We All Live in Lovecraft Country

This Sunday, Jordan Peele’s series Lovecraft Country will debut on HBO, based on the novel by Matt Ruff. Here’s a review of the book I wrote back in 2016.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
Harper (384 pages, $26.99 hardback, $7.99 digital, February 2016)

Pam Noles grew up the daughter of a mother who was very active in the NAACP and a father who, because of his color, had to sue their city after being turned down eight times for a firefighting job. Noles also grew up loving all things science fiction — books and B movies — even though nobody on those book covers or in those movies resembled her family.

On Saturday nights Noles watched schlocky movies hosted by an Elvira knockoff called The Ghoul, backed by a cast of weirdos (every big market had something similar — in Philly we had Saturday Night Dead, hosted by Stella “The Maneater From Manayunk”). During breaks in the movie they performed skits.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we’d lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What’s this? ‘Escape to a White Planet?’

It’s called ‘When Worlds Collide.’ I’m sure I sounded indignant.

‘Mars Kills the White People.’ I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. ‘War of the Worlds’. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn’t get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn’t bring it up again until a skit came on. I can’t remember if it was a ‘Soulman’ skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.

Matt Ruff credits Noles as inspiration in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Lovecraft Country, and it’s easy to see why: her father’s acuity echoes throughout in the voice of the character Montrose Turner.

Much like Noles herself, Montrose’s son Atticus has been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tom Swift, pulp magazines — and like Noles’s dad, Montrose never stops pointing out the implicit racism of that media: on the covers Nordic he-men rescue blonde damsels from villains of darker complexion, while inside fair-skinned men save the world from ethnics and monsters.

When a young Atticus describes his newfound love of the writer H.P. Lovecraft, Montrose responds with a trip to the library. His voice has “the perverse mix of anger and glee” when he returns home with a certain infamous 1912 poem penned by Lovecraft to show his son. The doggerel ruins Lovecraft for him.

Nowadays Lovecraft’s legacy is mixed nuts. The Library of America has published a thick collection of his work, the unpronounceable name of his most well-known creation is a Twitter hashtag, and there’s a line of beers dedicated to him; and yet after 40 years the World Fantasy Convention remodeled their awards, shaped as a stylized bust of HPL, over complaints of his racism. All of this makes 2016 either the best or worst of times to release a novel set in 1950s America about Atticus and his African-American friends and relations caught in a Lovecraftian conspiracy.

Ruff addresses the chamber pachyderm in chapter one. When Atticus complains to his uncle about Montrose’s constant harassment over his choice of reading materials, his uncle reminds him that “stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”

With that mic dropped, Atticus and company depart for the wilds of Massachusetts in search of Montrose, who has been abducted by cultists for sinister purposes. What follows is a series of connected short stories and novellas, each featuring a different member of Atticus’s circle as its protagonist, as the group struggles to extricate themselves from a war between dueling — and, more notably, Caucasian — sorcerers.

There’s fewer tentacles and asylum incarcerations than Lovecraft fans might expect; with its haunted houses and devil dolls and weird science, it’s more Trilogy of Terror than “Dunwich Horror.” But as each chapter bled into the next, I found it increasingly unputdownable.

The real malevolence Atticus and the rest confront is the same shoggoth Montrose continuously stabs at with a yardstick, a gibbering Great Old One of police harassment and Brown v. Board of Education and this morning’s news. Theirs is the landscape Lovecraft inhabited rather than the one he made up.

When two black boys try to buy a Coke from a machine outside a store called Perch’s that advertises White Customers Only, Montrose pushes them away. “‘This here?’” he says of the machine. “‘This is a slap in the face. Every time you put in a nickel, you’re telling Mr. Perch, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ A man who respects himself will never do that.’”

But the boys don’t get it — they insult him and run away. Like Noles, they won’t understand until much later.

A Season of Whispers Release Date

A Season of Whispers

The release date for A Season of Whispers has been bumped from two days before Halloween to October 8. Not sure if hard copies will be available then but if you’ve ordered the e-book, you should be able to download it that day.

This gives us nearly the whole month of October to hustle the book — after all, Halloween isn’t a date, it’s a season. The earlier release also gives us a little breathing room before the election, which is sure to be a burning car full of circus clowns rolled off a cliff. If you read just one historical Gothic mystery before the end of the world, make it mine.

Mark your calendars — October 8, 2020. Don’t forget to pre-order it here.

