Michel Houellebecq appears the very model of the modern litteratiste -- essayist, novelist, poet, art-house screenwriter, even published photographer to refute any notion of the tyranny of the word. French but not too much so (born on the island of Réunion in the deep Indian Ocean, currently living in Ireland), he's the winner of various high-sounding awards such as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Novembre, whatever that is. Even if it turns out to be for the biggest parsnip in Grenoble, you could probably get a fellowship in any East Coast university just by putting it on the application form. But not, however, if under "recent publications" you put "a savage appreciation of the work of H.P. Lovecraft." Not even one with a classy subtitle like H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. What's a nice guy like M. Houellebecq doing down here in the gutter with us pulp fans?
The opening chapters of Houellebecq's book (available here from the Guardian, of all places) set out an initial claim to the worthiness of Lovecraft as a subject (Stephen King, in his amiable galumphing way, writes a prolix introduction to the same end) and immediately follow up with a clinching argument. Put perhaps over-simply: in an era where the Real is hateful, a mechanistic era without God, horror is the only true Realism. And Lovecraft is the twentieth century's unquestioned master of horror, a writer whose unflinching acceptance of the Real created a fantasy universe so powerful as to have become myth in our time. Lovecraft saw that the work of Darwin and Lyell and Shapley and Einstein fundamentally demonstrated that "human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." His reaction to this realization, quite rightly, was existential terror. Lovecraft would no doubt consider my own reaction to the implications of deep time and relativity -- a fervent embrace of the pure Protestant doctrine of Faith -- to be cowardice, although he might have cut me the same slack he cut his Puritan forebears. ("I admire them more every day," he wrote to Long.) However, he was made of sterner stuff. In his letters and conversation, he faced up to the implications forthrightly and imperturbably, as a New England gentleman should. But in his fiction, he let out the shrieks.
Houellebecq does not center his analysis of Lovecraft's terrors on geology and cosmography, however, but on Lovecraft's racism. Specifically, Houellebecq argues that HPL's ego-shattering experiences in New York City -- the wreck of his marriage, his joblessness, the sheer experience of New York's polyglot crowds -- drove him over the edge. He moved to New York and initially experienced it as "hysterical exaltation" -- a primarily architectural reaction (Houellebecq is excellent on the architectural core of Lovecraft's aesthetics) and one that I certainly share. (Especially considering that he saw New York in 1924, before the butchery of the International Style took hold.) Even more importantly, the parochial, stiff Lovecraft was married to a cosmopolitan, sensual woman -- a Jew, even! The combination of New York and marriage cracked HPL's New England sang-froid forever. But his wife lost her job, Lovecraft couldn't find literary, or any, work (this in the Coolidge boom, the Jazz Age of Fitzgerald and the great pulp magazines), and what began with the "incredible peaks and pyramids" of architecture became "squalor and alienage" among "throngs" of "squat, swarthy strangers." These quotes all come, by the way, from the same 1925 story, "He," which Houellebecq convincingly reads as Lovecraft's autobiographical rejection letter to New York.
And Lovecraft's genteel, almost unconscious Rhode Island racism shattered along with the rest of him, replaced with characteristically Lovecraftian howls against "monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthrepoid and amoebal . . . suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities." This isn't some monstrous species from his fiction -- this is a letter to Frank Belknap Long, describing the "Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid" natives of the Lower East Side. Houellebecq argues that this explosion of hysterical racial hatred -- and that's what it is, without question -- becomes the tsunami that thrusts Great Cthulhu above the waves in 1926, after Lovecraft has fled New York for the peace and safety of Providence. Unlike most Lovecraft aficionados, Houellebecq does not diminish HPL's racism or clothe it in contemporizing excuses. Here, he says, is the core of what turns a second-rate fictioner into the greatest horror writer of the century. This was the necessary wound (as much to us Lovecraftians as to Lovecraft) that filled him with not just rejection of the world, but rage and hatred of it. This is what took Lovecraft off the sidelines and set him "against the world, against life." Houellebecq notes (correctly) that Lovecraft did not take the easy way out, and feed "mongrels and Negroes" to the Elder Gods. His racism did not become power fantasy. No, Lovecraft's victims are invariably white, Anglo-Saxon scholars, the very model of HPL's idealized elite -- and, Houellebecq hints (though does not go far enough to say, as he is running rapidly out of pages), the very model of his audience. And further, of the modern literary world, or the portion of it that counts in the back pages of the Guardian once our multicultural obeisances have been made. We moderns are Lovecraft; his fears are our fears, and only he had the architect's eye to see it, the "rage" to write it, and the courage to claim it "without weakness."
