Column: Writing the Mythos: The Diary of a Madman – Insanity and Horror Writers

By G.W. Thomas

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” – Robert Bloch

Do you have to be crazy to be a horror writer? The old adage goes, No, but it helps. Actually, the image of the horror writer as a Renfield-like degenerate is a product of the 19th century, one that sadly persists to this day. The blame falls to that originator, that genius, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Though Poe did write his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque”, he also wrote other kinds of stories and articles, too, including book reviews. Despite this, he has been the poster-child for psychotic scribblers ever since. This picture of him is due largely to Reverend Rufus Griswold (1815-1857), Poe’s nemesis and eventual biographer. After Poe’s death, Griswold bought up Poe’s manuscripts and published them. At the same time, he painted the ugliest portraits of the author Griswold could in the press. Before the French rescued Poe from obscurity, the creator of “The House of Usher” was a kind of colonial joke in the world of letters. In time, Poe would be vindicated as a great American poet and creator of the detective story. His horror tales are now seen as the first modern horror fiction, relying on psychological rather than Gothic thrust. But the reputation as a lunatic persists. Poe was an alcoholic – but a madman? I think not. But this is a cycle we will see yet again in the life of H.P. Lovecraft, his 20th-century disciple.

After Poe, we get the true horror specialists in fiction. The first and one of the best was J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), who used his Irish heritage to conjure up ghosts and boogies. His work solidified the English ghost story that others like M.R. James would perfect. Was Le Fanu a madman? Certainly not. The ‘Sheridan’ that was his middle name came from his famed relative, Richard Brinsley Sheridan the playwright. (This form of literary royalty continued with Rhoda Broughton, who was Le Fanu’s niece.) Le Fanu does not escape the eerie reputation altogether. He suffered from a recurring nightmare about being trapped in a collapsing house, the dreams driving him to become a recluse. On his death in 1874, his doctor was heard to say that his house had fallen at last.

Another writer who actually went mad was the Frenchman, Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). It is his title I have borrowed for this article. That particular story is actually about a murderer who confesses his crime on his death. The title was also used for the 1963 film, which was actually based on De Maupassant’s masterpiece, “The Horla”, about a man who is terrorised by an invisible vampire creature. This story and “He” were written by De Maupassant at the end of his career, as he felt the effects of syphilis take control of his mind, like a dark presence. He died in an insane asylum, as most people figure all horror writers do. The irony is that De Maupassant wrote mostly clever tales about French life, and only occasionally with a dark twist.

And now we get to Lovecraft. His father did die in a sanitarium. His mother was just as loopy. Is it any wonder a child raised by the mentally unstable should turn out…well…This is the kind of reasoning some biographers take. It doesn’t really hold water. HPL was eccentric, certainly. We could call him “neurotic”, preferring the dark hours of the day and obsessing over New England architecture. But insane? L. Sprague de Camp and other critics do not believe so.

Was Lovecraft all that different from other writers? His friend, Robert E. Howard with his macho swordsmen, committed suicide in 1936. Was he insane? Some in Cross Plains, Texas thought so, but how many of these rural farmers could understand the frustrated poet and writer? An oddball but a genius. Sound familiar? Suicide is certainly not a sign of good mental health but of being insane? If so, then Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Gilman-Perkins, Robert Barlow, Thomas M. Disch, Walter Miller Jr., H. Beam Piper, F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes were all insane. The profession that has the highest rate of suicide is not poets and writers; it is dentists. The most famous writer-dentist has to be Zane Grey. Was there ever a brighter beacon of good mental health than the writer of all those healthy Westerns?

Looking at the evidence, I can’t come up with any horror writers who ever committed any serious infraction which they are generally thought to do, such as eating dead bodies, attacking children, or even defrauding the government on their taxes. Writers tend to be solitary and scribble all day. Horror writers no more so than any other kind. So, why the bad rap?

I think the answer lies in confusing the work for the author. Horror writers conjure up dark images. They are brave people and are willing to go where others are not. Not because they are demented or unbalanced, but because the horrible realities are a part of life. Robert E. Howard tells it like it is in his poem “Musings”: “The little poets sing of little things: Hope, cheer, and faith, small queens and puppet kings…The mighty poets write in blood and tears/And agony that, flame-like, bites and sears.”

So, there it is – if you’re just starting out your career as a new horror writer, welcome to the club. Jacket is optional. Straitjacket, that is.

Illustration by G. W. Thomas