HOUELLEBECQ, Michel, H.P. Lovecraft – Against The World, Against Life, Weidenfeld & Nicolson / Orion Publishing Group, London, 2006.
Octavo; paperback; 247pp. Minor wear; some pages dog-eared; mild creasing to spine. Very good.
Stephen King’s Introduction to this essay is somewhat patronising. He refers to Houllebecq’s analysis of the life and work of Lovecraft as a “mash note” and in doing so, kickstarts the project with a sense of the trivial. It’s as if he, all unwittingly, attempts to drag the subject of the essay down to populist levels, and implies that Lovecraft, and anyone determined to waste their time with him, must, in essence, be regarded as ‘popular culture’. It’s a somewhat dubious start for this effort, especially given that King – unashamedly populist as he is – declares himself to be indebted to Lovecraft as a source of inspiration.
I can almost see where he’s coming from though. I know that it’s more than somewhat of a generalisation, but Americans tend to be absolutists – this is this; that is that – and whenever lines begin to blur they get a little nervous. To a European sensibility, the fact that a bestselling French writer of literary fiction publishes an essay on an American writer of genre fiction presents no paradox. To the US, it’s as bizarre as letting Adam Sandler present the Nobel Prizes. In reality, such terms as “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” have little relevance in Europe and it’s only the marketing principles of bookshops in English-speaking countries which make such arbitrary distinctions. Mr King is just assuming that, if he’s being asked to write an introduction to a book about Lovecraft, then it must be aimed at the geeks, and therefore he pitches his tone accordingly. This is to undermine the seriousness with which Houellebecq approaches his subject; the reader should not make the same assumption.
The essay itself was written – in the original French – in 1991. This re-publishing is as much a marketing exercise as it is a heartfelt attempt to get Houellebecq’s thoughts out to an English-speaking fan base. Not only have Weidenfeld & Nicolson contracted King to write the Intro., but they’ve enclosed re-printings of “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” along with a host of biographical information, about both Lovecraft and Houellebecq, and a bibliography of French translations of Lovecraft’s work. The idea being, I presume, that, if you disagree with Houellebecq’s thesis, you’ll feel that you still haven’t wasted your money. For me though, I think the real meat of the package is Houellebecq’s analysis, despite the presence of some flaws. Let me explain.
The essay breaks down into four parts – a Preface and three sections, each separated thematically into various components. I will address these, one by one, in order.
In the Preface, Houellebecq muses upon the reception which his essay has had since he had first penned it, how there were things which he had overlooked or which he feels he should have lingered longer over. He describes his discovery of Lovecraft’s works at the age of sixteen and his exploration – increasingly half-hearted – of those authors who had inspired, or who had been inspired by, Lovecraft’s material, but with the uneasy realisation that he knew next to nothing about Lovecraft himself. Conversely nowadays – he says – people approach him to autograph his book on HPL but few of them actually read any of HPL’s works, content to know about him through biographical notes and about them by association, through pop cultural references.
He says that writing the essay was like writing a novel with only one character – HPL – and felt just as freeform and unrestricted, with the exception that it “was constrained in that all the facts it conveyed and all the texts it cited had to be exact”. For the most part, he holds true to this notion; however it’s in those citations that the strength of his arguments starts to fail, and his thesis to come adrift.
Finally, he praises the poetry of Lovecraft’s use of language (something that he does discuss in the body of his argument) and quotes extensively and quite aptly from “The Whisperer in Darkness”, a text which he claims to have omitted in the first draft, with some regret. Later, he presents a list of what he terms Lovecraft’s “Great Texts” and “Whisperer” is listed amongst them: I wonder if, in earlier printings, it failed to appear? He doesn’t explicitly say.
Part One: Another Universe
In this initial foray, Houellebecq sets the groundwork and examines the scope of Lovecraft, both the individual and his product. Let it not be said that Houellebecq shies away from shocking statements or confrontational notions – this is a writer who likes to get a reaction. He begins by telling us that life is “painful and disappointing” and that people who like life do not like to read, because life has very little to do with literature. The real world is so far removed from the narrative constructs of literature that only those who reject the world and all it contains could find solace in the pages of a book. Punchy stuff, and I find no argument with it.
