Thursday, December 13, 2018

Houellebecq and Lovecraft

Hello All ... 

Some recent self-aggrandizement from Houellebecq prompts me to repost this 12 year old review of his book about Lovecraft, which was originally posted to the Modern Word website.


Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life
Michael Cisco

Houellebecq’s book is a work of passion and intelligence, but like any caricature, it throws certain of its subject’s traits into distinct relief only by distorting the bigger picture.
Biographers are afforded a limited license to dramatize their subject’s lives, the reader understanding that phrases like “Shelley threw down his pen and ...” are plausible inventions at best. Whether Shelley sets or throws down his pen isn’t a momentous question, but persistent novelization in a biography runs the risk of falsification. The risk is worth taking, because there is at stake the chance one might successfully conjure something out of the past. And that risk comes with the territory when one is assembling a narrative out of a collection of facts.
It’s a truism that biographers tend to write about others by writing about themselves, and this is a legitimate approach when there is an affinity or spontaneous similarity of orientation of author and subject. But any biographer taking this approach is pretty certain to fall into the trap posed by superficial resemblances between her own point of view and her subject’s, and take too much for granted.
This happens even in the most scrupulous biographies, and is so much the more prevalent in Houellebecq’s impatient and sloppy treatment of Lovecraft. The end notes inform us that many of Houellebecq’s quotations from Lovecraft cannot be traced, and that even Houellebecq himself is unable to account for them. These dubious quotes seem more attributable to misremembrance and inattention than to anything so actually calculating or malevolent as fraud, but it is strange the editor should treat so lightly what is actually a serious misrepresentation of the subject. No one has any good reason to take these untraceable quotes seriously.
Houellebecq assimilates Lovecraft much as Baudelaire assimilated Poe before him; perhaps this is why he gives himself leave to speak improvisationally for Lovecraft. Before anyone condemns this too heartily, it should be noted that many writers have felt the yen to write their own Lovecraftian stories, and this is Houellebecq’s irresponsible way of doing the same thing. He wouldn’t write a Lovecraftian story, but he would write a Lovecraftian addition to Paris Spleen. While French critics like Blanchot have raised scrupulousness and patience to an even excessively fine art, Houellebecq’s contraptional essay nevertheless takes a characteristically French approach. All is well as long as the reader understands that the author, taking his own bias – and the inevitability of bias - into account, will employ haphazard exaggerations and sweeping generalizations as a way of being honest about his own attitudes. Bias, to this way of thinking, is point of view, and must be acknowledged in the execution, or more correctly the performance, of the work. This is opposed to the more cautious, dissertational style of Anglo-American critics, who transform themselves into general speakers so as not to make too many big generalizations. The one shows his cards by ironic delivery, the other by carefully clearing the air.
Most of the points Houellebecq makes are partially sound but disintegrate in zealous overstatement. Others fail to gain any traction at all because they are mere extrapolations from a stereotype of the poete maudit. The essay dates from 1991, meaning Houellebecq could not have had recourse to Joshi’s biography, but this does not wholly explain why he should depict Lovecraft’s life-changing 1908 breakdown as the recoiling of an aristocrat from the vomitory ignominy of the bourgeois world. Joshi has plausibly argued that Lovecraft’s initial crisis was less a discovery of horror in the world around him, and more the collapse of his self-esteem resulting from the disappointment of his ambition to become an astronomer. (Apparently, he was surprisingly inept at mathematics.) Houellebecq later acknowledges the extent to which Lovecraft was oppressed by the sense of his own failure, but he doesn’t connect this to 1908. In fact, Houellebecq’s treatment of Lovecraft is not as imbalanced as it may appear on cursory reading, because many of his hyperboles and sweeping generalities are eventually qualified after another twenty or thirty pages.
