lovecraft country

Lovecraft binge-watch: two from India

This post is #6 of a series.

The two stories I want to highlight today aren’t inspired by the official Lovecraft canon, but they do fit thematically into the Lovecraft ethos, and they’re both very good.

Ghoul, a Netflix original three-part miniseries written and directed by Patrick Graham, is set in a near-future India where sectarian violence has led to a military crackdown on civil liberties. Radhika Apte plays Lieutenant Nida Rahim, an intelligence officer in training. Despite being a member of the Muslim minority, she’s a true believer in the system who reports her own father for subversive activity, naively believing he’ll be “reeducated” and released unharmed.

This act earns Nida a surprise posting to a government black site, Meghdoot 31, where she’s told she will assist in the interrogation of a notorious terrorist, Ali Saeed. But the “Ali Saeed” who arrives at the site is something far more dangerousa flesh-eating shapeshifter in human form, summoned from the unseen realm to hold sinners to account.

As the ghoul uses its powers to turn the torturers against each other, Nida becomes a target: Major Das, the second-in-command, is convinced that she’s somehow responsible. Meanwhile Nida, having recognized the monster for what it is, tries to figure out which of the prisoners is responsible for summoning it, even as she fights to stay alive and to protect the one true innocent at the site. It’s a wonderfully creepy cat-and-mouse game.

Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad stars Sohum Shah as Vinayak Rao, whose mother was the mistress of the wealthiest man in Tumbbad village. Fifteen years after his father’s death, Vinayak returns to Tumbbad to seek the fortune in gold rumored to be hidden beneath the decrepit fortress where his father once lived. Vinayak’s paternal grandmothera literal monsteroffers to share the secret of the treasure in exchange for a merciful death. But she warns him: “Not everything you inherit should be claimed.”

The treasure is guarded by a god, Hastar (not to be confused with Hastur of the Cthulhu Mythos), who as punishment for his insatiable greed was cursed by his divine mother to be forgotten by men and never worshiped. Hastar possesses an infinite supply of gold coins, and it’s possible to steal from him, but the method is extraordinarily dangerous and only yields a handful of coins at a time. Vinayak is willing to take the risk; he returns to the fortress again and again, and becomes a wealthy man. But as his grandmother warned, the wealth is a curseit slowly robs him of all happiness, and, in the film’s final act, threatens to do the same to his son.

Here’s an interesting fact about Indian cinema that I learned from watching Tumbbad: under regulations passed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, all depictions of tobacco use must be accompanied by a visible health warning. As Vinayak sinks further into a dissolute lifestyle, the phrase “SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH” begins popping up in the corner of the screen. It’s true, but ironic in contextlung cancer is the least of Vinayak’s worries.

Tumbbad is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Lovecraft binge-watch: children of the Yellow King

This post is #5 of a series.

One of H.P. Lovecraft’s inspirations was Robert William Chambers (1865-1933) an author of weird fiction whose most famous creation, The King in Yellow, is a play in book form capable of driving readers insane. The narrator of Chambers’ story “The Repairer of Reputations” describes his experience with the play this way: “I remembered after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the fire-light. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet.”

Books that harm the reader remain a popular subject in horror, though modern versions of the trope often substitute other media. In John Carpenter’s excellent “Cigarette Burns,” an episode of the Masters of Horror anthology series, the medium in question is a film, La Fin Absolue du Monde, whose premiere ended in a deadly riot. Norman Reedus plays a ne’er-do-well theater owner and cinephile who is hired by Udo Kier to track down the movie. (La Fin‘s sole print was reportedly seized and destroyed after the riot, but Kier knows this isn’t true, and he’s willing to pay handsomely to see it before he dies.)

The phrase “cigarette burns” refers to the changeover cues that let projectionists know when a film reel is nearing its end. As Reedus gets closer to his quarry, he starts seeing flashes of these cues superimposed on reality—a sign that the film’s spell is already taking hold of him. As the protagonists of such stories invariably do, he ignores the warning and keeps going.

The entire Masters of Horror series is currently streaming for free, with ads, on Tubi; “Cigarette Burns” is the eighth episode of season one. For a double feature, you might try pairing it with John Carpenter’s other entry in the cursed media subgenre, In The Mouth of Madness.

David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, is a mock documentary about another supposedly cursed movie. A brief introduction gives the history of the film: At a 1988 screening in Budapest, the theater spontaneously combusted, killing everyone inside. A number of programmers at film festivals to which Antrum was submitted died shortly after watching it. When a 1993 showing of Antrum in San Francisco also ended in tragedy, the movie was withdrawn from circulation. Until now.

