Still with us on our journey through Lovecraft Country? Last Sunday’s episode—the series’ second—is why I have certain issues with traditional Black pain/trauma narratives (spoilers to follow, so if you haven’t watched, stop here). We can certainly explore the origins of our deepest pains—but isn’t it so much more interesting with Shoggoths in the mix? I deeply believe that stories recounting our struggle are important and necessary; ideally, I just need someone’s ancestor to magically step in when white folks get frisky. I need a ghostly spirit to lead our hero out of a flaming mansion beset with cult members who have been rendered to dust by cosmic energy blasts…as we explore the traumas of enslavement.
In the context of Racecraft, that moment in the episode was important as it demonstrated that Black folks have the tools to destroy the spellcraft of white supremacy; trauma has simply disconnected us from our knowledge sources. I would say the theme of this episode is secrets—family secrets, cosmic secrets, voyeurism, eavesdropping—hell, even the house had secret doors and hidden rooms. The Ardham Lodge, and the events that happen there provide the perfect opportunity to discuss Gothic horror through the lens of Black trauma.
Gothic horror is a specific type of horror that features supernatural forces and haunted houses, and in this episode, the oppressive weight of the secrets that surround our central characters, Uncle George, Leti and Tic. So much of their anxious dis-ease was caused by the reality that everyone was aware of impactful, hidden knowledge deliberately kept away from them. As we saw, the hyperawareness of a gap in knowledge can be positively maddening, and in this case, supported the hallucinations each character experienced as manipulated by the members of the Order of the Dawn simply for their own amusement. Every single experience our central protagonists had—from eating on the veranda to sitting in their rooms to walking down to visit the village—was simply...off. They were constantly under surveillance, manifesting contemporary Black life, but never actually free to be while consistently prisoners in white supremacy’s Panopticon.
H.P. Lovecraft and his mythology spawned what is currently known as cosmic horror, a wayward child of Gothic horror. Cosmic horror creates a world of danger populated by “dark cults, hideous monstrosities, and truths so terrible that none will comprehend them and remain sane” (h/t TV Tropes), all characteristics of the Ardham Lodge. We had the Order of the Dawn, more Shoggoths, and liver sashimi—no chianti and fava beans, though. Even scarier, the most prominent factor of cosmic horror is that it “depresses you with the fatalistic implication of being insignificantly powerless before such vast, unknowable and fundamentally alien entities.” So, we know killing Samuel Braithwhite and his fellow cultists at the end of the episode only sets us up for more horror—similar to the way removing your child from that one racist teacher’s kindergarten class does not fully remove your child from the school-to-prison pipeline.
White supremacy is one of our Elder Gods (patriarchy, homophobia, and classism are others), an entity almost limitless in its cold, almost mechanical capacity to destroy Black lives. The cosmic horror of white supremacy creates a madness suffused with trauma that manifests in the problematic family dynamics that fashion our main characters’ lives. Speculative writer Nalo Hopkinson insists that when Black folks were enslaved, our secrets kept us alive; but now, in freedom, our secrets are killing us. In the second episode of Lovecraft Country, everyone’s secrets are revealed: Tic begins to reckon with what happened in the Korean war, Leti articulates her mother’s consistent abandonment of her as a child, and we see George and Dora (Tic’s mother) in a romantic embrace.
Those secrets come to the surface as a result of a spell initiated when Uncle George pulls from a bookshelf William Hope Hodgson’s 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, an early fantasy novel Lovecraft deemed an important influence on his work. Uncle George’s vision of his lost love, Dora, is inspired by one of the visions held by that story’s protagonist while living in a house trapped between dimensions, similar to the Ardham Lodge. But there are still more secrets revealed about other characters, causing us to wonder at the exponential power of the spell itself: Christina Braithwhite’s (Abbey Lee) disillusionment of the Order of the Dawn’s gender exclusion, resulting in her collusion with Tic; Samuel’s (Tony Goldwyn) confession that he is not a believer but rather a calculating leader; and a conversation between the now-found Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Uncle George reveals that either man could be Tic’s biological father.
