Meddie, and other poetry updates

I’ve added a few poems to the Poems section of my website over the course of this year — The Night Black Suit, Jack Fear, Tumbledown Tom, and Doctor Freud most recently. I thought I’d end the year with a whole batch more, including this (longish) mix of Greek myth, hair care, and the modern workplace, Meddie:

Also newly up are the story of a rather pointless but nevertheless rewarding quest (Spike and Doodles), Lovecraft-meets-Alan Bennett (New Neighbours), the tale of a very brave little girl (Molly Millie May McGrew), and a couple of other shorter ones (The Imposter, The Icky Drip).

I’ve also added a popup menu at the top of the page, so you can sort the poems by various criteria, including the ability to see what’s been added recently.

Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!

Lovecraft and Trauma

Earlier this year I read Bessel van der Kolk’s book on the effects and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, The Body Keeps the Score (2014). Its description of what happens to the brain under traumatic stress and afterwards, when the trauma is re-triggered, was fascinating, as were the various methods that could be used to treat PTSD. One that really got me thinking was van der Kolk’s description of how taking part in reenactments of Ancient Greek tragedies helped traumatised combat veterans. This worked in two ways. One — and this was one of the main themes of van der Kolk’s book — was in the way that acting, and other sorts of physical therapy, provided a means of re-establishing a relationship with the body, as sufferers of PTSD become dissociated from their bodies as a wholesale means of cutting off the overwhelming feelings arising from trauma. The other way it works is that the subject matter of the dramas gives veterans words by which to express their feelings about the traumatic situations they’ve been in. (Alexithymia, the inability to name or identify feelings, is another aspect of PTSD.) Van der Kolk even puts forward the idea that Ancient Greek tragedy “may have served as a ritual reintegration for combat veterans”.

This got me thinking about modern myths that might address similar areas, and I realised it was something I’d touched on in Mewsings before, when I called it “crisis literature” — novels and stories written by people who seem to be on the edge of a still-live and still-dangerous emotional experience, who are using their writing to try to process it. And it turned out that some of the aspects of “crisis literature” I identified — such as the way disparate collections of things are lumped together with the insistence they make up one thing, as with the “terminal documents” of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition stories, the multiple interweaving time-strands of Garner’s Red Shift, or the lumped-together fragments of Eliot’s Waste Land — are part of the experience of trauma, and van der Kolk can even explain why, using data from brain scans.

But the writer that first popped into my head after reading about veterans’ use of Ancient Greek drama was, oddly, that least veteran-like of writers, H P Lovecraft, who I haven’t previously considered part of this idea of “crisis literature”. He does, however, have his equivalents of Ballard’s “terminal documents”, most evidently in his 1920 story “The Call of Cthulhu”, a tale which is all about the piecing together of disparate strands into one impossible-to-face whole — the impossible-to-face whole known as Cthulhu, a being whose very appearance is a merging together of impossibilities:

“It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”

The more I thought about it, the more I saw that aspects of how the brain reacts under trauma can be found throughout Lovecraft’s fiction. Which probably sounds obvious — surprise!, a horror writer’s work deals with trauma! — but what I mean is not that Lovecraft’s characters exhibit the effects of trauma, but that the way Lovecraft’s fictional world works expresses some of the effects of trauma. I’m not at all saying Lovecraft himself suffered from PTSD, but I’m going to look into some key aspects of the condition that van der Kolk touches on, and relate them to Lovecraft’s fiction, as I think it throws light on areas of his work that have received criticism, or at least might be better appreciated.

Take, for instance, the Lovecraftian cliché of the protagonist who, faced with the ultimate horror, faints. It’s hardly conducive to survival. Whatever happened to fight or flight?