A liability disclaimer then appears on screen:

…and after a thirty second countdown, the cursed film is shown in its entirety. It’s a clever gimmick—undercut, in my case at least, by the fact that not only did Antrum fail to kill me, it never came close to making me believe that it could. But it did get me wondering whether there’s a version of this film that would make me believe, and what that would look like.

Antrum is currently streaming on Tubi and Freevee. (Note: if it does kill you, please don’t @ me.)

My current favorite example of the cursed media trope is Graham Reznick’s Deadwax. Hannah Gross plays Etta Price, a record hunter who becomes obsessed with finding the Lytton Lacquer, a legendary LP whose producer, Lyle Lytton, died during its creation; the sound of Lytton’s death is said to be encoded in the grooves of the record.

On its own, the Lacquer is worse than useless. Listening to even a fraction of it causes madness; listening to the whole album is fatal. To employ the Lacquer “properly,” the would-be listener must first be “tuned” by hearing three other Lytton records—Keys One, Two, and Three—played in synchrony, after which the Lacquer becomes a door to another reality. It goes without saying that this is one of those quests where success will leave you wishing you’d failed. But by the time Hannah realizes that, it’s much too late to give up.

Deadwax is billed as a series, but the episodes are short (the total running time is less than two hours), which gives it an overall structure and feel very much like that of a concept album—one that I would highly recommend. It’s available to stream on Shudder and AMC+.

Paul La Farge (1970-2023)

I am surprised and saddened to learn of the death of novelist Paul La Farge. He was the author, most recently, of The Night Ocean, which offers a fascinating fictional take on the real-life relationship between H.P. Lovecraft and his young fan and collaborator Robert H. Barlow.

Because of the Lovecraft connection, the Los Angeles Review of Books asked me to interview Paul when The Night Ocean was published in 2017. A month later, when he came to Seattle on book tour, we met up for coffee. In my all-too-brief interaction with him, he came across as a smart, thoughtful, and incredibly friendly guy. I was really looking forward to seeing what he’d write next.

You can read my interview with Paul here. And you should definitely check out The Night Ocean. As I write in the interview intro, it’s “one of those impossible-to-categorize books that seems to constitute its own genre.” My favorite kind, and a good legacy to leave behind.

Lovecraft binge-watch: The Whisperer in Darkness

With the publication of The Destroyer of Worlds just five weeks away now, I thought I’d revive this series of blog posts about Lovecraft-inspired films and TV series.

In Lovecraft’s 1930 novella The Whisperer in Darkness, a Miskatonic University folklorist named Albert Wilmarth strikes up a correspondence with a Vermont farmer, Henry Akeley, who claims that the old legends about monsters living in remote areas of the countryside are true. These creatures, the Mi-Go, are extraterrestrials from Yuggoth, an undiscovered ninth planet located at the outer rim of the solar system—but their real home is much farther away, in “strangely organised abysses wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination.” Wilmarth is skeptical at first, but Akeley provides him with photographic evidence and a Dictaphone recording of one of the Mi-Go speaking to a human confederate.

Unfortunately for Akeley, the Mi-Go are jealous of their privacy, and they know he’s been telling tales about them. Some of his letters to Wilmarth are intercepted in transit; those that get through describe an increasingly dire situation in which the Mi-Go stage nightly attacks on Akeley’s isolated farmhouse. He’s able to hold them off for a while with guns and police dogs, but his days are numbered. “I am fully resigned,” he writes at last. “Can’t escape even if I were willing to give up everything and run. They’ll get me.”

This despairing missive is followed a day later by another letter—this one entirely typewritten—in which Akeley’s attitude is completely transformed. It was all a big misunderstanding, he says. He’s met with the Mi-Go and it turns out they’re TOTALLY friendly! They’d really like to meet with Wilmarth too, so he can see for himself how friendly they are! He should come up to the farmhouse as soon as possible—there’s a convenient train that’ll get him into Brattleboro, VT just a few hours after dark! And, oh yeah, as long as he’s coming, he should bring along Akeley’s letters, and the photographs, and the Dictaphone recording…

You’ll never guess what happens next.

Andrew Leman and Sean Branney followed up their 2005 silent-film version of The Call of Cthulhu with an adaptation of Whisperer (trailer here). Like the prior film, it’s shot in period style—this one’s a talkie—and the black and white photography makes the low-budget special effects more persuasive. Matt Foyer gives a good performance as Wilmarth, and even the hammier acting—like Daniel Kaemon’s turn as the villainous Mr. Noyes—feels both deliberate and appropriate, exactly what you’d expect from a 1930s horror movie.

