Review of "H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" by Michael Houellebecq

Michael Houellbecq’s (pronounced “Wellbeck”) Against the World, Against Life is a literary manifesto. Neither a literary biography nor an annotated anthology, Against the World is rather a vehicle for spreading the Lovecraftian voice in literature. Lovecraft’s writing style, and not just his written thoughts, are held up as examplars for all future writers. We should be so lucky.


H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

Some deeper words are below the fold, but to keep your attention I’ll say a few words about sex and money. Or rather, Houelbecq’s interpretation of Lovecraft’s odd view of sex and money. Sex is never directly referenced in anything Lovecraft wrote, and has only two purposes in his universe: as a vehicle for the propagation of the human species (hardly a worth cause) or (infinitely worse) a vehicle for miscegenation. Money is known only by its absence: the declining fortunes of late ancestors which allow the narrator some measure of intellectual freedom.

Many critics of Lovecraft argue that the position of sex and wealth in Lovecraft’s work are merely the author’s quirks, and that Lovecraftian fiction can be written that incorporate different views. Houelbecq would disagree, and quotes Lovecraft (page 58):

“When I contemplate man, I wish to contemplate those characteristicks that elevate him to a human state, and those adornments which lend to his actions the symmetry of creative beauty. ‘Tis not that I wish false pompous thoughts and motives imputed to him in the Victorian manner, but that I wish his composition justly aprais’d, with stress lay’d upon those qualities which are peculiarly his, and without the silly praise of such beastly things as he holds in common with any hog or stray goat.”

If the point is unclear, a second point is given on the same page: I do not think that any realism is beautiful.


Against the World meditates mainly on eight stories that Houllebecq calls the “great texts”:

  • 1926’s The Call of Cthulhu,
  • 1927’s The Colour out of Space,
  • 1928’s The Dunwich Horror,
  • 1930’s The Whisperer in the Darkness,
  • 1931’s At the Mountains of Madness,
  • 1932’s Dreams of the Witch-House,
  • 1932’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, and
  • 1934’s The Shadow out of Time
  • These great texts serve as a deliberate rejection of reality. In every one, the real world is revealed to be terrible and those who are truly protected and loved do not know about it. Decline is everywhere, but the lucky do not know about it. The fortunate live only in nostalgia. Witness the Norwegian wife in the Call of Cthulhu, and the unlucky star-headed things who awoke At the Mountains of Madness.

    Against the World also addresses Lovecraft’s racism. And Lovecraft was a racist in the true sense. His hierarchy seemd to be headed by Anglo-Saxons, then other north-western Europeans, then “Italico-Semitico-Mongoloid” (Italian, Jewish, and/or Asian) persons, and lastly blacks. Yet Lovecraft’s racism was odd, as it centered on his fondness for the Puritan rejection of humanity. He saw no people in history more determined to separate themselves from Creation as the pilgrim settlers. No people, it seemed to him, were more clean or hygienic than those who did not wish to be people.

    H.P. Lovecraft was a philosopher and a writer of literature, and is perhaps best complemented by C.S. Lewis. Lovecraft’s stance against the world and against life is nearly identical to the mission of the National Institute of Coordinate Experiments from Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. And Lovecraft and Lewis agreed on the nature macrobes — the larger, stronger, and smarter creatures which must exist if the universe is hospital to life: they would be against us, in the way that we are against flies. Ultimately, what separates Lovecraft from Lewis, who recognize the failure of time and space to exist at a human scale, is Christianity. God grace to flesh is central to the Christian faith, but Lovecraft, like Jonah, consciously rejects it because of what such grace implies.

    Patrons of Lovecraft’s art have never had it so good. Many of his stories and poems are available online, and descriptive works (such as The Annotated HP Lovecraft) are now on the market. Even the Library of America has a pretentious Tales edition of some of the great works. Against the World is a brilliant addition to this companions of the literature.

    H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is a beautiful defense of Lovecraft, quirks and all. Anyone who has felt drawn to the world that HP wrote into existence — R’lyeh, Innsmouth, Arkham, and all the rest — should buy this book.

    Houllebecq doesn’t much address Christianity — that last paragraph was more addition — but he does add some more thoughts on literature and life. The commandment, “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 unnameable architecture of time,” can be assembled from Against the World’s chapter headers, as the book’s prologue (by Stephen King) points out.

    H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is available for $12.24 from Amazon.com.

    Other reviews are particular. Rick Kleffel emphasizes Houllebecq’s line, “Absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by an aversion for the modern world in particular. This summarizes Lovecraft’s attitude fairly accurately.” Lee Rourke ties the book into Hollebecque’s own writing style, and his run-ins with French censors. Emerald City compares Lovecraft to Tolkein while pointing out the book’s flaws. Dr. Pedro Blas Gonzalez advocates Against the World even for those who have never read Lovecraft. Michael Crisco pens a passionately critical attac on Houellebecq that misses the point, I think, but is still worth reading.

    Lastly, for those considering buying the book, translator Robin Mackay posted a draft translation on his blog (pdf).)

    4 thoughts on “Review of "H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" by Michael Houellebecq”

    1. Lexington,

      Yes, I agree completely.

      One could see Lovecraft spinning the hobbits as Gaiman spun the dwarves in “Snow, Glass, Apples” [1], but Lovecraft would have found too much to love in the story. All of his beliefs — aristocratic gentleness, pessimistic racism, idealistic English-ness, books and legends — are all on display. Even the implied Christianity would not annoy him too much, I hope, as Lovecraft admired the Puritans without believing their beliefs.

      I do hope Lovecraft is in heaven. Three things remain, the Apostle tells us: faith, hope, and love. Lovecraft was without faith and, in a way that transcends mere depression — without hope. But his gentleness implies that he had a loving heart, and love indeed is the greatest of those things.

      [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow%2C_Glass%2C_Apples

    2. A conservative nihlist — yes, I think so. Perhaps a reactionary at heart, but a conservative if an improvement would not be possible.

      I wonder what HP would have made of the Shire?

    3. Dan, thanks for this. I have been thinking of reading this book for a while. It seems that Houllebecq has a good insight into Lovecraft, where most people do not. My period of HPL fanaticism is long over, but he is part of the permanent interior architecture. I read a long interview with Houllebecq and I came to think that he is something perhaps only a French person could get away with — a conservative nihilist. His insight that access to sexual pleasure is now on a purely capitalist basis, with marriage being primiitive form of socialism, is cruelly close to the truth. I speak as a happily married person, incidentally, and my friends who are still in the snake pit get no envy from me. Have you read his fiction?

      What do you think of the fiction of Thomas Ligotti? I think he is Lovecraft's only real literary heir.

    4. HPL was an Anglophile. He would have loved the Shire as a conservative ideal. He would have loved the whole trilogy as a “synthetic Aryan myth-cycle”, as he described Dunsany's Gods of Pegana, and as he also like E.R. Eddision's The Worm Ouroboros (which really is good). This was, of course, before Hitler and the Nazis became the exclusive association of the word Aryan. He may have recoiled from the embedded Christianity, which he would have been astute enough to see saturates Tolkien's thinking and writing. Also, he would have respected the sheer scale and artistic integrity that went into creating something as vast as LOTR.

      A long walk in the country with HPL and Tolkien — how great would that be? The setting would be the house at the end of Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday — a house I am sure (with no direct evidence) was the basis for Rivendell.

      We'll just have to imagine such a delightful prospect. Of course, I think I'll meet Tolkien when I get to Heaven, and maybe a very merciful God can have found a way to get HPL in there, too. What a delightful surprise that would be. I am going to pray a decade of the rosary for his soul tonight. Who knows?

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