The Horror! The Horror!
H.P. LOVECRAFT: Tales
Edited by Peter Straub
Library of America. 838 pp. $35
Against the World, Against Life
By Michel Houellebecq
Translated from the French by Dorna Khazeni
Believer. 247 pp. $18
"The only horror," wrote Edmund Wilson of H.P. Lovecraft, "is the horror of bad taste and bad art." Yet here Lovecraft is, enshrined in his own volume of the Library of America, in the company of Twain and Hawthorne, Douglass, Lincoln, both Jameses and Vladimir Nabokov. The selection of stories is edited by the horror writer Peter Straub ( In the Night Room , Ghost Story ), with no explanation as to why he chose these particular 22 stories out of the 65 available (excluding juvenilia and collaborations), or why Lovecraft's long essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," one of the better things he wrote, isn't included. Library of America editions omit introductions, presumably so as not to get between the reader and the text. This works fine for someone like Twain but is less satisfactory when the chosen author wrote horror stories about hideous, squishy Things and produced sentences such as, "In that shrieking the inmost soul of human fear and agony clawed hopelessly and insanely at the ebony gates of oblivion."
To be fair, it wasn't sentences like that one that made Lovecraft's reputation. It was stuff like this: "forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnamable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils; mound-like tentacles groping from underground nuclei of polypous perversion . . . insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and daemon arcades choked with fungous vegetation. . . ." He eventually organized all this yuckiness into a mythology in which foul entities mass around our petty earthly reality like some malignant Oort cloud. Once, they were the dominant race here, and they're itching to take over again. Nothing personal, just the business of biological continuation.
No doubt about it, Lovecraft had a vision. His admirers claim that his artistic endurance lies in the nihilism and materialism of this vision and its determined diminishment of humanity, which Lovecraft called our "negligible and temporary race." Others might argue that the vision endures because it's full of really, really excellent gross monsters.
Writers such as William Hope Hodgson had invented creatures that disgusted as much as they frightened, but it was left to Lovecraft to give this disgust a particular sensual incarnation. Not since Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," in which a body deliquesces with a living soul inside, had the monstrous been made so putrid, mushy, dripping, damp and oozy -- so loathsomely physical. After finishing a Lovecraft story, the reader has, in a manner of speaking, to scrape the slime off himself. This isn't a shortcoming in the writing; it's the point.
Indifferent to the pleasures of the flesh, Lovecraft was keenly sensitive to its horrors: misshapenness, the wet swampiness of decay, the possibility of violation, of amputation, of unwelcome and unwholesomely grafted additions. What influence he has had isn't realized in the "Cthulhu mythos" stories of his followers (pallid imitations, for the most part) but in the '80s genre of "body horror," with its mutilations and such upsetting activities as people turning inside-out.
Physical revulsion shows up in Lovecraft's racial attitudes, too. For a long time, he regarded any non-Anglo Saxons -- not just the usual suspects but Italians and Irish as well -- as inferior, not to mention revolting. His descriptions of blacks and Jews are vile, full of what feels like a marrow-deep squeamishness. Born in 1890, the overmothered son of a woman who both indulged him and refused to let him touch her, Lovecraft grew up claiming a cool lack of interest in sex (although the woman to whom he was briefly married reported that he was capable enough, in an unenthusiastic sort of way). But he became hysterically overheated when writing about "degraded" poor whites in the New England hills who mate with unspeakable things and bear hideous progeny. This isn't just the "Deliverance" syndrome, i.e., a prissy intellectual's fear of white trash. The terror in these stories is the terror of miscegenation.
Lovecraft has been praised for resolutely turning his back on "reality," but his idea of reality was extremely restricted. He had no children, never held a job and, until the cancer that killed him in 1937, was in reasonably good health. His responsibilities were childishly limited to his own needs. Poe, who was a great influence, fled into his arid unrealities from a life of intense hard work and financial obligations to his sickly wife and her mother. His stories shudder with forbidden violence and revenge. Like Lovecraft (whom he admires), the modern horror master Stephen King sets most of his work in New England, but he creates a grimly recognizable world of poverty, politics, dead-end jobs, family abuse. In both Poe and King, the ultimate horror is the deformed human spirit. In Lovecraft, it's something squashy with tentacles.
Just as you're starting to believe that your attitude toward French scholarship has been provincial and unfair, along comes a book like H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life to nail all your prejudices back in place. Michel Houellebecq, a critically acclaimed novelist, has found in Lovecraft a hero for the Political Incorrect: "Paradoxically, Lovecraft's character is fascinating in part because his values were so entirely opposite to ours. He was fundamentally racist, openly reactionary, he glorified puritanical inhibitions, and evidently found all 'direct erotic manifestations' repulsive. Resolutely anticommercial, he despised money, considered democracy to be an idiocy and progress to be an illusion. The word 'freedom,' so cherished by Americans, prompted only a sad, derisive guffaw." Well, okay. If that's the kind of thing you find fascinating, then that's the kind of thing you find fascinating. Houellebecq refutes arguments against his theses by declaring, "That's a joke!" He also gets some facts wrong, though perhaps "facts" in this situation are only a bourgeois convention designed to limit the freedom of challenging scholarly insight. (Lovecraft was hardly a "country gentleman.") His central insight is that Lovecraft courageously rejected banal reality for a fictional world of transcendence, even if that transcendence meant, as it does in one story, bumping into an invisible whistling octopus. ·
Lloyd Rose is a former theater critic for The Washington Post.