From the March, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Atheist Shrugged by Ethan Cordray

Book Review

Atheist Shrugged

H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq

translated by Dorna Khazeni
Believer Books, 2005
(247 pages, $18.00, paperback)

It is remarkable that anyone still remembers Howard Phillips Lovecraft. A writer of obscure supernatural horror stories never published outside of cheap pulp magazines, an introverted and impoverished misanthrope known only to a tiny circle of friends, H. P. Lovecraft died in 1937 fully expecting to leave no literary legacy whatsoever.

Yet over the past seventy years, Lovecraft’s stories have not only continued to be read, but have ascended into the popular consciousness and even, with the publication of a Library of America collection in 2005, been tacitly accepted into the American literary canon.

Dark Insight

Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life claims that the reason for Lovecraft’s persistence is that he possessed a uniquely pure and fervent insight into the dark side of human existence. Houellebecq (pronounced “well-beck”) is a French writer of some notoriety, famous for his highly explicit and bitterly anti-modern novels, and here he passionately eulogizes his literary hero.

In Lovecraft, Houellebecq sees an exemplar of the total rejection of modern living, a completely sincere hatred of everything that makes up contemporary life: “Absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by an aversion to the modern world in particular. This summarizes Lovecraft’s attitude fairly accurately.”

Houellebecq is fascinated by Lovecraft’s resistance to all the popular opiates and secular optimisms that pervade contemporary life. His fiction contains no sex, no economics, no politics. Lovecraft admired the Puritans, not for their piety but for their moral “inhibitions” and grave disdain for comfort, which he called “attempts . . . to fashion a pattern of beauty in the hog-wallow that is animal existence.”

Lovecraft was a committed atheist. In fact, Houellebecq argues, few other atheists have ever had the courage of belief equal to his. He understood that in a godless universe, everything is reduced to chaos and indifference. Lovecraft’s stories portray mankind as a tiny and insignificant aberration within an infinite, chaotic, and hostile universe. The essential relationship between reality and man is that of predator to prey.

A Nightmare in Prose

All this comes through in the histrionically elevated imagination of Lovecraft’s stories. He is concerned entirely with the imagination, with vast and fabulous visions of the great, dark cosmos outside of us. Houellebecq treats Lovecraft’s style and vision in a series of chapters whose titles add up to an overall appraisal (as Stephen King summarizes it in his excellent introduction):

Attack the story like a radiant suicide; utter the great NO to life without weakness; then 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.

Houellebecq is aware of the common critical indictment of Lovecraft’s stylistic excesses. But he calls this an “idiotic point of view” that judges the stories by “elegant, subtle, minimalist, and restrained notions of style” that Lovecraft never showed the least concern for. Instead, each story is a new opportunity for him to let himself go, to sweep the reader up into the horrifying tumult.

It’s hard to give a brief example of this approach, as so much of its effect relies on length, complexity, and repetition. Suffice it to say that the reader will encounter a great many more adverbs than usual, especially such rare and archaic fare as “cyclopean,” “eldritch” and “foetid.” Though this makes Lovecraft easily parodied, it does lull the reader into the sort of uncanny state in which the stories’ horrors resonate.

Houellebecq briefly traces the features of Lovecraft’s life that contributed to his dark outlook, including his attenuated childhood, his brief and disappointing marriage (including a miserable period in New York City), his indifference to his constant poverty, and his extraordinarily fierce—but passive—racism. All these are elements of a life lived in rejection of reality, his returning of the malicious shrug he sensed was directed at him from the universe.

Politically, Lovecraft was a thorough reactionary. He had no use for democracy, which he thought had stupidly destroyed the aristocratic class to which his ancestors belonged. He scoffed at the liberal notion that society is evolving toward a redemptive utopian future, being more inclined to see a process of gradual racial degeneration and ultimate decay. Preserving archaic and outdated modes of behavior was the only way to slow the irreversible downward slide.

Lovecraft’s Alternative

Of particular note is Lovecraft’s relationship to Christianity. It seems strange that a committed atheist and materialist would produce an elaborate mythological framework that sometimes seems like a pessimistic inversion of Christian themes. Houellebecq notes how one story, “The Dunwich Horror,” reads like a grotesque and sinister passion narrative. Despite his intentions, Lovecraft cannot seem to get entirely free of specific religious influences.

Houellebecq concludes that Lovecraft’s goal was to provide a complete, aesthetic alternative to life, an imaginative world in which all the cheap and futile aspects of common existence are revealed for what they are, and honesty invests the bleak universe with a grotesque and enormous sublimity. Reacting to his world, Lovecraft “succeeded in transforming his aversion to life into an effective hostility,” a hunger for the dark truth that sustained him in a miserable world.

For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s stories, two of the best are included, “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Reading them in the light of Houellebecq’s insightful analysis is an exciting experience even for the veteran Lovecraft fan. This book is a valuable, lucid, and entertaining exploration of one of the most relentless and thorough literary reactions against modernity.

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