The Horror, The Horror

James Parker

Much as it might suit my obscure and inhu­man agen­da to sling a brick­bat in the direc­tion of McSweeney’s, The Believ­er and the entire gas­bag citadel of Eggers-ville, in the case of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Love­craft: Against the World, Against Life, I must toss a bou­quet. Because in trans­lat­ing and reprint­ing this 1991 mono­graph on the hor­ror writer H.P. Love­craft, Believ­er Books has done some­thing excel­lent, grant­i­ng us access to a real one-off, an exot­ic col­li­sion of sen­si­bil­i­ties. Houelle­becq, post-human French nov­el­ist, recip­i­ent of prizes, con­nois­seur of addic­tion and erot­ic malaise, meets Love­craft, the gigan­ti­cal­ly pris­sy New Eng­lan­der who couldn’t leave his imag­i­na­tion alone.

What can they pos­si­bly have in com­mon, these two? We com­pare Houellebecq’s flat­tened prose with the drip­ping cathe­dral of Lovecraft’s high style, and the Frenchman’s sprawl­ing world­li­ness with the American’s cramped lit­tle life. But it turns out that the two writ­ers, half a cen­tu­ry and a con­ti­nent apart, are secret broth­ers. If Love­craft had a mes­sage, it was this: Mean human, you are pow­er­less — ran­cid hor­ror leers at you from beyond the stars, where mem­bers of the Great Race, old beyond Time, wait to swoop down on greasy wings and reclaim the Earth. Take out the greasy wings, and this is more or less Houellebecq’s world­view too. When Love­craft pro­claims in a let­ter that he can con­ceive of no true image of the pat­tern of life and cos­mic force, unless it be a jum­ble of mean dots arrang’d in direc­tion­less spi­rals,” it is sweet music to Houelle­becq, for whom life, we learn in the book’s open­ing line, is painful and disappointing.”

Against the World, by con­trast, is enjoy­able and sat­is­fy­ing. Con­tin­u­al­ly and grace­ful­ly, Houelle­becq switch­es modes, now chan­nel­ing the cranky Love­craft, now observ­ing him from an iron­ic, sym­pa­thet­ic remove. There are no ghosts under the tumes­cent moon; there are only bloat­ed cadav­ers, swollen and black, about to explode in pesti­len­tial vom­it­ing” is an exam­ple of the first mode. Describ­ing Lovecraft’s fruit­less hunt for employ­ment in the 20s as vague­ly bur­lesque” is an exam­ple of the sec­ond. To shift per­spec­tive like this was, of course, a lux­u­ry that Love­craft him­self did not have. He was con­demned to be him­self, and to live with his obses­sions, all the time.

Love­craft was an aston­ish­ing­ly vis­cer­al racist, for exam­ple, a race-hater almost with­out com­par­i­son in lit­er­ary biog­ra­phy. New­ly mar­ried (his only rela­tion­ship with a woman, and it would be over with­in three years), he arrived on New York’s Low­er East Side with his big­otries tight­ly wound, and you can almost hear the fat twang, as the men­tal elas­tic snaps and the lit­tle cogs go fly­ing. The vari­ety, the oth­er­ness, the shov­ing, humid alien­age” (his pet word, pos­si­bly made up) — it was all too much. Melt­ing pot” … That’s a good thing, right? Where you eat Kore­an fish pat­ties in the street and dance to a steel band? Not for Love­craft: I thought of some avenue of Cyclo­pean and unwhole­some vats, crammed to the vom­it­ing-point with gan­grenous vile­ness, and about to burst and inun­date the world in one lep­rous cat­a­clysm of semi-flu­id rottenness.”

Houelle­becq, saucy polemi­cist that he is, hails the above (from a let­ter to fel­low sci-fi writer Frank Belk­nap Long) as indis­putably great Love­craft­ian prose,” but he also notes that Love­craft was at this point actu­al­ly deranged.” Ita­lo-Semit­i­co-Mon­goloids … they were mon­strous and neb­u­lous adum­bra­tions of the pithecan­thro­poid and amoe­bal; vague­ly mould­ed from some stink­ing vis­cous slime of earth’s cor­rup­tion.” This isn’t spleen. This isn’t bile. This isn’t even shit. This is Lovecraft’s own organ­ic con­coc­tion, a weed-green tinc­ture pro­duced by steep­ing his essen­tial­ly masochis­tic nature in an orgy of per­cep­tion. (He wrote his sto­ries the same way.) Houelle­becq can’t help enjoy­ing it. Once safe­ly back in Prov­i­dence, we are told, Love­craft regained some of his cus­tom­ary poise, and — great line — his admi­ra­tion for Hitler subsided.”

So Houellebecq’s Love­craft is reac­tionary, anti-Enlight­en­ment, wrong-head­ed, remorse­less, inde­fen­si­ble: a tru­ly poet­ic soul. Houelle­becq is clear­ly tak­en with — moved by, real­ly — Lovecraft’s abil­i­ty to be dis­gust­ed. And we can see that now and again in his own fic­tion he reach­es for it, for that fine Love­craft­ian seethe; a char­ac­ter in his Ele­men­tary Par­ti­cles felt as though what was between his legs was a piece of ooz­ing, putre­fy­ing meat devoured by worms.” But Houellebecq’s heart isn’t real­ly in it. He’s too mod­ern. He lacks the nec­es­sary repres­sions, what Hen­ry James called the great Puri­tan whip,’ the whip for the con­science and the nerves.” He lacks, not to put too fine a point on it, the breeding.

James Park­er, an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor, is the author of Turned On: A Biog­ra­phy of Hen­ry Rollins
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