I know nothing about Michel Houellebecq's politics. For all I know, he and Jean-Francois Revel get together for cribbage once a month at Baroness Thatcher's place. But I kind of doubt it. Houellebecq appreciates Lovecraft the way the townsfolk appreciate the gunfighter in a John Ford Western -- from a distance, and after he is safely dead. In the course of wrapping up his discussion, Houellebecq says:
The value of a human being today is measured in terms of his economic efficiency and his erotic potential -- that is to say, in terms of the two things Lovecraft most despised.
Horror writers are reactionaries in general, simply because they are particularly, one might even say professionally, aware of the existence of Evil. It is somewhat curious that among Lovecraft's numerous disciples none has been struck by this simple fact: the evolution of the modern world has made Lovecraftian phobias ever more present, ever more alive.
There are a lot of directions these two paragraphs can take us. I'm curious, for example, about how unconsciously (or consciously, for that matter) Houellebecq shares "Lovecraft's phobias." What is a nice guy like Houellebecq doing down here in the gutter? For myself, I prefer to center Lovecraft's fictional power in his appreciation for 20th-century science, rather than his embrace of 19th-century racialism, and will note that as HPL's "great texts" go on, we hear ever less about "nautical-looking Negroes" and ever more about the indifference of the cosmos to all men of whichever color. Perhaps Houellebecq would consider that interpretation of HPL as cowardly as Lovecraft would consider my Calvinism.
But I was primarily taken by his assertion that "horror writers are reactionaries in general." (It's useful, if not important, to note that this applies to writers, not to filmmakers -- with the possible exception of John Carpenter's oeuvre, every great horror film has been radical, or at least liberal, in orientation and intent.) Perhaps this explains the more usual distaste of the Guardian books section, and our imaginary East Coast university, for horror writers? "If horror writers are reactionaries, they can't be Artists, after all, and we're only in the Art business here." It's time that someone took this particular canard out and staked it in the heart -- leaving aside Dante and Shakespeare, say, for whom more or less respectable arguments can be made about politics as foreign to us as Lovecraft's crinoid-creatures, look at Coleridge and Eliot. Indisputably Artists, with a capital Art, and cutting-edge Artists, too, on the wave-front of Artistic Progress. And likewise, indisputably reactionaries, conservatives of the deepest dye in any aspect worth the name. Theocons, to boot, both of them, pure Religious Right, none of your libertarian trash. Sure, their lifestyles were occasionally Bohemian, but if being a rich factory-owner doesn't disqualify Engels from the Left, the occasional bout with opium or adultery shouldn't take you out of the lists of the Right.
And, interestingly, both horrorists. Look at "Christabel" or "The Dry Salvages." Lovecraft's reactionary, even archaic, conservatism is questioned only by his fervent acolyte S.T. Joshi, who is yet forced to admit that HPL's Depression-era conversion to socialism focused primarily on its elitist, technocratic, dirigiste aspects rather than springing from any urge to empower the people. ("A sort of fascistic socialism," is how HPL explains the enlightened government of the unthinkably advanced time-traveling cone-beings in "The Shadow Out of Time.") Other horrorists likewise: Ambrose Bierce (whose cynicism almost equaled Lovecraft's nihilism) rejected politics and implicitly democracy itself, Machen was of that peculiar High Medievalist sensibility that occasionally intersected with radicalism (as with William Morris) but not in his case, and Edgar Allan Poe was a Whig supporter and a self-conscious "Southern gentleman."
With some authors, placing them politically is trickier -- Bram Stoker, for instance, seems to have been a "single-issue voter" on the topic of Irish nationalism, which drew him toward the British liberals much as being a Palestinian nationalist does today. But Dracula is as clear a paean to Victorian bourgeois values as any novel ever written. Mary Shelley, likewise, was radical by birth and marriage, but was considerably to the right of her father or her husband (and in her later life, spent much effort muddying the waters of Percy Shelley's radical beliefs). Frankenstein, although more politically fraught than Dracula, can easily be read as a pure refutation of Rousseau's "natural man" and a (horrified) reaction to the implications of Percy Shelley's atheism. (The parlor radical Polidori's Vampyre likewise can be read as a reaction against the rejection of social values by a Byronic aristocrat.) Certainly the business of reading politics from fiction is a minefield -- one might not ever guess from Hawthorne's works that he was an intensely partisan Democrat. (How much of that was cronyism rather than conviction I shall leave for others to discern.) But it's not entirely illegitimate: a reading of Tommyknockers or Dreamcatcher isn't likely to leave you deluded into thinking that Stephen King is a Republican. (A reading of Tommyknockers won't leave you thinking he's much of a novelist, either.) But although King is as stereotypical a Maine liberal (giving $150,000 to the Maine Democratic party in 2002 alone) as HPL was a WASP reactionary, he is condemned out of his own mouth, from Danse Macabre: "The horror story, beneath its fangs and fright wig, is as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstripe suit." The art is conservative, the fear is reactionary. And if you fear the implications of that truth, Michel Houellebecq will welcome you to the club.