HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
by Michel Houellebecq, with an introduction by Stephen King
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
HP Lovecraft, author of At the Mountains of Madness, was - according to your taste - either a visionary genius or one of the most ridiculous writers ever, with a fatal weakness for piling on adjectives such as ‘eldritch’ and ‘gibbous’. Cosmic horror was his stock in trade and he invented his own mythology of the indescribably ancient ‘Old Ones’ such as the great Cthulhu - a tentacle-faced, bat-winged, humungously-dimensioned ugly-bugly - who lurk under the deepest oceans and beyond the furthest stars, just waiting. American critic Edmund Wilson described the only real horror in his work as the ‘horror of bad taste and bad art’.
Other readers have rated Lovecraft more generously, among them Borges, Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, but he’s never had a champion like Michel Houellebecq, himself one of the most vital contemporary novelists. For him, Lovecraft is among the 20th century’s most important writers. It is Lovecraft’s uncompromising negativity that Houellebecq responds to, and the title of his own book has the swingeing quality of the old Spanish Fascist slogan: ‘Long live death!’
For Houellebecq, Lovecraft’s ‘magnificent’ tales ‘vibrate like incantations’. He even praises Lovecraft as a stylist, a bold move that may not be unrelated to the fact that English is his second language. Lovecraft’s style isn’t just fantastically inflated, as Houellebecq acknowledges, but shot through with a creeping genteelism that was bound up with his delusions of being an 18th-century gentleman. Still, it is very possible that in a hundred years’ time, when the nuances of 20th-century English have been lost, people will read Lovecraft with the same pleasure they get from Romantic poetry.
One of the things that makes Lovecraft so distinctive is the horror he finds in the idea of infinitely deep time and space and the knowledge of a monstrously indifferent universe alien to our little world of humanist values. Contemplating it offers ‘sublime’ thrills, in the old sense of the word: the sort people used to get from gazing at mountains, and now get from reading the likes of Stephen Hawking.
Tentacles and bat wings notwithstanding, the real dark side of Lovecraft is his ethnic hatred: it is jaw-dropping in its intensity and Houellebecq rightly makes no attempt to whitewash it (in fact, from some of his own work, it’s evidently something he can imaginatively empathise with). This isn’t some unfortunate peccadillo but intrinsic to Lovecraft’s vision. Raised in New England, Lovecraft never recovered from the shock of his poverty-stricken time on the streets of New York and it left him with the conviction that in the long run ‘sensitive persons’ would be trampled by ‘greasy chimpanzees’.
This is the human subtext of Lovecraft’s pessimistic cosmology, where sanity and civilisation are doomed to be overwhelmed by unnamable malignities. The Old Ones - like Shub-Niggurath ‘the black goat with a thousand young’, Nyarlathotep ‘the crawling chaos’, the idiot god Azathoth, and, of course, Cthulhu himself, sleeping like Tennyson’s Kraken in the submerged city of R’lyeh - are supposedly still worshipped by ‘primitive’ people in secret across the world, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is inseparable from his feelings about the decline of the West.
Houellebecq’s superb discussion of Lovecraft offers deep insights into what drives his own writing, as well as into the reactionary tendencies of the horror genre: ‘Horror writers are reactionaries in general simply because they are particularly, one might even say professionally, aware of the existence of Evil.’
One of the truly great bad writers, Lovecraft is certainly here to stay. Bizarrely, the invented mythology he always insisted was not only evil but fictional (he was a convinced materialist) is now followed like a new religion by large numbers of occultists, offering a modern alternative to Satanism. What with the religion and the fact that the Old Ones have become available as cuddly toys - there is a ‘Plush Cthulhu’, no less - you can’t help feeling Lovecraft’s vision has been subverted and diluted.
Not by Houellebecq.
- Phil Baker
- The Observer, Sunday 16 July 2006