I discovered this book while rummaging around on the net, trying to find an in-print edition of Marcel Schwob's translation of `Hamlet'. It was a happy accident, because I've wanted to read some Houellebecq for a while, and a serious literary analysis of Lovecraft is long overdue. H. P. Lovecraft (HPL) may well be the most easily and unjustly ignored major American literary figure. Lovecraft is the grandfather of modern horror and a major influence on all genres of speculative fiction. He not only showed the way through his writings, but also shared his skills with a large circle of correspondents, which included many authors. In addition, his creations were so rich and compelling that authors have continued to work within and add to his `Cthulu Mythos'. However, although Lovecraft gets kudos for dismissing the supernatural from horror and for rejecting the idea of the human-centered universe, he is also crowned with titles like "The Best Bad Writer Ever" (and this is from an admirer of sorts). At the other end of the spectrum are cultish fans who mindlessly worship him. Very few authors have been so unfortunate in their friends and defenders. Houellebecq is the first worthy champion I've seen ride into the lists to challenge us to consider Lovecraft as a real writer.
Houellebecq focuses on the sources of inspiration for Lovecraft and their impact on his creations and his narrative style. He seeks to show that Lovecraft's distinct voice derives from his psychology and biography. Dreams, racism, a minimalist personality and a crippling bonanza of paranoias, delusions, and depression are the raw material for the analysis (Lovecraft is our answer to Artaud and Jarry). This is the first time I've seen someone really emphasize the importance of dreams as a source for Lovecraft's stories. Even so, I don't think Houellebecq goes far enough-Lovecraft is often mocked for piling up and overusing such meaningless adjectives as `unspeakable', a practice he discouraged when advising other writers. This contradictory practice (noted by Houellebecq and many others) is probably the result of trying to convey the actual experience of the dream without distorting it or adding to it. Houellebecq makes the point pretty thoroughly that images of racial pollution and degeneration power a lot of HPL's stories, but it's worth noting that while the horror writer talked a good racial game, he didn't really walk the walk. He married a Jewish Ukrainian and worked briefly on a propaganda book for the Italian government. These represent three races he claimed to despise. Lovecraft insisted on living as if he were a member of the landed aristocracy, in spite of his dire poverty. Thus, Houellebecq points out that Lovecraft insisted on writing almost entirely for his own pleasure, which may also explain why he didn't always adhere to generally accepted rules of good rhetoric in fiction. He knew what his audience wanted. This attitude also seems to have offended some of the professional writers who have studied Lovecraft and deride his amateur pretentions (maybe they're jealous of a true maverick who stuck to his ideals).
Houellebecq makes two interesting observations about HPL's characters. The first is that they tend to be precise observers, scientists and artists, whose personalities are so diminished that they serve largely as a means for conducting their high voltage sensory experiences directly to the reader without any insulation or interpretation. The other is that a viewpoint character's presence is sometimes so diminished that the reader loses the identification or feeling of presence necessary for maintaining a sense of fear, ironic in a purported horror story. Besides showing the effectiveness of juxtaposing trained observers and insane events, Houellebecq claims that this aspect of his subject's style is a consequence of the author making his viewpoint characters alter egos. Although that is certainly possible, I think it's likelier an adaptation from Poe, who used the same technique. Poe is most effective when his characters are clinically describing their own madness, but Lovecraft's characters must stay sane when the world goes mad. Even the apparent alter egos may have literary antecedents, Lovecraft may have borrowed the character type from de Maupassant, whose story `The Horla' has many ideas that Lovecraft assimilated into his own oeuvres. It's even possible that he modeled his own personality from literary figures. My last couple comments about Poe and de Maupassant highlight the only major weakness that I found in Houellebecq's work, a failure to explore the effect that Lovecraft's sources had on his stories. Lovecraft was a diligent scholar of fantasic literature and was heavily influenced by several writers, notably those I've already mentioned, and Lord Dunsany.
Probably a lot of people who read Houellebecq's essay won't have read any Lovecraft. He's certainly not everyone's cup of tea. However, if you want to see what Houellebecq is talking about there are three essential stories: (1) `The Mountains of Madness', and (2) `Shadow Over Innsmouth', and (3) `The Color Out of Space'. I would suggest that people who want to see his greatest fantasy work (this aspect of his work falls outside of the scope of Houellebecq's study) should also read `The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath". I read Houellebecq's study in a French edition, his language is so transparent and his argument so clear, that I'm sure the English translation is quite servicable.