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Horror Unspeakable: Life through the Eyes of Lovecraft and Lithium

by Thomas Taylor

The Whisperer in Darkness

 

Something has been following me.

 

A scrawny version of myself that I can’t recognize in pictures anymore, thirteen, walked into a bookstore looking for anything that didn’t have ‘Stephen King’ on its spine. My parents had made a promise when I was younger that I would never have to pay for a book in my life, if I in turn promised to read every single one to the end. A few years later they had to add a caveat – only every second novel could be from the King himself. At first, they were content enough to have a son who read a lot, and then they were struggling to wean me off IT, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining.

 

I pulled out the thickest thing wedged between Koontz and Lucas. It turned out to be a massive hardcover, with demonic eyes and tentacles like moss that slithered across the front over and all around the sides. TALES OF HORROR, the title declared with that supremely cheap confidence that only pulp novels know how to do right, A COLLECTION OF STORIES FROM H.P. LOVECRAFT.

 

My mom had reservations at first, seeing something dangerous in the creature’s exaggerated red eyes, but I convinced her. Plus, it was thick enough to last me at least a month or two, meaning good value for money. Which is a fact: my mom got her money’s worth – that book still comes with me every time I move house, and it’s almost a decade later. Of course, the first time I opened the book, things did not seem promising. I was overwhelmed by the archaic terminology and the even stranger mythos that ran through every brief story.

Azathoth, R’leyh, Shoggoth, Ghatanothoa. It was enough to drive you mad.

Then something happened. Not suddenly. Far from it. A slow burn I now know to be all too appropriate when discussing Lovecraft. Maybe it started in the prose of “The Colour Out of Space”, or maybe somewhere in the margins. From realms whose mere existence stun the brain and numb us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs they throw open before our frenzied eyes.

 

Do you see what I see? Lovecraft would start rambling about the unknown and fear and the fear of the unknown and then the rambling seemed to summon something, and I’d start to get uncomfortable. Not in my room, not anywhere close, but out there in the vast endlessness of what remains unexplored, there was Something. And yes, if it wanted to, Something could easily come here. It could rise. Maybe it didn’t even have to. It could be the size of what we consider to be infinity. It would be malevolent. The mere turn of its head – oh please, let it have something as human as a head – could erase us all.

 

***

 

When I was around the same age, thirteen, my mother followed me into the psychologist’s office. Usually she just dropped me off and picked me up, but for once, there was something serious happening. Those sessions were a chore more than anything else - I’d been branded an unfortunate with ‘learning problems’ by a series of teachers – but I never saw the point. All those hours spent talking about my home life or sculpting my emotions with clay felt like shoveling shit with insurance credits.

 

Besides, I had a pretty clear idea of the type of person who must see the psychologist: some individual who’d put his feet too deep into the waters of the unknown and wasn’t prepared for the tide to take them. The villains in Stephen King, 0r the protagonists in HP Lovecraft, characters whose fate would always bring them back to the unspeakable depths of a madness unconquerable. But then, all those prejudices were shattered.

 

Bi-po-lar dis-or-der.

 

I don’t recall the exact words leading up to the diagnosis; I probably wasn’t paying attention, but I do remember my mother clenching my fist tightly at the sound of those strange six syllables. Yet saying it like that diminishes the terror, it almost sounds pleasant, every sound hopping rhythmically up and down in almost-but-not-quite iambic pentameter.

 

Then, as the psychologist went deeper into the diagnosis, teasing out the implications, I felt the weight of what had just been discovered. Suddenly every anecdote shared, from the random outbursts, to the moments of pure recklessness at school and at home, to the weeks where I grew far too reserved and slept twice as much as was healthy: it was all there on a rational timeline where the peaks and troughs danced with one another in accusing testament.

 

Bi-po-lar dis-or-der.

 

And so, I was put on medication; a low-dosage antidepressant to control something I didn’t quite understand and didn’t quite believe I had. The medication disciplined the possible beast, allaying any immediate urgency, and I started High School, trying to grasp every opportunity to distance myself from those awkward preteen years. I thought I was only bringing with me a stash of horror books and some light acne. Grade 8 to 9 my averages went from desperate 50s to mediocre 60s, and then by the end of Grade 9 I had somehow rallied the academic self-esteem to keep everything nicely over 75% . All those years trudging through King, Poe and Lovecraft had bred a student who could write competently and enjoy the process, signaling a migration from mathematics and physics to the warm arms of English and History. Head over heels, I truly was.

 

It was a good time. Most of all I remember reading Misery by Stephen King one morning before class. My English teacher walked by, saw what I was reading, and changed my life in one statement.

 

‘If you can write fiction like you can write an essay,’ she said, ‘then I have no doubt I’ll find your name in a bookstore one day.’

 

I gave her an awkward smile as she walked off, but her words were etched to the bone. She was right! I could! No, even better, I would one day write a book, and not just any book, a horror book, one that would defy the market expectations for ‘weird fiction’. Some had done it. I could too.

 

Something was changing.

 

Who Goes There?

 

I’m going to be honest – madness is a great plot device. I, too, exploit it here.

