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.