For the dark prince of Providence

Posted on November 21, 2006

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By Susan Tomaselli

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into peace and safety of a new dark age.”

The Call of Cthulhu

Written originally in French 1991, translator Dorna Khazeni tells of how Houellebecq’s Contre le monde, contre la vie came into her hands, and how she subsequently came to translate it for Believer Books: “[Tom Luddy] had been turned on to it by the film director Barbet Schroder, who had given it to him in Paris, telling him that it was the most brilliant of Michel Houellebecq’s books.”

“In his house at R’leyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” What possible attraction could the unwholesome, monstrous and blood-curdling purple prose of Lovecraft’s vivid and fantastic dreams (filled with utterly bizarre crab-like creatures and the living winged fungi of Yuggoth), the unutterable horrors and the blackest of terrors, “blasphemous whispers of things that had had a kind of mad half-existence before the earth and the other inner worlds of the solar system were made,” possibly hold for Michel Houellebecq?

In his introduction, before waxing lyrical on Lovecraft, digressing as to whether a horror writer has ever scared themselves shitless (the short answer, yes: just as “guitarists have calluses on the tips of their fingers,” King argues it is an occupational hazard) and retelling the convoluted anecdote on never getting around to writing a story on Lovecraft’s pillow (“an idea too scary even to write about”), King raises a serious question that this reviewer also asks: “Does this long-dated, pulp-magazine Johnson deserve such a Boswell?”

H.P. Lovecraft, introduced like a ‘virus’ to France by Jacques Bergier, contaminated the sixteen year old Houellebecq, “his writing, in fact, is not implemented entirely through hypertrophy and delirium; there is also at times a delicacy in his work, a luminous depth that is altogether rare.” Lovecraft, Houellebecq argues, takes the reader “inside poetry.” For someone who finds life “painful and disappointing,” and for someone who claims it “useless..to write new realistic novels” (as Houellebecq does in these pages) a writer like Lovecraft does not seem so odd a choice as muse, a “supreme antidote against all forms of realism.”

Houellebecq casts readers of literature in general as being “a little fed up with the world.” “Those who love life do not read,” he says – and the more he lays out his argument for H.P. Lovecraft as a writer “paradoxically comforting to those souls who are weary of life,” the more he seduces the reader to his, and Lovecraft’s, side. Quoting from a letter penned by Lovecraft in which he writes he was “growing too old for pleasure” and that “adulthood is hell,” these themes Houellebecq chews on in his own novels. And in The Call of Cthulhu, writing on the character Henry Anthony Wilcox, “a precocious youth of known genius but great eccentricity … excited attention through the strange stories and odd dreams he was in the habit of relating,” couldn’t H.P. Lovecraft almost be describing the misanthropic Houellebecq himself?

He called himself ‘physically hypersensitive,’ but the staid folk of the ancient commercial city dismissed him as merely ‘queer.’ Never mingling much with his kind, he had dropped gradually from social visibility, and was now known only to a small group of aesthetes from other towns.”

The Call of Cthulhu

One of the most interesting sections of the book, made so by Houellebecq’s sheer enthusiasm, is the one on H.P. Lovecraft’s style. “You can see that I am, having a hard time getting to the point, probably because I really dread getting to the point,” Lovecraft wrote in Cthulhu, but Houellebecq has no such problems. Lovecraft is a writer imbued with “values so entirely opposite to ours” – racist, reactionary, puritanical, prudish, anti-commercial, seeing democracy as “an idiocy” and progress “to be an illusion” – values that Houellebecq has no qualms in discussing. Though there are great differences between the two writers, Houellebecq further convinces us he shares more in common with H.P. than you would first think:

Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspirations. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of the elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.

“Lovecraft’s literary importance,” Stephen King writes, “may be secondary to the fact – attested to by the very passion of Michel Houellebecq’s essay – that HPL continues to remain not just popular with generation after generation of maturing readers but viscerally important to an imaginative core group that goes on to write that generation’s fantasy and weird tales.. and, by so doing, to chart that generation’s deepest fears.”

As a Lovecraftian protagonist sifts through press clippings and and deciphers the hieroglyphics to approach the horrible truth, so Houellebecq reads through the letters and the ‘great texts’ themselves, through the hideous sense of dread and peril, through Lovecraft’s love of strangeness and folklore, and meets the men driven by their zeal to madness (or near madness). Thus, the wild hills of Vermont, “the outpost of a frightful cosmic race,” seem more close in this ‘new dark age,’ and Lovecraft, the perfect posterboy for Houellebecq’s distaste for mankind.

Stephen King acknowledges, and Houellebecq later reaffirms, that Lovecraft was a writer unable to “ever stop, to say enough is enough.” Yet, it is the “shrill pitch of H.P. Lovecraft’s compulsion,” “his brute staying power” and his “screams of horror” which are lucid, that make Lovecraft (as Houellebecq would have us believe) “one of the most important American writers of the Twentieth Century.” “Not beyond debate,” says King. Judge for yourself, for included with Houellebecq’s “kind of scholarly love letter, maybe even the world’s first truly cerebral mash note,” are two of Lovecraft’s own: The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness. In the later, Wilmarth’s escape from Akeley’s farm is described as “a piece of delirium out of Poe or Rimbaud or the drawings of Dore,” Lovecraft is, for me at least, not a patch on those writers/artist, and neither is this book Houellebecq’s ‘most brilliant’ (The Possibility of An Island would take that accolade). Still, as King says, “weird fiction, fiction of horror and the supernatural, utters a resounding NO to the world as it is and reality as the world insists it must be,” and in Houellebecq’s capable hands, it would be easy to say ‘yes’ to H.P. Lovecraft.

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Dorna Khazeni
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
256 Pages

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Posted in: Reading