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US: Harper, 2016
UK: Picador, 25 January 2018
This book could be regarded as a series of interlinked short stories/ novellas, or as a longer narrative in chapters. The difference isn't perhaps very important but the choice of form does explicitly emulate the way the Lovecraft mythos was constructed - as does the content: As Atticus, George, Montrose and their family go live their lives and go about their business they encounter the same looming theme of ancient evil from beyond time as Lovecraft's protagonists.
It's in the "daily lives" though that the differences start to arrive. There is a counterpoint theme, also of ancient evil but a much less alien, more recognisable and, yes, more frightening evil: racism. Specifically, racism in the United States in the mid twentieth century. Atticus, George, Montrose, Ruby, Hippolyta, Horace and the other central characters in this book are black. The story(ies) are told from their point of view: when a character appears who's white, we're told that: the issue of whether or not they're a particularly hostile, dangerous white is never far away, whether implicitly or explicitly; daily life is an endless matter of calculating safety and danger; the family history is full of the fruits of slavery, and everyone is living with its consequences.
The very chapter (or story) headings, for the most part, reflect this, giving accounts of pogroms or escapes, murders, legally sanctioned discrimination (for example, restrictive covenants preventing property sales to black people) and other horrors.
And these are true horrors. Towards the end of the book, we read this account:
'We were on the grass in front of someone's house. The people inside heard me yelling and the porch lights came on. I saw my father had been shot in the side and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He has this look on his face. Horror. Horror at the universe. I was too young to understand it. I thought he was afraid because he was dying, but that wasn't it at all. It wasn't until I had a son of my own - a son who wouldn't listen - that I understood what he felt.
He wasn't afraid for himself. He was afraid for me. He wanted to protect me. He had: he saved my life, getting me away from that gunfight. But the night wasn't over and he knew he wasn't going to be there to see me through it. That's the horror, the most awful thing: to have a child the world wants to destroy and know that you're helpless to help him.'
If you want a real description of awful, cosmic horror, isn't that it? The burbling, sanity blasting Lovecraftian things-from-beyond-time really come down to this: powers that will come and destroy those you love. Powers that would brush you aside like a gnat. But we don't have to wait till for an alignment in the heavens for these to manifest - they are here and around us already.
In this book, we see relatively little of the classic horror tropes - and those we do see have generally been summoned or conjured by white cultists in their white robes. We see far more casual prejudice, malice, hatred - the sort of hatred that will shoot a father, burn his son, rob and lie. The Turners, the Dandridges, the Berrys aren't surprised when these powerful white men (they are mostly men) grasp magical power too, just as they hold sway in day to day life. It's only to be expected, and all part of the real horror.
The reader soon learns to beware of every random encounter with a figure of (white) authority. These can easily end up with the protagonist dead, arrested, fired, or driven away. Hence those endless calculations of risk and options: hence the book which George publishes, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which gives advice on where to go and where to avoid, which restaurants will serve his readers, where one can stop to use the toilet even. It's a book that has to be constantly updated.
In a world where this is the mundane reality, is there really much additional horror from a thing with many tentacles that lives beyond the stars?
I feel that Ruff has brought off a brilliant conjunction here - the stars must be right! - between reality and fantasy horror and moreover to do so he's repurposed writings from an author who is - as Montrose points out early on - deeply problematic in his racial views, views that also seeped into his works. I would say it turns Lovecraft's writing on its head, but it's more a drawing out of what is already there to make them, in effect, challenge themselves.
I realise all the foregoing may make this book sound like the driest of polemics, but it's really not. The stories explore and in some cases parody or reconstruct a variety of genres from outright horror to fantasy and even Golden Age SF. They are peopled by a gallery of characters - the whites who mess up the lives of Ruff's protagonists aren't, for the most part, cardboard racists (a few are). We have a shrewd magician who sees the advantage of treating well those who are, in an ironic twist, his distant relatives, descended from a fleeing slave of his family. There is an irate ghost who comes to an accommodation with the new occupants of his house, to everyone's advantage - while the (living) neighbours are still (literally) throwing shit at the house. It's a complex world where there are opportunities as well as risks, but, unsurprisingly, the dice are loaded against you (if you're black).
The book also has moments of great humour, particularly in the stories that involve Ruby who has some truly strange experiences that give her, perhaps, a perspective not available to the other characters, alongside the terror. But it ends on an ironic and - in light of recent events - rather sad note, quoting from the 1955 edition of George's Guide which looks forward to '...the time, not far off now, when all travellers are treated as equals'.
We still wait for that time. May it be with us soon.
For more information on the book see here.