If the title of Lovecraft Country doesn’t let you know what you’re in for, the opening sequence does. First comes young Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) humping his way through a Korean War trench battle while planes roar overhead and dramatic music swells. As he crests a hill and the black-and-white scene gives way to technicolor, though, we enter another realm entirely: chaos by way of pulp, a garden of unearthly delights familiar to any fan of Golden Age science fiction and horror.
Flying saucers hover. War of the Worlds‘ Martian-controlled tripods stomp across the valley, their heat-ray beams scything through throngs of soldiers. Octopus-headed Cthulhus wing through the sky. Most unsettling of all is the voice piping above this mountain of madness. “This is the story of a boy and his dream,” the narrator intones in an anodyne croon like something out of a newsreel. “But more than that, it is the story of an American boy in a dream that is truly American.”
This dream, at least, is literal; Atticus shakes awake in the back of a bus leaving Kentucky on its way to sweet home Chicago. (“Good riddance to old Jim Crow,” he mutters, flashing a middle finger out the window.) But HBO’s phantasmagoric new series revels in its dissonance. The voiceover in question, from 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, is the first of a long series of nondiegetic flourishes that transform Lovecraft Country from its already satisfying source material into something more befitting the unrelenting dread of 2020—and something more apt for the urgent new wave of genre fiction Black creators have sent washing across the planet.
In early episodes, things hew fairly closely to Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name. It’s the 1950s and Atticus has returned not just from Korea but from the South, and he’s convinced his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) to accompany him to Massachusetts in search of his father. His uncle, the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—based on the real-world “Green Book” that Black travelers depended on for road trips through small-town America—sees an opportunity to check out a few tips, and off they go. What follows, as everything up until now has prepped you for, is a journey through the twin atrocities of Lovecraftian horror and American racism. Creepy crawlies may come out at night, but in sundown towns, menace bares its fangs even under the broad noon sun.
As with the book, the show functions as a pulp anthology of sorts, a collection of interrelated tales that visit various members of the Freeman/Lewis clans. Showrunner Misha Green pulls some of Ruff’s heavier-handed punches—shedding Atticus Turner and Letitia Dandridge’s original last names, for example—content to let the subtext speak for itself. But she finds another way to wallop you: music. Specifically, music that tunnels through generations. Hip-hop bumps over a ’50s Chicago block party; George and Letitia explore a Massachusetts castle to the strain of The Jeffersons‘ theme song; Gil Scott-Heron’s arch lament “Whitey on the Moon” accompanies the cult ritual that ensnares Atticus. Each addition to the soundtrack feels like an echo across time.
This isn’t a new move, not even for the network it’s on. HBO darlings Westworld and Watchmen both use music to similarly disorienting effect. A player piano pumping out “Black Hole Sun.” A haunting instrumental cover of “Life on Mars.” But on Lovecraft Country, that music doesn’t just puncture the veil of period specificity in order to unsettle you—it does so to remind you that racism, like the music about revolution and aspiration and sufferation it spawns, weaves through the whole of American history.