of the long line of weary black working folk waiting for the morning bus in front of a billboard featuring a smiling white family who of course have their own car (“There’s no way like the American way,” the sign boasts). This is the “separate but equal” America through which Tic and his loved ones must try to find their way, and the stark reality of those images, combined with the coolly determined rhetoric of Baldwin, work beautifully together to lay a foundation for all the wildness that’s to come. The surreal parts of the series work because an unmistakable baseline reality has been established first.

The car chase in Simmonsville — kicked off when Tic and Leti realize the diner they’re in had its previous black management driven out through violence, much like what’s about to be applied to them — is the warm-up act. It’s crisply shot and edited, and scary, but the supernatural element doesn’t really kick in until the very end, when their lives are saved by the intercession of a silver Bentley, driven by an intensely blonde woman (played by Australian actress Abbey Lee), that somehow has the power to force the racists’ truck to flip over while the Bentley itself, which should have been T-boned, is unharmed. (It’s as indestructible as George claims Woody is, though Woody will acquit itself very well in a bit.)

It’s the much slower chase which gives the episode its title that’s actually the hour’s most terrifying sequence — yes, even more than the shoggoth attack that follows it. Lost on a backwoods highway en route to their destination, the group has pulled over to study the map (and for Tic to relieve himself) when an infamously racist sheriff pulls up and points out that they’re in a sundown county, where their very presence after sunset would make them subject to arrest — and, almost certainly, something far worse. (Like so many of the awful things depicted in the series, sundown towns and counties were a very real thing in our not-too-distant past.) They only have seven minutes to clear the county line, and, to make matters even more fun for him and terrifying for them, he promises to follow them the whole way and arrest them if they go above the speed limit. Where Lovecraft Country has already played around a bit with time and space, Tic doesn’t have that luxury, and so they have to drive away, inch by agonizing inch, bound by the laws of physics on top of the threat of the vigilante-style lawman who is riding their tail — and, eventually, bumping into it, just for extra kicks. And, of course, the entire game is rigged, because even when they barely cross the border in time, they’re arrested by the cops on the other side, who’ve been alerted by their racist brother in arms.

When the shoggoths — undead creatures introduced in Lovecraft’s fiction, and part of his larger Cthulu Mythos — burst out of the trees and attack the cops, it’s almost a relief. Both monsters are the type that the Freemans and Leti recognize. But where our heroes are utterly powerless against the cops on a mortal playing field, on the supernatural one, they figure out that light (whether Woody’s headlights or the flashbulb from Leti’s camera) can drive away these white, ravenous beasts. They are terrorized by the shoggoths, but also saved by them, and the boundary between the two kinds of monsters vanishes when one of the cops transforms into a shoggoth after being bitten.

It’s a thrilling sequence, more cathartic than either of the car chases, because Tic and Leti and George get to be more active in saving themselves. And it brings the premiere to a suitably unnerving close, as our travelers appear to find their destination: the Ardham Lodge, a hulking Gothic structure, where they are greeted by a man (Jordan Patrick Smith) so white and blonde, he might as well be the twin of the woman from the silver Bentley — which is conveniently parked out front. Letters Montrose left behind had suggested he was on the trail of their family history. The man at the door is happy to address Tic directly, saying, “We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Freeman. Welcome home.”

Best of luck, Mr. Freeman. Nothing about this situation looks good.

Wunmi Mosaku and Smollett


Some other thoughts:

* This week’s songs included: excerpts from the soundtrack to The Jackie Robinson Story, by Herschel Burke Gilbert; “Sh-Boom,” by The Crew-Cuts; “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” by Etta James; “Clones,” by Tierra Whack; “Alley Corn,” by Earl Hooker; “September Song,” by Sarah Vaughan; “You Upset Me Baby,” by B.B. King; “Recipe For Happiness,” by Jimmy Self; “Cobb’s Corner,” by Arnett Cobb; and Alice Smith’s cover of “Sinnerman.”

* Meanwhile, that was really Wunmi Mosaku and Jurnee Smollett singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’” together. Mosaku sang in the Manchester Girl’s Choir for years, while Smollett comes from a family with musical talent, and she also sang as Black Canary in Birds of Prey. There’s clear tension between Leti and both her siblings over her absence in the aftermath of their mother’s death — among other things — but the sisters definitely tore through that number at the block party.

* Montrose, meanwhile, looms large even in his absence. He’s the reason for the road trip, and also a difficult figure from Tic’s past. George tries to defend his little brother by acknowledging that Montrose is part of a cycle of generational abuse, which only makes Tic resent the fact that George did nothing to protect him when he was on the receiving end of Montrose’s fury.

* I confess to knowing precious little about Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself, but his name and work has had a recurring presence on HBO for a long time. There was the 1991 HBO movie Cast a Deadly Spell, a mix of film noir and supernatural horror with Fred Ward as a private dick named Harry Philip Lovecraft. And the first season of True Detective referenced Lovecraft so often that many viewers were disappointed the mystery had an all-too-human villain at the center. Knowledge of his life and work isn’t essential to appreciating this show, but if you want to know more — particularly about Lovecraft’s white supremacist leanings — you can start here and here (the second one with a bonus appearance by Matt Ruff, author of the Lovecraft Country novel, which I also haven’t read).

* Finally, we’ll be recapping each episode of the series like this. The show has strong serialized elements, while also being very much in the Buffy or X-Files tradition of mixing Monster of the Week stories in with the bigger questions. So there will be lots to talk about on both a macro and micro level. Buckle up.

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