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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.

---

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.

Comments

( 13 comments — Have your say! )
readingthedark
Apr. 11th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed Houellebecq's essay immensely, but I eventually realized that he cannot read English.

Once I understood that all of his thoughts are about the works as they have appeared in French and that he is discussing Lovecraft as translated in a long essay that was then translated "back" into English in an attempt to line the Lovecraft stories back up to the English language versions, Houllebecq's sense of things became clearer.

What was most interesting was how many of the classic letters and such have appeared in obscure places in translation into French.
sovay
Apr. 11th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
No, it's still not the Lovecraft adaptation I'm waiting for, but, in many ways, it's one of the best to date.

Cool. I heard of the movie through Rachel's—whose album The Sea and the Bells (1996) I should burn for you—but could find almost no information about it otherwise; I'm not even sure it opened anywhere near me. I will give it a try.
humglum
Apr. 12th, 2009 12:44 am (UTC)

I wonder if I still have any Rachel's...

Many good things were lost years ago, when I left Portland.
I did see them open for PJ Harvey, which was beyond neat.
sovay
Apr. 12th, 2009 12:49 am (UTC)
I wonder if I still have any Rachel's...

The Sea and the Bells is the only album I own, which is kind of ridiculous considering their others are titled things like Selenography and Music for Egon Schiele. The offer to burn copies still stands, though.

I did see them open for PJ Harvey, which was beyond neat.

I formally envy you now.
humglum
Apr. 12th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC)

I have Selenography, which is good, because I was sure I'd lost them all.

Trade is good.
jplangan
Apr. 12th, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)
A couple of years ago, I saw a copy of Cthulhu that the director (I believe) had given to S.T. Joshi, and I was very impressed by it, from the more profane Zadok Allen (who cracked the group of us up) to the ending, which I agree is quite something.
derekcfpegritz
Apr. 12th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
That movies, its producers, its actors, and most especially its director and screenwriter should be burnt and their ashes dispersed through space by the Crawling Chaos. Most Lovecraft adaptations are awful--Stuart Gordon's in particular (with the sole exception of Re-Animator)--but that one was positively blasphemous.
(Deleted comment)
greygirlbeast
Apr. 12th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)


I like your dissection of his prose. However, I would take issue with the assertion that "a hostility towards life should be the goal of all authors." Hostility toward life or human society? I would argue for the latter. Even writers of the weird (such as yourself) celebrate life (- its weirder elements -) at some level. Of course I could be wrong (and frequently am). Just a thought.


I agree with you, essentially.

Have you read Houellebecq before?

Nope. And I never shall again.
derekcfpegritz
Apr. 12th, 2009 07:26 pm (UTC)
Though I enjoyed the book, I too found Houellebecq (whose name I can never spell and which I shall never, ever pronounce any way other than "HOO-la-BECK") to be a little off at times. But then again, this is just a personal essay on what the old Gentleman's work meant to this one guy.

And there really are no mentions of sex at all in Lovecraft's fiction. Interbreeding and breeding in general are, of course, in evidence--though only in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" does Lovecraft ever indicate that miscegenation could possible be a positive thing. Every other time it's mentioned--for example, in "The Dunwich Horror"--the crossbreeding of human and alien inevitably produces monsters. Big, hairy, tentacled, and sometimes invisible monsters. Which is Totally Cool in my to my mutant spud tendencies, but was a Bad Thing to most folks.

One thing to keep in mind, too, is that Lovecraft's stringent racism did start to relax as he grew older and began to influenced by socialist political ideals. His ideas on miscegenation lightened up a little, but nowhere in Lovecraft's fiction does he ever bring up sexual relations. They are, of course, implied by the interbreeding, but in no way discussed or even more than vaguely--vaguely--hinted at (as in the case of Lavinia Whateley's "wanderings in the woods and mountains"). But Lovecraft mentions money frequently. I can't believe Hoolabeck missed that.
greygirlbeast
Apr. 12th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)

but nowhere in Lovecraft's fiction does he ever bring up sexual relations. They are, of course, implied by the interbreeding, but in no way discussed or even more than vaguely--vaguely--hinted at (as in the case of Lavinia Whateley's "wanderings in the woods and mountains"). But Lovecraft mentions money frequently. I can't believe Hoolabeck missed that.

I think this is edging on semantics. In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Zadok Allen even refers to "matin'." I'm not saying the mentions were positive, or eroric, but they are undeniably present and quite common.
derekcfpegritz
Apr. 12th, 2009 07:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it really does ultimately just devolve into an issue of semantics. And I need to re-read "Innsmouth" again so I can get all the details right in "Crabalocker Fishwife."

I need to figure out where the Deep Ones originally came from, too: I'm thinking that they, like humans and ghouls, were engineered by the Old Ones. That would explain why humans and Deep Ones can interbreed: the Deep Ones are just Homo aquaticus, built to take the place of the multipurpose shoggoths in the Old Ones aquatic venues. I'm betting money on the fact that when the war between the Old Ones and the "octopoids" came, the Deep Ones sided with the Cthulhuvians.
fornikate
Apr. 13th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)
I immediately disregarded anything that guy has to say after that assertion.
mr_earbrass
Apr. 13th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
Still haven't picked up the Houellebecq, and the discussion of his scholarship here doesn't exactly sell me on him.

Assuming you've seen it, how do you feel Gildark's film stacks up against Gordon's Dagon? I've yet to find a copy of Cthulhu but felt Gordon's take on the story showed more restraint and care than I'd expected from him. Oh, and totally off topic but I just watched the Finnish period horror film Sauna and thought you both might like it, so if you get the chance give it a go.
( 13 comments — Have your say! )