Lovecraft Country, HBO's hotly anticipated adaptation of Matt Ruff's horror novel, reaches screens on Aug. 16, and series creator Misha Green and stars Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett gathered for a digital panel to preview the series for television critics and discuss its horror, which comes in the form of Jim Crow racism as well as monstrous creatures from other worlds.
The horror drama series follows Atticus Freeman (Majors), a Black Korean War veteran and avid reader of horror and sci-fi fiction, who sets off in search of his missing father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) along with his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his friend from the neighborhood, Letitia "Leti" Lewis (Smollett). A letter from Montrose sets them off toward an uncharted, semi-mythical town in a very racist part of Massachusetts -- "Lovecraft Country," Atticus says, referencing the legendary early 20th century New England horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who is acclaimed for his imaginative descriptions of eldritch terrors too horrid for human comprehension and notorious for his despicable bigotry. As they travel through 1950s American Midwest and Northeast, they encounter Lovecraftian horrors of both varieties, the cosmic and the racist. And the human monsters who enforce racism are worse.
"A monster is a monster," Majors said. "A monster is something that is driven by an inside system, and that system is to either terrorize or destroy and there's no compromising with it," like a feral dog that's instinctually driven to kill. "It's quite different when that monster is disguised in the same body as you, and the only thing that's different is the skin color." That deception makes the monsters of racism more psychologically terrifying. "You're completely confused, in many ways, and that confusion leads to distress, and that distress gets your adrenals up, and all of a sudden you're in a horror film. So I would say for me, the white racists, or racists in general, are that much more terrifying than the shoggoth or Cthulhu."
"I would add to that what we explore in this show is how, a monster, you know what you get. You see a shoggoth, you kind of know what you're up against," Smollett said. "The unfortunate thing about the spiritual warfare, almost, that our characters are engaged with in bringing down the racism is that you don't really know where it's coming from." She added that the racism comes at every level and from all directions as it affects Black people's pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, and it can be unexpected. The terror and trauma is deeper. "With a monster, you just gotta outrun it," she said.
The show's use of the horror genre to illustrate points about racism is reminiscent of Get Out, which is no coincidence, as Jordan Peele, that movie's writer and director, is an executive producer of Lovecraft Country. Showrunner Green says Lovecraft Country wouldn't exist without Get Out's success in opening up a new lane for Black genre storytelling, nor would it exist without Lost (which came from another Lovecraft Country EP, J.J. Abrams), which expanded the scope of what was possible in genre TV. Green noted that the average episode of Lovecraft Country has a budget equivalent to about five episodes of her previous show, the slavery drama Underground. And even though HBO wanted a big-budget, Get Out-influenced TV series, when the budget is this big and the themes are this culturally fraught, executives get nervous, and Green said she had to keep pushing past the point of no return when the people writing the checks realized how big the show was. "Every step of the way there had to be a moment of going, 'We're OK, we're OK, take a breath, relax. Yes, we're going to push, we're going to go a little bit further,'" she said of her dealings with HBO execs.
But in the end, it resulted in a show with a dazzling blend of genres and tones, thought-provoking cultural commentary, and really impressive special effects.
Lovecraft Country premieres Sunday, Aug. 16 at 9/8c on HBO. It will be available to stream on HBO Max.