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H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
By Michel Houellebecq
-translated by Dorna Khazeni
Believer Books, May 2005 $18.00, 150 pp.
(Full disclosure: I reviewed the Library of America’s Lovecraft: Tales for The Nation. I’ve also written on “The Call of Cthulhu” for The Modern Word and reviewed McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories for Punk Planet.)
This book was first published, in French, in 1991. Houellebecq’s “new” preface was written in 1998. This edition also includes a new introduction by Stephen King, and the full texts of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (two works ranked by Houellebecq as among Lovecraft’s “great texts”). The Lovecraft stories are available in myriad anthologies, including footnote-heavy editions from Penguin Classics, and now from The Library of America. Even with the additional length afforded by all those inclusions, the volume barely brushes 150 pages. There are already multiple Lovecraft biographies available in English, many of them substantially longer and more involved than this one. So why would Believer Books want to publish this book, and, more to the point, why would anyone want to buy it?
To answer that question, we should look to some trends in literature today. Lovecraft, for one, is currently enjoying some long overdue respect, or at any rate, a vogue. Also in vogue is Michel Houellebecq. The last few years have seen English translations of the bulk of Houellebecq’s work: bleak novels about life’s emptiness. There has also been some controversy about his cultural and political views, which some have seen fit to classify as sexist or racist, the latter especially with regard to Islam and Arabs. And he must like being known as “the bad-boy of French literature,” because he bothered to put that on his press release too. Then there’s the tireless hydra of McSweeney’s-Believer-Eggers-Etc. Despite sustained critical backlash against him and his circle (they’ve been accused of everything from fetishizing childhood naiveté to being smug and inaccessible), they’re still pretty fashionable themselves. Now enter Stephen King. He doesn’t dominate the mass market paperback rack like he used to, but he’s still among the most widely disseminated and read authors of anything outside of bibles. He’s a fixed star in the literary heavens, not for all the wrong reasons either. And so, in a plot-twist as unpredictable as it is oddly pleasing, the release of this fourteen-year-old biography of a neglected pulp writer is simultaneously the much-anticipated result of collaboration between some of the reigning titans of modern letters.
“In hindsight,” writes Houellebecq in his preface, “it seems to me I wrote this book as a sort of first novel. A novel with a single character (H.P. Lovecraft himself)-a novel that was constrained in that all the facts it conveyed and all the texts it cited had to be exact, but a sort of novel, nonetheless.” Indeed, readers of H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, may notice the occasionally recurring phrase “the elementary particles,” which went on to become the title of one of Houellebecq’s novels.
It is good of him to share his self-awareness, because anyone who reads this book ought to know he has taken some of a novelist’s liberties. The chapter headings in part two are polished-to-gleam sentence fragments that can be strung together (a la Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler) to voice a righteous metaphysical (if somewhat nonsensical) call to arms. The opening sentence of the essay-proper simply states: “life is painful and disappointing.” This is a good example of the provocative, sweeping declarations that Houellebecq is given towards throughout.
Houellebecq writes that “money, much like sex, plays no part at all in [Lovecraft’s] stories.” While this isn’t exactly wrong, Houellebecq should have taken the time to nuance his claim. Lovecraft’s catalogue is indeed marked by an almost absolute lack of female characters and for a fastidious asexuality, also by his utter refusal to let go of the fantasy of plenitude that should have accompanied his aristocratic heritage. In his writing, as in his life, these were issues he avoided addressing whenever possible. But to say that sex and money “play no part” is imprecise. Sex in Lovecraft is marked by the monolithic stature of its absence; a lack that contrasts easily with the amorphous, invaginated aspect of his space creatures and alternate dimensions. Money, on the other hand, because it is so seldom mentioned, must be presumed omnipresent, rather than absent as with sex. Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t seem to have jobs (or if they do they treat them like hobbies), yet they travel, attend school, build laboratories, etc. Anyone can choose celibacy, but you can’t step out your front door without participating in the market economy (if that door is attached to even a modest hovel, odds are you’ve participated already whether you care to talk about it or not). In sum, while it is true that both are largely absent, it is crucial to understand that they are absent not in like but in opposing ways.
King’s introduction is genial, but he does warn us that “in his very un-academic passion, Houellebecq makes assertions which will cause controversy and start arguments. I dispute some of them myself.” Needless to say, I’m with King on this one. Yet it is this same passion which maintains the book’s infective energy, and further, redeems its biographical shortcomings. As I’ve said, there are better biographies of Lovecraft available, if the unvarnished facts are what you’re after. For the most rigorous studies, turn to anything by S.T. Joshi, the world’s foremost Lovecraft scholar. Not least among the choices is Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, wherein Joshi and David E. Schultz construct a 385-page “autobiography” from the hundreds of thousands of personal letters that Lovecraft wrote in his life.
