Review: Matt Ruff delivers expert sequel with “The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country”

Joseph Poulos, Staff Writer

Matt Ruff is back with a new “Lovecraft Country” book, proving he still has what it takes to keep this fan-favorite franchise alive and well. 

Ruff’s latest book, and the follow up to his 2016 novel, “Lovecraft Country,” which was made into a well-received 2020 HBO series, definitively follows the vein of the first book, with all the memorable characters returning in a world in which only Ruff could create.

This latest book, “The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country,” picks up a couple years from where we last left our protagonists. Fresh off their victory against the evil, yet conflicted sorcerer, Caleb Braithwhite, our heroes in the Berry and Freeman families seek to stay out of trouble for a little longer, while some still enjoy the benefits of the magic spells from the first book.

It should be noted the HBO series is much different than the first book. In an unfortunate turn of events in which the highly entertaining show helmed by Misha Green and Jordan Peele was canceled after its first season, its now even more disappointing given that Ruff has written another book which may have provided source material for a second season.

Where the show succeeded, and where Ruff is largely at his best, is in creating the world in which the 1950s Jim Crow era exists side by side with the science fiction and horror genres as well. Though featuring very real events, such as the murder of Emmet Till as well as the Korean War, the “Lovecraft” series of books also feature elements of magic which can cause very real fear in the reader and the main characters alike.

Our primary protagonist, the Korean War veteran Atticus Turner, is a young man who has decided to travel with his father, Montrose, to North Carolina to trace the route of their ancestors on their escape from slavery some 100 years before. When they get there, they are pursued by some of the villains from the first novel who have not yet been dispatched by the handy gang. This adventure offers them some insight into a woman with magical powers of her own, on the strength of which they may later save themselves.

Atticus’ Uncle George, on the other hand, deals with secrecy in his newfound cancer diagnosis, not wishing to upset his family. He privately seeks the magical prowess of Hiram Winthrop to stem the tide of this particularly unfortunate diagnosis. 

What Ruff does right here is recreates the environment from the first book. The historical parallels are there; the fictional universe has depth and resonance. Our main characters are all here as well, including the beloved Ruby Dandridge and her sister Letitia Lewis, both of whom must deal with the consequences of their actions from the original “Lovecraft Country.”

Since Ruff’s latest novel feels like more of an extended epilogue or continuation of the first book rather than a totally new story in the same universe, it does owe much of its potential to the existing fan base and their fondness for the original.

It’s true, Ruff doesn’t pack as much action and horror into the story this time around, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are still big set piece moments here; a particularly great one that features prominently on the cover and in the title of this latest book involves Hippolyta and her son Horace escaping an atomic bomb test site just before it explodes. 

There are worlds that are returned to as well. Specifically, Hippolyta again travels to Tera Hiram, the strange and frightening planet that she spent one of the most memorable chapters of “Lovecraft Country” on. 

However, things have now changed. The threatening beast which inhabited the beaches of said planet is now dead, as is his her only human contact from that encounter. Ruff seems to be commenting on how easily things can change, and perhaps how wonder and awe have the potential to degrade just like anything else in this world.

This latest book seems to be a growth in this franchise. It no longer seeks to capitalize on the horror it had once firmly rooted itself in. In some ways, it doesn’t really need to anymore. 

Owing to the popularity of the television series, the characters and their world are now so firmly cemented in readers’ minds that a more nuanced and laidback tale in the same world is more than a welcome addition to the franchise. 

With that being said, there are still scary moments here, but they are more easily explained; by now, the well-understood magic takes precedence, rather than the mystery of the first book. This is a natural progression of the plot, to be sure, but it also offers more confidence in our characters as they combat the evil sorcerers of the Order of the Ancient Dawn.

What was once a frightening and funny book series now becomes a bit more of a meditation in family and science (fiction and otherwise). It’s still humorous in some parts, and the book offers resolutions to a few of the relationships from the first book, specifically between Caleb and Ruby.

Regrettably, Atticus and Letitia, the lovers of the first book, and certainly the show, are barely in a single scene together. In fact, Atticus and Montrose are only really featured in the beginning of the book, albeit in an exciting sequence in which they escape a swamp after being attacked by a racist sheriff.

What fans of the original book and television series will get out of this is that nostalgic feeling of being able to spend a little more time with characters that they truly loved and ones who were not coming back, at least as far as anyone knew. The press for the new book was brief and was only recently announced on Amazon. 

This surprise is welcome, however. Fans can be sure to check back for another book in the future, since the final threads of the plot are left unfinished and a key cliffhanger presents itself right before the final sentence of this book.

It may not feature as heavily on monsters as “Lovecraft Country” did, but readers can still enjoy the elements of magic and adventure that they have come to expect from Ruff. In a notable feature of this novel, the fear of the imposter, which presents itself in the dark art of body snatching, cements our characters into the paranoia of not only the racist world they live in, but actually starts to have them question their own loved ones as well.

In totality, Ruff does a great job providing a new take on his old characters here. Instead of repeating the same formula as before, he loses elements that no longer make sense to the plot and further explores the ones that do. 

This is a welcome return to Lovecraft Country, and fans of the series will be pleased with Ruff’s dedication to keeping these characters and world alive. The Chicago natives of the book will be warmly greeted when they return again, hopefully not too far in the near future.