Not long ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. I would say I’m interested in Lovecraft more than an actual fan of his work – while the so-called Great Texts are brilliant achievements (though in quite what field I’m not entirely sure), also owning the recent releases of Necronomicon and Eldritch Tales means I am aware that a lot of HPL’s output is repetitive, peculiar and arguably quite wearisome.
Anyway, the Houellebecq book is interesting, though I would just say this should you also come across a copy – it looks substantial enough, but once you take out Stephen King’s rather lovely introduction and the reprints of two classic HPL tales, you’re left with an essay rather less than a hundred pages long. If you were a complete HPL newbie then I can’t imagine this being much of an issue, given you get two of the Great Texts in the same volume: I, on the other hand, am now the owner of four different copies of The Call of Cthulhu in different collections and formats, and three of The Whisperer in Darkness (not even a particular favourite of mine, it has to be said).
Houellebecq writes cogently and interestingly about HPL’s style and preoccupations, suggesting that the lack of certain subject matter in his work (basically, there’s no sex) is not necessarily as psychologically illuminating as people often assume, but perhaps instead the result of a conscious choice. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this, but it is at least thought-provoking.
Most interesting is a section on Lovecraft’s soujourn in New York City in 1924, which is actually quite touching as it depicts his inability to engage with the modern world and opens up the intriguing possibility of how his life might have gone differently had he managed to find a job, preserve his marriage, and so on. Never to be, I suspect, and it’s only after this traumatic period that the Great Texts were written (Houellebecq throws up the engaging notion that the blasphemous city of R’lyeh, along with all the other nightmarish metropolii which crop up in his later work, are in fact depictions of New York as HPL perceived it).
Houellebecq also touches upon the issue of HPL’s racism and does so with a commendable lack of squeamishness. Even a cursory skim through HPL reveals some very nasty stuff going on – blacks explicitly likened to chimpanzees, the demonisation of anyone who isn’t Caucasian in The Call of Cthulhu itself – but to read extracts of HPL’s own letters on this topic is to take it to another level. The delirious, hyperbolic, almost glossolalic outpouring of words which characterises HPL’s most characteristic moments is put to the service of some appalling notions, such as when he describes New York’s immigrant population:
The organic things – Italo-Semitic-Mongoloid – inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamabilities.
Damn it, Howard, don’t mince words – tell us what you really think! Of course, here we’re touching upon one of the age-old issues, as to how much one should let the nature of the artist influence one’s opinion of the art – the same thing applies to a lesser or greater degree to everyone from Wagner to Damon Albarn, not forgetting Charlton Heston along the way. With HPL it’s possibly slightly different in that his prejudices are so clearly fundamental to his work. Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to excuse them, but instead attempts to put them in context and explain their origin (maybe this in itself constitutes an apologia of sorts).
HPL’s racism is one of things that makes reading his work a slightly awkward experience sometimes, but Houellebecq is also very clear about why it is his work has endured and thrived – it is unique in style, and in its startling effect upon the receptive reader.
I nibble around the edges of HPL’s works quite often, not often having the time and energy to tackle the longer, lesser stories, but I think about him and influence relatively frequently, quite simply because he seems to me to be the single most influential figure in the horror genre as we understand it today.
I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating – HPL was writing in the early years of the 20th century, when our whole conception of the world was shifting onto a new basis following various developments in the sciences. Influential, largely mechanistic philosophies were entering the mass consciousness for the first time, and there was a transition in process between a spiritual age and a materialistic one. And this transition, to me, is what drives HPL’s best writing.
The Great Texts, and many of the other stories, seem to me to be the products of a writer appalled by the philosophical basis of the new age and seeking to articulate this revulsion in any way he can. With the old Judaeo-Christian anthropocentric worldview looking increasingly archaic, the materialistic Darwinian one replacing it offered rather less comfort. I use the word Darwinian intentionally, because HPL clearly seems to have found the notion of evolution as repulsive as any fundamentalist Christian today. And this disgust finds its way into the stories – the central horror of Arthur Jermyn is of a man discovering he is descended from apes, while that of The Shadow Over Innsmouth is of another character discovering his ultimately marine ancestry.
HPL’s rejection of the modern scientific worldview also finds an expression in his praise of ignorance and rejection of the quest for knowledge in several stories. The famous opening sentence of The Call of Cthulhu expresses relief at human inability to make sense of the contents of our own heads, while At the Mountains of Madness features the narrator desperately hoping his account will dissuade anyone from following in his footsteps and acquiring more sanity-blasting knowledge. This is the intellectual and moral equivalent of sticking your head under the duvet and refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths even exist, a rejection of reason and curiosity at a fundamental level.
