August 7, 2020 2:35 PM EDT

The three travelers start running for their lives long before the monsters appear to chase them. Having recently survived a shotgun-wielding militiaman in a pickup truck, they were racing to reach the county line before sunset with a bloodthirsty cop on their tail, eager to pounce if they didn’t make it. But seconds after crossing the border, with no time to spare, they roll up to a roadblock: more police, more squad cars, more guns. A failed escape into the woods leaves them on the ground with barrels aimed at their backs. That’s when, in a blur of motion, an enormous, lizard-like creature leaps out of the darkness and chows down on one of their captors.

These motorists aren’t criminals or fugitives—they are a young, Black Korean War veteran named Atticus (The Last Black Man in San Francisco star Jonathan Majors), his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), on the last leg of a cross-country roadtrip in the 1950s. And the sudden intrusion of the supernatural into America’s regularly scheduled racism both heightens the absurdity of humans inciting violence over skin color and puts the police in the same predicament as the innocent people they’ve been hunting for sport. Of course, the travelers are better equipped to survive the monsters; they have been defending themselves all their lives from the monster that is white supremacy.

Such is the nightmare logic of Lovecraft Country, a smart, gripping and wonderfully wild 10-episode drama that debuts Sunday, Aug. 16 on HBO. Adapted by showrunner Misha Green from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, it shares her fellow executive producer Jordan Peele’s fascination with examining race, and Blackness in particular, through the lens of horror. But it is specifically concerned with how the values of influential storytellers like H.P. Lovecraft—the father of cosmic horror and an author known for exploring the decline of civilization, the apathy of the universe and a fictionalized New England landscape nicknamed Lovecraft Country, as well as for his virulent racism—interact with the diverse world their works are released into.

Lovecraft would surely have been flummoxed to learn that Atticus is a fan of his work. In fact, Atticus’ father Montrose (the great Michael Kenneth Williams) failed in a long-ago attempt to cure the boy of his pulp-fiction habit by forcing him to memorize the writer’s heinously racist poem. So it’s ironic that Montrose’s disappearance during a trip to Massachusetts—to investigate some kind of “secret legacy” involving the ancestors of Atticus’ late mother—is what sends his son, Leti and George on a search-and-rescue mission from their Chicago home to, yes, Lovecraft Country. George, who writes guidebooks for Black motorists with his wife, brings deep knowledge of the open road and its perils. Bold, beautiful Leti is a footloose love interest with street smarts of her own. The trio is prepared for the dangers lurking in the “sundown counties” of the supposedly progressive North. It’s the monsters hiding in the forest that kick off a series of genuinely surprising, not to mention life-changing, horrors.

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in 'Lovecraft Country'
Elizabeth Morris/HBO

The show’s overarching plot, like the overarching story of race in America, concerns the festering historical wounds of slavery, dramatizing how cultural memories of servitude, poverty and sexual violence continue to afflict Black families. But each episode occupies its own spectacularly bizarre corner of the horror, sci-fi and fantasy universes, with its own genre tropes and thematic resonances. One centers around a haunted mansion; another takes viewers on an underground adventure in the style of The Goonies and Indiana Jones. In the half-season sent for review, there are creepy rich people, secret societies conducting occult rituals, kids messing around with Ouija boards, some of the ickiest body horror this side of David Cronenberg.

To say that Lovecraft Country is a whole lot of show would be an understatement. Blood and jump-scares aside, the scripts pack in transcendent musical numbers, parties teeming with guests, sex both tender and terrifying, cinematic car chases that hit the spot in a summer without blockbusters. Green—whose great, prematurely canceled WGN America series Underground infused heart-pounding action sequences and contemporary pop and hip-hop into a period drama that followed slaves escaping from a Southern plantation—doesn’t discriminate between high and low culture. The soundtrack includes Rihanna’s scathing “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word classic “Whitey on the Moon” and a raucous performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Leti and her sister Ruby (standout Wunmi Mosaku). There are audio snippets from the writings of James Baldwin and Ntozake Shange. Books fill the frame: Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lovecraft’s short-story collection The Outsider and Others.

Some messiness comes with the territory, though, unlike most seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, Green rarely lets the spectacle of it all overshadow her insights. Whether you think of it as postmodern or simply maximalist, the show’s cultural collage serves the purpose of forging connections between eras, identities and artists. (A masterly fifth episode directed by Cheryl Dunye, the filmmaker behind ’90s indie classic The Watermelon Woman, underscores its celebration of pioneering Black creators.) Beyond explicit references, Green is in conversation with many of the most important recent works of fiction on Blackness in America: Peele’s Get Out, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the filmography of Ava DuVernay, the novels of Colson Whitehead. It’s bound to earn the most comparisons to HBO’s similarly dense, unpredictable 2019 hit Watchmen, which in many ways did for the superhero genre what Lovecraft Country does for horror and sci-fi. Both shows wrestle with how pop culture shapes our understanding of race—and are well aware that painful subjects don’t preclude enjoyable stories.

“Stories are like people,” Atticus tells a new acquaintance in the premiere. They may not be perfect, he says, but “you just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.” He’s defending his enjoyment of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, whose hero is a Confederate Civil War vet. “Yeah, but the flaws are still there,” she replies. As in real life, this familiar conversation solves nothing. But thankfully, Lovecraft Country is not a show about problematic faves. It’s a show that demonstrates how a society’s fears and prejudices get tangled up in the stories it tells. And it reminds us that the people a culture demonizes—those who spend their lives on the run from monsters hidden in plain sight—have more reason to be afraid than anyone.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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