Autobiographies that aren’t really autobiographies, biographies that aren’t really biographies, a literary career that in addition to being almost entirely posthumous is described by his own biographer (Houellebecq) as “not really literary;” Lovecraft seems less and less like a literary figure and more like a fictional character. I suppose it’s a natural progression. Lovecraft’s fiction was groundbreaking not just because of what he wrote, but because of the way in which people responded to it. What is referred to these days as “the Cthulhu mythos” actually came into being over the latter half of the twentieth century as generations of horror writers wrote new stories featuring Lovecraft’s monsters and environs, happily usurping his creations and integrating their own. Some of these have been big names, such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. Others, including August Derleth and Lin Carter, made whole careers out of following Lovecraft’s lead. The Necronomicon, an imaginary book of unspeakable heresies that Lovecraft frequently deployed as a plot device in his stories, is commonly mistaken for an actual historic text. Several “versions” of the nonexistent dark book have been written and published over the years. “In an age that exalts originality as a supreme value in the arts,” Houellebecq rightly points out, “this phenomenon is surely cause for surprise. We must humbly acknowledge that we are dealing here with what is known as a ‘founding mythology.'” Put another way: this is open-source literature.
It should hardly surprise us that the Cthulhu Mythos would eventually devour the real life of its creator. If anything, Houellebecq marks not the beginning of the consumption but rather the end-point of what has been a long digestion. Lovecraft is widely thought to have been a fanatic recluse, but other than during a period of mental infirmity (1908-1913) following a nervous breakdown, he was an avid traveler. While he especially loved antiquarian communities in New England, he also visited Vermont, Florida, Quebec, and elsewhere. As the very existence of an “autobiography in letters” should suggest, Lovecraft was a master of the epistle. His output of letters defies full reckoning, though estimates tend to be in the upper hundreds of thousands. Many of them are the length of novellas. He corresponded with all kinds of people, on every imaginable topic, including plenty of self-analysis of his own work and influences. In addition to the faux-autobiography, there are a number of volumes of his collected letters in print today. The 1908-13 period notwithstanding, his is one of the most meticulously self-documented lives in modern history.
As his book’s title suggests, Houellebecq’s Lovecraft experiences little besides fear and hatred. These are offered as the prime movers in his life and his fiction. “Absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by an aversion for the modern world in particular,” is Houellebecq’s summary of Lovecraft’s attitude. No doubt, Lovecraft had his demons. Aside from sex and money, his racial and social prejudices were far more odious than even the worst of what Houellebecq has been accused of; and he really did loathe the march of progress, which he blamed for choking the world of its magic. But it is unfair to say his hatred was absolute. He lived a short life in a town (Providence, RI) that he loved like a mother. He had a wide variety of interests, from the classics to travel to astronomy to cats. By all accounts, he was kind to a fault. It is worth mentioning that his legacy exists today because at the time of his death his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded Arkham House press for the sole purpose of seeing his works printed in decent volumes. It is worth asking the question: if Lovecraft was as hateful and removed from the world as Houellebecq would have us believe, to whom was he writing all those letters and why were they all so eager to write back?
This isn’t to say that Houellebecq is intentionally misrepresentative; only to say that there is a long tradition of marshalling Lovecraft for one’s own ends, or at least of boldly misunderstanding him. His story becomes a sort of Rorschach blot: the more you try to pin it down, the more you wind up saying about yourself.
For my part, I prefer to see Lovecraft’s as a life cut short not only before he could produce more “great texts,” but also before he could fully rehabilitate his poisonous socio-cultural positions. It was a process that was underway at the time of his death. As Joshi explains it, by the 1930s Lovecraft had matured from an “extreme conservatism” to a “moderate socialism,” leaving behind the days when he referred to Hitler as “Handsome Adolf.” At the Mountains of Madness, from 1931, contains what I believe to be the kernel of where his philosophy was headed. It is a kernel of hope.
By giving no quarter to hope, Houellebecq is merely being true to himself, albeit at Lovecraft’s expense. He discusses Lovecraft’s histrionic anglophilia, but not the slow thaw of his hate or the indicators that he was considering a break for more liberal pastures. Hate and fear are the elementary particles of Houellebecq’s universe. It is a brutal place, though seductive with its visceral language and compelling in its dazzling audacity. If you choose to read this book, you will be by turns impressed, disgusted, and edified. You will learn a lot about Michel Houellebecq. You will not come away with a full and accurate picture of Howard Philips Lovecraft, though you will come away with something. In this case the fracture itself is worthwhile; part of the experience and the pleasure of the Lovecraft legacy and myth.
JUSTIN TAYLOR is a writer, living in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org