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.
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.”
Lovecraft’s best-known sentence is the opening line of “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” In that, his may be a more intriguing mentality than even Houellebecq allows.
A materialist and an atheist, Lovecraft considered the Cthulhu Mythos a burlesque religion. This penchant for self-parody has been largely unrecognized— although Jorge Luis Borges, who included a few paragraphs on Lovecraft in his 1967 Introduction to American Literature, characterized his tales as “comic nightmares.” And so has HPL’s place in the New England tradition—save for Borges, who compares Lovecraft to Hawthorne (as HPL did himself) and Joyce Carol Oates, who hilariously suggested that the Cthulhu Mythos expressed “a mock Transcendentalism in which ‘spirit’ resides everywhere except possibly in human beings.”
America’s 17th-century frontier was as uncanny for Lovecraft as for its first white settlers—and no less haunted by mysterious presences. “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets glint without ever having caught the glint of the sunlight.” It is “a lonely and curious country” with “stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes . . .” The sickly offspring of Cotton Mather (“Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches . . .”) and Michael “The Day of Doom” Wigglesworth, as well as Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson, Lovecraft is heir to Puritan gloom and theological intolerance. His fantasies push the Salem witch trials further into apocalyptic paranoia.
Evoking a sense of a vast, unknowable wilderness, as well as a degenerate present, Lovecraft draws on the Puritan impulse to scare the living bejeezus out of his audience with a mad xenophobia and a deep disgust that perhaps compensates for the (unacknowledged?) knowledge that it was his people who persecuted the Quakers and murdered the Indians. Lovecraft’s dread of the Old Ones is suffused with guilt. It wasn’t sex that he most feared but the return of a historical repressed.
J. Hoberman is the Voice’s senior film critic and the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (just out in paperback from the New Press).