 

For every writer diagnosed with it – and there are many, as you may have heard – there’s double the novels invoking that dark hound Bipolar Disorder for its characterization, its pathos… and its terror. It’s incredibly convenient for the purposes of ‘total’ insanity without total insanity: elevated mood, racing thoughts, obsessive and intrusive imagery, and then an abyss of numbness, of everything reduced to nothing at all; it’s all there to highlight the themes of loss and fragmentation or whatever-have-you in your debut page-turner. Mania turns to Depression, turns to Mania, turns the page, or something like that.

 

When Bipolar Disorder hit this protagonist hard in Grade 10, the only option was to hit back harder, through the likes of Lithium and SSRIs. Here’s the thing with medications for mental illness: they usually come with a little disclaimer, the very small print on the medical-speak package insert, that they might exacerbate the problem. The explanation requires that you accept the incongruity, the anomaly: Might Help. Might Make Things Worse. Every single SSRI out there will be prescribed with a quick yet firm ‘Oh, also, this has a rare but possible side-effect where your skin destroys itself and you die in the worst agony imaginable’. The science behind it all is lost on me – something in that brain is wonky, here’s something that makes it even wonkier.

 

It’s a toss-up, a colossal one, and I’m certain that if there is a deity out there, some divinity who’s in charge of all this irony, he finds the fact that anti-depressants cause suicidal thoughts a particularly funny joke in his damned divine comedy. You really can’t write this stuff in real life. I can spit out jargon, but I don’t think anything quite encapsulates the scare of losing weight, losing hair, losing sleep, losing the color in your skin, all these losses replaced by the onset of permanent dark circles like cosmic bruises around your eyes. It feels like selling your body to the devil to keep your soul. Just like those Lovecraftian characters who learned a Little Too Much in the end, whose minds were simply too finite for all the horrors of the universe, I witnessed myself waste away over the next few months. Those wonky drugs pushed me into a depressive phase, but because my manic episodes are particularly extreme, that was a relative victory. Yet people I’d been surrounded by my entire life saw only the results of whatever state I was in and, as people do, they talked.

 

And yet, Bipolar Disorder has taught me a lot about the vague yet pertinent notion of insanity that runs through my dear horror fiction. ‘Mental illness is poorly portrayed in horror fiction’ seems a vapid conclusion, shocking nobody, and yet I still find myself constructing my own understanding of it all through the language and stories that first exposed me to this ambiguous beast called madness.

 

With Bipolar Disorder, I think I’ve learned that there is a chasm between ‘mental illness’ in novels, and madness in novels. Bipolar Disorder, with its associations of wild instability and dramatic extremes so similar in theory to the extremity of horror fiction, is really boring at times. That’s obviously no complaint, of course it isn’t, but it’s a part I rarely see mentioned in fiction. Sometimes you manage and mental illness is just making sure you don’t mix up your psychologist appointments, or stay committed to keeping your weight reasonably down on anti-depressants. Some days mental illness is far from murderous rampages and tussling with philosophical notions of mortality on narrow bridges highly-strung in the moonlight. The ordinariness wouldn’t make for particularly exciting stuff to read about, I guess, but it’s important not to omit the tedious banality of it all if we’re getting under the skin of the beast.

 

Indeed, I long for more fiction on the banality of mental illness. Open the floodgates to a world where our protagonists face strife, terror, horror, pain, monstrosities unimaginable, all the while making sure that they take their mood-stabilizers at 8 in the morning following a light breakfast, and remember that they have a therapist appointment the next Tuesday. Let readers far and wide tap into this truth often unspoken: it’s difficult. Sometimes, though, it’s less difficult, following hard work and dedication to the possibility that this, too, does not write our stories for us.

 

It’s so appealing to write about mental illness ‘for the sake of it’. Nothing is stopping us. It’s a tool of the macabre and the extreme, the link between existential horror and cosmic horror, the exposition of the villain and the downfall of the hero. Yet I implore us all, for not just the sake of the mentally ill, not only on behalf of the manic and the maniacal, to do better for our stories. Jekyll has had his Hyde, Annie Wilkes has hammered the kneecaps of Paul in Misery, and Hamlet has cried his ambiguous tears. It is time to go deeper, into a realm where things such as Bipolar Disorder can be boring.

 

***

 

I finished my final high school exams before weaning off that dragon called Lithium, and adjusting enough to study a degree in the liberal arts. The first thing I did in university English was Shirley Jackson’s fantastic story “The Lottery”. I’d forgotten that we had to read it before class, but it wasn’t a crisis, most of us did. It’s a short read, so our tutor gave us a piece of the hour to go through it by ourselves. When I got to the ending, that brutal, ridiculously cynical pay-off after pages of careful exposition, I felt my heart racing. How long had it been since I sat down and read a horror story? A year, two maybe? However long it was, whatever I’d forgotten, it was back and bigger than that little room could accommodate.

