Tag Archives: Sigmund Freud

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.”


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.


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

Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Part 1 – Lovecraft’s view of Freud

Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychiatry and psycho-analysis (from http://www.wikipedia.com)

Sigmund Freud is to psychiatry, what Newton is to physics or what Darwin is to biology. Freud was a doctor of medicine and is considered the founding father of psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry. He was born in 1856 and died in 1939 so his life overlapped quite a bit with HPL (1890 – 1937). Unlike Newton and Darwin who both died before HPL was born, but similar to Einstein, HPL was more critical of Freud’s ideas. However, like many new and emerging scientific ideas of his time, HPL does appear to keep a somewhat open mind in the consideration of some of these ideas. It is interesting that HPL appeared to be more critical of living scientists in his time and their newly developed hypotheses and theories (i.e. Freud and Einstein) than scientists who were dead. More than likely this was the “scientist” in HPL, keeping an open, yet objectively critical, mind when presented with new ideas. Obviously the hypotheses of Freud and Einstein did not have a large amount of empirical data to support them and it was not until these hypotheses could be tested that HPL (as well as the scientific communities in general) could begin to find some validity associated with them.

What is interesting is that HPL cites Freud’s work in some of his early fiction but not in his later work. For example, Freud is mentioned in both “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and in “From Beyond” but not in his later work. However, Freud’s ideas are briefly mentioned in some of his revision work such as “The Electric Executioner” (co-written with Adolphe de Castro) and “The Trap” (co-written with Henry S. Whitehead).

Such references of Freud in HPL’s early work and its general absence in his later work make complete sense. Many of his early stories are included in his “Dream Cycle” and dreams were an important component of Freud’s psychoanalysis. Later stories focus and emphasize humanity’s insignificance in the Universe and Cosmos at large. Thus, if the entire species of Homo sapiens is insignificant, how significant can the mental health of an individual human be? Yet, in spite of this, eroding mental health and insanity is an important and sometime inevitable outcome of being exposed to outer cosmic or inter-dimensional beings. However, is the insanity due to the individual being exposed to these “things from outside” or are they society’s response to an individual trying to reveal the truth of reality (lock them up and drug them)? More than likely it’s a combination of both.

Lovecraft’s Dreams and Nightmares (art by Michal Oracz; moraczart.blogspot.com)

The first time HPL mentions Freud in his stories is in fact in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” To discuss this reference I think it best to include the first paragraph of that story in its entirety.

“I have often wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasional titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences – Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism – there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permit of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier.”

–        From H.P. Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”

In this quote HPL seems very dismissive of Freud and as S.T. Joshi cites in his annotated notes to the story in H.P. Lovecraft: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics 2001), HPL added the clause that refers to Freud in a later version of the story. As Joshi also notes HPL’s phase “puerile symbolism” probably refers to Freud’s emphasis on the sexual nature of many of his dream-imagery interpretations, something HPL would find difficult to comprehend (Joshi, 2001).


However, HPL did not have a one-sided, simplified view of Freud. In I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (S.T. Joshi, 2013), HPL thought that Freud’s work of psycho-analysis would prove an end to idealistic thought in humanity’s march toward scientific objectivity. In another passage HPL noted that while he feels many of Freud’s ideas were erroneous, he “nevertheless opened up a new path in psychology, devising a system whose doctrines more nearly approximate the real workings of the mind than any heretofore entertained. We may not like to accept Freud, but I fear we shall have to do so” (Joshi, 2013). I think this last sentence says quite a bit about what HPL thought of Freud and the advancements he made in the field of psychology. Next time we will talk about Joe Slater and his journeys beyond the walls of sleep. Thank you – Fred.