The discussion of Lovecraft’s opinion of Freud is bungled. Houellebecq is in such a hurry he gets all his terms mixed up. He mistakes Lovecraft’s indifference to sex for hostility to sex, he conflates sex itself as subject in general with the popular treatment of sexual subjects at the time, and he crudely reduces sex tout court to anything having anything to do with Freud. So Freud = sex and Lovecraft is anti-sex (there is no intermediate, asexual position entertained here) and therefore anti-Freud etc. etc. Houellebecq keeps lunging crazily across the poles. Lovecraft, we are told, mentioned Freud a few times without being especially critical of him, but it is clear we are meant by Houellebecq to understand that Lovecraft ultimately dismissed Freud in a slighting, offhanded, reductive manner more typical of Houellebecq than Lovecraft. We are told that Lovecraft summed Freud up in two words ... no, he didn’t. According to Joshi, Lovecraft probably never actually read Freud, making his evaluation of Freud of less moment anyway, but whenever Lovecraft did discuss him in his letters, the assessment was thoughtful and well-balanced. Most of Lovecraft’s criticism, at least where race was not concerned, had this measured, judiciously thorough quality.
Houellebecq has been rightly praised for emphasizing Lovecraft’s racism. He is entirely right in recognizing Lovecraft’s apprehension of competition from these “other races,” and almost on to something here for a while, in this passage about Lovecraft’s reaction to African-Americans:
Their vitality, their apparent lack of complexes or inhibitions, terrifies and repulses him. They dance in the street, they listen to music, rhythmic music ... They talk out loud. They laugh in public. Life seems to amuse them, which is worrying. Because life is evil.” (original ellipsis, page 113)
Lovecraft does seem to have been repelled by the uninhibited. It is stereotypical to speak of black folks dancing in the street, but then Lovecraft was dealing in stereotypes and not in experience. Listening to music is never a problem for Lovecraft, but rhythm as such did seem to induce anxiety for him. Adorno stupidly disapproved of rhythmic music because he felt it was hypnotic, suppressive of thought, and conducive to the fascistic choreography of large masses of people; that Lovecraft often associates rhythm – particularly low pulsing of the kind that maddens the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” – with feelings of oppression is well-spotted. Only a truly sheltered soul, like Lovecraft’s, could have believed that African Americans were much amused by life in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when racist violence in the US was at its worst.
When he cites the frothier passages from the New York era as characteristic of Lovecraft’s racism, Houellebecq doesn’t follow through any more than most other readers have. Certainly Lovecraft hated with as much emotional intensity as he could muster, but I would say these passages are at least as much characterized by a joy in invective for its own sake, so much so that I can imagine Lovecraft losing sight utterly of the actual objects of his hatred and becoming lost in whipping up those long chewy sentences of his. And this is typical of Lovecraft; the object, the plot element, or what have you, is only a peg to hang the writing from – Lovecraft’s horror is in the language or it is nowhere.
While he profoundly appreciates Lovecraft’s prose, and correctly repudiates the dull condescension of many critics to his style, Houellebecq seems to have a tin ear for Lovecraft’s bantering sense of humor, and he sometimes takes for earnest what Lovecraft wrote in a spirit of drily self-ironic Johnsonian pomposity. He does not discuss Lovecraft’s preference for the shaggy-dog story form which builds, insofar as the plot is concerned, to anti-climax, and to a punchline outlined in italics. Much of his analysis of Lovecraft’s style, and content for that matter, will be unrewarding to those who know Lovecraft already.
For example, no one denies that Lovecraft wasn’t interested in characterization; this is a trait he shares with Poe. But it is inconsistent to say his characters exist only to perceive, and then later to say that the perseverance of these characters in seeking out nightmarish things to perceive shows either obtusity or sublime courage. A cursory reading even of only those letters actually cited by Houellebecq (the ones that exist) shows that Lovecraft found at least one thing to admire in his fellow humans, that being the striving after knowledge (see Letters vol 1, page 61). Lovecraft’s characters do not drift passively from one hideous perception to another, they actively seek out the maddening truths that destroy them. Remember the narrator of “The Nameless City,” crawling in total darkness through miles of tunnel scarcely big enough to admit him, deep beneath a trackless desert, just to discover the source of an odd noise? Houellebecq observes that many of Lovecraft’s narrators end up paralyzed and staring haplessly at the onset of their own destruction, but, in his unaccountable haste to plaster everything with the label “nihilistic,” he fails to note that this paralysis is ambivalent, and owes something to an active desire to know which better meets the definition of fascination than a merely passive state. There is wish fulfillment at work all throughout the stories.