It turns out that fight or flight are just part of a wider continuum of possible reactions to threat. The initial reaction, van der Kolk says, is milder than either fight or flight. Humans are social animals, so we look around for help. If there’s none to be had, but the threat remains, then there’s flight — running away — or fight. But there are situations where there’s no help to be had, no escape route is available, and where fighting not only won’t help, but may make things worse. A child cornered by a violent adult, for instance, who hasn’t the physical strength to fight back, and who may well feel that fighting would only lead to worse consequences; or, in Lovecraft’s fiction, a human suddenly finding himself in the presence of a giant, god-like extraterrestrial monster. As van der Kolk says, if:

“…we can’t get away, we’re held down or trapped… the organism tries to preserve itself by shutting down and expending as little energy as possible. We are then in a state of freeze or collapse.”

“Freeze or collapse” in Lovecraft’s fictional world becomes fainting. But it goes deeper than that, I think. It’s something Lovecraft incorporated into the very structure of his fiction. He worked hard to orchestrate his stories so they end in a crescendo of horror — he builds up the various narrative strands so it’s only in the final sentence that all the horrific facts explicitly come together. And at this point the story ends, meaning the reader experiences the same fall into blankness as the story’s protagonist, leaving you alone with that moment of absolute horror.

I said above that having his protagonists faint was something Lovecraft was criticised for. This criticism came during his own lifetime, so he had a chance to respond, in a story called “The Unnameable” (from 1923), where his protagonist (a writer) says he has been accused of:

“…ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralysed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced.”

I mentioned “alexithymia” earlier, the condition of not having words to describe one’s feelings, and this is something Lovecraft sums up in the above quote’s “words, or associations to tell what they had experienced”. In “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), he presents the same idea, only much more vividly, as Harley Warren, faced with some awful subterranean horror, screams down a portable telephone:

I can’t tell you, Carter! It’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of THIS!

Trauma is the experience of something “unnameable”, something “utterly beyond thought”. It’s caused when stress hormones flood the brain to such an extent that they overwhelm the conscious mind, causing it to shut down and hand control entirely over to the more instinctual parts of the brain (which are faster in their response to danger, but far less nuanced). Van der Kolk describes how brain scans reveal the workings of trauma, with the main areas that represent one’s ability to consciously control reactions being shut down, while the instinctual danger-response areas light up. We can, he says, only properly process our experiences when we do so consciously (even if it has to be after the event), weighing them up, deciding what they mean, and integrating them into our autobiographical memory, fitting them into our idea of who we are. With trauma, though, and even during re-triggered trauma, the conscious mind doesn’t get a look-in. The memory becomes inaccessible to the conscious mind, because remembering is identical with re-triggering, which shuts down the conscious mind. When traumatic memory is triggered, the brain fires up exactly as it did when it experienced the originating incident — right down to the part of the brain that reacts to new, incoming visual data activating as if it were seeing the trauma anew. During re-triggering, as far as the brain’s concerned, the trauma is happening again, right now.

To me, this explains the ending of another early Lovecraft story, “Dagon” (1917), which can otherwise feel a little unsatisfying. The tale’s narrator writes about an encounter he had with a horrific monster while adrift on a boat at sea. He escapes, but ever after has to take drugs to deaden himself to his continuing feelings of terror. Now, having run out of money, and so also of drugs, he sits down to write what is, basically, a suicide note. As he finishes it, he sees the monster come back for him:

“I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand!

On my first reading of the story, when I was young and monster-hungry, I assumed the creature had actually come back for him, and didn’t question how unlikely it was that this giant sea-thing would follow one poor guy for years through various American cities until — what, the man ran out of money for drugs? How did that work? But at the time I was just happy for the story to end with a monster and didn’t question it. Now I see what happens at the end of the story is that, having run out of mind-numbing drugs, the narrator can’t hold back the feelings of horror anymore. But it’s not just the feelings he’s holding back, it’s the way traumatic memory replays as if it were happening in the moment. The monster might not be physically there, but as far as the narrator’s brain is concerned, it is, and the danger feels viscerally real — enough to make the narrator throw himself out of the window. The monster may not have come for him, but in a sense the narrator’s been carrying it inside him all this time.

