Welcome to the third official installment of The Sinister Reader and today we’re tackling the second last book in my ranked list for February is for Love(craft) reviews. If you are unfamiliar with what I’m doing, here’s the cheater’s notes: For this month, I am doing weekly reviews of books that I enjoyed that use Lovecraftian themes or adapt the stories originally written by H.P. Lovecraft with one very important twist. All the stories that I will feature this month must be from the perspective of someone who is either LGBTQ OR a person of color and they cannot be written using stereotypical tropes. If you want more of my perspective on why I am doing this, you can go back to the introduction post for The Sinister Reader, wherein I also included a review of another one of my favorite Lovecraftian tales which did not meet my criteria for the list for the month. And with that, let’s introduce us all to my runner up for best Lovecraft tale for the month, as seen through marginalized eyes.

It’s guaranteed that if you’re looking up lists of books that incorporate ideas that subvert Lovecraft’s racist views, this one shows up pretty high, if not at the top. I remember when this book dropped and there was a lot of hype about it. It was praised by some pretty notable names, not the least of which was Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing. All that said, it wasn’t entirely loved by everyone. There was a lot of backlash from readers and reviewers who were made very uncomfortable by the narrative’s unflinching way of presenting its material. The book I speak of is, of course, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

There is a lot to unpack with this novel, not the least of which because it is a challenging read, both from the material it presents and the way that it’s written. Set during the incredibly volatile and dangerous Jim Crow era of American history, the book follows a black family living in Chicago. The action starts as Atticus, a Korean War vet, is returning from Florida to Chicago to find his father, Montrose, missing. With the help of his uncle George and his friend Letitia (the best character in the entire book as far as I’m concerned) and other members of his family and friends, he sets out to help Montrose, only to clash with a cult of wealthy white men called The Order of the Ancient Dawn. As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, the cult is currently in a bit of a power struggle and during a ritual gone not according to everyone’s plan, the family discovers their own link to the Order through their stolen family history. As they become more involved in the treacherous world around them, they are faced with supernatural horrors as well as some incredibly violent real life horrors that threaten their lives at every pass. Each family member has to come to their own conclusions and fight in their own way to navigate this world, both the one around them and the doings of the cult, in order to survive. The web of their individual narratives culminate in a pretty epic power struggle that traces right back to their roots, to a slave that found a way through the cruelty and the terrors of history.

I will give this book one thing right away and that is that the tension and the sense of very real peril that it sets up for its characters is palpable from the beginning and though this feeds into one of my more prominent criticisms of the book, I will say that it is effective as fuck as a horror novel for this alone. Some of the scenes that they set up of what this family goes through still haunt me just as much as any good horror movie has and that alone makes it entirely worth your time. There are some incredible and chilling moments where the hostility aimed at the main characters is terrifying and this book didn’t pull any punches at all in depicting it. That said, it doesn’t just end at the overt violence to get its horror through. There is a sense that even the white people who are being nice to them aren’t necessarily their friends, and more often than not, they aren’t. It’s a more insidious touch because it really does drive home the creeping terror of knowing that you aren’t safe as you follow the characters and that the person who might be more dangerous isn’t the guy threatening to lynch them for just wandering into town so much as the person shaking their hands and welcoming them into his house. There is no denying the shades of racism that go on or sugar coating the elements of history that desperately wants to paint itself as something different all too often. When there is the element of the unknown supernatural creeping terror in the background added to this threat, the material sings, it’s so good. If you pick up this book for no other reason, this should be it. That said, as good as the story is, it’s not without its flaws that are keeping it from being my number one.

I had mentioned in the introduction post that I am only recommending books that I would genuinely give a real recommendation to. That said, while I am not interested in riffing on anything or tearing anyone’s work apart, I do still think that it’s worth it sometimes to address some of what you can expect with any given work that might get in the way of your enjoying it, with the understanding that it still fully has my blessing as something that should be on your shelf. That preamble over, let’s get to something I had mentioned off the top. I want to be clear that this is a challenging read and while a lot of that has to do with the content, another significant part of it is the way that it’s written. Normally, this isn’t something I would give away because it is kind of part of the plot in a way, but it was also something that I wasn’t prepared for when I initially picked it up. I could tell from a lot of the reviews I found on GoodReads that other readers weren’t either. The book is written as a bunch of short stories holding together an overarching story tying all the shorter narratives together. The overarching plot doesn’t quite act as a frame tale, though. We get dropped into the first story and it serves as the story of Atticus and his father going missing. This story sets up for the rest of the book but one of the side effects of this is that the short form fiction kind of kneecaps the individual narratives. You get really into the action of a story and it does play out in the larger plot but that said, it still kind of cuts off just when things are getting going only to switch gears into another character narrative. This isn’t a deal breaker really but it is jarring because the individual stories wrap almost unnaturally fast and it is one of the only things that I felt was a let down in this regard. The stories are worth reading because they are engaging and the horror is actually horrifying in all the right ways but the narrative structure sometimes gets in the way of this to accommodate other goals. I found it frustrating, if I’m being completely honest, but that doesn’t mean the stories weren’t well written. There was only one other thing that I felt was left wanting and you should know if you’re going to pick it up.

