French bad-boy novelist Michel Houellebecq (pronounced well-beck) is famous for his Platform and Elementary Particles, books stuffed with depressing, depressed and amoral characters. Houellebecq has been accused of writing misogynistic narratives, but you’d have to have tunnel vision to see them that way: Houellebecq doesn’t just hate women, he hates the entire human race. Houellebecq is, in other words, an existentialist’s dream date.
Houellebecq’s dream date, then, is H.P. Lovecraft. If Houellebecq is the international star of a new wave of illiberal misanthropism, Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) is the pater familias of that wave. Houellebecq perfectly captures Lovecraft’s (and his own) suicide-terrorist approach to literary composition: “Attack the story like a radiant suicide, utter the great NO to life without weakness.” “Then,” like the Hashhishin (“assassins”) of medieval Persia ascending to Paradise after knifing a honky Crusader or a damned-anyway Sunni, “you will see a magnificent cathedral, and your senses, vectors of unutterable derangement, will map out an integral delirium that will be lost in the unnamable architecture of time.”
Really? Like, wow, cool. Readers of Hakim Bey’s “broadsides of ontological anarchy” may be reminded of Bey’s notion of “poetic terrorism.” But there’s a vast difference between the misanthropism and biophobia of Houellebecq and Lovecraft and Bey’s brand of terrorism. Bey wants to open the world to the disenfranchised or, perhaps more accurately, to steal back from the media-industrial complex what they’ve taken from us. Houellebecq and Lovecraft will have none of that Romantic nonsense: they want to burn the world down, turn it into an orbiting cinder as dark and carbonized as their hearts.
It’s about time Lovecraft got a thorough going-over from a literary-critical perspective (never mind that Stephen King, in his self-serving introduction to this volume, speaks of “academic chickenshits”; in Against the World, Against Life, Houellebecq is indeed playing the critic’s game). It’s just unfortunate that the opportunity was seized by someone as biophobic as Houellebecq. Not that Houellebecq gets Lovecraft wrong: indeed, he’s done a great service in taking Lovecraft seriously (it’s pretty easy to write ol’ H.P. off as a craftless dope when, in fact, he was neither) and in probing the dark depths of this formative master’s psyche.
Houellebecq recognizes that Lovecraft was the founder of a “mythology,” one in which “Adulthood is hell” but then, so is every other time of life. Lovecraft’s sources, after all, were “Any mysterious and irresistible march toward a doom.” Enlightenment, indeed any light, is “deadly” and should be fled “into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Lovecraft wrote from a diametrically opposite perspective from William Blake. Where Blake bemoaned the mind’s filters, the closed “doors of perception,” Lovecraft wrote that “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” We should beware science’s attempts to piece “together” bits “of dissociated knowledge” as it will eventually “open up such terrifying vistas of reality… that we shall… go mad from the revelation.”
Houellebecq correctly identifies the core motivation behind Lovecraft’s writing: fear. This is abundantly clear in Lovecraft’s truly pernicious racism, which was “no longer the WASP’s well-bred racism; it [was] the brutal hatred of a trapped animal who is forced to share his cage with other and different frightening creatures.” Houellebecq also claims that, other than Lautréamont, Lovecraft had no predecessor. This is silly, and Houellebecq’s way of canonizing his literary forbearer. Lautréamont bears some formal similarity to Lovecraft in his use of the dark side of the human psyche as a source of inspiration; but where Lovecraft fears, Lautréamont loves (see, for instance, “The Shipwreck and the Sharks” in Maldoror; the story of the love between a man and a man-eating shark may be weird but it is also mind-expandingly biophilic, which is precisely why Breton and the Surrealists claimed Lautréamont as their ancestor).
Lovecraft’s forbearers are the entire spectrum of gothic romances that appeared in the hundred or so years before he began writing. We can see Lovecraft’s epistemological darkness already descending on the first page of Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, when an about-to-be-betrothed prince is crushed to death by a giant helmet that fell from out of nowhere. So, too, the creature in Shelly’s Frankenstein feels the same epistemological angst: “Why am I here? Why have you made me be this?”
Writing about a dead, racist, life-denying recluse, Houellebecq is brilliant, if sometimes wrong. Rereading a few of Lovecraft’s stories, it’s hard to understand where Houellebecq gets the notion that H.P.’s sentences were rhythmic and that everything else flowed from there. Lovecraft is twisted, from the core of his psyche to the grammar of his sentences. Houellebecq is brilliant here, but what is needed now is a genuine study of Lovecraft. When, in his introduction, King claims Lovecraft as an influence (as does nearly every science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer of the twentieth century) we should become curious. Science fiction has been a hotbed of racism for the better part of a century (those aliens!, those stupid, ugly, thieving and murderous aliens!) and has gotten off scot-free for its entire run. Houellebecq has recognized Lovecraft as a nexus of fear and hate in modern literature, and he toasts Lovecraft for that dubious contribution. Houellebecq has made an important contribution; now it’s time to wipe away the ichor and get to the truth of Lovecraft and his twentieth-century hell spawn.