Lost Identity in Horror Fiction:Stevenson,Stoker, and Lovecraft


Text by professor Timo Airaksinen part no: 1.

In fantasy literature, monsters are so terrifying that to meet one leads to insanity and suicide. However, "I am becoming a monster" must feel worse. Thomas Nagel asks, "What is it like to be a bat?"; I ask what it is like to become and be a monster – is it possible to know? To answer, we need semiotic tools. I design a Nagel Test to determine one's ability to formulate de se thoughts and beliefs during and after the monstrous transmogrification. To do this, I will discuss what I call a Perry Case and Perry Tale. Most emphatically, my goal is not to offer new interpretations of the masterpieces of Stevenson, Stoker, and Lovecraft. I use their stories as sources of examples. I sketch a theory of monsters in the fantasy world. My modest main aim is to understand the logic and semiotics of losing one's personal identity and its psychological consequences. I imagine the semantics of a possible world maximally similar to the readers' actual world, except it allows monsters and, because of them, monstrous threats to one's identity. This is the language game played by the classical horror writers I will introduce.

Keywords: Thomas Nagel, de se beliefs, possible worlds, monsters; personal identity; physical identity; horror; suicide, madness, literary strategies, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell. "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn." (H.P. Lovecraft).

1. Monstrous Confrontations

A person can lose her identity in three ways. First, the person is, post hoc, without identity and, therefore, no longer a person. In the language of fantasy fiction, one has gone mad and is now insane. She no longer shares our social reality; she is not in touch with others. Second, a person may switch her identity with another person. She assumes a new identity without losing contact with social reality.[1] Third, the person becomes an alien monster and an inhumane Other. Becoming. We are now interested in this third way, that is, a person becoming a monster. How does it happen? What are the psychological consequences?

Let us start from the beginning. A monster emerges, and debilitating horror overcomes the narrator, who goes mad:

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then. (Lovecraft, "Dagon," 1917)

This should be more convincing. Why go mad so easily? Perhaps a mental shock and sensory overload explain it. H. P. Lovecraft's (HPL)[2] novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931) tells about an Antarctic expedition that discovered the remnants of an ancient civilization of the Elder Things destroyed by mysterious shoggoths. On their flight home, one of them looks behind and sees something so shocking that he goes mad – but he fails to explain what he saw. Here, unlike in the Dagon case, describing the threatening weirdness becomes impossible: he has no words, and thus, the limits of language may stop him. "I have said that Danforth refused to tell me what final horror made him scream out so insanely – a horror which, I feel sadly sure, is mainly responsible for his present breakdown." He refused to tell, and now it is too late.

A monstrous transformation is a rich and conceptually complicated narrative theme and genre (for example, Todorov's [1975] distinction between the uncanny and the marvelous). The foundational classic is Ovid's Metamorphoses (see Wollheim, 1984, Ch. I, 5). Werewolves have a complicated history in European folklore: at full moon, people turn into monstrous wolves, only to be hunted down (Baring-Gould, 1865/2016). Zombies, the Voodoo Walking Dead, are in vogue (Marcus, 2004). The Fly (1958) is a horror film classic about a scientist who, while working on an experiment, accidentally acquires the head of a fly, remade in 1986. Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa (1915) wakes up one morning as a giant cockroach, yet he retains his personality. In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), the painting in the attic reflects the progress of Dorian's evil self by showing what he is – in the end, an old and ugly wretch of a man and a moral monster (Joyce, 1980). The painting mirrors Dorian's corruption. After realizing what he has become, Dorian panics and loses his desire to live. At his death, the body is no longer recognizable; its transformation is shocking. However, the picture again shows him as he used to be.

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in an evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

[1] Thigpen and Cleckley (1957): Eve had multiple, mutually independent personalities. She had three separate identities.

[2] This is how he signed his numerous letters.