The screenplay improves on Lovecraft’s novella in a number of ways, starting with the fact that Wilmarth’s decision to go to Vermont feels a lot more believable. There are still plenty of warning signs, but nothing so blatant that only an idiot could fail to see that the Mi-Go have laid a trap. And the film’s climax is both more elaborate and more satisfying, with Wilmarth doing his best to disrupt the Mi-Go’s plans for world conquest before attempting a desperate escape in a crop duster’s biplane.

The Whisperer in Darkness is not available on any streaming service, so unless you’re lucky enough to live near a really good video rental place, you’ll have to buy the DVD from the H.P.L. Historical Society. I think it’s worth the money—and if you haven’t already, I’d recommend treating yourself to a copy of The Call of Cthulhu as well.

Publishers Weekly reviews The Destroyer of Worlds

We’re still four months away from publication, but Publishers Weekly has an advance review of The Destroyer of Worlds, and it’s a rave:

Ruff’s sequel to 2016’s Lovecraft Country delivers another virtuoso blend of horror, action, and humor… Ruff makes the most of his inventive concept and his care in crafting memorable characters means that the fates of even minor cast members make an impact. Fans will find this a worthy sequel.

Discussing J.C. on the Fear of God podcast, plus Seeking the Extraordinary with Michael Nathanson

My friends Reed Lackey and Nathan Rouse have been doing a John Carpenter retrospective on the Fear of God podcast, and they invited me on to discuss Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. We also talked a little about my forthcoming Lovecraft Country novel, The Destroyer of Worlds. Links are below:

Part 1: Intro, a few words about The Destroyer of Worlds, J.C.’s top ten films, Escape From New York, and The Thing.

Part 2: More about The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and rating the films on the FoG meter.

If you enjoy the podcast, you should know that Reed and Nathan now have a Patreon with bonus content, which you can subscribe to here.

Also: back in May, I recorded an interview with Michael Nathanson for the Seeking the Extraordinary podcast, in which we talked about my writing career and how it only took me thirty-five years to become an overnight success. Because The Destroyer of Worlds hadn’t been officially announced yet, I had to be coy on the “What’s next for you?” question, but it was a really fun conversation. You can listen to it here.

My next novel will be The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country

We’re going back in.

In interviews over the past couple of years, I’ve been teasing the possibility of a sequel to my 2016 novel Lovecraft Country. I’m happy to announce that earlier this week I delivered the edited manuscript for the book to HarperCollins.

The new novel is called The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country, and it’s scheduled to be published early next year. I’ll have more to say about it soon, but for now, here’s the current version of the catalog copy, to give you some idea of what you’re in for:

In this thrilling adventure, a blend of enthralling historical fiction and fantastical horror, Matt Ruff returns to the world of Lovecraft Country and explores the meaning of death, the hold of the past on the present, and the power of hope in the face of uncertainty.

Summer, 1957.

Atticus Turner and his father, Montrose, travel to North Carolina, where they plan to mark the centennial of their ancestor’s escape from slavery by retracing the route he took into the Great Dismal Swamp. But an encounter with an old nemesis turns their historical reenactment into a real life-and-death pursuit.

Back in Chicago, George Berry fights for his own life. Diagnosed with cancer, he strikes a devil’s bargain with the ghost of Hiram Winthrop, who promises a miracle cure—but to receive it, George will first have to bring Winthrop back from the dead.

Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Horace Berry, reeling from the killing of a close friend, joins his mother, Hippolyta, and her friend Letitia Dandridge on a research trip to Nevada for The Safe Negro Travel Guide. But Hippolyta has a secret—and far more dangerous—agenda that will take her and Horace to the far end of the universe and bring a new threat home to Letitia’s doorstep.

Hippolyta isn’t the only one keeping secrets. Letitia’s sister, Ruby, has been leading a double life as her white alter ego, Hillary Hyde. Now, the supply of magic potion she needs to transform herself is nearly gone, and a surprise visitor throws her already tenuous situation into complete chaos.

Yet these troubles are soon eclipsed by the return of Caleb Braithwhite. Stripped of his magic and banished from Chicago at the end of Lovecraft Country, he’s found a way back into power and is ready to pick up where he left off. But first he has a score to settle…

One other piece of news is that artist Jarrod Taylor, who did the original cover art for Lovecraft Country (and for my novel 88 Names) has come up with a cover for The Destroyer of Worlds as well. It looks fantastic and I can’t wait to share it with you.

