Architects of Fear

I

1920: the writer sits, at night, an old city asleep outside his window, dim light upon the empty page. He sits and waits for the words. When the words arrive he sets them down, hopelessly he often feels, a pointless task he submits to with resignation. Recurrent illness has been a rebuke against expectation, lack of acknowledgement equally rebukes his ambition. When illness prematurely claims him he dies with an assurance of extinction, certain that his words will be lost along with his breath.

But the words survive. Drawn from the ether of the new century, his sensitised intelligence has crafted a mythology for the time, giving shape to forces that his contemporaries perceive dimly, if at all. A mythology of those vast, impersonal yet manipulative powers coalescing in the air of the coming age, a mythology of conspiracy elevated to the level of metaphysics, a mythology of tyranny and mutation, paranoia and holocaust.

II

The writer is Franz Kafka. When he died in 1924, HP Lovecraft was unknown outside the pages of Weird Tales and of the handful of his stories already published there, none were those that would later make him famous. (‘The Call of Cthulhu’ came in 1926.) Lovecraft is unlikely to have known Kafka’s works, even in the early translations of the 1930s, yet the similarities between the pair persist, not only in their powerful representations of dread and alienation?the one crafted in a spare and affectless style, the other in the baroque vernacular of the pulps?but also for the way they define a sense of their times, and of the world, that subsequent readers have come to regard as visionary.

Jorge Luis Borges (who dedicated his story ‘There Are More Things’ to Lovecraft) identifies in his essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ a phenomenon common to writers who possess this kind of singular vision. The writer that forges a new way of seeing, says Borges, creates his own precursors, also forging connections between disparate themes, other writers and so on, that were previously unconnected. When the vision is powerful enough, and its influence proves to be as adaptive as a successful virus, we look for words to describe that influence and the reach of that vision. “‘Kafkaesque’ is the only word in common English use which derives from German literature” writes JP Stern. “Its meanings range from ‘weird’, ‘mysterious’, ‘tortuously bureaucratic’ to ‘nightmarish’ and ‘horrible’, yet we do not associate it with the horror machines of science fiction or Edgar Allan Poe.” Equally, we now have the word ‘Lovecraftian’ which can mean many of the same things, with possibly ‘squidlike and squalid’ (to borrow a phrase from the late John Balance) replacing ‘tortuously bureaucratic’. In Lovecraft’s case we can, of course, associate the word in part with Poe, if only to see where the designation has come from, and note how it builds upon foundations laid by Poe to touch the unique dreads of a new century.

III

When Lovecraft began to hit his peaks in the late 1920s a young William Burroughs was cultivating a lifetime hatred of authority during his tenure at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico. In August 1931, teenage Bill could have gone to a news-stand in Los Alamos town and picked up the latest issue of Weird Tales, there to read about “the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth” from Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’. ‘Tam, Son of the Tiger’ by Otis Adelbert Kline received the cover treatment that month, with a mediocre painting by CC Senf. Lovecraft’s lack of faith in the enduring popularity of his works is perhaps easier to appreciate when you realise that none of his stories were deemed worthy of a cover illustration during his lifetime. Yet Kline and his contemporaries—many with names as baroque as the characters in their stories: Nictzin Dyalhis, Pearl Norton Swet, Ronal Kayser, the egregious Seabury Quinn—have been buried by the dust of their rotting magazines, while Lovecraft’s influence proliferates in subsequent books and films and digital media.