In Lovecraft’s fiction, human beings, or at least some of them, are just intelligent enough to apprehend the truth (or enough of the truth, which is arguably the same thing) if not quite mentally robust enough to handle it. This means that Lovecraft was not, for example, a strict Pyrrhonian skeptic, when writing, because his works depended on the possibility of certain knowledge for their effects even when that effect was the radical destabilization of the edifice of human certainty per se. Houellebecq only brushes against this when he notes the absence of Todorov’s ambivalence in Lovecraft’s fiction. Although he is quite right to note that absence, he is not when he asserts this is basically unheard of before Lovecraft: a similar absence of doubt can be discovered in Machen, in Blackwood, and in Bierce, to name a few.
Likewise, Houellebecq stops short when he insists Lovecraft regarded the world, and life, as evil. Evil implies malice. Did Lovecraft consider human beings significant enough to merit the malicious attention of cosmic beings? Is Cthulhu filled with venomous hatred of mankind and a chafing desire to torment humans, or is Cthulhu indifferent to humans, like an avalanche or an earthquake? Where is the evil in The Shadow Out of Time, or “Within the Walls of Eryx”? Are the Elder Things of At the Mountains of Madness, whom the narrator crucially calls men, evil? The shoggoths are horrible, but are they evil? It is interesting to note that the shoggoth is a figure for the irresponsible mob: a conglomeration of bubbles, neither distinct nor separate, mindless muscle employed by the aristocratic, historically-minded Elder Things chiefly for construction purposes. When the shoggoth appears, Danforth retains some scraps of his sanity by chanting Boston subway stops, but the shoggoth is a subway train – it pipes, it’s covered in small lights, it’s cylindrical and hurtles through tunnels. The shoggoths overwhelm their former masters by crudely aping them, and specifically take over the cities of the Elder Things – although one might be justified in wondering for what shoggoths would need the streets and buildings of a city. This is something like racism, but only like it – Lovecraft is coming to anticipate the unsettling of one species by the other in a kind of cycle that is neither good nor evil, but indifferent ... unless it’s the indifference that is evil, but in that case, it would be evil only from the point of view of those who suffer for it. By the time of At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft’s idea of evil seems to have crystallized into the collusion of deliberative individuals with the forces of decay. Evil is a matter of betraying humanity, or the status quo perhaps, to the future.
Houellebecq does touch on, but frustratingly fails to develop, a really interesting question with respect to Lovecraft’s rejection of realism – since realism presupposes it is possible to say what is and isn’t real. On the one hand, Lovecraft is obviously a fantasist, who turns from a stultifying, already-beyond-familiar, claustrophobically confined reality, to dreams. The conventional realist is one who dwells on sex and money without actually asking what sex and money are. Naturalist novels of the Zola school must look only at the strictly ordinary. Anything extraordinary is ruled out, and only the middle notes of life appear. Houellebecq is at his most refreshing when he bluntly dismisses realism as of no further use, but he might have gone so much further.
When one contemplates the human world of commerce and intercourse of all kinds in the broader context of the scope of time and space, the vastness of the universe, the evanescence of human life in the scale of cosmic time, then it is money and sex and political horse trading which become unreal. So, in this other sense, Lovecraft’s writing ascends to a higher register of realism in anticipating, truly weirdly, the kinds of questions existentialist literature will raise. In his emphasis on Lovecraft’s mythmaking and the strange power his work has to induce imitation and extension, Houellebecq is at his strongest and is perhaps righter than he understands, in the sense that Lovecraft seems actually to have created real myths instead of realist narratives. Houellebecq says there is something about Lovecraft that is not literary, and it seems to be that viral propensity of his work to propagate itself.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