My Great Dismal adventure

Cypress trees in Lake Drummond, viewed from the end of the Washington Ditch Trail

Last week, as research for my next novel, I traveled to the east coast to visit the Great Dismal Swamp.

The swamp, which straddles the border between Virginia and North Carolina, was home to a maroon society that persisted from the early 1700s until the end of the Civil War. Though the majority of the maroons were escaped black slaves, their number also included poor whites fleeing indenture and other legal trouble, as well as Native Americans displaced from the surrounding country. During the Revolutionary War, the maroons sided with the British against the slave-holding Americans; in the Civil War, they fought with the Union. Even when not actively at war, the maroons were a constant thorn in the side of the local planters—raiding plantations, encouraging slave revolts, and offering asylum to any fugitive who could make it into the deep swamp without dying.

Click to enlarge

The planters fought back by messing with the ecosystem. In 1763, a Virginia militiaman named George Washington founded the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp, which dug the first of many canals intended to lower the water table and allow harvesting of the swamp’s timber. Although the ultimate goal of converting the Great Dismal into farmland was not achieved (turns out it’s a lot harder to drain a swamp than you might think), the present-day Great Dismal is smaller and drier than it once was, and a network of old logging trails maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides relatively easy access to hikers and bicyclists.

I flew into Norfolk on Sunday night. The cabbie who picked me up at the airport spiced up the ride with a graphic description of what happens if you get bitten by a copperhead (one of three species of venomous snake native to the swamp): “Whatever part of you gets bit swells up real big, and if you don’t get to the hospital that same day, you’re losing it.” Cool!

My hotel was in Suffolk, a town created by God to test the faith of people with peanut allergies. Mr. Peanut is a local mascot, Birdsong Peanuts has a processing plant just off the main drag, and even the Railroad Museum has a room dedicated to the peanut industry. The fields surrounding the town are currently filled with bright yellow crops that I thought might be peanuts as well, which led to some fun speculation about whether the above-ground part of the plant carries the same allergens as the buried nuts, but these crops turned out to be soybeans, so I didn’t get to put it to the test.

At the hotel I met up with my old college buddy Jeff Schwaner, who lives a few hours away in Staunton. After an early breakfast the next morning, we got in Jeff’s car and drove down to check out the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive. This was my introduction to the deceptive nature of distance in the swamp. The drive is only six miles long, which on paper looks trivial, but the condition of the road is such that, even if you don’t constantly stop to gawk at stuff, it takes a long time to get to the end.

And there’s a lot to gawk at. After passing through a dense pine forest, you come to a more open cypress marsh, and eventually reach the Lateral West Fire Scar, where huge fires in 2008 and 2011 burned away the trees and several feet of peat soil.

The Scar is home to a fantastic number of swallows and other bug-eating birds. Along the Drive we also saw two species of vulture (turkey and black), a red-shouldered hawk, a raccoon who didn’t want his picture taken, lots of turtles, and what is possibly the world’s dumbest heron: Startled by the approach of the car, the heron flew a short distance along the roadside ditch and then stopped, only to get spooked again when we caught up with him. We ended up chasing the poor guy the better part of a mile before he figured out he could just leave the road to get away from us.

At the end of the Drive is Lake Drummond, a freshwater lake formed several thousand years ago by (a) a gigantic peat fire, (b) a meteor strike, or (c) shifting tectonic plates—my vote would be for (b), but hey, I like drama. It was a very windy day, and as you can see in the video below, the lake surf is brown. That’s because the lake is basically a big bowl of peat tea; the high acid levels supposedly kill most microorganisms, rendering the water safe to drink without boiling or filtering (though it does leave a bitter aftertaste).

Around noon, Jeff dropped me back at the hotel and we said our goodbyes. I spent the rest of the day wandering around Suffolk and then hit Kroger’s to buy dinner and supplies for the next day’s hike.

Tuesday’s route

Tuesday I left the hotel around 7:30 and walked the two miles and change to the Jericho Lane trailhead. On the way in I passed a guy in a Fish and Wildlife Service car, and after that I didn’t see another human being for nearly eight hours.

The Hudnell Ditch Trail, early AM

Posted signs warn you not to leave the trails. In a lot of areas, that isn’t even an option, because the undergrowth is so dense. The quality of the trails varies. Fish and Wildlife has earth-moving equipment stationed at various points around the trail network that it uses to keep the plants at bay. Trails that have been recently cleared (like the Williamson Ditch Trail when I was there) are a muddy mess of tread tracks, while trails that haven’t been tended in a while are covered with new growth that will clean the mud off your shoes before tripping you up. There are also unmarked obstacles: at the Hudnell/New Ditch Trail junction when I went to turn north, an ongoing repair to the canal system had left a moat in my path that I had to Indiana Jones my way across.