While there is visceral terror that you can feel running through this book and a very real sense of fear that you experience with the characters as they get drawn into this dangerous world, one of the major things that I wasn’t afraid of was any elder gods or any other monstrosities. This might seem kind of trivial and this is why I don’t think this should be a deal breaker for this book. That said, as a fan of the Lovecraft mythos, I was left wanting more mythology to go with my horrors of racist America and all the violence it brings. That’s not to say that it isn’t there. There’s elements woven within the story and, of course, among the central elements of the overarching narrative is the cult which is a Lovecraft staple. I think as far as criticisms go, this is really going to boil down to your personal preferences because to some, being Lovecraft lite is just enough of the stuff to make the whole book that much better. I have read reviews of my number one pick that cited that as being one of the reasons that the reviewer didn’t like it. That said, for my own personal list, I did feel like it really did leave the cosmic horror at the doorstep sometimes. Again, that doesn’t make it any less of a great horror book and it had its moments that were fantastic but for my own Lovecraftian needs, I thought that Ruff could have made them shine a bit brighter.

All of this said, I want to swing back to the positives and the biggest reason to read this book, which is the characters. Atticus and his family are easily likable people who each have very well drawn up characteristics that make them instantly distinctive and each of them gives a unique look at the world around them. This is actually where the narrative structure does do some great things because you get to feel for each of them in their turn and you learn about their motives and goals in a way that you wouldn’t get to in a novel from a single perspective. And the stories, for as much as I found the shifts jarring, are all well done and really still have you feeling that fear for people you genuinely care about. You feel their plight of trying to just exist in the horrors of Jim Crow America and the different narratives really bring out the individual personalities and strengths of people who are genuinely just trying to survive most of the time. And despite the seriously scary shit they have to face, there’s a decent amount of humor that comes from how they cope with it. In fact, each character shows off how they work to navigate this treacherous time and you not only appreciate how they can survive but you get to really feel grateful for each victory, each time gain ground and each time they find happiness in a time that wants to deny it to them. That is actually what made it such a pleasure to read and why it was worth it to look beyond the two criticisms that I have.

Ultimately, something else that does shine through and makes this entirely worthy of the second spot on my list is how it takes the mythos and runs in whole new directions with it. One of the things that I wanted to include in this list was stuff that Lovecraft never would have written himself. I wanted to see his material pulled out into new areas that were interesting and did something original with the concepts. What Matt Ruff introduces is hope and resilience. It’s interesting because these are things that are usually completely lacking in most Lovecraftian tales but this family is absolutely determined in their struggles, overcoming and daring to challenge the world around them despite its level best efforts to murder them and intimidate them into the ground. They aren’t cowering in fear at the Lovecraftian horrors nor are they letting Jim Crow bury them in the shadows and telling them that they’re worthless. And what you get because of it are some truly unforgettable characters facing some truly horrific odds and still finding a way through them, just like their ancestor did when she escaped slavery and found a new life. That’s pretty awesome and I’m clearly not the only one who thought so, as the book is being made into a series by none other than Jordan (Fucking) Peele at the helm. There’s gold to be mined from these tales and I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to deliver an amazing series on this one. Until then, get the jump on the rest of the world and give this book a look because it is absolutely worth reading!

And that takes us to the end of another Sinister Reader. Thank you so much for joining me for February is for Love(craft) month and I hope that you’ve been enjoying my impromptu Cryptid month for the Friday Nightmare Reviews as well. If you’re still itching for some more horror, why not check out my serial stories under Hello Dolly, every Monday? And if you’re enjoying these reviews and my original fiction stories, you might want to get them a bit quicker than everyone else. If that’s the case, you are more than welcome to check out and maybe even contribute to my Patreon. Contributors will get early access and a few other goodies, including sneak peeks at things on the horizon for the site in the coming months. And if not, I still appreciate all the people who swing by and enjoy a book and a movie with me. Until next time, happy reading and enjoy you some more cosmically scary stories!

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