The Other Columbus: Living in a Lovecraft City

Scott Woods
"Lovecraft Country"

HBO’s new horror series, “Lovecraft Country,” is a lot of things at once. Based loosely on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, the story centers on an ensemble of Black characters combatting supernatural monsters while navigating the very human monsters of a segregated 1950s America. Halfway through the 10 episode season, the show is groundbreaking stuff, culturally speaking, seeking to plant flags on behalf of representation and diverse storytelling in the genres of adventure, science fiction and horror all at once. With its brilliant, brave and scholarly Black adventurers, the show is a racist’s nightmare, even as it is propelled by the persistent nightmare of racism.

I loved the book. I am on the fence about the show. Unpacking the creatures, environs and themes of both gave the social scientist in me an opportunity to wonder how such a template might translate laid across a map of Columbus.

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Traveling while Black across 1950s America was a precarious trial. Regardless of whether you were in the north or the south, travelers had to navigate “sundown towns”places where it was not safe to be caught driving while Black after dark. In Columbus, Bexley used to have a reputation about how likely one was to get pulled over, but in recent years Gahanna has taken the sundown crown (though technically this is true there no matter what time of day it is).

The main villains of the supernatural story are the very human secret society, the Sons of Adam, who labor to create a purer, perfect world by sacrificing the main protagonist, Atticus. If that isn’t gentrification, I don’t know what is. That this more perfect world is more white at the expense of Black blood might even be a little, shall we say, on the nose in Columbus.

Another main character, the sharp and quick to fight Letitia “Leti” Lewis purchases a house that turns out to be haunted by a racist ghost. She is also beset by her new neighbors, racists who don’t take kindly to having their white neighborhood block busted. They’d rather have a house filled with murderous ghosts than Black people, and despite the numerous times law enforcement officers are used to illustrate terror in the show, it is this angle that reminds me most of our police force. The haunted house is like the police department: only 10 percent of its officers are Black, despite being 28 percent of the city’s population. This in the face of people of color and non-males comprising 49 percent of applicants (25.7 percent of whom were Black). The police department doesn’t want its block busted.

The shifts in narrative tone from episode to episode have precedence in how I experience Columbus personally, and I imagine the same is true for many other residents. One week the show is a monster-filled horror show, the next a class study, the next a Goonies-style adventure. Future episodes will check the science fiction box.

Living in Columbus for me is often like that an observation easily gleaned considering the title of this ongoing column. As a Black Columbusite, one day the city seems filled with economic and cultural potential, the next it is a police state, the next an adventure in pulling people out of educational and political quicksand. Living here was that kind of experience well before the sucking maelstrom that is 2020. The pandemic has only served to amplify the dissonance, vacillating wildly from a land of opportunity to a sickening oligarchy in the time it takes to drive from one side of town to the other.

Someone asked me today why I stay here when I give the city so much grief. I responded with one reason, but there are two in my head. The first is that I grew up here and am invested in its success. Conversely, I have every right to demand better of it. When I feel that the city has passed the point of no return that it is truly a lost cause politically and culturally I’ll start looking at brochures.

The second reason is because while I write about Columbus, I know America. I have been in sundown towns all over this state and beyond, broken out in sweat at the passing of a police car despite having done nothing wrong. I know there is a difference in how far my dollar goes compared to other citizens. I travel to other cities and listen to their stories, engage their activists and follow their headlines. And because I have experienced these things, I know the one true thing about the whole of this land: I know that it is all “Lovecraft Country.”