Do Something

Nobody can do everything, but everybody should do something. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • I’ve written to my congressman asking him to support HR 7085, a bill that would end qualified immunity for police.
  • I’ve written to my senators asking them to end the war on drugs, which disproportionately affects black Americans (34 percent of our prisoners, for example, are black even though black Americans constitute about 13 percent of the general population). I specifically cited the murder of Breonna Taylor and asked them to legalize schedule I and II substances, defund and eliminate the Drug Enforcement Agency, invest funds into treatment and healthcare, and introduce legislation matching HR 7085 to end qualified immunity for police.
  • I’ve donated to the NAACP. I’ve also seen a lot of people donating to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is a separate organization. Mrs. Kuhl has given to the Black Visions Collective based in Minneapolis.
  • I’ve been volunteering four days a week at our local food pantry, which has transitioned to a drive-thru service due to covid-19. Forty percent of homeless people are black.

It’s not much but it’s something. Maybe you’ve already done something too. If you haven’t, maybe you should.

Tales From the Coronapocalypse

The pandemic has sharply increased demand at food pantries:

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in California has built “pop-up” pantries after some of its previous 275 or so sites had to stop operating during the pandemic, spokeswoman Keely Hopkins said. The new sites, many of which are serving hundreds of people per day, stay open for longer hours and use open spaces such as parking lots to facilitate social distancing, she added.

Paid staffers are diving in at many food banks to stock, sort and bag food for either delivery or drive-thru pickups, a measure they realized was necessary to protect volunteers, many of whom are older and particularly at risk for complications from the virus. Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee limits volunteers to 10 per room to fill boxes.

The board of the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry has proposed closing because so many of its volunteers are elderly, including Judy Wahlstrom, who runs the program.

[Associated Press]

For the past two weeks I’ve been volunteering via CERT at our local food pantry, which has switched to drive-thru service to maintain social distancing. I can testify to many of this story’s main points. The first few days we had plenty of fresh produce and frozen meat to give away, donated by restaurants who had more than they could use and a local country club cleaning out its freezer. Now most of that stuff is gone, with little promise of future donations. The only thing we have in abundance? Easter candy — boxes upon boxes of donated Easter candy. Meanwhile, one long-time pantry volunteer told me that several pantries in neighboring Bridgeport have shut down because they were staffed by elderly volunteers who didn’t want to risk going to work.

Pork and beef will likely become scarcer at grocery stores too:

Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, indefinitely shut down a slaughter plant in South Dakota this week after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19. The plant typically accounted for 4% to 5% of total hog processing in the U.S.

Two people who worked at a Tyson Foods Inc. pork plant in Iowa died and two dozen are ill, with operations down. Three people died who worked at a Tyson poultry plant in Georgia. A worker at a Cargill Inc. plant in Colorado also died. JBS USA delayed the reopening of a Pennsylvania beef plant from Thursday to Monday.

[Bloomberg]

One of the survivalist lessons I took away from Sandy was to learn to cook vegetarian. Without power for a week, the meat in our fridge went fast. A few times I bought meat in the late afternoon, then took it home and immediately grilled it (we had our Weber charcoal grill plus a little propane stove), but as I boiled my umpteenth pot of ramen noodles I realized I needed to round out my menu options with ingredients that didn’t need refrigeration. While my vegetarian repertoire is still small — my two mainstays are eggplant curry and tarka dhal — it sounds like it may be expanding soon.

In Europe and Canada, farmers are flying in foreign workers to pick their crops. Here in the States, the problem is lack of demand:

At C&E, restaurant and business closures have led to an estimated 40% decline in demand for the farm’s green beans, Colson said. With the drop in business in Florida, Colson says the farm has had to leave beans out in the field — meaning they will die off.

In an interview last week from his farm in Florida, Colson said they’d had 3 million pounds of green beans that weren’t able to go to fresh market. Most of that was sold at a reduced price to canneries.

The rest, roughly a quarter million pounds, was left in the field.

[Daily Press]

My solution: ask volunteers to pick a portion of the crops on behalf of local food banks and pantries, then allow farmers to take the full market value of the donation as a tax deduction.

And people would volunteer to pick green beans because, in general, they’re helpful:

In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey in 1999, the emergency relief expert Claude de Ville de Goyet berated media organisations for propagating what he called “disaster myths.” “While isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist,” he wrote, “the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.”

[Financial Times]

I’ve run into the disaster myth too. After Sandy, the National Guard was deployed in our neighborhood, patrolling the beaches in full tactical gear — like something from Smedley’s era, there were rumors of boats coming across the Sound full of thieves targeting the abandoned houses along the shore. Even today I’ll still hear someone talk about the alleged looting that took place during Sandy. Yet there wasn’t a single documented incident of local looting or vandalism during Sandy or its aftermath.

Not only are people generally decent and courteous in bad times, they often look for ways to help. Our local firefighters have been turning away people who show up at the station asking to volunteer: they’re untrained and unvetted, so they direct them toward private charities instead (which is a good point — if you’re looking to volunteer, then recognize it helps to be something more than a summer soldier or sunshine patriot). But the fact that our first responders have to decline offers for assistance rather than patrol against window-smashing pillagers speaks volumes about human behavior during crises.

