The Fear

Michel Houellebecq gives the legendary Lovecraft a new platform

Charles Baudelaire had Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus had James M. Cain, and Michel Houellebecq, poet of sour libertinage, has . . . H.P. Lovecraft. Houellebecq's 1991 monograph H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life reinvents the preeminent pulp horror writer of the '20s and '30s according to a familiar pattern: A French author discovers and adopts an American primitive. Lovecraft, however, had primitives of his own.

Gaunt, pallid, and lantern-jawed, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born in Providence, Rhode Island. His parents were emotionally unstable; he suffered from nightmares as a child, had a nervous breakdown at 18, and developed into a reclusive, nocturnal creature. He was also a writer's writer, who composed tens of thousands of letters and whose stories, published mainly in Weird Tales and Astounding Stories, were posthumously anthologized by his acolytes. In 1945, Edmund Wilson considered HPL's newly constituted oeuvre and cracked that their real horror was "the horror of bad taste and bad art." But then Wilson didn't care much for the cult writer Franz Kafka either; in any case, HPL has been welcomed into the Library of America, to sit on the shelf alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, while Wilson yet remains a thing on the doorstep.

The typical Lovecraft tale is an academic paper thick with fake citations and newspaper articles that inexorably gives way to an account of indescribable horror—"emphatically inflated passages," per Houellebecq, wherein Lovecraft abandons "all stylistic restraint, where adjectives and adverbs pile upon one another to the point of exasperation." This linguistic hysteria parallels the experience of the protagonist, generally a solitary antiquarian who, through a book or dream, has come in contact with the extraterrestrial crustacean slug Cthulhu and the other monstrous Old Ones who once ruled our dimension and are forever looking to find a way back in.

Details

Tales by H.P. Lovecraft
Edited by Peter Straub
The Library of America, 838 pp., $35

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
By Michel Houellebecq, translated by Dorna Khazeni
Believer Books, 247 pp., $18

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  • Many of Lovecraft's tales involve Miskatonic University in Arkham, an imaginary college town in north-central Massachusetts. Others are set in "the wild domed hills of Vermont" or the "ancient Massachusetts seaport" of Dunwich, a "dying and half-deserted" town that reeks of "the most nauseous fishy odor imaginable." Of the so-called great texts, few fail to mention "the hideous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred," kept, under lock and key, at the Miskatonic U. library.

    Lovecraft's immersion in invented scholarship, if not his sense of place, proved irresistible to the younger writers who formed his cult, and he encouraged them to elaborate the Cthulhu mythology. Lovecraftians now include all manner of professional occultists, heavy-metal bands, and devotees of role-playing games. Several editions of the dread Necronomicon have come into existence.

    Houellebecq discovered Lovecraft at 16: "I had not known literature was capable of this." But if each HPL story is "an open slice of howling fear," the work is something other than literary.

    For Houellebecq, Lovecraft is a poet of revolt, who glorified inhibition and found sexuality repulsive. His fantasies were fueled by a metaphysical hatred of life and a denial of the real. His universe includes "not a single allusion to two of the realities to which we generally ascribe great importance: sex and money." This could hardly be said of Houellebecq—although he does turn Lovecraft into his philosophical precursor. Houellebecq's HPL believes that the human race is doomed and our actions are as meaningless as "the unfettered movements of the elementary particles"—the very title of Houellebecq's 1998 novel. Lovecraft is an existentialist: "Life has no meaning. But neither does death."

    Ever the bad boy, Houellebecq further praises HPL as a reactionary who "considered democracy to be an idiocy and progress to be an illusion." Actually, Lovecraft was a sort of anti-modern modernist who read Nietzsche, Freud, and Proust, referenced the pseudo-anthropology of The Golden Bough and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, cited Einstein and the discovery of a ninth planet, and whose tales were based on the creative abuse of quantum physics and non-Euclidian mathematics. Houellebecq appreciates Lovecraft's giddy geological time. (There's a Lovecraftian aspect to the "great metaphysical mutation" described in The Elementary Particles.) But mainly Houellebecq enjoys the scandal of Lovecraft's racial obsessions.

    HPL boasted of descending from "unmixed English gentry" and expressed a dislike for immigrants in his first published poem. The crucial event in his life was a brief marriage (to a Jewish divorcée seven years his senior) and relocation to New York. The 24 months that the writer spent in the Mongrel Manhattan (and Brooklyn) of the mid 1920s marked him forever: Here, Houellebecq argues, the writer "came to know hatred, disgust and fear." By his own accounts, Lovecraft's personal Sin City was a behavioral sink populated by "monstrous half-breeds," "rat-faced Jews," "hideous negroes [resembling] giant chimpanzees."

    Lovecraft, per Houellebecq, "brutally takes racism back to its essential and most profound core: fear." He is an extremist—and the "evolution of the modern world has made Lovecraftian phobias ever more present." Like Bruno's in The Elementary Particles, HPL's racism reacts against the regime of genetic competition. This hatred induced a "trance-like poetic state" and his most fabulously lurid writing.

    Noting Lovecraft's recurring image of "a grand, titanic city, in whose foundation crawl repugnant nightmare beings," Houellebecq quotes a letter giving a particularly gonzo account of the "awful cesspool" of the "Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid" Lower East Side. It is, he points out, "indisputably great Lovecraftian prose."

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