Ten years after ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, however, Lovecraft was dead, and—so he believed—his works forgotten. In 1941, as William Burroughs never tired of reminding people, Robert Oppenheimer and the scientists of the Manhattan Project came to the Los Alamos Ranch School to close it down, bulldoze its buildings and construct in their place a research facility where they could create a monstrous nuclear chaos of their own. The Trinity explosion in the Alamogordo desert in 1945 prompted Oppenheimer to recall some words from an ancient text, a pronouncement from the god Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

IV

“(The Necronomicon was) composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 AD. He visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia—the Roba el Khaliyeh or “Empty Space” of the ancients—and “Dahna” or “Crimson” desert of the modern Arabs which is held to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death. Of this desert many strange and unbelievable marvels are told by those who pretend to have penetrated it. In his last years Alhazred dwelt in Damascus, where the Necronomicon (Al Azif) was written and of his final death or disappearance (738 AD) many terrible and conflicting things are told. He is said by Ebn Khallikan (12th cent. biographer) to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. Of his madness many things are told. He claimed to have seen the fabulous Irem, or City of Pillars, and to have found beneath the ruins of a certain nameless desert town the shocking annals and secrets of a race older than mankind. He was only an indifferent Moslem, worshipping unknown entities whom he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.”

HP Lovecraft, ‘The History of the Necronomicon’.

“The Cities of Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea.”

William Burroughs, The Cities of the Red Night.

Burroughs’ cities are brothers to Lovecraft’s Nameless City, and to Irem, City of Pillars, described in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as the rumoured home of the Cthulhu Cult. The Cities of the Red Night are invoked with a litany of Barbarous Names, a paean to the “nameless Gods of dispersal and emptiness” that includes the Sumerian dieties that Burroughs found catalogued in the ‘Urilia Text’ from the Avon Books Necronomicon, and which includes (how could it not?) “Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned.” In Burroughs work the ‘Lovecraftian’ is transmuted, the unspeakable becomes the spoken and the nameless is named at last, beneath the pitiless gaze of Burroughs’ own “mad Arab”, Hassan I Sabbah, Hashish Eater and Master of Assassins. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

V

2005: Nothing is true and everything is permitted but only in the space created by the latest architects of fear, the demagogues of the 21st century, our very own agents of the Control Virus. We see now that Irem, City of Pillars, is named in Sura 89 of the Qur’an (“Hast thou not seen how thy Lord did with Ad? With Iram of the columns? The like of which has not been created in the land?”) and that the Qur’an itself is presented to us by the architects of fear as the new Al Azif, a Necronomicon for an Age of Terror. In ‘The Dunwich Horror’, the Whateley brood, like misegenous backwoods Unabombers, pore over their ancient texts in the hope of invoking titanic forces that would “clear off the earth”. In ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ the cultists wait patiently for their god to return, when all the earth will blaze “in a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”. So Cthulhu reveals another face as Shaitan, “the Old Dragon” and “Lord of the Abyss”, named in Sura 25:29 of the Qur’an as “the forsaker” who will lead men away from the path of righteousness: “Mankind, Shaitan is al khadhulu.”

At the dawn of a new century, “mad Arabs” in mountain retreats pore over these ancient words before unleashing a new Manhattan Project on America’s City of Pillars, raising columns of smoke and human ash over the city described in ‘He’ and ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Hatred stalks the city streets as racist tabloid editors gibber and froth at the spectre of swarming immigrant hordes, while African witchdoctors are butchering boys and throwing their bodies into the River Thames. Nuclear chaos is but a breath away, the architects of fear assure us, it’s only a matter of time. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” So we turn for respite to another story from 1931, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, and we read:

“Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and it is even now only beginning to show signs of a sluggishly revived existence.”

At the dawn of a new century, those with the Innsmouth look have found themselves in the penal colony, waiting for a trial that will never come. Can you feel the heat closing in? Welcome to the Witch House; these are your dreams.

John Coulthart,
Manchester,
Summer Solstice, 2005

Down with human life

houellebecq.jpgSam Leith is engrossed by a formidable essay on the father of ‘weird fiction’.

HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
by Michel Houellebecq
tr by Dorna Kazheni
intro by Stephen King
256pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
£10 (pbk)
Saturday, August 12, 2006
The Daily Telegraph

“I AM SO BEASTLY TIRED of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.” So wrote Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937). His extraordinary body of work can be seen as a sustained effort to fill that prescription.

