It didn’t take long for Shannon Houston and Ashley C. Ford to become the ideal co-hosts for “Lovecraft Country Radio.” The podcast, designed as a companion to “Lovecraft Country,” is built on a foundation of trust and openness, particularly when the two discuss the most personal ways that the HBO series intersects with their own lives. They didn’t know each other personally before becoming partners in this joint venture, but there was a sense of familiarity that arrived in their first call together, away from any microphone.
“It was very clear to me at the end of that conversation, ‘I’m going to have a great time and this person is going to be a huge part of why.’ I just really like her mind. I like the way she represents herself. I like the way she talks about people. I love her spirit,” Ford told IndieWire. “If it sounds like we’re having a good time, it’s because we are. And I could tell that very quickly. If I was going to be working with somebody every week, please let it be a person who I can talk to like this.”
“I spent some time diving back into some of her writing and she just felt like the perfect fit,” Houston said. “This isn’t a small show. It isn’t a simple show. This isn’t always a fun show. And there’s a lot of stuff that’s uncomfortable. There’s stuff that’s controversial. So I wanted to have a co-host, who was ready and excited to dive into all of that and who felt like they could really speak their mind about things.”
Aside from being easy, immediate conversation partners, their on-mic pairing has led to an essential part of the “Lovecraft Country” experience. Each week, following the release of a new episode of the Misha Green-created adaptation of the Matt Ruff novel, Houston and Ford unpack the rich, dense web that each hour represents.
Both of them speak to the show in their own way. Houston has her direct experience as a writer on the series, having also now served on the staffs of “The Looming Tower” and “Little Fires Everywhere” after being a longtime critic for Paste Magazine. Ford is an experienced podcaster — currently serving as the host of “The Chronicles of Now” as well — with writing published in a number of different venues in online and print, including a forthcoming memoir due out next summer.
What’s maybe most significant about “Lovecraft Country Radio” is what it avoids. Although each episode has some table-setting to orient the listener in the overall arc of the season, this podcast is not primarily concerned with parsing out clues or engaging in hypotheticals. As Houston describes at the beginning of the discussion of Episode 6, “Meet Me in Daegu,” one single sequence “is a break-up scene but it’s also an ‘I love you’ scene and it’s also a scene about American imperialism but it’s also a scene about acknowledging the monster in you while also acknowledging your humanity.”
“I didn’t want the podcast to be this space where we explain every single thing and every single choice, because I think that sort of defeats the purpose of watching a television show. Engaging with a show, you’re supposed to be left with questions at the end of it,” Houston said. “The podcast is that space where we can really unpack those things and think about them in the greater context of the show, but also the greater context of the Black community and Black America and America at large. Our plan was always, ‘Let’s really try to focus on the themes of the episode and how they relate to the characters and give our audience those conversations and, hopefully, they’re going off and thinking more about it.’ The podcast is not the be-all, end-all. I don’t have the final say on the show and what the show means.”
Instead the attention focuses on the work itself and the many ways it captures what’s true for those inside the confines of the series itself and the audience that witnesses their respective journeys. Those dissections interweave with discussions about family, gender, class, sexuality, and power these intertwining legacies present. To ensure that there’s a balance between spontaneity, discovery, and thoroughness in these on-mic discussions, Ford and Houston have kept their recordings spaced out. They’re speaking from different physical locations, but there’s a still an overriding clarity and chemistry in these talks.
“We have a week apart between episodes, which feels like a good amount of time to think about what we’re going to talk about,” Houston said. “I’ve been seeing [episodes] in their various stages as they’re getting closer and closer to the final lock. So usually what I do is I watch them two more times before we record. And again, every time I watch I’m like, ‘Oh, I forgot about that…we need to say something about that!'”
“It gives you the opportunity to let it marinate, and to really think about not just how you feel, but what you want to say about how you feel,” Ford said. “I really do like watching the episode right before the next recording. I don’t have to watch three episodes of the show, and then record three different episodes of the show the next day. It’s not just that the podcast would suffer from that, I think the experience would suffer. We’ve been really lucky that the people who are the guardians of our experience in this have been really careful with that and generous with us.”
There are plenty of examples where the show finds a rhythm because Ford and Houston find common ground. There are shared experiences and emotions and realizations that are compelling to listen to because you can track when and where they’re in sync. But they both realize that there’s just as much value in pointing out the ways in which their perspectives diverge.
