VNS – On Madness
Is insanity the inevitable consequence of encountering the unknown? Rationally and in this world no. The unknown is encountered every day, and by many people it is viewed with great curiosity and joy. It is the driving force of invention, science, exploration, the arts; to stride confidently beyond the borders of the known, and to discover something novel.
But in Lovecraft’s world, the unknown is not merely that which we have no knowledge of. The unknown is a very real entity, in fact man entities. With teeth, and ichor, and a nasty habit of viewing humanity as, at best slave labour, and at worst their next meal. Ghosts, vampires, monsters, aliens are all frightening, but in the Lovecraft Mythos people are not merely frightened. Sanity is stripped from them.
Why should that be? Lovecraft’s entities are not gods, but aliens. Aliens who exist in higher dimensions than we do, and it is at this point that the loss of sanity becomes clearer. Protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories are afforded small glimpses beyond the veil (in HotD, the character of Robert Blake sees into the unknown using the Shining Trapezohedron), glimpses that grow larger and more involved over time. These are glimpses into other worlds, which have more than our usual three dimensions. We can only cope with our three dimensional world. The effects of a four, five, six or more dimensional world are beyond our ability to rationally cope with. Consider if you will the reaction of the Square in Edwin A Abbott’s Flatland at being visited by a Sphere from Spaceland, and his being raised into Spaceland. Now imagine a human reaction at being confronted with entities of a multi-dimensional reality, and the only rational response would be to shut down the mind; a retreat into madness, in order to preserve sanity.
We assume that it is the encounter with the unknown which precipitates insanity. But there are clues in Haunter of the Dark that Blake is already mad before he ever sets foot into the abandoned church. We are told almost immediately that Blake is both a writer and an artist, professions which seem to attract a greater number of people prone to mental illness. He also is “wholly devoted to the field of myth, terror, and superstition”. Blake’s mind then would be primed with this imagery, and “wholly devoted” implies an all-consuming, almost manic adherence to the unknown. Finally, his previous visit to Boston ended in “death and flame”, after which he returned to his native Milwaukee.
Was Blake a disturbed young man, suffering from mental illness, who had suffered some sort of breakdown (even a psychotic episode) on a previous visit to Boston, and had returned home to convalesce? Did his studies of the supernatural prey upon an already fragile psyche? I believe the answer comes in this paragraph. The emphasis is my own.
In a rear vestry room beside the apse Blake found a rotting desk and ceiling-high shelves of mildewed, disintegrating books. Here for the first time he received a positive shock of objective horror, for the titles of those books told him much. They were the black, forbidden things which most sane people have never even heard of … He had himself read many of them…”
So I propose that, at least in the case of The Haunter of the Dark, madness is not the inevitable result of an encounter with the unknown. Instead, we given insight into the final few weeks in the life of a young man who has already lost his insanity.
Of course, whether the events are merely his delusions, or whether his madness attracted eldritch things from beyond this world, I leave open to you, dear reader, to decide.