Sunday, August 2, 2009

Madness and Time

We are dipping into madness, and on purpose, so what does that say about us? It's one thing to be mad, no fault in that really. It's another thing to recognize madness, and instead of doing the rational (sane) thing, which would be to walk away, perhaps even flee, we are walking towards it, embracing it, staring it straight in the face. It is said that those who lay down with dogs will get up with fleas, I wonder what will become of us as we step through the gate of the asylum? Will we return unchanged except perhaps a little more wise? Or will we not return at all?

This post is covering the three short stories we have begun the semester with: "Dread" by Clive Barker, "Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, and "The Sandman" by E.T.A. Hoffman. Obviously all three concern madness in one form or another, but what struck me was the historic difference each story approached insanity with.

"Dread" was published in 1984, and the madness or 'dread' Quaid is seeking is done in a clinical and near-scientific way. He befriends and interviews two separate lab rats, then takes them individually, imprisons them, and forces them to face the fears they have revealed to Quaid.

Madness, or insanity, in this instance is something to be studied, conquered, and ultimately triumphed over. If a person looks at this story from only Quaid's point of view, he is seeking answers to his own dread, and in a perverse way is perhaps offering a service to his unwilling lab rats. After all, isn't it good to face one's fears?

This is Quaid's perspective, and it is what makes him the craziest of all the characters in this story. He is completely removed from empathy, he simply doesn't care about what happens to others. Barker doesn't show Quaid taking pleasure in his torture of Cheryl or Steven, for him his experiments are purely academic. As the story unfolds the reader learns that he has his own dread, and it comes to visit him in the end.

"Telltale Heart," published in 1843, provides the reader with an insane person narrating, and never bothers to explain the source of the madness. The narrator has killed his or her boarder simply because the old man had an "evil eye." The narrator obsessed on the eye for a week, then killed and dismembered the person.

Throughout Poe's tale the narrator is trying to convince the reader, and later in the story the police, that they are sane. Obviously this is not true, and the madness proves to be the narrator's undoing as they reveal the location of the body to the police at the end because the murder victim's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

So, Poe and his era were well aware of sane and insane, but his story is less clinical concerning the madness. His narrator is insane, that's what drives the story. That character, I believe, is well aware of their instability, is aware of how they come across to others. That's why they are constantly assuring the reader that all is well, nothing to see here. In short, me thinks thou protest too much.

Finally "The Sandman" and poor Nathaniel. Published in 1817, this story's take on madness is one of many older tales. That is, that madness can grip a person in a "fever" or a "spell," but someone, especially of high social standing, can "come out of it." No need to lock them up, just let them sleep it off, or summer along the coast. That pesky madness will clear up in no time.

I'm being a little silly, but that does seem to be a trend of older works and insanity. The poor received full frontal lobotomies or were locked up and experimented on, those of some standing could buy their way out of it, or at least appear stable enough at times.

Alas, in "The Sandman" Nathaniel shows his true colors in trying to kill Clara at the end and instead falls to his death.

In fact, none of our insane characters ends their stories well. At the end of "Dread" Quaid is still lying on the ground of his apartment being hacked at with an axe while he begs for death or mercy, whichever comes first. The narrator in "Telltale Heart" reveals their grisly crime and is surely carted off to jail or an asylum for a long time. And in "The Sandman" Nathaniel ends his story and his life by leaping to his death gripped with madness shrieking "Circle of fire spin round! Spin round!"

Over time more evidence has been gathered about insanity and madness. There are all kinds of labels for it now: paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person can be a sociopath, a psychopath, poorly adjusted, or have "blank" issues (fill in the blank with any number of things ranging from sex to parents to work or whatever).

It could be argued the pendulum has swung too far into categorizing every personality quirk as some kind of ailment, but that's great for writers. We can take any number of official clinical sounding issues and turn them into stories of horror and suspense. One might fear the more revealed about the psyche and the inner workings of the human creature, the less mystery there will be. However, it seems the more we reveal, the more we categorize, the more great fodder there will be for stories.


  1. Interesting, Dave, to put this all in historical context. Your assessment of class in the age of "The Sandman" and how psychological issues were treated made me stop and think. Nice job!

    I think I'd have hated the end of "Dread" less if there had been *something* to tie it to what came before. If Quaid had started a long litany of the magical words he'd collected ("Mama" from Steve, for example), or if instead of a clown he'd referenced the "beast" of psychology. But it fell apart instead. Too bad. I was on edge until the torture ended.

  2. I agree about the disapointing end of Dread! It had so much promise, too.

    Good points about class and the treatment of the insane. I think it's neat to read about crazy people in the past, from Caleb Carr's the Alienest to Renfield in Dracula. Neat stuff, and very scary.

  3. Hi Dave! Wow, thanks for taking an historical approah to these. Like KL, it made me think. My poor brain couldn't do that by the time I wrote my blog! And like Kristin and KL, I'm fascinated at your analysis of class as it relates to our perception of one's social deviance. I wish you would have explored that more - do you think that today's wealthy folk get the same free-pass? Do you think that the stigma of being labeled as "mentally ill" is lessened now? Does that also depend on one's social class? (I know you're a military man, that's why I ask) Great Stuff! :)

  4. Brilliant exploration of the shades of difference in these three tales, and how they treat "madness" in unique ways. I really like your point about how these categories for madness today will only lead to more unique horror tales: exactly! RESEARCH leads to discovery. It doesn't always have to be the sort of psychical research that Ramsland is advocating.

    "I wonder what will become of us as we step through the gate of the asylum? Will we return unchanged except perhaps a little more wise? Or will we not return at all?"

    All I can say about this one is, class has only begun. Welcome to the Funhouse. Muhahahahah.