Lovecraftian Scientists – Introduction and Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Science is important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly his later tales. In fact, Lovecraft was one of the pioneers of weird fiction, integrating cutting edge science (at least for the time) into his stories. This is one of the reasons why Fritz Lieber called him the “Literary Copernicus” of horror fiction. He was known to revise / modify stories to account for new scientific information that was made available to the public. Probably his more famous instance of doing this is associated with identifying Yuggoth has being the dwarf-planet Pluto discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

andrei-kedrin-clyde-tombaugh-800 Clyde Tombaugh by Andrei Kedrin

For someone who is known for creating mood and atmosphere and generally ignores character development, Lovecraft utilized a variety of tropes in representing scientists in his stories. Thus, for the next set of articles, we will review the variety of scientists that appear in Lovecraft’s stories. The idea for such a review came to me after moderating a panel at the NecronomiCon in August of this year; the panel was called Miskatonic U. and the Mythos and included Sean Branney, Will Murray, Anne Pillsworth, Robert Waugh, Douglas Wynne. I really enjoyed the conversation about Miskatonic University and its staff and thought a more detailed assessment of Lovecraft’s scientist was in order.

Miskatonic logo

For now, this review will focus solely on scientists. Lovecraft character investigators frequently included academics, such as Albert N. Wilmarth who was a professor of literature at Miskatonic University in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or others such as Thornton the psychic investigator in “The Rats in the Walls.” Again, for this review we will focus solely on scientists and medical doctors. Our first review is for “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

The protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is some type of medical intern at a state psychopathic institution. The unnamed protagonist is fascinated with dreams and considers are dream life to be just as important as our waking life. He causally refers to Freud’s work in the statement “-Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism- “. As noted by Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, 2014), the statement on Freud did not appear in the first publication of the story; Lovecraft added it later and it was skeptical reference to Freud’s sexual interpretations of dreams.

freudntitled                                                              Dr. Sigmund Freud

In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Joe Slater is having strange spells where is acts like an entirely different person and during one of these spells he ends up killing someone. In turn, Joe is caught and taken to the nearest gaol (a place to hold people accused or convicted of a crime; I had to look that one up) where an alienist by the name of Dr. Barnard evaluates his condition. Again, as mentioned by Klinger, an alienist was a doctor who focused on treated mental diseases. Originally alienists were limited to treating those considered mad in asylums, essentially custodians of the insane. However, by 1919 alienists were focusing more on the healing of insanity and mental / nervous diseases (Klinger, 2014), which led to the science of psychology.

BTWOS_www.tobiastrautner.de The finding of Joe Slater after the murder in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by Tobias Trautner (www.tobiastrautner.de)

Joe Slater was eventually moved to the institution where the protagonist is an intern. While the protagonist did express concern and empathy for Joe, he also consistently expresses varying degrees of snide classism when describing Joe as slow, dim-witted, a degenerate and white trash (Tour De Lovecraft by Kenneth Hite, 2011). Joe is described as having blue eyes and blonde hair so this is clearly a case of classism and not classism / racism. As Lovecraft frequently does, here he is utilizing the idea what science was to some in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is, scientific research should be done only by those who could afford the time, which included the wealthy, white men of society. To Lovecraft, women, minorities and the poor were not capable of conducting science. However, this idea is clearly due to the fact that women, minorities and the poor were not typically exposed to or trained in the scientific disciplines. It was not a genetic predisposition that limited the masses to understand or utilize science, it was not allowing everyone to receive an education in scientific matters. However, in Lovecraft’s mind, well ingrained in the attitudes and philosophy of western thought in the 18th century, such notions were not even considered. This really comes through in the protagonist’s description of Joe Slater’s limited mental capacity in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

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Toward the end of the story the protagonist uses some type of strange transmitting / receiving device that can transfer brain waves from one individual to another. Again, much of the scientific explanation of the device is largely based on scientific concepts developed or discovered in the 18th of 19th century. At one point the protagonist suggests that “…human thought consists basically of atomic or molecular motion, convertible into ether waves of radiant energy like heat, light and electricity.” The concept of “luminiferous ether” was largely dispelled by 1887 by experiments conducted by Michelson and Morley, which was further confirmed in 1905 by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.

While the protagonist did express empathy for Joe Slater, he still behave in a cruel manner, forcing Joe to participate in an experiment while he is dying. However, the results of this experiment did unnerve the protagonist to the point where his supervisor at the institution, Dr. Fenton, prescribed nerve powder and gave him half a year’s vacation. Thus, the concluding thought on the unnamed protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is that while he expressed sympathy for Joe Slater, he certainly expressed a classist attitude in thinking of Joe as mentally limited white trash. The protagonist did experience what many investigators in Lovecraft’s tale experience; that is, having their view of the universe and reality substantially altered by uncovering some truth. Additionally, this resulted in the protagonist experiencing a near nervous breakdown, which to some degree seems justified since he was essentially using Joe Slater as a laboratory animal for his experiment on brain waves and dreams while he was dying.

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Next time we will discuss the astronomers who were involved in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Thank you – Fred.

15 thoughts on “Lovecraftian Scientists – Introduction and Beyond the Wall of Sleep

  1. For clarity, “gaol” is the British spelling of the word Americans spell “jail”. Both are pronounced basically the same.

      1. Perhaps less weird when you look at the etymology of the word. Often, unusual spellings preserve interesting elements of the history of a word.

  2. Agreed that the protagonist’s attitude to Joe Slater was somewhat questionable (although I think Lovecraft was trying to show scientific detachment), but as I recall, the protagonist acknowledged Slater’s dream personality (his ‘brother of light’) as a superior type.
    Looking forward to your thoughts on other Miskatonic scientists.

    1. Good point Audrey! I will be touching a little more on that part of the story in the next article. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Love this blog, when I read it I get so into the topics I block out many thing around like my wife. She’s not the biggest fan, but I loved be these posts and this topic. I first read “Lovecraft At Last” when I was ten, it’s a great look at what H.P. was thinking near the end of his life.

  4. It’s difficult to find educated people about this subject, however,
    you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  5. To be honest, I found unnerving the lack of humanity from the intern to his patient. At no point he express any kind of sympathy or commiseration to someone who was dying, whatever the reason. His only thought was “Oh, no, he’s dying and I won’t find out the truth”
    Said that, I wonder what happened afterwards. Did the intern had any kind of contact with that “other world”? Did he have any strange dream or nightmare? Or maybe over time things faded away and he simply forgot?

      1. I think a good deal of the intern lack of empathy is caused by his despise to someone he considers barely human, if sentient at all. He’s disgusted and annoyed, the only reason why he keeps on is his interest to prove his theory.
        Too bad we don’t know what happened after.

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