12/04/2010

JDC/HPL

It's been three months since I last posted on this blog, and I apologize to my few devoted readers for this unforgivably long silence. Let me say as an attempt to an excuse that I depend on inspiration to write - and, for several reasons I won't bother you with, inspiration just wasn't there. Now it seems to be back, at least for the time being, and I seize the occasion to raise this blog from the dead.

Michel Houellebecq's essay on Howard Philips Lovecraft is an old favorite of mine, somewhat surprisingly at first glance if one considers that I am not a fan of either the author or his subject. I never read any of Houellebecq's novels and the few Lovecraft stories I sampled left me cold. Why then do I re-read this slim volume on a regular basis? Well, first, because it's eminently readable, informative and insightful - but this is not the whole story. What interests me most is Lovecraft's literary doctrine, this definitive refusal of realism rooted in a no less definitive refusal of reality. Lovecraft, Houellebecq says, found both the modern world and life in general to be boring and repellent, and antithetic to artistic creation. Hence the radically abstract character of his work: Lovecraft had no interest in painting a faithful portrait of the society he lived in, nor in creating psychologically sound characters; instead he created a mythology, an architecture, even a geography (Arkham, Innsmouth, the Miskatonic Valley) out of scratch and peopled his universe with puppets whose sole purpose was to meet some unspeakable horror, write about it and either die or getting mad. As Houellebecq notes, such an approach is quite radical even within the weird genre and none of Lovecraft's many imitators and followers adhered completely to it.

To the mystery fan, Lovecraft's anti-realistic stance reminds strongly of another author with a taste for the baroque and no time for the trivialities of daily life: John Dickson Carr. Both had more in common than one would imagine - extremely intelligent and well-read people with a markedly reactionary mindset and almost pathologically good manners. Like Lovecraft, Carr hated realism in fiction, and made it a central tenet of his own literary doctrine, which he defended with vehemence against all enemies (or, to be more accurate, against the enemy, his evil twin Raymond Chandler) The early Bencolin novels have a distinctly weird flavour and the supernatural (or appearance of such) always played a major role in Carr's work, culminating with The Burning Court. Both HPL and JDC thought of themselves as "displaced persons" born in the wrong time and the wrong place; they also seemed ill-adjusted to adulthood (which Lovecraft compared to "hell") How comes then than their works are so markedly different?

Carr's irrealism is not as radical as Lovecraft's; it is first and foremost a rejection of verisimilitude: Carr can't be bothered with concepts like probability or plausibility. Still his stories as outlandish as they are take place or are supposed to take place in the world he and his readers inhabit. His Paris may be ghastlier, his Germany more baroque, his London more foggy than the real things and his countryside may be somewhat idealized, but they are (admittedly distorted) projections of real places. Attention is paid to the mores of the times, especially in the heavy-on-documentation historical novels he wrote in the second part of his career. Also, while his characterization skills were and still are heavily debated, Carr grants his protagonists real if sometimes sketchy backgrounds and feelings. The only bigger-than-life characters in Carr's work are his detectives, and even they remain concrete and at least possible. 

These differences stem probably in part from the psychological and ideological differences between the two men. Carr, for all his yearning for a bygone era, never fell for Adolf, Benito or Francisco; neither did he embrace racist theories. He was definetely not a puritan and sex is a driving force in his universe - a Carr book without a female character is unimaginable whereas Houellebecq counted only two appearances of women in Lovecraft's whole output. Also, Carr was less cerebral, less solispstic than Lovecraft; fiction to him was about fun, at least in his younger days - the greatest game in the world - and while his worldview may not have been necessarily sunnier than his Providence colleague's, he always took pains not to pollute his work with it. 

Further reading on Lovecraft:

Extract from Houellebecq's book on the Guardian website.
"Master of Disgust" by Laura Miller