“That’s also true of the characters on the show. They don’t all have one opinion about what it means to be Black in America, or what it means to fight back against white supremacy,” Houston said. “And that’s a reflection of being in the writers room and all of us having these mostly loving arguments about what a character should or shouldn’t do and realizing that of course we disagree. We’re all people, we all have different opinions. And we shouldn’t agree with everything the characters are doing, even though it’s in this ‘sensitive space’ of race and racism. They’re all going to be arguing with each other a lot of the time. They’re all gonna have really different perspectives, and that’s OK.”
Houston doesn’t present her experience working on the show as the definitive opinion in any of these discussions. If anything, her stories from the inside of the writers room reflect a certain amount of healthy skepticism towards some of the narrative choices the show makes. It provides context without coming across as defensive. One such example comes at the close of “Lovecraft Country” Episode 4, when Montrose (Michael K. Williams) murders Yahima (Monique Candelaria), the revived two-spirit guide who had just finished leading the series’ main characters to safety.
“I’ve read some really good critiques of it. I’m listening to the feedback,” Houston said. “And as I said on the podcast, I’m still a critic, so I’m never going to be the person who’s like, ‘Oh my God, they just didn’t get it. The show is perfect.’ No, absolutely not. With that particular storyline, I appreciate people giving that feedback, especially the people who said, ‘I see exactly what you guys were trying to do. And it was still wrong to do it.’ And I’m like, ‘You know what, what can I say to that? I respect that. And I’m listening to that. And I want to be better.'”
There are plenty of emotional crests within this season’s run of “Lovecraft Country Radio” — one of the most notable comes with Episode 7, “I Am.” Not only does that corresponding “Lovecraft Country” episode feature a stark vision of Hippolyta’s (Aunjanue Ellis) multiverse-aided crystallization of identity and autonomy, it’s an episode that Houston co-wrote.
“It was actually emotional to do the recording with Shannon. I hope I didn’t lose it too badly. But anybody who listens to the show has to know at this point, I’m an emotional person,” Ford said. “Being able to talk to Shannon about it made me even more emotional knowing that this came from her brain and her heart and what she had put into it. It blew me away. I think it’s still my favorite episode.”
Though “Lovecraft Country” provides a wealth of historical and cultural avenues for potential discussions, Ford and Houston are not alone in this particular endeavor. Along the way, they’ve enlisted contributions from guests like “The Nod” co-host Eric Eddings, The Hollywood Reporter critic Inkoo Kang, and “Lovecraft Country” cast member Jamie Chung. Those additional talks all fit into the overall framework of the show where focused and thoughtful conversation is welcome, regardless of how the prism of the show reflects their own experiences.
“It’s always fun to have a guest on the podcast, not just because you get this outside opinion in our little space. When we’re recording a podcast, at that point, the only people who I can talk about the show with are the people who are in that Zoom Room. I can’t talk about it with anybody else,” Ford said. “So it’s always great to have another voice come in and add it to that conversation, to give their own takes on things and talk about how something made them feel. Whenever it happens, it always takes quite a bit longer to record the episode. We have the same issue that we have with each other: We could talk all day.”
Both of them recognize that their podcast is not intended to be the final word on what the show means or the responses that people have. If anything, seeing “Lovecraft Country Radio” be part of a growing tapestry has made the process that much more fulfilling. That makes sense, given how much each of them are invested in the show in their own way. “Lovecraft Country Radio” is a compelling listen because Ford and Houston are both fans, not in spite of it.
“At this point, I’ve probably seen Episode 5 four to six times. There’s the watch that I do where like I’m not preparing for the podcast and I just want to watch the show. I’m obsessed,” Houston said.
“I try to be as real and as honest as I can be about what I’m feeling. I also know that I’m a weird person and I don’t know that everybody is necessarily going to be feeling the way that I do,” Ford said. “But I know that, in a lot of ways, I am the target audience for a show like this, because I am one of those Black kids who has been waiting for a show like this to exist. I’m among that great number. I’m trying to talk about how this show affects me emotionally. I’m talking about these familial dynamics, I’m talking about these cultural dynamics. I’m trying to bring it all home. My home isn’t everybody’s home. I can’t speak for everyone and I can’t speak on everyone, but I can do my best. And I feel good about what I’ve done so far.”
“Lovecraft Country Radio” is available wherever podcasts are found. It and “Lovecraft Country” are also both available to stream on HBO Max.