A World of Horrors
By Cheryl Morgan
Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.
- Michel Houellebecq
I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.
- Howard Phillips Lovecraft
Whatever bones to pick I may have with some of Michel Houellebecq’s conclusions and assumptions, I never once doubted his central thesis, that Lovecraft’s works stand against the world and against life.
- Stephen King
Like Stephen King, I am by no means convinced by all of the ideas put forward by Michel Houellebecq in the work from which I have been quoting. Nevertheless, I am convinced not only by the truthfulness of Houellebecq’s assessment of the character of Lovecraft’s work, but also by his claims for its greatness. More of that later, but first some background.
Michel Houellebecq is a well-known and successful French writer of mainstream fiction. He is also a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. In 1991 he published an extended essay in praise of Lovecraft’s work. That essay has recently been translated in into English, thereby making it available to a much wider audience of Lovecraft aficionados. The book, which is bulked out to almost 250 pages thanks to the inclusion of two of Lovecraft’s most famous tales — "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Whisperer in Darkness" — is called H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Stephen King contributes an introduction.
So, Lovecraft is a great writer, but why? His prose is perhaps best described as eccentric (at least to our ears); some of his personal philosophy, especially his racism, is deeply unpleasant. And yet, as Houellebecq points out, he passes the first and most obvious test of a great writer: his work is still in print, and selling well, many years after his death. How many other writers active in the first half of the 20th Century can claim as much?
Houellebecq also has another cogent point to make regarding Lovecraft’s greatness. How many writers, he asks, are known and loved by people who have never read their books? Conan Doyle, certainly, Tolkien and Agatha Christie. Sherlock Holmes, Gandalf and Hercule Poirot are cultural icons. And so is Great Cthulhu. Houellebecq explains in a forward to the new edition:
At book signings, once in a while, young people come to see me and ask me to sign this book. They have discovered Lovecraft through role-playing games or CD-ROMs. They have not read his work and don’t even intend to. Nonetheless, oddly, they want to find out more — about the individual and about how he constructed his world.
And Houellebecq’s book, like books about Tolkien, can be found in bookstores shelves alongside the subject’s novels, not in the literary criticism section where one might think they belong.
Houellebecq, however, does not content himself with merely proclaiming the greatness of his subject; he attempts to understand it as well. Consequently the book is not just an essay in praise of Lovecraft’s work; it is a partial biography as well. In particular it traces the brilliance of Lovecraft’s later works, not to some brilliant leap of the imagination or bizarre dream, but to the very real hatreds and horrors that Lovecraft developed while living in poverty in New York. For a cultured New England gentleman, apparently fit only for a life as a literary hobbyist, the need to seek work in one of the world’s great urban jungles was a profoundly disturbing experience. It did not make Lovecraft a better man; it did make him a better writer.
Those of you who are of an academic bent will perhaps be disappointed by Houellebecq’s book. It is not in any way rigorous. Translator Dorna Khazeni describes the frustration that he and S.T. Joshi experienced in attempting to find the sources for all of the quotations that Houellebecq used. (Some may turn out to have been inventions of those who translated Lovecraft’s work into French.) However, there is no denying the passion of Houellebecq’s work. And from my point of view, I find his stance — that of a mainstream novelist defending genre literature by its own standards rather than trying to shoehorn it into accepted literary traditions — pleasantly refreshing. In any case if, like me, you are a Lovecraft fan, then you will want to own this book.