 

And then some problems build up over the next few months, flying low in the chasm between gradual and sudden. Then things got bad. I went to a place. Even now, years after the fact, having registered it in every possible context, I still find myself saying it like that. Things got bad. I went to a place. If Hemingway wrote first-person horror, I think that sort of description would be found somewhere in his body of work. Abstract the specifics, the details, any kind of real indication of what and where and most pertinently that elusive why, until it is nothing more than clinical syntax.

 

I’d never been institutionalized before, and yet I had seen this place in all its forms. This was the end-point, the rock-bottom, the punchline. Bertha Mason had finally been locked in the attic. But the teleology of insanity in horror fiction once again proved incongruent with the lived experience. If I said for a moment that the experience was positive as it happened, I’d be lying. Yet the modern-day inpatient psych ward is perhaps the mostly clearly butchered thing in all of fiction. Nobody wants to be there, nobody wants to be the person who should be there, but those who do will have the pleasure of experiencing one of the most sympathetic divisions in medicine, and even fewer of us will ever know it to be final. You go. You get help. Eventually, you leave.

 

A Head Full of Ghosts

 

Days passed. Inside the-place-where-you-go-when-things-get-bad, there weren’t many books, despite a lot of free time to read them. I knew one of the first things I wanted to do when I got out was read The Haunting of Hill House, another Shirley Jackson favourite, but when I did finally get a copy, my brain drowned out any focus, pooling with half a dozen medications I was still unused to, all spilling out in little drops on a Prologue page I couldn’t get past no matter how hard I tried to understand it.

 

The medication was strong, so strong that it tore an impossible rift between signifier and signified in my mind. It wasn’t just a textual thing, either. When people spoke, their voices would sometimes sound like waves crashing on the shore, clearly apparent but saying what? The world becomes grotesquely primal when language conveys no meaning; nothing but sound in space and symbols on pages.

 

Victory didn’t come easily; it took months before I could adjust and the central fear during that time was always the possibility that it was all for naught. When it came to reading, I realized that I had to start all the way at one end of the spectrum and work up: flash fiction, short stories, novellas – it was going to be a long time before I could read a novel again.

 

The stories I’ve chosen to refer to are not coincidental – they all formed a crucial part in my idiosyncratic ‘recovery’. Yet revisiting all the stories felt like more than an attempt to adjust to the medication. Instead, it served as an affirmation about a truth I didn’t know what to do with: I’d been institutionalized, whatever that was supposed to mean; whether it was a momentary lapse in my life or just a natural and necessary moment in a life with Bipolar Disorder. I re-examined the stories I loved, just as I re-examined the world following an experience many hold to be traumatic or final, yet where close turned out to be far less apparent.

 

As my brain started adjusting to the pool of SSRIs and mood-stabilizers, some six strange months later, I ordered a novel called House of Leaves, recommended by a friend. It would be the first legitimate ‘novel’ I’d commit to in a very long time. And while a lot of things only make sense in retrospect, some reveal themselves in their crucial moments. I would have dropped that book within ten pages at any other time in my life, but this was a different time. A time like no other.

 

I would love to claim that reading House of Leaves felt like a beginning or the ending of a story, some neat special. A wild, messy recontextualizion of everything that had been read before it, and perhaps everything that had led up to it. The novel is a weird interjection of different narratives of broken people told through perhaps the most experimental style I’ve ever seen in my life, all surrounding some damn film about a family in a house that may or may not even have existed. The novel was terrifying for reasons I’d never encountered before:  a prose style and a narrative form that was so unspecific yet so clear, so apparent, so ever-present yet difficult to understand that it reflected many of my most sensitive feelings about my own life with mental illness. Horror not quite unspeakable, a fearful darkness that made me a nyctophobe by any other name.

 

I remembered a part of myself that lived for this kind of scary; lived for the highbrow and the pulp in equal measure and knew what he had to do all along. I started writing, fleshy piece by piece, and soon it was just something that etched itself nigh-permanently into my schedule, as much a given as the medication in the evening and the medication in the morning. An hour a day turned to two, Autumn made way for Winter, and then it was all there, a novel, an actual novel written.

 

Was it any good? Of course not, first drafts rarely are. But looking at it now, I don’t think the draft would’ve worked as well if I hadn’t had the awareness of terms like ‘scary’ and ‘crazy’ and their possible shapes. And it would seem I learned these two counter-intuitively but so effectively: ‘scary’ from my life with Bipolar Disorder, and ‘crazy’ from horror fiction. Today, when I look at what I made – and I’m still editing the draft piece by piece – I am filled, even fulfilled - with the promise that I could do this again simply because I’ve managed it before. I know I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

The best part? There’s some scary stuff in that thick piece of work. Not anything that jumps out; nor even moments of abrupt drama or heightened shock. Scary stories aren’t that simple, even when they’re candid and willing to admit that about themselves. It took a very long time before I started seeing them for what they are. They are never content simply to be horror stories, pandering to the scare, the frightnight, the graphic spectacle. They’re also, curiously, romances, sometimes cool and forthright, passionate and unhinged, always learning and changing, just like the reader, always altering even the steadiest preservations and prejudices, faithfully catching and reciprocating the briefest glance from the other side of a dark room. Quietly. Causing disquiet.

 

So it is not surprising that still, something follows.

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