This part of the essay falls into two parts: in the first he addresses the writer and tries, using his correspondence and other writings, to assign him a literary locale. He reveals that Lovecraft had a natural affinity with the Modernist writers of the English literary tradition – along with Virginia Woolf for example – in that he stood for an utter rejection of the realist writing of the Nineteenth century, as exemplified by such authors as Gustave Flaubert and Thomas Hardy. As well, Houellebecq identifies HPL as an ardent existentialist, discovering himself trapped in a meaningless existence in an irrelevant world. He thus paints Lovecraft as the doppelganger of Antoine Roquentin from Sartre’s novel, Nausea. Unlike the protagonist of that book however, HPL’s strategy to deal with this angst was of a different nature.
According to Houellebecq, Lovecraft dealt with his existential despair by refusing to play the game: rather than finding meaning in the universe and creating a purpose for himself within it, he revelled in his isolation and found a space in which to dwell alongside and apart from the structures surrounding him: engagement and struggle became as inconsequential as the meaningless objects around him. Even his ‘career’ as a writer he refused to acknowledge as anything other than an idle pastime, considering the prospect of making a living off his work faintly disgusting. That these sentiments percolate into his work, I think no die-hard fan would deny.
The second section of this first part is entitled “Ritual Literature”. By this term, Houellebecq means the body of work by an author who has attained ‘mythic status’ in a literary sense. In this way he compares HPL to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes canon. Fans of Sherlock Holmes, Houellebecq declares, would not allow their favourite character to die; they re-visit the canon stories, each time with a sense of pleasure and delight; they are faintly amused, but not convinced by, pastiche and homage texts, spring-boarding off the main body of work; and they wistfully hope that one day a hidden cache of new material will someday be discovered. On top of this is the sheer amazement the reader feels for the accomplishment – ‘how do they do it?’ – a hidden complexity that invites deeper investigation. All of this can be said of Lovecraft and of his readers.
Houellebecq then goes on to define HPL’s oeuvre as a series of increasingly-crucial concentric circles. Outermost, he places Lovecraft’s correspondence and poetry; next he assigns collaborative efforts, things he co-wrote or ghost wrote, including the works of August Derleth, derived from HPL’s notes and drafts; third, he places all of the short stories juvenilia and novellas that Lovecraft wrote – the canon. Lastly he creates a list of tales which represent the ‘holy of holies’, the definitive works, those which – if Lovecraft was a religion – would be termed the “great texts”. Houellebecq claims to have taken pleasure in compiling and setting out this list, and I feel much the same way about reproducing it:
“The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)
“The Colour Out of Space” (1927)
“The Dunwich Horror” (1928)
“The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)
“At the Mountains of Madness” (1931)
“The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932)
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1932)
“The Shadow Out of Time” (1934)
Finally, Houellebecq asserts that it is the numinous presence of Lovecraft himself, pervading this material, which lends an almost mystical quality to the writing. Lovecraft, he declares, fundamentally denies examination, even by his most diligent biographers, and has attained an almost cult status in his own right, distinct from his work.
Part Two: Technical Assault
With a title like this, it’s obvious that some examination of the minutiae of Lovecraft’s style is about to be undertaken; however, since this is Houellebecq, we need not fear that it will descend into some dry and stultifying discussion of adverbs and adjectives (although that does come up at one point). He begins by referencing the essay which Lovecraft wrote – “Supernatural Horror in Literature” – and observes how dull a catalogue it is, since obviously it contains nothing comparable to HPL’s own work. He notes that this piece appeared shortly before Lovecraft began to pen the “great texts” and declares that it was by cataloguing this list of styles and references that HPL was able to dispense with his mentors and finally forge ahead on his own. Simultaneously, Houellebecq states that clues to Lovecraft’s technique are almost non-existent in his correspondence, since his advice is inevitably focussed upon the problems faced by the individual to whom he is addressing his comments – thus, nothing of general application can be discerned. He notes that HPL was ever willing to provide the essential building blocks of a good story but was candid about how to stack them together.
(Amusingly, and in a nod to Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, each section of this part of the essay has an apropos title which forms a clause in a long sentence. Why? Who knows, but it’s quite cute.)
Attack the Story like a Radiant Suicide...
