Audiobook Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Blackstone Audio (February 16, 2016)
Length: 12 hrs and 14 mins
Narrator: Kevin Kenerly
Lovecraft Country was not what I expected, but it was a good kind of different. I’ve never read Matt Ruff before and only know of him by his reputation of being a cult novelist, and perhaps I thought I was going to be in for a pulpy horror read, considering the title and the cover. It turned out to be all that, plus a lot more substance.
Told in a series of interconnected short stories that form an overall bigger narrative, much of this book takes place in the 1950s following the lives of several members of a black family who find themselves entangled with a cabal of sorcerers in “Lovecraft Country”—a term that has more to do with the rampant racism in that part of the US at the time, rather than the Lovecraftian horror subgenre.
The novel begins with the title story. After serving his country, Atticus Turner returns home to Florida to find that his father Montrose has gone missing, prompting a road trip to Chicago to find out what happened. Soon, his journey brings him to New England with his uncle George and a childhood friend named Letitia. Together, they discover that Montrose has been captured and held prisoner by the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a secret society led by the enigmatic sorcerer named Samuel Braithwhite. Trapped at the estate, Atticus and his family are ultimately rescued by Braithwhite’s son, Caleb.
It turns out, however, that Caleb may have his own agenda. Through the rest of the stories in book, we’re introduced to the other characters in Atticus’ extended family and circle of friends. Each section of the novel is a tale of a supernatural encounter with the Order of the Ancient Dawn or Caleb Braithwhite, who has remained in the shadows, hounding their every step.
There are definitely plenty of Lovecraftian themes in this book, which is what initially led me to pick this up. But while the hallmarks of cosmic horror and paranormal elements abound, that’s not what really disturbed me. The thing you should know about Lovecraft Country is that it takes place in an era where racial segregation and Jim Crow laws are still very much alive, and Ruff’s depictions of the terrible ways African Americans were treated back then are as stomach-churning as you would expect. If the characters react pragmatically in the face of the supernatural horrors and cosmic creatures in this book, well, maybe that’s because the dangers they have to deal with in the real world are a lot worse in many ways. Violence and abuse fueled by racism, ignorance and hate is something that hangs over them every single moment of their lives, coming from monsters that are all too human.
To be sure though, there are also strange events and unseen monsters lurking at every turn, and I thought Lovecraft Country was an intriguing, creative blend of pulp horror with social commentary. The speculative elements made this one a fun read, but the story also made me reflect upon the deeper themes the like identity and history, how both have a hand in shaping a society and the people who live in it. It’s a very “connected” novel, and I don’t simply mean the way it’s structured so that the book reads more like a collection of related short stories with multiple character arcs instead of just the one traditional plotline, because all the themes and ideas in the individual sections come together in the end to form a cohesive whole as well.
Speaking of the structure though, I wasn’t expecting the short story format when I picked this up, and I admit I was initially thrown off by the frequent transitions. Even though this book is not your typical collection, it still has a few of the same issues, mainly that some stories are better than others. Not all of them captured my attention the same way and I fell into a lull with one or two, but that’s probably the only criticism I have for this book. As with most anthologies and collection-type books, not all the stories will have the same quality or appeal to me the same way.
Audiobook comments: Finally, I want to mention that I listened to the audio edition of Lovecraft Country. It is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, who did a great job bringing the all the different characters to life. Though, it feels kind of like a missed opportunity that they didn’t get an additional reader or two on board, since multi-narrator productions are pretty common these days for anthology/short story collection audiobooks that feature stories with way more than just one central character. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Kenerly’s excellent performance. If I had to do it all over again though, I might have opted for the print version, or even read/listened to the print/audio versions in tandem, because some of the stories in here definitely required more time to digest. Audiobooks are not exactly well suited to frequent pauses mid-chapter to reflect, but I still very much enjoyed my experience in this format.
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