H P Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq, trans. Dorna Khazeni

Misogynist and racist: a horror writer with his own personal demons
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It is no exaggeration to describe Howard Phillips Lovecraft as one of the most influential popular authors of the 20th century. Though he died in poverty and obscurity, in the 70 years since his imagined worlds have come to dominate horror and fantasy. Creations such as the bat-winged demon-god Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, a book of appalling evil, have been saluted and parodied by writers from Stephen King to Terry Pratchett, Clive Barker to Umberto Eco. In television, film and comics, Lovecraftian ideas crop up constantly: Batman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even The Simpsons. Penguin has issued his stories in three Modern Classics volumes. Now Michel Houellebecq's impassioned apologia at last appears in English.

Lovecraft writes in a deep-purple mode, with an accumulation of maddeningly vague nastiness and pseudo-erudition. Typically in his stories, a scholarly narrator is driven to the brink of insanity by the revelation of hideous evil, often involving shapeless horrors and ancient death-cults. Most readers will find the hysterical pitch causes a shudder of boredom or, worse, amusement.

The hysteria is tinged, to put it mildly, with racism and misogyny. Hereditary evil and miscegenation are frequent themes, so it comes as little surprise to discover that Lovecraft was a rabid white supremacist. Houellebecq points out that women appear precisely three times in the oeuvre. For Lovecraft, fear resides largely in the sense of touch. His monsters are slimy, gelatinous, pulpy; outside a short-lived marriage, to a woman several years his senior, he seems to have had no sex life at all.

Yet Lovecraft is not easy to dismiss. Encountering the stories in adolescence, I thought they were silly, but I have never forgotten them. Houellebecq makes a very good fist of explaining what makes them memorable. He points out that Lovecraft's obsession with touch contributes to an immersive quality in his horror - his monsters are felt and seen.

As the title implies, he sees in Lovecraft a deep vein of pessimism, a sense that beneath the shallow decencies of life lurk truths that might, if we looked them in the face, drive us to madness and suicide. This is where the book's real interest lies: not in what it has to say about a minor master of the gothic, but in what it reveals about Houellebecq. It is, in effect, a manifesto for misanthropy and anomie, but one written with a malicious glitter and wit.