Short News, Tinfoil Hat Edition

I’m a member of my town’s CERT chapter. One of the priorities of our team leadership has been countering the misinformation and conspiracy theories that are circulating. These days, it’s a noble ambition: I myself have heard the most crackpot utterances from people whom I otherwise consider to be sane and rational human beings. If we’re going to get through this, it’s because we washed our hands, not because we derailed trains into 5G towers.

So to that end, here’s a quick list of articles useful in debunking those folks in your life who’ve taken one too many bong hits around the lava lamp.

No, people are not hoarding toilet paper. The disappearance of TP from store shelves is due to more of it being used at home than at work. Commercial TP is a very different product than consumer TP and cannot easily be repurposed for home use. [Marker]

No, COVID-19 is a not an engineered bioweapon. Analysis of the spikes on the coronavirus has shown they’re so effective at penetrating human cells that their intentional creation is beyond modern technology — only Mother Nature is capable of it. COVID-19 is very similar to viruses that infect bats and pangolins, and it probably passed to humans through an unknown third-party vector. [Forbes]

No, we can’t just isolate the elderly or vulnerable. Not only is it logistically impossible, but concentrating at-risk populations would just make it easier for a contagion like COVID-19 to burn through them. Also, the fact that seniors and people with existing ailments are usually cared for by younger, healthier people makes strict isolation unworkable. [Washington Post]

No, it’s not too late for social distancing. This particularly irrational theory posits that because we didn’t begin social distancing back in January, it doesn’t matter what we do now and therefore the disease should take its natural course. The incubation stage for COVID-19 is 2 to 14 days and a carrier infects an average (the R0) of 2 to 2.5 people 5 to 6 people (updated by the CDC). If you can’t figure out that math, I can’t help you. So yes, regardless of what happened months ago, what we do right now has a large effect on how quickly we get through this and how many wind up dead. [CDC, Business Insider]

Update, 8 April: After further reading, I now realize the above is part of a bigger misrepresentation which supposes that COVID-19 has been present in the United States for months and therefore has largely saturated the population, and because a majority of people are asymptomatic, social distancing and quarantines are pointless since most of us already have the virus. If this was true, however, we would expect to see antibodies present in a majority of the populace, which we’re not finding. Complicating matters is a new study out of Shanghai that counted low levels or even no levels of antibodies in recovered patients, suggesting they could be re-infected. Update, 9 April: The Shanghai study looked for an unreliable marker. Other studies searching for better markers suggest a strong presence of antibodies in recovered patients.

No, Lamont did not lie about an infant dying of COVID-19. During one of his daily press conferences last week, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont stated that a six-week-old infant in the Hartford area died of the virus. This may or may not be true: the unresponsive infant was brought to a hospital, where he/she died. Currently, anyone dying in a hospital is tested for COVID-19 and the infant tested positive. Was it causation or coincidence? We won’t know until the medical examiner announces the autopsy results, but if we don’t assume that all deaths of positive people were caused by the virus, then we risk under-reporting the number of deaths and throwing off calculations of the disease’s mortality rate (among other things). Some anti-vaxxers/pandemic disbelievers, spurred by conspiracy theorist and all-around wingnut Candace Owens, have accused Lamont of lying about the death in an attempt to scare the public, introduce Communism, establish UN concentration camps, etc. While announcing the infant’s death by COVID-19 may have been premature, there’s zero evidence that Lamont or other officials lied or misled the public. Until the autopsy results contradict the cause of death, the infant is being tallied as a casualty of the virus. [Hartford Courant]

I Got Some Groceries, Some Peanut Butter

Have you suddenly found yourself at home with time on your hands? Are you looking for books to read about the end of the world while you wait out the end of the world?

Man, have you come to the right place. I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and sometimes I even write about what I’ve read.

In 2017, I read books set (mostly) in a post-apocalyptic USA. I strongly recommend JG Ballard’s Hello America and Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow.

Last year I read post-apoc novels set in the UK, including some really great ones like When the Tripods Came, Fugue for a Darkening Island, and of course, The Day of the Triffids. All of those books were written by Brit authors.

And in 2018 I read some gonzo adventures featuring robots and mutants written by C. Robert Cargill, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and others.

JG Ballard’s The Drowned World is okay but I liked his collection Memories of the Space Age better, particularly his short story, “The Cage of Sand.”

I’m also a huge fan of Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels, which are Victorian gaslamp mystery adventures set in a post-apocalyptic alternate Ice Age. In 2013, I interviewed Barlough about the series.