Here, Houellebecq examines HPL’s hooks, the openings to his stories. He compares Lovecraft’s introductions to those of Graham Masterton (The Incredible Shrinking Man) and comes to the conclusion that Lovecraft uses his opening salvos to divide his audience. While typically verbose, they do nothing to soften the impact for the reader: the introductory paragraphs hardly ever hint or allude to the impending narrative; rather they drop the reader straight into something bewildering and confronting. As an all-or-nothing approach, Houellebecq finds it completely admirable, the moreso because Lovecraft is able to build upon it, escalating the pitch of terror. Conversely, he finds that this kind of narrative set-up makes HPL’s characters seem somewhat obtuse, since they never seem to see it coming.
...Utter the Great "No" to Life Without Weakness...
Next Houellebecq tackles the content of Lovecraft’s stories, and in doing so compares him to an architect: before beginning to build, he says, an architect first must decide which materials to use.
Having identified HPL as an existentialist who utterly rejects the world as a meaningless construct, and that attempting to capture it in print would be equally meaningless, he states that Lovecraft makes a conscious decision to create his own realities in his writing. The fantastic and the horrid are the foundation stones of this reality and he makes these vistas as real as he can, with the conscious exclusion of two subjects which other writers would consider essential: sex and money.
Here, Houellebecq tackles head-on the accusations that have been levelled against HPL, that his misanthropic, asexual universes are the result of psychological misfires and neurotic blocks. Quite the opposite, as Houellebecq demonstrates with several apposite quotes from HPL’s correspondence, Lovecraft simply made an aesthetic choice to exclude these topics from his work. He also shows that Lovecraft was well-read in the works of Freud, particularly in the areas of symbolism, sexual and otherwise, and on the nature of a transactional universe, and rejected them outright as obvious rubbish.
In essence therefore, what some would consider a psychological blindspot, or Freudian slip, in HPL’s writing is actually a conscious and deliberate decision as part of the writing process. Lovecraft simply says “no” to the depiction of real life, in order to pursue his stated aims.
...Then You will See a Magnificent Cathedral...
Lovecraft’s eye, says Houellebecq, is an architect’s eye; his sensibilities respond to architectural models. In this way, HPL is able to capture the sensation of moving through architectural space and in fact creates such spaces in his writing in order to underscore and heighten the dramatic pace of the tale. Colours form a lesser component of his descriptions and take a back seat to plastic shapes and tangible forms. No argument from me, but I do think Houellebecq pushes the notion a little far when he declares that HPL is a creator of “sacred space”.
...And Your Senses, Vectors of Unutterable Derangement...
In terms of physical sensations Houellebecq notes the overloaded descriptions which HPL provides. Along with this, he identifies a disturbing quality of anonymity in all of Lovecraft’s protagonists. In his early works, it seemed that HPL took deliberate pains to make his heroes seem particular, or individual; by the time of the “great texts” however, he has forsaken this approach in favour of bland characters whose only purpose is to transmit sensations. In these turgid descriptions of repugnance, Houellebecq again finds evidence for Lovecraft’s existentialist worldview.
...Will Map Out an Integral Delirium...
Here, Houellebecq examines the kind of horror that Lovecraft tries to generate. He is not interested in the vampire or the werewolf – constructs that have discrete mythic connotations and psychological rationales – he wants to build an “objective horror” which transcends the human condition. To this end he draws from all areas of scientific knowledge, bombarding his narratives with objective facts and with references to myriad fields of learning, in order to add verisimilitude to the fantastic worlds he is building. Houellebecq compares HPL with Immanuel Kant who said he wanted to create an ethical code “not just for man but for all rational beings”; Lovecraft wanted to build a mythology that “would mean something to those intelligent beings that consist only of nebulous spiralling gases”.
...That will be Lost in the Unnameable Architecture of Time.
In this final section, Houellebecq dwells on the surgical manner in which Lovecraft outlines his visions. Precision is ever-present: map references in “At the Mountains of Madness”; intersecting times and events in “The Call of Cthulhu”; mathematical dogma in “The Dreams in the Witch House”. The human world depicted in these tales is concrete, tangible and delineated, right up to the point where the entities of the Mythos take over, at which moment sanity and this precise notation part company.