The founding father of what has become known as “weird fiction”, Lovecraft was not a congenial figure. Tall, ugly, misanthropic, snobbish, reclusive, he hated people in general, and people of other races in particular. More or less nothing happened in his life. He was 32 before he kissed a woman and his brief, unsuccessful and wholly unexpected marriage put paid to love for good. He died of intestinal cancer at 47.

His literary concerns were as follows: unkillable tentacled beings from beyond space worshipped by cannibal death cults; hideous prodigies of miscegenation; gibberings from the abyss; indecipherable languages of madness; insane architectural geometries; colours outside any nameable spectrum. Lovecraft has nothing in common with Anita Brookner.

On the surface, he has very little in common with Michel Houellebecq, either. What they seem to share, though, is an aggressive misanthropy. In this consistently engaging essay, an infatuated Houellebecq argues that Lovecraft’s work pioneered a sort of anti-literature: a great shout of “NO!” to human life.

Lovecraft was not just unrealistic, Houellebecq argues, but anti-realistic: the devotee of a sort of malevolent sublime. Religious writers see our animal lives as validated by the notion that beyond our perception lies something infinitely larger, more ancient and more benevolent. Lovecraft played with the opposite idea. If there’s something else, why should we imagine it would be benevolent? How much more likely that we have, here, a pretty disgusting animal existence; but that if we caught a whiff of what lies outside it, we’d go instantly mad—if we were lucky.

Very little of what Lovecraft wrote conforms to the conventional canons of what literature should be doing. His characters are more or less interchangeable: drab men with drab jobs, no pasts and no futures. They are there to bear witness, to have the living daylights frightened out of them and, if they are unlucky, to be “devoured by invisible monsters in broad daylight at the Damascus market square”. There’s no interest in human life, or money, or sex. The stories don’t start in the real world and amble into horror: they start midway through the screaming hab-dabs and turn up the volume from there producing what Houellebecq calls “an open slice of howling fear”. The involuted and clumsily baroque sentences disapproved of by Lovecraft’s detractors are serving, then, a singular purpose: to pile more on—to generate an intoxicating fever pitch of rhetoric.

Houellebecq’s essay is often perverse, sometimes jejune, more than occasionally downright silly. He attributes more consistency of philosophical purpose to Lovecraft than, I think, a sensible reading of the “great texts”—”The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), ‘The Colour Out of Space” (1927), ‘The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931), “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1932) and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1934)—will bear.

And he on more than one occasion dismisses Lovecraft’s critics, with Houellebecquian arrogance, as “idiots” and such like. But his essay is both a formidable literary performance in itself, a work of real imaginative sympathy, and a consistently engrossing intellectual workout. It bursts with new ideas, and new ways of thinking about this oddest of writers. Bolstered by an introduction by Stephen King, and a pair of first-rate Lovecraft stories, it’s worth anyone’s tenner.

Lovecraft, as Houellebecq observes, “writes for an audience of fanatics—readers he was finally to find only years after his death”. That his work at last found those readers is beyond question. The “Cthulhu Mythos”, like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, has become a place in which devotees live.

Ever since Lovecraft’s friend August Derleth completed some of his unfinished stories after his death, fantasy writers have done more than imitate Lovecraft’s approach: they have set their stories in his universe. The internet now throws up thousands of references to the mythos, allusions to the dread Necronomicon, and artists’ imaginings of Lovecraft’s monsters.

When I was a child, there was a Call of Cthuthu role-playing game. There’s even an internet cartoon series, “Hello Cthulhu“, that pits the Elder Gods against the overpowering cuteness of “Hello Kitty”. “Hi there! Would you like a cookie?!?” asks a fwuffy kitty with a ribbon in her hair. “No, actually. I would hate to have a cookie, you vapid waste of inedible flesh!” retorts Cthulhu. Lovecraft wouldn’t have liked it, I don’t think. But somewhere, sepulchrally, he might have been flattered.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Le horreur cosmique