Cthulhu and You, Perfect Together


In the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante gives a (somewhat belated) salute to H.P. Lovecraft to mark the Prince of Providence's induction into the Library of America and the English-language publication of a decade-old appreciation by Michel Houellebecq, the French literary curmudgeon and maker of craptacular spoken-word mood music.

Lovecraft retrospectives follow a pretty standard pattern by this point. There's the to-be-sure opener about how his prose style was unspeakable, blasphemous, unhallowed, noisome, hideous, nauseating, repulsive, unmentionable, appalling, and too full of adjectives. The best summation of this critique, I think, was by Jorge Luis Borges, who said the difference between Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft was that Poe would depict something horrible, while Lovecraft would depict something horrible and then tell you that it was horrible. Next, there's the consideration of his disgust for sex, other races, and human flesh in general. Sante improves on this with a list of bad-trip items that includes "invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, [and] whispering."

The value of the Sante piece (I haven't read Houellebecq's book) is that it turns the great neuresthenic's vices into virtues:

Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm, just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a "scaly, rugose, iridescent bulk…ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base"; the sight may cause Lovecraft's narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home. Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light, exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible elements in his work. The stories "He" and "The Horror at Red Hook" make it sound as though he had never set foot in New York City, while "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" suggests that he never visited the New England coast and "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Whisperer in Darkness" that he never so much as glanced out a train window at a rural landscape. It is not that his settings are unreal—it is that they are made entirely of words. They do not provide any suggestions to the inner eye, only adjectives, mostly hyperbolic.

It is of course unfair to expect a thistle to bring forth figs. Lovecraft only barely managed to exist on the material plane himself, and it certainly was not his subject. His strengths, meanwhile, were unusual and idiosyncratic. He had a flair for names, for instance. The monikers he hangs on his otherworldly manifestations—Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Tsathoggua—are evocatively miscegenated constructions in which can be seen bits of ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Hebrew, Old Norse. The terror of Cthulhu is most vivid on the purely linguistic level: "Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!" The New England he fashions is so tangibly haunted in its nomenclature— Arkham, the Miskatonic River, Devil's Hop Yard, Nooseneck Hill—that he would have been wise to stop there and not attempt further description. He savors the dark texture of seventeenth-century Puritan names: Obed, Peleg, Deliverance, Elkanah, Dutee. He frequently engaged his schoolboy correspondents to send him lists of regional names from their local phone books. Names, real and imagined, accomplish nearly everything his strangled fustian tries and fails to do: suggesting vast stretches of time, experience far outside the modern frame of reference, the subterranean course of genetic inheritance, the repression of dismal ancestral proclivities.

There's something missing in this version of Lovecraft as a descriptively non-descriptive writer, however. If Lovecraft is so bad at describing concrete things, how is it that Cthulhu, a being so ugly it's literally impossible to look at him, is instantly recognizable in visual form? Wherever he shows up, on the campaign trail, in Bizarro Chick Tracts, as Ron Perlman's nemesis at the end of Hellboy, the leader of the Great Old Ones is instantly recognizable by his vaguely anthropoid outline, octopus-like head whose face is a mass of feelers, scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. Give him a one-tentacled salute: