Reader, I was invested. Possibly even enthralled. At one point, I thought “Matt Ruff, if you XXXXX, I am throwing this book right out of the train window, and possibly Lovecraft Country too as soon as I get home and put my hands on my copy.” Not because the event would have been cheap or manipulative — it would have been completely in keeping with both the character and the world that Ruff shows; indeed its possibility was foreshadowed in an early chapter — but because I had come to like the character enough that if this particular horror had come to pass, I don’t think I would have been able to finish the book. Like I said, I was invested.
The Destroyer of Worlds is a sequel to Lovecraft Country, bringing back most of the earlier book’s characters, and develops others more fully. Where Lovecraft Country was a collection of linked stories that were complete in themselves but formed a larger narrative, The Destroyer of Worlds is a conventional novel, with short chapters that move among the points of view and threaded plots of the cast of characters. The ensemble of protagonists are Black friends and relatives from the South Side of Chicago. After a pre–Civil War prologue, the main story opens with Montrose Turner and his grown son Atticus traveling south to visit the site of the plantation their ancestor escaped from to mark the centennial of that momentous family event. George Berry, Montrose’s half-brother and publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, Ruff’s fictional counterpart to The Negro Motorist Green Book, “begged off at the last minute.” (p. 13) Meanwhile, George’s wife Hippolyta and their son Horace plus Hippolyta’s friend Letitia Dandridge are on a trip of their own, driving out to Las Vegas, partly on business for the Guide, partly on a secret errand that ties back to events in Lovecraft Country.
Both sets of travelers get more than they bargained for. While there are supernatural terrors in the setting of Lovecraft Country and The Destroyer of Worlds, for Black people in 1957 America the powers that enforce white supremacy are every bit as frightening and often more immediate. Both sets of travelers have run-ins with local law enforcement. Atticus and Montrose spend a little too long observing a North Carolina chain gang, and one of the nearby police officers turns out to be a rural sheriff who appeared in Lovecraft Country. That situation goes downhill fast, and soon guns are blazing. Hippolyta, Horace and Letitia get pulled over at the Nevada border for a surprising reason that shows not every white officer is bad every time, but of course they could be, and there’s no way for a Black person to know in advance whether an encounter with the law might destroy their own world.
One important difference from Lovecraft Country is that the characters (except the youngest ones) all already know that magic and occult forces operate in their world. Some of them have access to a bit of it themselves, or to sufficiently advanced technology. The Destroyer of Worlds is not a story of discovery, it’s a story of use and of consequences. On the other hand, their knowledge is more an inkling than mastery. Montrose and Atticus are, consciously or otherwise, invoking the power of their ancestors. Hippolyta has been running errands for the ghost of a sorcerer, trying to build up favors without telling her husband George. And George has been trying to gather occult forces to his side for reasons of his own; those reasons are moral enough that he can enlist the support of some of the most upstanding people in his community, but in time they lead in ever more troublesome directions. The stories converge over the course of the book as Ruff reveals connections between what the characters have been up to, and also that some of the ends from the events in Lovecraft Country were looser than the people involved had thought.
Ruff introduces some new characters, and deepens others that had peripheral roles in the previous book. Horace Berry, for example, is fifteen in this book, troubled by the death of a friend. Ruff’s depiction captures teen energy and randomness that exists alongside great sensitivity, and in Horace’s case how a budding artist faces some of life’s hardest questions. Hippolyta and Letitia meet Anthony Starling, a pilot and Korea veteran, while they are in Nevada, and he’s an interesting addition to the Chicagoans. I hope that Ruff will show more of him in possible future volumes. The Destroyer of Worlds tells a complete story, but it’s also more obviously open to continuation than Lovecraft Country was. As he writes in this book’s acknowledgments, “By the time I finished writing Lovecraft Country, I’d begun thinking about a longer story involving the same characters—one that would likely require several volumes to complete.” It looks like that project is underway. The Destroyer of Worlds, opener of new horizons.
Oh, and it did not go out the train window.