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With no shortage of blood, guts, and things that go bump in the night, Lovecraft Country is off to a running start. The new HBO thriller, which premiered Sunday (Aug. 16), took viewers on a timeless tour of America’s horrors. While the first episode, “Sundown,” boasted plenty of original concepts, it also gave horror junkies a couple major Easter eggs for them to sink their teeth into.
“Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make!” George (Country B. Vance) says during the climax of the series premiere of Lovecraft Country as he, Tic (Jonathan Majors), and Leti (Jurnee Smollett), are holed up in a ramshackle cabin as toothy creatures — the series’ original take on vampires — surround them. George’s utterance of the line, of course, recalls Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula. But this reference also points to a larger consideration of Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire that hones in on the theme of the series, and showrunner Misha Green’s fascination with “the other” in the horror genre.
Tic is the viewer’s guide into the world of science fiction and pulp storytelling, but when it comes to horror, that is very much George’s territory. In the first episode we see George’s sizeable library, and the book that catches Tic’s attention: The Outsider and Others by H.P. Lovecraft. The collection, which was published in 1939 and went out of print in 1944, contains 36 of Lovecraft’s stories, ranging from the well-known The Call of Cthulu and The Dunwhich Horror to lesser known entries like Cool Air and He. Among these titles is a short gem called The Outsider, perhaps better known by Stuart Gordon’s 1995 adaptation, Castle Freak. Lovecraft’s story, told in first-person, details the experience of a lonely castle dweller.
“I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible; full of dark passages…” the Outsider says in the opening of its tale. Fittingly, this mystery of ancestry is at the center of Tic’s search for his father, Montrose, and it’s a familiar puzzle for Black families reaching out to the past to glean some knowledge of where they came from. At the end of the episode, Tic comes across an old castle, one presumably full of its own dark passages that could hold some of the answers to what he’s looking for. In many ways, the viewer can look at the worst aspects of America as the castle of the Outsider, a place of imprisonment and sobering reflection that leads to the reality that Blacks are so often treated and seen as outsiders.
“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass,” the Outsider concludes at the end of his tale. In looking upon his reflection in the mirror, he comes to understand his imprisonment. He doesn’t justify it, but still feels some relief in the knowledge that it is his physical being that has led to him being cast aside as a lesser man. This is something the Black characters in Lovecraft Country are grappling with, “the bitterness of alienage” that comes from knowing the answers surrounding their own segregation. It’s not that the answers are acceptable or just, but that in having an answer to their unjust treatment, the characters have an enemy to push back against. There is an element of freedom in that fact.
So what does Lovecraft’s The Outsider have to do with Bram Stoker’s Dracula? On the surface, not much. But the beauty of Misha Green’s thought process is her ability to follow a train of thought that connects seemingly disparate horrors of racial injustice and fiction. In terms of horror references, the first episode moves from The Outsider, to Shoggoths – shapeless, protoplasmic creatures from Lovecraft’s mythos, to vampires and Dracula. And they’re all connected through this idea that it’s unsafe for Black people to be away from their homes after dark. The Shoggoths, given their versatile form, become something of a meta-fictional means to break down the physical barriers between the Outsider and Dracula, giving way to Lovecraft Country‘s own take on vampiric mythology.
Over the years, literary scholars have looked at Dracula as a metaphor for a fear of colonization and interracial relationships. “But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one. Men know him not, and to know not is to care not for,” Count Dracula says in the second chapter of Stoker’s novel. Dracula is the ultimate outsider, far more of a sad romantic figure than the villain that adaptations have cornered him into. Looked at in the context of Blackness in America, it’s easy to see how the European concerns of Stoker’s novel can travel overseas and become the American fears of white flight and miscegenation.
George’s recitation of Dracula’s famous line feels like more than lip service, and it’s operating on two levels. On one, George is directly reacting to the moment, referencing the hungry creatures outside the cabin. But, there is also a reading of that line that posits Black people are seen as vampires by whites. There is a sadness and a horror to this, the fact that Blacks are seen as a drain and infestation on a country they built. But, much like Dracula himself, there is also a beauty in the nature of the vampire. What was the block party on the South Side of Chicago at the beginning of the episode if not a celebration of the children of the night?
Misha Green, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter before the premiere of “Sundown, elaborated on the significance of Dracula in the episode. “There’s a vampire thing in the back of my head always,” she said, noting that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of her personal favorite works. “As a genre fan I can’t help but think how could I do that? How could it be fresh? And I also think with Dracula, that’s where the idea of the vampire became mainstream. People don’t think twice about that word anymore.”
This idea of asking viewers to “think twice” about familiar horror elements, to reintegrate them into the Black experience, is something to consider as Lovecraft Country continues and more Easter eggs from horror literature and movies crop up. The use of tropes and allusions in Lovecraft Country is purposeful, and while some may seem familiar, Green is challenging the viewer to make them unfamiliar again, reconsider their origins and meanings, and to find the horror and beauty that exists within these stories of outsiders.
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