Very quickly I realized I’d been lucky to come in November, rather than August as I’d originally planned. Even this late in the year, temperatures rise quickly from the low 40s at sunup to the 70s by noon, with high humidity. I was fine as long as I took advantage of the shade and drank plenty of water, but I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far if it had been even ten degrees hotter.

As it was, I made it all the way to the end of the East Ditch Trail. My goal for the day had been to reach the CSX railroad tracks that run along the side of U.S. 13, which according to my map was at least theoretically possible. I did make it to the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks, which run about a mile and a half farther south, but beyond them the trail got very rough, and it dead ended at a mass of reeds about a quarter mile shy of the highway.

From upper left: Norfolk Southern RR; North Ditch Canal looking west; the unkempt East Ditch Trail

My Tuesday animal sightings were limited to birds, butterflies, and a distant shadow that might have been a deer. I saw plenty of deer and raccoon tracks, though, as well as some fur-laden scat that had probably come from a coyote.

I left the swamp and got back to the hotel a little after four, having walked about 25 miles. I called my wife, Lisa, and found out that my Fitbit had been firing off a steady stream of congratulatory emails throughout the day, which was comforting to her, since each new progress badge meant that I hadn’t (yet) been eaten by a bear.

The following morning—my last day in the swamp—I took an Uber to the Washington Ditch Trail Head. As you’d guess from the name, this trail follows the canal that Washington’s Adventurers dug back in the 1760s, and it ended up being my favorite trekking spot.

Near the beginning of the trail I met a retired woman who said she comes out to the swamp almost every day to take pictures. The area where we were standing had a lot of wrecked trees, and at first I assumed it was another fire scar, but she said this was actually caused by a tornado:

We chatted a while and then I continued down the trail. It was a couple miles farther on that I heard a big splash and saw otters swimming in the canal beside me. Like every other animal I encountered in the swamp, they were shy, but I managed to get some video before they disappeared:

Seeing these guys was the high point of my trip. After they took off, I had lunch at the Lake Drummond overlook at the end of the trail (the lake was totally calm, very different from Monday) and then doubled back to the Lynn Ditch Trail to begin the long walk north to my exit point.

Wednesday’s route

I was pretty hot and tired, but the memory of the otters kept me going. And then a little while later I had my second exciting animal encounter of the day. I saw a shadowy figure of some kind up ahead, and picked up the pace, hoping to get close enough to identify it before it disappeared. I’d just pegged it as a deer when it turned around and stood there motionless, looking right at me and doing its best Michael Myers impression:

It held this pose long enough that I began to wonder whether I would become one of the 120 Americans killed annually by deer (which would be, I admit, hilarious). But finally it turned tail and ran off.

By 3 PM I’d reached the Jericho Lane exit, but rather than go out that way, I continued northwest to an exit marked on my map as “Lamb Avenue.” I couldn’t be sure this route wouldn’t dead end the way the East Ditch Trail had, but I decided to chance it, and despite a couple tricky spots, I did make it out.

For my last adventure of the day, I asked the Google map app on my phone to find me the quickest route back to the hotel. Despite my specifying a walking route, Google proceed to direct me down a busy highway with no sidewalks. By the time I realized this, I was too tired to backtrack again, so I just limped along the breakdown lane and hoped the cops wouldn’t mind. Thanks, Google!

On Thursday morning I took a last walk around Suffolk, and then it was time to head for the airport. I got home without incident and spent last weekend recovering from jet lag and various hiking-related aches and pains.

It was a great trip. In terms of my research, I got what I needed, and I had a lot of fun besides. (Otters!) I’d definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

In addition to the hiking trails, there are boat ramps at the end of the Lake Drummond Wildlife Drive and along the Dismal Swamp Canal that allow you to explore the swamp by water. Both fishing and hunting (in season) are allowed with permits. And if you’d like to spend the night in the swamp, the Army Core of Engineers maintains a free public campsite, accessible only by boat. Just remember to watch out for copperheads.

James William Loewen (1942-2021)

Professor James W. Loewen, the author of Sundown Towns, has died at the age of 79.

I was introduced to Loewen’s work through his 1995 bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. But it was Sundown Towns, Loewen’s history of whites-only communities in America, that had the biggest personal impact on me, serving as both an inspiration and an important research source for Lovecraft Country. A new edition of Sundown Towns was released in 2018, and if you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend checking it out.

You can read more about Professor Loewen’s life and work in his New York Times obituary.