There are other examples of Lovecraftian protagonists experiencing traumatic flashbacks, or a heightened terror of triggering conditions (think of the narrator of “Pickman’s Model” (1926), who refuses to use the underground railway, or of “Cool Air” (also 1926), whose narrator explains why he reacts badly to the slightest cold draught). The most obvious one, though, is Malone, the protagonist of “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), who, at the start of the tale suffers a PTSD response, fleeing in uncontrollable terror at the mere sight of some red-brick buildings. Van der Kolk explains this as being down to the way the brain monitors incoming signals for danger. Before passing sensory input to the conscious mind, which is slower to process what it receives, this data passes through other areas of the brain which have cruder but more immediate responses. For instance, the amygdala, whose function is to decide:

“…whether incoming information is a threat to our survival even before we are consciously aware of the danger. By the time we realize what is happening, our body may already be on the move.”

PTSD responses are immediate and without nuance. Small sensory details can trigger an over-the-top reaction, simply because the conscious mind has no say in sorting out which aspects of the initial traumatic experience were genuine danger signs, and which were simply incidental. This links to Lovecraft’s use of the word “courage” in the quote from “The Unnameable” above. Not only does PTSD result in experiences that feel as though they cannot be explained, but it can result in someone suffering from PTSD feeling humiliated because they can’t explain their own reaction even to themselves — they are overpowered by feelings beyond their understanding. It can feel like being in the grip of some overpowering alien monster, leaving one feeling less than fully human.

And the feeling of being less than human is another thing that can come with PTSD. Van der Kolk calls it “depersonalisation”:

“In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are.”

Trauma, he says elsewhere, “compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.” Lovecraft’s fiction is full of people who are neither dead nor alive, the most notable being the narrator of “The Outsider” (1921), whose horror when he confronts a walking corpse is topped by the realisation that the walking corpse is himself, something he can only have been unaware of by thoroughly dissociating himself from his own body. Horror of, or alienation from, one’s body is another part of this aspect of PTSD, and can be found in other Lovecraft stories where narrators, for instance, find their minds transported to other bodies that they only gradually become aware of as being alien, as in “The Shadow Out of Time” (1934), a story which to me feels like a summation of so many aspects of trauma in Lovecraft’s fiction, that it might be a good way to mop up a few topics I haven’t yet covered.

The first half of “The Shadow Out of Time” reads like the story of a man trying to cope with the effects of PTSD. Something happened to him which wiped out a portion of his conscious memory, and he does his best to piece together what fragments he can to make sense of it. This is where trauma links with Ballard’s “terminal documents”. Because the conscious mind has had no chance to analyse the traumatic memory, the memories themselves feel like a welter of confusing, disparate-seeming elements: sights, sounds, smells, not in any logical order or making any sense, a chaos of sensations, not a rational experience. (In many early Lovecraft stories, up to and including “The Horror at Red Hook”, when the protagonists encounter the supernatural, it’s often as a chaotic welter of darkness, demonic figures and overpowering winds, all mixed together in one overwhelming and confusing experience. A similar thing happens at the end of “The Shadow Out of Time”, with its darkness, rubble and strong, subterranean winds.)

This leads to another aspect of PTSD, the fact that it can lead to the lingering suspicion that the trauma wasn’t actually real. The sufferer does their best to dismiss it. After all, the memory has been suppressed, except during humiliating re-triggering events which the sufferer will only want to repress. PTSD is an isolating condition, alienating those who have it not only from others who haven’t had the same experience, but from parts of themselves. (Part of the treatment, according to van der Kolk, is bringing it into the open, having the experience acknowledged and affirmed by others.)

Self-dissociation, with its deadening of all feelings, not just the traumatic ones, leads to a feeling that life is that much less meaningful (thus leading to feelings of despair, which I’d certainly say characterise Lovecraft’s fictional universe). At the same time, at some instinctual level, there’s a feeling that it’s only through the trauma that one can truly experience the full meaning of life. Van der Kolk says:

“Somehow the very event that caused them so much pain had also become their sole source of meaning. They felt fully alive only when they were revisiting their traumatic past.”