Cosmic terror has yet to madden Tic through his family’s past secrets—if only because the men in his family have worked so hard to keep them from him. But holding those secrets causes its own damage, as the weight of suspicion has curdled the tenderness of Montrose, while George has felt forced to close down crucial parts of himself in order to function as a family man. He is the “healthier” version of the two brothers, but they both carry the weight of family knowledge, violence, and betrayal.
In a case of art imitating life, Black trauma which stems from the cosmic horror of white supremacy also causes amnesia. Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter, a Michigan State University psychology professor, explains this phenomenon as dissociative amnesia, or the inability to recall important information beyond what might be lost through simply forgetting. Dr. Anderson-Carpenter goes even further, terming Black folks’ collective amnesia or ethnocultural allodynia, as a manifestation of psychological necrosis. He insists that we, as a people, suppress traumatic events to the point that the experience dies off. This event suppression eats away at who we are, pushing far beyond trauma-related amnesia. Psychological necrosis is so extreme that we possess a collective inability to honor our history and ancestors, damaging our collective psyche to the point that it starts to die off and rot.
Tic is ultimately saved by his ancestor. The ancestral knowledge he acquired at the Ardham house about his ancestor Hanna literally saved his life. In this way, we are reminded that white supremacy ain’t much more than a well-crafted spell—but our knowledge of and reverence for our ancestors are the keys to breaking the spell. We have become so ignorant in our psychological necrosis that we have forgotten our own metaphysical sciences, traditional Central & West African spiritualities, philosophies, and practices such as ancestor worship, ethnobotany/rootwork, diloggún, etc. We must realize that we come from multiple ethnic groups with multiple systems of “natural philosophy”; the trauma of white supremacy has simply caused us to forget.
That is what I loved about this episode: the kernel of hope that grows because our knowledge is not lost, simply forgotten. We can save ourselves by remembering how to tap into that power through something as simple as a story of family history told to us by a scared, weary uncle who is just trying to love us.
Glossary: a list of terms and descriptions to help you along your journey into Lovecraft Country.
Abdul Alhazred - An 8th-century author and holy man derogatorily referred to as “The Mad Arab.” He is the author of the Necronomicon. Lovecraft Country novelist Matt Ruff takes inspiration from this Lovecraftian historical figure in his construction and characterization of Titus Braithwaite.
Necronomicon - The Book of the Dead. This book is probably the second most well-known creation of Lovecraft, apart from Cthulhu. As a younger horror fan, it shows up in so much, I thought it was an actual tome. This powerful book contains incantations and information on The Elder Ones. Ruff bases the Book of Life and its surrounding lore upon the legend of the Necronomicon.
Order of the Ancient Dawn - Each of The Elder Gods (and some of the Outer Gods) has its own cult, often composed of humans and other beasts. Each cult manifests and operates in certain spheres of power. Ruff models the Sons of Adam, the Shoggoths, and their practice of natural philosophy after these cults.
Natural Philosophy - The magic-laden scientific system that guides the Sons of Adam, better known as alchemy. This also brings up the consideration of what constitutes magic and what constitutes science. Science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke notes that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Tannhäuser - Samuel (incorrectly) names the painter of the creation scene as Josef Tannhäuser. This is a purposeful feint. Tannhäuser is a famous opera written by Richard Wagner, the German composer as famous for his Nazi beliefs as for his music. Musicologist Dr. Matthew Morrison informs us that most of his operas dealt with German or Norse mythology, writing: “he’s like the early version of Disney but in 19th-century opera...both [Wagner and Disney traffic in] white supremacist fantasy.”
Recommendations: If your interest is piqued and you would like to take a deeper dive, here are some media suggestions that will help you better understand the Lovecraftian universe and other horror themes (cosmic/gothic horror, family secrets, haunted houses, mental illness) in this episode.
To Sleep with Anger (1990), Charles Burnett
The People Under the Stairs (1991), Wes Craven
The Skeleton Key (2005), Iain Softley
Jessabelle (2014), Kevin Greutert
The House on the Borderland (1908), William Hope Hodgson
Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison
Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Nalo Hopkinson
The Good House (2003), Tananarive Due
The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), Edgar Allen Poe
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (1921), HP Lovecraft
The Rats in the Walls (1924), H.P. Lovecraft
The Naming of the Animals by John Miles of Northleach (1781-1849)
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