Racism Is America’s Lovecraftian Horror

In 2020, the real terror arises from realizing there’s no good ‘normal’ to get back to. The weekend that Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country premiered on HBO, a house listing went viral on Twitter. The property is, at first, lovely, with marble countertops and hardwood floors. It’s old-fashioned but not rundown.

Then you keep clicking through the realtor’s photos, and it happens: A door in the kitchen opens and you are descended, slide by slide, into a vast metal-lined basement, filled with rows and rows of jail cells. The floors are stained with something that might be puke, the metal toilets are covered by with police tape, the locks on the cell doors, as per the listing, still work.

The house was once the town sheriff’s appointed living quarters, back when the sheriff was expected to live on the grounds of the jail. Generations of families, most likely, ate their breakfast and read to their children and kissed each other good night with the groans and shouts of prisoners audible through their walls. I thought of that house often, watching Lovecraft Country, and during one scene in particular.

Our protagonists, a Black family taking a road trip through rural America in the 1950s — Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), nephew Atticus (Jonathan Majors), and family friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) — have stopped into a reportedly Black-friendly diner, which George hopes to write up for his “Safe Negro” travel guides. The staff are white and unfriendly; the paint looks too fresh. When Atticus moves a floor tile with his foot, he sees burn marks on the floor. The old diner was burned down for serving Black families, the old owner is missing or dead, and the new staff are planning to kill them.

The horror of these scenes is both Lovecraftian and deeply American. (“Why is the White House white?” Atticus asks, right before the big reveal.) It’s been said that in a standard horror story, something “abnormal” occurs and has to be set right: A serial killer is set loose on a bunch of teens and has to be killed or captured; a demon enters a girl’s body and has to be exorcised. In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Lovecraftian genre he inspired, the fear arises from the realization that “normal” never existed. The universe is a fundamentally bad place, governed by beings that are, at best, indifferent to our suffering, and once you’ve uncovered the horrific reality behind your ordinary existence, your only option is to go mad with despair. Lovecraft portrayed these powerful and sadistic beings as extraterrestrial octopus monsters, and Lovecraft County portrays them as, well, white people, but the spirit is the same.

It’s a well-timed message in the summer of 2020, when the mainstream longs for “normal” just as massive Black Lives Matter protests illustrate the systemic abuse and violence that has always underpinned the American dream.

Yet, as racial justice activists have consistently argued, Trump’s white supremacy, or the hellscape we currently live in, is not really a deviation from “normal.”

For comfortable white people (and I count myself among them) the past year, or four years, has felt like a freakish deviation from the norm; a horror to set right. The coronavirus pandemic has knocked our lives so far off center that even going to the grocery store is an eerie and unnerving experience. Liberals have turned “this is not normal” into a meme and motto of the resistance, portraying Donald Trump’s presidency as a unique and freakish event, one which threatens to overturn every safeguard of democracy and violate every ideal of liberty and equality that supposedly defines America as a nation. “Fascism” and “white nationalism” are no longer extreme or even controversial ways to describe the seated President’s ideology or method of government. The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is a man who seems to have been chosen purely based on his amiable personality and his ties to the previous, well-regarded Democratic president; he’s the man who turned a soothing promise to “get back to normal” into a rallying cry.

Yet, as racial justice activists have consistently argued, Trump’s white supremacy, or the hellscape we currently live in, is not really a deviation from “normal.” We’re simply seeing all the toxicity and hate that normally gets swept under the carpet. A peaceful or livable “normal” never existed for many Americans, and to the extent that it did exist for white people, it was built on Black and Brown suffering. Our cities are named after the men who tortured and enslaved Native Americans; our statues are of Confederate generals; TV shows about heroic or lovable cops coexist with iPhone videos of real cops shooting innocent Black people or choking them to death, and our ideals of justice and rational punishment fuel the brutality of privately owned prisons. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror authors of all time, was a virulent racist who also wrote a tract called “On the Creation of [Unprintable Racial Slur].”

That tract gets name-checked in the first 20 minutes of Lovecraft Country, a show that seems set on diving into the hidden horrors of the stories we tell, where the historical violence of “sundown towns” and police brutality coexist with unearthly monsters rampaging through the woods. (In fact, after enough of the real world, the monsters are a relief.) It turns pastoral scenes of cornfields and sunsets into something chilling and agoraphobic, as we share the characters’ fear of being exposed to the America that has always existed just outside their Chicago home. The jail was always under the kitchen, the burn marks are behind the fresh paint: White supremacy is America’s Lovecraftian revelation, the horrible truth that has always been true and that some (white) people have been able to ignore.

Even if we could somehow go back to the way things were, after 2020, that would be a mistake. Valuing the appearance of normalcy over all else is profoundly self-destructive, and not only for people of color; psychologists say that “normalcy bias,” the cognitive difficulty people tend to experience in imagining a future that is different from their prior experiences, is precisely what’s rushing people toward the false recovery of reopening schools and restaurants, even when we understand in the abstract that this will only kill more of us faster. We cannot return to complacency or a status quo that would only kill people in more invisible, socially acceptable ways; we cannot confront America’s history and still believe the stories we learned as children. We cannot live through the Trump era and forget that America is a place that chose Trump to lead it, a country that created this hideous possibility and set it loose on the world. The future will not look like the past, and some losses will remain irrecoverable.

In Lovecraft’s stories, an insight like this always leads to madness. The human mind is supposedly too fragile to cope with what Lovecraft Country, via James Baldwin, calls an affront to one’s “system of reality.” It’s less certain that Lovecraft Country, or America, will have to end in the same way. We break only where we cannot bend, and the idea that life comes down to either ignorance or despair did, after all, originate with a fairly malicious guy, one who probably could not come to consciousness without realizing that he’d hurt people, and who had reasons to prefer denial. Crumbling beneath the horrible revelation denies us the other possibility, the one Lovecraft himself seemed to fear most: Being transformed.

No matter how hard we cling to “normal” or to the people who promise to bring us back there, the past year — the past four years, the past 244 years — will always have happened. White people cannot evade that truth without causing more harm, but what we can do is let the horror teach us and change us, like a forbidden text hidden in a long-dead library; let it worm its way into our minds, and alter how we think or what we are. America can assume a new form — not “normal,” but strange and new, something we haven’t seen before, something that would terrify Lovecraft, but release the rest of the world from terror too long brewing.

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