Hence, in “The Shadow Out of Time” (and many other Lovecraft stories), the protagonist’s compulsion to unveil the full horror, even at the expense of his own sanity. The instinctual need for wholeness drives Lovecraft’s characters to face the darkness, even while they consciously reject it.

Though the memory of trauma is kept from the conscious mind, it’s still there, in the unconscious, and in the body, where it is felt, and can even be re-activated. As van der Kolk says:

“Dissociation means simultaneously knowing and not knowing.”

Part of you knows, part of you doesn’t, but can’t help being aware of a sort of distanced-but-powerful emotional force, something monstrous lurking behind a kind of inner door (as with the monster at the end of “Dagon”, or the chaos behind the curtains in “The Music of Erich Zann” (1921).) Which makes me think of Lovecraft’s perhaps most famous pronouncement, from the start of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all 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. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up 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.”

Lovecraft’s fictional universe is one of visceral unsafety, the dread of knowledge, and deeply ambivalent feelings about oneself, one’s body, and one’s mind. It’s a world that seems, on the surface, very unemotional, except when emotion breaks through in (as Lovecraft puts it in “The Horror at Red Hook”) an overwhelming “Walpurgis-riot of horror”. Feeling is either absent, or it’s full-on chaos closer to madness than anything else.

As I say, I’m not presenting any of this as an argument that Lovecraft himself suffered from PTSD, though I do believe it would have been a need to, at some level, understand his own psychological state, which may have had similar elements, and achieve some sort of wholeness (“I am it and it is I”) that drove Lovecraft’s writing (as with many other writers). The very urge to tell a story may have been a means of seeking a self-cure. As van der Kolk says:

“Telling the story is important; without stories, memory becomes frozen; and without memory you cannot imagine how things can be different.”

Lovecraft’s insistence on presenting the utterly fantastic and irrational through the lens of a very strict rationality encapsulates both the difficulty and the means of treatment for PTSD. Because it’s by bringing the traumatic experience into the light of conscious awareness (if I understand van der Kolk correctly) that PTSD can be worked with. Van der Kolk’s book contains many stories of people who recovered from PTSD, using a wide variety of methods. I found it fascinating, and highly readable. There are a few videos of talks van der Kolk has given (such as this one, and his website is here), and it’s worth watching one if you’re interested. He comes across as very personable, open to new ideas, and entirely sympathetic to his patients, while not taking himself too seriously.

(I’d like to add that I am not at all an expert in any of the subjects covered in this Mewsings. Any errors are mine, and don’t come to me for medical advice!)

The Way of the Worm by Ramsey Campbell

The Way of the Worm, cover art by Les Edwards

The concluding book in Ramsey Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy brings things up to the present day (the previous two being set in the early 1950s and 1980s). At the start, a now retired Dominic Sheldrake finds himself living alone after the death of his wife. Though her loss haunts him, it leaves him free to investigate the dubious religion, the Church of the Eternal Three, their son Toby and his family (wife Claudine and daughter Macy) are involved with. Many of the children treated at the Safe to Sleep clinic from the previous novel, Born to the Dark, are now grown-up members of this church, and Dominic suspects his old adversary Christian Noble, along with Noble’s daughter Christina and her son Christopher, are behind it. He allows himself to be initiated into the Church with a guided meditation, and if what he experiences during that isn’t enough to confirm his fears, they’re only deepened when he’s given a copy of this new religion’s icon, an Ouroboros-like many-armed creature which Dominic’s granddaughter disconcertingly calls his “worm”. By this point, he’s met with the Nobles again — now going under a new variation of their surname — and is convinced the Church of the Eternal Three needs to be stopped.