Part Three: Holocaust
Of course, since this is Houellebecq, we can expect him to toss in a loaded word like “holocaust” with very little provocation. Here it is: the title of the third part of the essay. In this section, Houellebecq examines Lovecraft’s life and looks at the impact that it has upon his writing. Essentially, he looks at HPL’s marriage and his racist tendencies.
Like the other parts of this essay, there are several sections with intriguing titles, but I’d prefer to look at this piece as a whole. We are given a timeline in HPL’s life that consists basically of ‘pre-nuptial’ and ‘post-nuptial’. Before meeting and marrying Sonia Greene, Lovecraft was a particular type of person, probably quite typical of his time and place; after the marriage and the time he spent in New York, this character shifted dramatically and created the individual who would go on to pen the “great texts”.
From an existentialist perspective, the marriage was a moment when HPL chose to engage with his environment and embark upon an act of self-creation. Nevertheless, he chose to take this step in a very passive fashion: Sonia was the driving force in the relationship and Lovecraft simply went along for the ride. Houellebecq argues all the same that HPL was definitely in love with Sonia, but years of non-engagement had dulled his reactions. The move to New York however, was an even more serious instance of coming to terms with reality.
Arriving in the metropolis, HPL felt sure of his ability to find work; but his assurances were couched in provincial WASP-ish terms. As a white male of reasonable education, he felt entitled to be chosen for whatever position he applied for. How shocking then to find that race and breeding amounted to almost nothing in the Big Apple! Lovecraft’s benign racist tendencies went from mild to red-hot, causing him to champion Hitler and make sweeping declarations of a genocidal nature in his correspondence. As his bigotry became incandescent in the face of his failure to find work, Houellebecq argues that Lovecraft’s ability to even define the ‘otherness’ which offended him fell by the wayside. However upon his return to Providence, he re-adjusted his perspective, altered his opinion of Hitler and the Final Solution and retired into a bruised geniality. It could be argued that he had discovered a type of acceptance, or at least have come to realise that – as part of the meaningless universe around him – there was nothing to be done about it. Still, the later “great texts” are notably less racist (less racist, not inclusive) than his earlier works.
Added to this, Houellebecq finds a markedly masochistic streak in HPL’s writing, especially after this time. If Lovecraft’s protagonists are essentially himself, rendered down to passive spectators of awfulness, then the horrible things that they encounter are things that Lovecraft does to himself. A cry of existential angst? Quite possibly.
In the final analysis, Houellebecq argues that every great passion will leave its artistic impression upon the world and that this complex and undefinable individual has done just that with the works he left behind. However just what that passion was, or from where it stemmed, is frustratingly – though compellingly - hard to pin down. All that is left is the Mythos and the myth of Lovecraft.
If there is a case against Houellebecq’s analysis – and, for the most part, it’s the most compelling analysis I’ve ever encountered – it’s that, for all his assertions that he was forced by the constraints of the essay format to check his facts and cite his sources, he actually doesn’t. Most of what he says is supported by citations but some of it isn’t. Reading his Notes in the back of the book, the translator Dorna Khazeni lists many instances where throwaway references within the text attributed to HPL or others cannot be located, even after cross-checking with S.T. Joshi, who seems to have all of Lovecraft at his fingertips. Some of this stems from the fact that Houellebecq was working from French translations of Lovecraft and the exact wording is occasionally difficult to pin down; still, there are instances where Khazeni couldn’t source quotes from Houellebecq himself, and this is troubling.
On the other hand, there is a genuine passion for the work in evidence here. Not the OMG! type of enthusiasm that most fan-boy venues tend to generate, but a fully-considered and realised, intellectual response. If for nothing else, this refreshing stance earns this book a place on my shelf of Lovecraftiana.
As a final note, my overview presented here is couched in various ‘-isms’, specifically the existentialism of HPL and his position as a modernist author. Houellebecq makes his analysis without resorting to such language, referencing neither Sartre nor existential despair (not to mention Virginia Woolf!). These constructions are purely my own, reading and extrapolating between his lines, and are there due to the nature of the circumstances which led to my writing this extended review. If my philosophy and literary theory are somewhat creaky, mea culpa, and my apologies!
Four-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors.