a brief examination of insanity as an escape mechanism in the work of H.P. Lovecraft
There is a certain haunted nostalgia that pervades the recollections of those familiar with Howard Philip Lovecraft. He is the first step into a world where all dreams hold some nightmare, and ignorance is often the desire of the tragically well informed. Yet, it is the mad who are the most blessed, as they have taken the emergency exit. In the Lovecraftian reality, the truth of this world is no longer their burden to bear.
In The Music of Erich Zann, a young man rents rooms in a strange tenement on the Rue d‘Auseil. Here he encounters an aged musician, Erich Zann, whom plays a music unlike any the young man has ever heard. Not only is it hypnotic, but it hints of more than mere musical notes. One night the young man secretly observes Zann as the old musician plays at a window. Outside the world vanishes into “blackness illimitable; unimaginable space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth (Library of America, p. 22).” Whatever doorway the musician unlocked by playing frightens the young man out of the building and despite his best efforts, he can never find the place again.
However, what at first glance seems to be the story of a young man’s encounter with a strange musician may in fact be misleading. The narrator in this account is incidental, more a device to recount the story than the focus of the story itself. The actual focal point of this tale is Erich Zann. Our only information about the young man is that he is a student of metaphysics and that his impoverished status forced him to seek cheap housing (Library of America, p.15). His only character development comes at the beginning of the story, already stating the impending outcome. “That my memory is broken, I do not wonder; for my health, physical and mental, was gravely disturbed throughout the period of my residence in the Rue d’Auseil.” (Library of America, p. 15)
From the onset the reader is informed that some mentally fracturing event is about to ensue, but what it is and how it will come about are left to future pages. While in a strict sense the protagonist seems to be the narrator, as he takes the reader through this account, he is more so a witness to the reality of Erich Zann. By stating the effect Zann will have on the student, Lovecraft takes the focus away from the storyteller and places it primarily on the elements of the story itself. This allows more of the reader's focus to dwell on the strange music heard from the peaked garret at night. “I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before. (Library of America, p. 16)”
The story crescendos with the young man surreptitiously entering Zann’s apartment late one night while the wild, weird notes fly off Zann's viol. “His blue eyes were bulging, glassy, and sightless, and the frantic playing had become a blind, mechanical, unrecognizable orgy that no pen could ever suggest (Library of America, p. 21).” It is the details of Zann’s mad playing and that of its effect on reality which the reader is left solely to encounter. The development of our narrator’s storyline has already been detailed from the beginning, save for the ABCs of how he arrived in such a state, as well as the obligatory rush of sentences recounting his flight from the tenement.
It might be possible, with skillful manipulation, to rewrite the text so that it only relates the behavior and music of Erich Zann. Unfortunately, this would alter the point of the story. In Lovecraftian literature there is always a consequence for discovery. Here, a student of metaphysics sees an aspect of reality utterly inconceivable to him. While this makes him more fully conscious of dimensions outside perceived reality, the cost of his education is a nervous breakdown. Additionally, it is only in the first snap of this nervous shattering that the boy is able to flee from the swirling strangeness outside Zann’s window. Following from this notion, the look and behavior of the musician seems to imply that a delirium has over taken the titular man, through which he is able to manipulate the world outside his window.
“He was a victim of physical and nervous suffering¼ As the weeks passed, the playing grew wilder, whilst the old musician acquired an increasing haggardness¼ pitiful to behold (Library of America, p. 19.”
Between these two characters there is the demonstration that reality can only be manipulated through an escape from the accepted modes of reason, and that if such realizations prove too much for one to handle, the only recourse is to fly from them, finding denial in delirium. Furthermore, by manipulating the protagonist into a witness Lovecraft changes events from an experience to something experienced. By becoming past tense the matter takes on an inevitable quality. Madness, in some degree, is the only result stemming from exposure to the music of Erich Zann
In his own study of weird fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft opens with, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown (Supernatural Horror, p. 12).” While this is present in The Music of Erich Zann it is better represented in other works. It is the desire of many of Lovecraft’s narrator’s to alleviate fear of the unknown which leads them down an inevitable road to mental obliteration. Often these pursuits begin innocently enough.
The Rats in the Wall follows the inheritor of a family estate as he investigates his own family history as well as an odd sound coming from the walls. His endeavors lead him down a dehumanizing process in which he literally devolves into an atavistic cannibal (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 14 - 29). Yet, the course of this inquiry sounds almost delightful to the narrator, who only realizes the full extremity of his education at the end.
"A few of the tales were exceedingly picturesque, and made me wish I had learnt more of comparative mythology in my youth. There was, for instance, the belief that a legion of bat-winged devils kept Witches’ Sabbath each night at the priory (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 18).”
“When they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys¼ They accuse me of me a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 29).”
This tale, despite its ghoulish conclusion, follows more like a person caught up in the rush of a river. The placidity of the narrator carries throughout as even the darkest stories of his family seem only like folklore to be catalogued and recounted for the sake of history. It is only the furious rush of insanity that protects him from the reality of where these open floodgates he calls family have deposited him. “They must know it was the rats¼ the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this room¼ the rats they can never hear (Library of America, p. 96).”
It would be remise to write about Lovecraft without mentioning the Cthulhu Mythos. This is essentially a catch all term for the invented legends and anti-mythology in many of Lovecraft’s works. Joyce Carol Oates provides the most succinct definition when she writes,
“In the Cthulhu Mythos there are no ‘gods’ but only displaced extraterrestrial beings, the Great Old Ones, who journeyed to Earth many millions of years ago¼ Deluded human beings mistake the Great Old Ones and their descendants for gods, worshipping them out of ignorance (King of Weird, p. 7).”
The Mythos itself is present in a wide array of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, the most famous being The Call of Cthulhu. Other noteworthy stories include At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Shadow Out of Time, and the infamous Necronomicon, a purely Lovecraft invention he attributes to the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.
There are few tales in Lovecraft’s reality that do not in some manner or another involve elements of the Mythos. The most tangential tend to only mention the Necronomicon; it being the source book and key reference material for all things regarding the Great Old Ones, their servants, slaves, and ilk. Although any one of these stories proves the cerebrally fractious nature of exposure to Lovecraft’s norms, they essentially follow the same formula as the aforementioned stories. The only significant difference is that a grand new vision of the world, albeit terrifying and unsettling, is revealed.
What I have sought in this paper is to steer clear of the overly examined Cthulhu Mythos and zero in on two stories which demonstrate the consequence of revelation and its emergency exit in the Lovecraft universe which also do not rely on somewhat gimmicky plot devices. While engrossing reads and frightening for their historiographical qualities, Mythos tales have the subtlety of a hammer to the forehead. The narrator, embarking on some course of discovery with innocent intentions, unwittingly stumbles upon the existence of the Great Old Ones. This encounter invariably leads to some kind of unhinging of the narrator or narrator’s colleague’s nerves. The simplicity of their formula, when stated on paper, undercuts their effectiveness outside of reading the material itself. Save for The Call of Cthulhu.
This story is, for many, the first encounter with the strange world of H. P. Lovecraft, and no other tale so fully encapsulates the reality into which the writer has tried to manipulate the reader.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 52.”
This opening paragraph sets the reader up, not to experience the blissful ignorance which s/he should be hoping for, but the coming onslaught of what revelation will do to one’s own consciousness. The plot is straight forward, but it is the subtle movement of each gear that makes this story tick. The mysterious death of a renown professor, Angwell, sends his nephew into the old man’s notes. He recounts for the reader the discoveries of his grand-uncle as well as what he himself has pieced together regarding the strange being known as Cthulhu. What both men first believed to be nothing more than some strange folk creature, a mythical figure in proto-religions, is revealed to be a slumbering monstrosity. Housed in a Cyclopean city deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, Cthulhu sleeps, awaiting his time to awake the Great Old Ones. It is in the closing that the reader discovers that Cthulhu is not even the thing to fear. He is merely the herald of a dark time fast approaching. (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 52 - 76)
Again we follow the aforementioned devices. “As my grand-uncle’s heir and executor,¼ I was expected to go over his papers with some thoroughness; and for that purpose moved his entire set of files and boxes to my quarters in Boston (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 53).” The narrator has entered into a quest for the truth, this time concerning his grand-uncle’s death, which leads to answers he will wish to have never discovered. Even when he comes to the realization that “ my uncle’s death was far from natural (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 67,” perhaps murdered by the Cthulhu Cult, he continues in the pursuit of truth. Though by now the innocence is lost. The narrator now wants to unveil the mystery in the hope it brings him fortune and glory. “I felt sure that I was on the track of a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 67).” Yet, the fact remains that truth is not perceived as a threat to the one who pursues it, while any revelation to the contrary cannot not be arrived at till after danger is looming.
“I think Professor Angell died because he knew too much, or because he was likely to learn too much. Whether I shall go as he did remains to be seen, for I have learned much now (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 67).”
The story goes on to recount the experiences of the Vigilant, a ship and its crew who encounter Cthulhu. Only two members escape the creature with their lives, and only then by ramming the beast with their ship in order to wound it (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 71 - 75). However, the two are irrevocably shattered by the experience. One dies in fits of delirium, while the other never fully regains his senses. The latter eventually dies under circumstances eerily similar to the narrator’s grand-uncle. (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 71, 74 - 75).
It is only in this final exposure that the narrator feels the full gravity of what he has discovered. More than mere folklore, Cthulhu is a real entity, slumbering beneath the waves of the Pacific, waiting for his time to summon the Great Old Ones. “Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come -- but I must not and cannot think (Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, p. 76)!” Denial is the only refuge left for him. As the story opened, the only sources of comfort from the full revelation of what this world is lies in a retreat to ignorance or the emergency exit that is insanity. The Vigilant’s survivors attest to the latter, while the narrator demonstrates the former. Although, how long can such knowledge be kept at a distance when it is already in one‘s own mind?
The recurrence of madness as a central aspect in the works of H. P. Lovecraft can readily be attributed to the fact both of his parents died in mental institutions (S. T. Joshi). This understanding, however, takes away from the fundamental meaning one can derive from the author’s stories, particularly those mentioned here. In The Music of Erich Zann a nervous breakdown allows the narrator to keep the full recollection of what transpired on the Rue d’Auseil from affecting him further. The storyteller from The Rats in the Wall finds frenzied denial, a self imposed ignorance, despite the obviousness of his padded cell, to prolong his disassociation from the horrible act he committed. Finally, The Call of Cthulhu offers, not only a presentation of this thinking, but two fine examples of it in action. The sailors aboard the Vigilant escape from the horror of dread Cthulhu only when their minds unhinge, while the narrator chooses to bury the truth in his own mind and away from the world. From these perspectives, there is only self imposed ignorance or madness in the face of unbearable truth. Yet, denial may fail without intention, through accidental recollection or unintentional exposure to a reminder. Only the mad ever truly escape from reality.
Joshi, S.T. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. Necronomicon Press, 1996.
Library of America. Lovecraft: Tales. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2005.
Lovecraft, H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1973.
Oates, Joyces Carol. “The King of Weird.” The New York Review of Books 43.17 (1996): pages unknown, printed from online archives.
Oates, Joyce Carol, editor. Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.