Howard Phillips Lovecraft, an American horror writer born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, died before his work achieved the odd kind of fame it now enjoys. Obsessed as he was by fantastic beings and degenerate cults, he never foresaw the future race that would save his work from oblivion: the fraternity of American high-school nerds. Generations of such people have thrilled to his tales of Great Cthulhu, a tentacular monstrosity from an utterly alien dimension who sleeps in a lost city at the bottom of the Pacific, and his lovingly detailed co-monsters. Had Lovecraft somehow made it into the days of 20-sided dice, computer games and online comics, his lifelong money problems would have evaporated.
As things went, he died in penury, aged 47. Lovecraft saw himself as a gentleman amateur, and had to be prodded by his numerous correspondents to publish anything at all. After his death, his friend August Derleth collected his writings for publication, as well as developing Lovecraft's shadowy mythology in stories of his own. Like the epic background to The Lord of the Rings, this mythology is probably the main attraction for Lovecraft's imaginative adolescent readership. Happily for them, he wasn't very interested in it, leaving all kinds of gaps for them to argue about in the stories of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath and all the rest.
Lovecraft's more earnest admirers argue that this has obscured his work's real value. He was, they say, one of the first gothic writers to seize on humanity's insignificant role in the universe opened up by 20th-century science as a source of creeping horror. To some extent, they have a point: despite his interest in mysticism, he was a lifelong materialist, and many of his stories provide science-fictional explanations for seemingly supernatural events. The most effective ones, such as "The Colour Out of Space", have a genuine sense of cosmic terror, and Lovecraft often raided the vocabularies of physics and mathematics in order to produce his effects.
Nevertheless, there are very good reasons for not taking him as seriously as his fans would like. The most obvious one is his writing style - an unconsciously self-parodic cacophony of fussy antiquarianisms, pompous circumlocutions and, notoriously, excessive adjectives. For him, words like "rugose", "cyclopean" and "squamous" were basic units of sentence construction; "unnameable" and "indescribable" were like "and" and "the". He never worked out that it's better to keep your most hideous monsters offstage. Nor was he interested in plausible narrative development, characters and human relationships. Sex, he wrote, was "merely a tedious detail of animal biology, without interest for one whose tastes led him to faery gardens and golden cities glorified by exotick sunsets".
He was also a stridently reactionary figure - as he saw it, things were better in the 18th century - and many of his stories brood darkly on the consequences of interbreeding with alien races. For good measure, his sinister Cthulhu-worshippers are nearly always depicted as "negroes and mulattoes" - "men", he felt, "of a very low, mixed-blooded and mentally aberrant type". Lovecraft's fears for the future of white hegemony in the United States usually inform his visions of cosmic ghastliness. During an unhappy stay in New York, he lavished some of his most overheated prose on the "Italo- Semitico-Mongoloid" inhabitants of the Lower East Side, who "seemed about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness".
Michel Houellebecq - the French novelist, controversialist and, as his author note puts it, "rap artist" - turns out to be a big fan of H P Lovecraft. Before writing his first novel, he published an essay on him. This has now been translated into English and disguised as a full-length book by the addition of a couple of Lovecraft's longer stories. "Life is painful and disappointing," it begins. "It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels . . . All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our 'real life' days" - so bring on the tentacles.
Houellebecq's essay celebrates Lovecraft's shock tactics and rejection of his society's values in a way that's either po-faced or dryly humorous (it's hard to tell). It's perceptive about his racism - something Houellebecq knows a thing or two about - and gives an interesting, highly selective account of his short, eccentric life. Most of the time, though, Houellebecq seems to be writing on "HPL", as he calls him, in order to think through his own ideas about his writerly mission. He's fascinated by Lovecraft's "exemplary" lack of interest in sex and money, his own favourite subjects, and admires his scorn for conventional literary standards.
It's strange to learn that the caustic rants and pornographic interludes in Houellebecq's novels are viewed by their creator as springing from the same kind of jadedness as Lovecraft's extra- dimensional octopods. Even so, his high claims for Lovecraft's work - and for that of such ancillary figures as Robert E Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian - come across as a pretext for launching attacks on strait-laced French in tellectuals rather than a completely serious attempt to adjust the 20th-century canon in their favour. Lovecraft is probably better off as a source of nerdish in-jokes and camp symbols of evil for the likes of "Viktor, 29", a Russian internet user who recently extracted an answer from President Vladimir Putin on the likelihood of Cthulhu's returning from his watery grave.