April 11th, 2009

tentacles
On Thusday, I began reading Michel Houellebecq's essay on Lovecraft, "Against the World, Against Life" (1991; 2005 English translation by Dorna Khazeni). I finished it yesterday afternoon. While I found it very readable, I also found it rather thin and frequently offensive, and am surprised it has received so much attention and praise. There are a number of factual errors, including Houellebecq's assertion:

"If an author were to be defined, not by the themes he addresses, but by those he avoids then we would be forced to agree that Lovecraft's position is rather unique. In his entire body of work, there is not a single allusion to two of the realities to which we would generally ascribe great importance: sex and money. Truly not one reference. He writes exactly as though these things did not exist." (p. 57)

However, one need only look so far as "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" to begin to refute this two-fold exaggeration. Much of the story's intended horror hinges on breeding between the Deep Ones and the inhabitants of Innsmouth, as well as mentions of more prosaic interracial sex. And there are other stories, such as "The Lurking Fear" and "The Dunwich Horror," that I can point to in order to find sex (specifically the wages of "profane" sexual acts, including miscegenation, incest, and bestiality) not only mentioned, but present as a crucial story element. HPL's racist phobias of genetic degeneration and evolutionary backsliding as a direct result of these couplings is often at the heart his work. Now, it would be fair to say that Lovecraft never wrote anything overtly erotic, but that's not the same as to make the absurd claim that he made "Truly not one reference" to sex. Quite the opposite, I am tempted to say that he was, on some level, obsessed with sex, as part of his revulsion at the inherent messiness of nature.

As for money, consider again "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." The narrator considers taking the train, "when I demurred at the high fare," which leads to him learning about Innsmouth. He's told that the bus driven by Joe Sargent is "cheap enough." Indeed, the narrator explains that he is "always seeking the cheapest route" in his sightseeing trip of New England (reflecting HPL's own impoverished travels). Houellebecq's essay is replete with these mistaken generalizations, leading one to question his familiarity with the stories and author he's discussing.

Throughout, Houellebecq seems intent on celebrating the worst aspects of Lovecraft's fiction, and goes so far as to cite as "Indisputably great Lovecraftian prose" (p. 107) an especially painful (and purple) racist screed in a letter from HPL to Frank Belknap Long. Houellebecq repeatedly praises HPL at his worst, both artistically and morally. In the end, Houellebecq bizarrely concludes (p. 119):

"This is the profound secret of Lovecraft's genius, and the pure source of his poetry: he succeeded in transforming his aversion for life into an effective hostility. To offer an alternative to life in all its forms constitutes a permanent opposition, a permanent recourse to life — this is the poet's highest mission on this earth. Howard Phillips Lovecraft fulfilled this mission."

Leaving aside, for now, the assertion that a hostility towards life should be the goal of all authors, to claim that it was HPL's goal is simply to dismiss much of his life and his letters, or to speak out of ignorance. In the end, Houellebecq comes off as a crank who hasn't even bothered to do his homework. Or, perhaps, a crank who is willing to either ignore or distort the facts in order to advance his deeply cynical worldview. Regardless, it's lousy scholarship, and he certainly does Lovecraft a disservice. It is also worth noting that may of the quotations Houellebecq attributes to HPL could not be verified by the translator.

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On Thursday night, after our drive up to Salem and Marblehead, we finally had the chance to see Dan Gildark's 2007 film, Cthulhu. I was pleased, overall, though there's some unfortunate acting (or directing) here and there, and a sex scene that only serves to derail the story. It's pretty much a very loose retelling of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," moved to the Pacific Northwest, with the Esoteric Order of Dagon serving as a sort of doomsday cult as the world succumbs to the ravages of global warming, war, and civil unrest. What works most about the film is its unflinching adherence to HPL's cosmicism, and its skillful use of mood (largely accomplished through Sean Kirby's cinematography and Willy Greer's unnerving score). The film wisely chooses to suggest rather than show, and takes full advantage of the bleak grandeur of coastal Oregon. The final ten minutes or so are, I think, close to brilliant. No, it's still not the Lovecraft adaptation I'm waiting for, but, in many ways, it's one of the best to date.