Hello All --

(The painting is "Melancholic Cannibal" by Ljubomir Popovic).

UNLANGUAGE is available now, published by Eraserhead Press.

The French translation of ANIMAL MONEY will be published later this year, with more to come.

A collection seems to be in the cards as well ...

I continue to labor on my new novel, and my monograph on weird fiction.

Here is an excerpt from UNLANGUAGE, available nowhere else:

          The wandering student of the work book abandoned the life the wandering student had made. Decay is the door to new life. The matter of life conjugates and declines. With steely passivity the student watched as everything that had been life disintegrated, not lifting a finger to prevent the disappearance of a career, a home, the dispersal of carefully collected and preserved property, the evaporation of love and fellowship. It was a little like standing on a prominence looking back on the rubble of a home town reduced to smoking ruins and blanketed in corpses that can't be told apart, then turning to enter a new day of isolation, poverty, want, exile, shame that's inescapable because it has nothing to do with the faltering of any merit, a fatal and maybe impregnable language barrier has risen. All the same, the student allows it all to die, making not even a fruitless effort. He will wander homeless through the world and suffer, but he will at least be spared the humiliation of confinement to a psychiatric hospital, which never befalls him.
          The First Person, the teacher, is brought in by four students carrying him in a litter, which is a swivelling desk chair supported on a couple of wooden posts actually, and the teacher himself is a corpse. The students convey him to one corner of the spacious, windowless classroom with walls of bare cinderblock and tip him onto the floor by a bunch of cardboard boxes. The teacher's corpse falls in a seated position, sprawling against the boxes, head a little lolled back, one hand resting on the floor. The legs are bent and sideways. His lips have shrivelled away to nothing and his open mouth is a black sharpness in his face, clean-cut as a hole punched in a paper cone. The whole body has a slack, deflated look; the flesh sags and seems to be hardening into soap.

          The bell on the wall rings shrilly, on and on.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Hello All --

I have been neglecting this blog lately, so I ought to show you what I've been up to.  This is the opening to a novella about birds, entitled ETHICS, that I wrote a little over a year ago.  The first part is about a songbird, the second part is about the cuckoo that has parasitized the songbird's nest, and the third part is a stripped down version of what I imagine the Ethics would have been like if Spinoza had been a bird (sorry). 


Streaking over the earth, the songbird lifts itself up slightly and then, folding its wings, drops into a shallow swoop toward cover as a flash of lightning bursts and gutters, and then, virtually in the same moment, a thunderclap swats the bird to the ground. The bird's skull fractures, with a crack that sets its jaw awry, and the pain and shock of crashing is doubled and redoubled with the searing, sugary torture of the split bone. The blasted bird lies turned onto its side, stunned in the tall grass, still dry, though whipped by the wind, which has begun to stink. 

Suffering is playing all around the bird like that stinking wind. Suddenly, she sees the fire. The dream is in the light, the gold and scarlet color, the almost inaudible sound it makes, the impossibly nimble dance it's doing in place, and in the way it swells, as if the bird were hurtling up to meet it and only it, unmoored among all the other fixed things the bird can see. The noise of the fire is like the song of an unfamiliar type of familiar animal. There's a humming, like a swarm of bees. There's snapping like twigs, rustling like dry leaves, but then none of these familiar noises are ever produced at once by the same thing, not in any organized way. The fire thing must have its own organization, which is the reason it sings in the way it does, using the most unusual things as voices. The coloring is strange because the noises have no associations whatever with bright things, like sparkling water running; but then the ocean also sparkles and roars. Incandescent gold sparkled into ruby and sullen bloody scarlet, lacings of symmetrically tongued crimsons and carmines, luminously tawny and sun-glazed sand. The fire looms over her now like a tree growing out of nothing, the stinking, coiling brilliance in front of her seems to want to poison and devour her senses like a swarm of vicious insects, but it is mysteriously contained in itself, even as it fights to hatch itself out of its own shape. The songbird stares in awe at the coilings of towering scarlet monster rearing itself out of nothing, no roots, nothing but grass and the level ground, taking in its writhing shapelessness, its struggles within its bottomless shape, as if it were a huge poisoned animal convulsing and sick, vomiting itself. The fire, set by lightning, dancing out of its irregular footprint and throwing itself impetuously up, up. Now it channels itself along its length to heighten this leaf, standing bolt upright out of its spiny, whirling mass, and now that leaf shrinks back down and becomes a spine while the fire, which seems to be both the whole thing and a sort of darting shootingness inside it, transfers its upward groping into another limb adjacent to the first. 

Horrorstruck, she stares at the beaded lashings sliding along the dry stalks of the grass only inches away from her. She struggles, her skull flaring and crackling with every movement, her head heavy and ungainly, pulling her down to strike it again against the ground and causing the flames already lining the crevice to pop. She watches helplessly as a feeble sticklike arm of the fire effortlessly encircles her. She is trapped inside the fire. She screams. Stares. Screams. Stares. She cannot balance, get her wings out to fly. Then a chance contraction concentrates her will into the effort to rise to her feet. Just then, a lazy flirt of wind dashes a scrap of flame directly onto her, and she catches fire, the flames sucking greedily at her neck and face. Her right eye puckers, charring. The bird flails wildly, battering herself against the ground, all her muscles spasming. She falls on her right side and feels the cool of damp mud through the heat. 