The Searching Dead, cover by Les Edwards

I like the way Campbell has structured his trilogy. Rather than simply splitting a long story into three parts, he’s revisited the life of his main character at three significant stages in his life — adolescence, middle age, and old age — in each of which Dominic encounters the Nobles again and gets a deeper glimpse into the horror they’re helping bring into our world. In the first book of the trilogy, The Searching Dead, Dominic was on the verge of his teenage years, and though he was hemmed in by the old-fashioned beliefs of his parents and teachers, and a religion he could no longer fully believe in, his hopes were firmly set on his future. Adulthood would bring an end to the childhood loneliness he sometimes felt, and he faced up to the supernatural with a genuine conviction that it was a wrong he must set right. But if childhood is a time of hope and ideals (even if also of fears and self-doubts) middle age, in the second book, is a time of compromises. In Born to the Dark Dominic has a family of his own, and so, surely, a guarantee against those moments of childhood loneliness. But family (as so often in Campbell’s fiction) is something that must be fought for, and in this book Dominic kept his family together only by compromising his beliefs, and the horror, in its second incursion into our world, felt larger still, perhaps already too large for any human being to stand against.

Born to the Dark, cover by Les Edwards

In The Way of the Worm, with Dominic approaching the end of his life, there’s the inevitable loss of friends and loved ones, and a feeling of having lived too long with the results of earlier compromises. All this brings a last-ditch determination to his efforts to finally defeat the Nobles. But at the same time there’s a real sense of a life derailed by this need to fend off inhuman horrors — “I was starting to feel as though [Christian Noble] and his family bounded my entire life,” Dominic says at one point — and even, at times, of responsibility, either for not having acted decisively enough beforehand, or for inadvertently helping these cosmic forces on their way.

Set against this is the Nobles’ unshakeable belief that what they’re bringing into our world will come anyway. They are simply ushering in what no-one can stop. There’s a horrific self-assurance to the Nobles, whose eerie family of three, and the beliefs they espouse, sum up another theme that’s often appeared in Campbell’s fiction, the lure of giving up one’s individuality in order to join something larger than oneself (often something supernatural), particularly when the alternative is a (much more human) isolation. Such families and cults (the two becoming difficult to separate, at times) have often appeared in Campbell’s fiction, as with the family of occultists who pop up briefly in The Nameless, looking “manufactured by whatever factory produced families for television series… all their instant identical smiles gleaming”. The Nobles have a similar air of not really being three individuals, but three barely-separable faces of a single, perhaps inhuman entity (“a mask worn by a void”, as Campbell says at one point). In Campbell’s fiction, genuine, human families are constantly embattled and vulnerable, but the supernaturally-allied cults and Noble-like families which seem to share a single, bleak, soulless soul get that sense of belonging without the need to fight or compromise, they merely have to surrender what makes them human.

Providence issue 8, art by Jacen Burrows

I said in my review of Born to the Dark that Campbell’s trilogy felt it was heading for an apocalyptic ending similar to the one Alan Moore presented in Providence, and although that has elements of truth, I think Campbell’s is not quite as bleak, simply because it retains its human focus to the end (as Moore’s does not). Something that can come through in horror — as in, for instance, Alien, which is all about the urge to survive even against the worst odds — is a sort of triumph of humanity not because it wins in the end, but because it has at least fought; and not because it has attained its ideals, but because it at least believed in them and tried to live by them. Humanity may have to be fought for and, yes, inevitably lost, but there’s a real victory to be claimed in its never giving up, despite its failings and vulnerabilities, its losses and compromises.

Which seems like a very un-Lovecraftian conclusion to a Lovecraft-inspired trilogy, but it’s certainly one I’m more inclined to agree with — and I’m not sure a three-book series could have been sustained with only a sort of cosmic despair to drive it on, anyway. (Though the cosmic despair is there. I’m not saying the ending is at all triumphant.) The Three Births of Daoloth is a real achievement, I think, and a deepening of themes that have run throughout Campbell’s work. I’m certainly he gave the idea of writing a horror trilogy a go.