Perhaps this explains some of HPL’s appeal, but then there is also his unique (and that’s putting it mildly) prose style. It is customary to point out that HPL’s plotting is usually somewhat pedestrian, his characters thin and interchangeable, and his dialogue frequently rather embarrassing (his fondness for meticulously-rendered dialect speech particularly so). Was HPL even bothered about these things? How much of his style is the result of conscious decisions?
Hard to say. But show any reader savvy with SFF literature a paragraph rattling on breathlessly and stuffed with words like Cyclopean, paleogean, chromaticism and unnameable and they will instantly identify the author. Restrained and subtle HPL is not, but he is still a notable stylist, especially since all this overwrought prose at the same time manages to be usefully vague about most of what he’s writing about.
Again, this can be controversial – Michael Moorcock, in Starship Stormtroopers, describes HPL’s writing as ‘offensively awful’ with a ‘resultant inability to describe his own horrors’ (‘leaving us to do the work – the secret of his success – we’re all better writers than he is!’). Given the rather forensic descriptions occurring in several places in the HPL canon, I think this is a bit unfair – and, in any case, suggested horror is more to my personal taste than the no-holds-barred explicit kind.
Which brings me to another HPL-themed book I looked at recently, a collected edition of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon. Now, this isn’t a book I can properly review or write about in great detail, but even the fairly cursory glance I gave it has left it lodged in my head ever since (I think I may partly be writing this piece in an attempt to exorcise it).
Some people have suggested that Neonomicon is an oblique rant by Moore against the state of the current comics industry and the style of storytelling in widespread use within it. Well, maybe, but Moore himself has said in an interview that one of the notions motivating this story was (I paraphrase) to dig into the texture of the Mythos and actually explore what it is that HPL was writing about so obscurely – to take the unnameable and unspeakable, and to name it and talk about it.
The result is a book which, to be honest, I am surprised is on sale in high street bookshops – certainly without a sealed wrapper, anyway. On one level the plot is quite straightforward, concerning FBI agents investigating what appears to be a cult of Lovecraft-influenced fetishists, but – this being Alan Moore – there is inevitably a level of metatextuality going on here. The story is set in a world where Lovecraft was a penurious writer, and the Mythos stories are cult fiction, and this allows Moore to slip in various jokes and observations along the way. But then someone notices that the fetish cult has been in existence since before HPL wrote his stories, which means they can’t be copying him – could he in fact have been writing about something he really encountered?
All this is clever enough, but really by the by: the core of the story concerns an attempt by the main characters to infiltrate the cult and what happens afterwards. All goes well to begin with, but then they are discovered: the male agent is killed and his female partner is gang raped at considerable length as part of a ceremony to summon a Deep One (which duly shows up at the end of the second issue). The rape is depicted over many pages and in great detail, and – to my mind at least – it’s utterly vile and repulsive. If the same images were shown in a movie, that film would only be on sale in specialist adult shops.
The next issue is arguably just as bad, concerning the female agent being locked in a cellar with the Deep One, who proceeds to violate her repeatedly over a period of days. Again, nothing is left to the imagination and it is really quite appalling. I can see why some are suggesting that Moore is making a point here about the mindset of a certain kind of comics reader, and the way female characters are routinely treated, but – Jesus. This stuff is really horrible, surely much more than was required to make the point and easily enough to alienate and disgust people who would agree with Moore on this issue.
The final issue is a bit more palatable and has an interesting new take on certain aspects of the Mythos, but it’s hard to escape the notion that for the writer this book is primarily about the graphic sex and sexual violence that comprise most of the middle two chapters.
Lovecraft himself would surely have execrated Neonomicon as gutter filth of the lowest kind, for all that it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, thoughtfully-produced, and written by someone very familiar with the HPL canon. Is Moore in fact challenging readers of HPL’s prose in this book, as if to say ‘This is what really powers these stories – these are the unspeakable rites you’re so used to reading about’? If so, then Neonomicon is a typically brilliant piece of work from Moore, delivering a typically incisive and plausible critique of HPL and the Mythos while simultaneously being a credible addition to the Mythos itself.
That said, HPL’s words, at their best, leave me with a nebulous sense of wonderment and an equally vague kind of existential dread. Moore and Burrows’ pictures, on the other hand, just overwhelm me with a visceral disgust. Which of these is the more honest and realistic response to HPL’s ideas is surely debateable, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that Neonomicon is what Lovecraft’s work is ‘really’ about. There may be an element of truth there, but to reduce the Great Texts to being nothing more than camouflage for such squalid and limited obsessions is to do both them and their creator a great disservice.
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