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!)

Comments (1)

  1. Murray Ewing says:

    This is an excellent — and more personal — take on Lovecraft and trauma:

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