The pain is so total that it almost forces her out of herself somehow. Her right side is slathered with mud. The right side of her face and neck are smoking, but the flames are extinguished. Staggering, she turns to look toward the fire with her one seeing eye, and sees that there is a brownish hollow space inside it, returning her gaze like an unexpected eye.

"This is Reason" it says.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Hello All --

In a comment on my previous post, E.S. rightly takes me to task for neglecting this blog for a year.  Shaking my head. 

The Big News is that French publishing house Au Diable Vauvert has signed me;  the French edition of ANIMAL MONEY is slated to appear next year, with more works to come.  I am very much humbled to learn that the French translator of Thomas Pyncheon's work will be translating my work as well, and to appear on the same roster as David Foster Wallace, Octavia Butler, China Mieville ....

As far as other publications go, in addition to my story "The Righteousness of Conical Men" in The Madness of Caligari, my story "Rock n' Roll Death Squad" is due to appear in a new collection from Dim Shores, entitled Looming Low.  A short story of mine, "Bet the Farm," has been accepted for a collection called Mechanical Animals, forthcoming from Hex Publishing

Much of my longer stuff is in publication limbo at the moment, including UNLANGUAGE, a short fantasy novel called PRISTINE, and a novella called ETHICS.  I'm about halfway into my new novel, PEST

I'm going to be presenting an academic paper on weird fiction in Toronto this June at the Tenth International Deleuze Studies Conference, and if I can manage it, I may be able to swing the Chi-Zine reading in that fine city on Wednesday, June 21st.  I will also be attending ReaderCon and NecronomiCON as usual. 

This summer I will also be trying to finish up my monograph on weird fiction, and commencing the search for a publisher.

My essay, "'HELLO FROM THE SEWERS OF N.Y.C.' -- T.E.D. Klein's 'The Children of the Kingdom'" has been published in Thinking Horror; I've contributed some articles Matt Cardin's reference book on horror fiction, Horror Literature Through History, on topics including the sublime, the Bronte sisters, ETA Hoffmann, Gustave Meyrink, The Golem, dark fantasy, and Thomas Ligotti.

The Lovecraftian Poe: Essays on Influence, Reception, Transformation and Interpretation, a peer-reviewed collection of essays including one of mine, and edited by Prof. Sean Moreland, should appear this year from Lehigh University Press. The Call of Cosmic Panic: New Essays on Supernatural Horror in Literature, another collection containing an essay of mine, also edited by Prof. Moreland, is also due sometime soon.

Yours for more frequent updates --



Saturday, May 14, 2016


Hello All!

Much to announce.

My lost haunted house novel, The Wretch of the Sun, has been published by Hippocampus Press!  You can find out more here.

My lost San Veneficio novella, The Knife Dance, has been published by Dim Shores!  You can find out more here.

I will be reading in Providence, RI., at Lovecraft Arts and Sciences, on Friday, May 20th, and I believe the following day as well!  Here is another link.

New short fiction from me in the upcoming anthology Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press.  Link here.

The Beastiary, an anthology of monsters edited by Ann VanderMeer, is out, and contains a piece by your reporter, who has once again bumptuously sleazed his way into the company of his betters!  Link here

Enough for now, isn't it? 

My thanks to all of you.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Poem for Joe Pulverday 2016

Oh Great P'uul-yverre
there is no hope for you
once you've seen the Medusa
there is no hope for you
the Medusa of language pullulating with alien life
you can change your name
(there still is no hope for you!)
you can change your country
(there is still no hope for you!)
Medusa can satisfy only once
and you are a Medusa-addict
a Medusa-head
your own temples wreathed in hypnotic constrictors
there is no hope for you
snorting pulverdust off one of her casual
come-hither keep-thither glances
stoned on Medusa
only your addiction has hope
and once you're fixed you stand fixed
center stanza of a stone uniVERSE
that blooms black Spring
a metal and stone Spring
stoneheavy leaden ponderous as a voorish dome in deep dendo
only your addiction has hope
that perches on the bust of Medusa atop your chamber door and says NEVERENOUGH
there is no hope for the one who can only want always more,
-- when your eyes met
that's when she said
-- always more --

Thursday, March 17, 2016


ANIMAL MONEY is now available in electronic form, via StoryBundle.  You can get it, and books by Brian Keene, J.S. Breukelaar, John Skipp, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Molly Tanzer, Juliet Escoria, Stephen Graham Jones and Brian Allen Carr, all in one batch.  But -- you have to order by April 7th or so. 

Get it here.