H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
by Michel Houellebecq
introduction by Stephen King
Published by Believer Books
247 pages, 2004
Lovecraft's Vital Spontaneity
Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
One does not have to be a Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) science fiction/horror reader in order to become enthralled by Michel Houellebecq's new book, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. The French novelist's study of the Prince of Providence (R.I.) is as instructive and enlightening an account of the writer of The Call of Cthulhu as it is a fine exposition of non-fiction writing. Houellebecq's writing is lucid and unpretentious, free of theoretical poison and as objective as it is respectful of its chosen subject.
H.P. Lovecraft is best known for his novels, which include: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1928) and At the Mountains of Madness (1931). Lovecraft's devout readership, Houellebecq included, have bestowed great attention to the over 60 stories that the author published in Weird Tales magazine, beginning in 1923. Lovecraft's greatest literary creation is Cthulhu, a soft bodied, jelly-like entity who ruled over Earth along with its legions of disciples in the days prior to the existence of man. These stories gave birth to the Cthulhu myth, bringing about Lovecraft's great number of loyal and passionate readers.
But because H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is the work of a visionary writer, a writer whose themes and range of ability exhibit depth and imagination, the book is equally a showcase of Houellebecq's literary prowess and sensibility. Best known as a novelist, in this work Houellebecq also comes across as a well-rounded public intellectual, his belletristic voice demonstrating the rare condition -- these days, anyhow -- of a private citizen and a free man.
The book is an interesting amalgam of essays by Houellebecq, two H.P. Lovecraft stories: The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness and a competent -- very animated, in fact -- and entertaining introduction by Stephen King. King introduces newer readers to the horror genre by explaining Lovecraft's place and subsequent realm of influence on younger writers in that field. King also takes notice of the ire of certain critics and rebuttals with that particular tinge of irony that is prevalent in independent freethinking writers:
But put all that psychological and sociological business aside. It's mostly twaddle, make-work for spies in the house of literature, those chickenshit academics (their number grows yearly) who will grasp at any straw to keep from talking about story and language and imagination -- the sweet DNA of fiction -- because it makes them uncomfortable, leaves them with the all-too-real possibility of a fifty-minute class where they have almost no lecture notes and so the real horrors loom: dead air and staring student eyes.
Houellebecq manages to talk about story and imagination and so much more. He also explores some of the reasons why writers write and people read, all the while eschewing trite, timely theories and bogus psychoanalytic baggage that some "spies," as King argues, affix to literature. H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is an exquisite exposition on writers, writing and the desire to read and how these fit into an overall cultural scheme.
The book opens with Houellebecq's characteristic respect for reality: " Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more." This brutal sincerity sits well with Lovecraftians to be sure. Yet, these same words could have as easily been uttered by the likes of Baltasar Gracian, Schopenhauer, Celine or Kingsley Amis to mention a few. And yet, we can readily measure the truth of Houellebecq's contention by visiting a children's hospital. For writers, this truth is perpetually reinforced by the choleric bad will of most critics and other onlookers. Both Lovecraft and Houellebecq have much to say about the latter without a doubt. It is easy to read Houellebecq diligently. Then comes the clincher for attentive readers, Lovecraft's or otherwise: "Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All those prodigiously refined "notions," "situations," anecdotes ... all they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our 'real life' days." It might prove difficult to argue against this clear-headed observation, much like betting on an old, three-legged horse in a field of juvenile stallions.
The subtle genius of this work, however, is the interplay that takes place between a description of Lovecraft's universe and Houellebecq's assessment of the former. Implicit in Lovecraft's writing -- and Houellebecq points this out -- is the disregard for life that is encountered at the hands of over-rationalization. It seems that perhaps both Lovecraft and Houellebecq have less of a quarrel with life itself than with the world of men. Houellebecq's wit uncovers the delicate and often misunderstood balance that exists between an aversion to man as the source of insipid mass movements and destructive ideologies and the sanctity of the individual -- the perennial subject and fuel of literature. Is this perhaps what Lovecraft has in mind when he writes that the destiny of man is to "build vast beautiful, mineral things for the moon to delight in after he is dead?"
Reading Houellebecq we are reminded of some of the possibilities that literature presents us with: vital spontaneity, the autonomous and free nature of creativity, and the excitement of what to expect as we turn the next page. This is Houellebecq at his best. While not completely surprised by this, we are pleasantly alerted to the fact that the writer of The Shadow Over Innsmouth "was the epitome of the discreet, reserved, well-educated gentleman." The rest is literature, as they say.
Houellebecq's insight into life and the world of letters is instructive and often much too cutting -- frequently vindicated by reality -- for an all-encompassing, accommodating and cheaply bargained-for comfort. Houellebecq strengthens the core of his long essay by including portions of some of Lovecraft's letters where much is learned about the man without taking recourse in ostentatious interpretations of Lovecraft's inner being. Of these, we learn that Lovecraft wrote for his own satisfaction irrespective of his readers or commercial considerations. But perhaps Houellebecq's strongest and universal observation has to do with the pathos of writers whose initiation to literature was through poetry. He explains: "Lovecraft was a poet; he is amongst those writers who began with poetry. The first quality apparent in his work was the harmonious rhythm of his sentences; the rest was to come later, and after much work." And what will the critics think of this? | June 2005
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.