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H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq

01/08/2009. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy HP Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life in the USA - or Buy HP Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 256 page paperback. Price 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-57508-401-8.

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Originally written in French as 'H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie', this is one of the most important and readable analyses of Lovecraft's writing of recent years. It's a sign of how important Lovecraft is that people are publishing such books some seventy years after his death and it's an indication of how good this book is that Stephen King has written the introduction.

In a nutshell, Michel Houellebecq argues that Lovecraft's work reveals a man with a contempt for life and the things that, for almost everyone else, make life worth living. Lovecraft was notoriously poor and the protagonists of his books are invariably at the lower end of the income spectrum themselves. Lovecraft is also infamous for his general disinterest in sex, even though his (admittedly brief) married life was, so far as we can tell, not without its sexual component.

But while those two aspects of Lovecraft's peculiar life are quite well-known, his underlying sense of fear is rather less familiar. Houellebecq connects the cosmic fear that runs through what we call Lovecraftian fiction to the profound sense of fear Lovecraft felt through his entire life. That, Houellebecq argues, is the well from which Lovecraft drew his inspiration.

If that all sounds a bit too pop-psychology for you then don't worry, this book goes far beyond simply raising vague ideas and explanations. The key thing is that Houellebecq is a writer not without a certain degree of notoriety himself, though admittedly mostly to readers of French rather than English. Houellebecq is known for his frank depictions of the way sex and money interact, in complete contrast to Lovecraft, who barely mentions either of them in his works.

So while Houellebecq raises arguments the reader may or may not agree with, those arguments are made forcefully and through the mode of what is essentially a biography of Lovecraft the man as well as Lovecraft the writer. That Lovecraft was a racist and a misogynist isn't too difficult to argue and has been done many times by many writers. But Houellebecq goes beyond that, arguing that Lovecraft wasn't so much prejudiced against other races or the female sex, but rather than he was fearful of them and it's that fear of 'otherness' that colours his writing rather than simple hatred.

In short, Houellebecq argues that Lovecraft, bravely perhaps, sets his face against what we call Life and, through his fiction, reveals its underlying hopelessness. The irony, of course, is that Lovecraft didn't become successful until well after his death and if anything, argues Houellebecq, that only serves to underline Lovecraft's influence as a writer who created a body of work that stands as an alternative to the humdrum realities of Life.

'H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life' actually comprises three separate works, if you put aside King's long and rather affectionate introduction. Houellebecq's essay makes about one-half of the book, while the remained is divided between two of Lovecraft's best-regarded works, 'The Call Of Cthulhu' and 'The Whisperer In Darkness'. While one might argue about whether these two are the most representative stories from the canon, they're certainly among two of the best.

All in all, 'H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life' is a remarkable book and a thoroughly good read on many levels. Highly recommended.

Neale Monks

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This book has 53 votes in the sci-fi charts

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