Today's Book Review

Michel Houellebecq H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life 247pp. McSweeney's Books. 1932416188

H.P. Lovecraft is one of the strangest and most influential writers of horror in the English language. A complete critical and commercial failure during his lifetime, Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer, alone and impoverished, at the age of 47. But his disturbing, obsessively racist, and adjective-laden stories took on a life of their own after his death, permeating American popular culture to such an extent that modern critics sometimes compare him to Arthur Conan Doyle; like Doyle's famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraft's creations live on almost entirely independent of their creator. His stories have never been out of print since their publication in the early 1900s, and have generated millions of dollars in revenue (where exactly this revenue goes is something of a mystery, as Stephen King notes in his thoughtful and characteristically engaging introduction). Lovecraft is listed as a major influence by writers as diverse--and successful--as King himself and, as we learn in the course of his book, the French writer Michel Houellebecq.

Originally written in 1988, a decade before the publication of his first novel, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is an impassioned defense of Lovecraft's ouevre, an insistence that Lovecraft's stories are immensely important. Against the World makes no pretense of critical impartiality; Houellebecq is an ardent admirer of Lovecraft's work, and a sympathetic biographer--though there's not much in Lovecraft's bitter, misanthropic existence to inspire sympathy. Aside from a few happy and unlikely years of marriage, to a woman who supported him financially and who he seems to have loved, in his own awkward way (Houellebecq includes a heartbreaking sample of what Lovecraft considered to be a love letter), Lovecraft spent his life in self-imposed and penniless exile, his only friends a couple of younger writers with whom he exchanged occasional correspondence. Though he does not shy away from Lovecraft's extraordinarily malevolent and pervasive racism, Houellebecq offers an almost dismissive justification for Lovecraft's constant association of the "lesser" races with a species of profoundly evil aliens determined to destroy everything good (and white) in the world. For Houellebecq, Lovecraft's racism is inspired by his colossal professional failures in New York, surrounded by immigrants he believed to be taking away the jobs no one would hire him for (due in no small part to his own social awkwardness and administrative incompetence).

Houellebecq seems at first an unlikely biographer for a writer like Lovecraft. His own fiction has enjoyed tremendous international success, thanks at least partly to his controversial reputation as a sort of enfant terrible of French letters. But like Lovecraft, Houellebecq--whose fiction is as ferociously misogynist as Lovecraft's is racist--exerts a strange kind of appeal for all his hyperbolic excess. Houellebecq's sexual landscape is sterile despite--or perhaps because of--all its gratuitous profligacy, and removed from real human experience. Like Lovecraft, he is misanthropic, obsessive, fantastical, and off-putting; and yet, his work acquires a strange kind of resonance, an insightfulness in spite of itself, and sometimes even a hopefulness that suggests, at its heart, Houellebecq is not quite such a hater of humanity after all. After enduring one of his novels, one sometimes has the feeling of having run an uphill marathon: exhausted, ill, but exhilarated. Likewise, there is something undeniably compelling about Lovecraft's dark and mystery-laden universe where, despite a preponderance of unwieldy adjectives and an aesthetic that frequently borders on outright camp, his hokey aliens and indistinguishable narrators acquire a kind of critical mass of fascination. At the heart of his work is a horrifying loneliness, a conviction that the world is an empty bitter place with no joy to offer, a fixation on the Abyss with a capital A. Lovecraft is enthralling not so much for his (let's face it) hackneyed fiction but its context, the bleak expanse of his own life and the lasting place his work has carved for itself in popular culture.

Though Against the World fails as a work of criticism--perhaps not surprising, considering it's coming from a writer who's made a career out of truculent perversity--it's difficult to put down. Houellebecq's capitulation to, and refusal to examine, Lovecraft's insistence that eroticism has no place in his work ("This was an important point to establish," he snaps, "Now let's move on") is exasperating. It doesn't take a Freud to recognize that a man who writes constantly about decay, pestilence, and a fishy-smelling menace continually emerging from the sea has more than a little sex on his brain, and a lifetime of insisting otherwise is a terror that begs unpacking. One wishes, rather fervently, that Houellebecq might also take a deeper look at what makes Lovecraft such a quintessentially American writer, and what America's preoccupation with Lovecraft says about us as a culture; after all, who's better equipped to eviscerate Americans than the French. Michael Moorcock's hilarious 1978 essay "Starship Stormtroopers" accomplishes in one paragraph what Houellebecq can't or won't do in an entire book (to be fair, Moorcock is no fan of HPL's "offensively awful writing", or, for that matter, of the masses who adore it). Houellebecq is far more interested in the particulars--what made the enigmatic Lovecraft tick, and what there is to love about his frenetic, weird fiction. One can almost picture Houellebecq and Lovecraft huddled together at the back of the bar, lamenting the good old days when "those ones" (people of color, women, aliens) knew their place and a man could really make his way in the world--except, of course, it's difficult to imagine the socially inept and largely housebound Lovecraft hanging out in a bar with anyone at all. As tempting as it is to leave them to their own devices, their one-sided conversation--across the decades, across genres, across the possible--exerts an undeniable pull. Whether it's the proverbial attraction of the car accident, or something more complex, is hard to say.