© ©Elizabeth Morris/HBO

It’s only a very special writer who has their own mythos. As well as inspiring writers during his 1930s heyday, HP Lovecraft tapped a vein of tentacled horror that still thrills and unnerves today. His recurring monsters, such as Cthulhu, a name to be imagined as issuing from a non-human larynx, are alien beings from an ancient race slumbering deep in earth, to be disturbed at mankind’s peril. His fictional world centres around the creepy town of Arkham, Massachusetts, which became a place with multiple points of entry for later aficionados, and Lovecraft’s style, rich to the point of parody with unspeakable horrors and unnamable terrors, has proved equally portable.

A troubled individual who found little success in his lifetime, Lovecraft also harboured unacceptable opinions about race, making it especially piquant that novelist Matt Ruff harnessed his mythos to explore race in America in the 1950s. One notable feature of this TV adaptation of Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country is that an encounter with a gun-toting sheriff is every bit as nerve-shredding as a forestful of slimy giants. For one thing, the cops aren’t dispersed by bright lights or dog-whistles. 

Pulp fiction addict and Korean war veteran Atticus — “Tic” — receives a perplexing letter from his estranged father Montrose, advising him about a surprise family legacy. Tic is instructed to leave Chicago immediately and meet Montrose in, of all places, Arkham, Mass. Since his Uncle George compiles the Safe Negro Travel Guide, he’ll come along for research purposes. Also in tow is Tic’s former school friend and fellow science-fiction fan Letitia, whose advanced driving skills are going to come in handy when they hit “sundown county”. In the all-too-real world of Jim Crow America, that’s the name given to a place where black people are not welcome after dark. In the mythos, however, it also takes on a new meaning. 

Jonathan Majors, seen recently in Da 5 Bloods, is phenomenal as the brooding Tic, backed effectively by Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Letitia and Courtney B Vance as George. It’s also a joy to see The Wire’s Michael K Williams as Tic’s badass dad when the trio eventually make it to their destination, an eerily tranquil town dominated by the flaxen-haired, blue-eyed Braithwhite family and their towering ancestral hunting lodge (think: psychotic Hogwarts). Despite their punctilious politeness, the Braithwhite clan surely intend nothing good towards their involuntary guests.

When it’s not going full Lovecraft, passages of sentimentality aimed at rounding out the characters simply slacken the pace. However, the sheer fondness for books and reading, where characters browse in second-hand bookstores and quote from Dracula, and a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo provides a handy clue, is immensely satisfying. And it wouldn't be Lovecraftian without a mention of that most profound of imaginary volumes, The Necronomicon

★★★★☆

On HBO in the US from August 16 and on Sky Atlantic/Now TV in the UK from August 17 at 9pm

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