On “Ex Oblivione” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Such a perfect day.

Ex Oblivione” is a prose poem (full text) that was first published in the March 1921 issue of The United Amateur. It is believed that the piece was written between late 1920 and early 1921.

In my piece about “The Crawling Chaos”, I observed that Lovecraft’s decision to work with Jackson felt like either a bit of unfinished business or a throw-back to an earlier stage of his career given that it was a dream story written after the come-to-Jesus moment that saw him open “The Picture in the House” with a mini-manifesto about how setting stuff in the real world produced stories with more impact than setting them in fictional worlds. I also noted that “The Crawling Chaos” took an unexpected interest in the mechanics of travelling to the dreamlands and that this interest appeared to have quite a morbid character as while earlier dreamland stories like “The White Ship” and “Polaris” were all about people staring off into the middle-distance and being transported to fantastical lands, “The Crawling Chaos” is about someone being exiled to the Dreamlands by a morphine overdose delivered by an overworked doctor.

Ex Oblivione” is very much a continuation of “The Crawling Chaos” and “Celephais” in that it is yet another darkened (and darkening) riff on the idea of travelling to the world of dreams that dwells on motivations as well as the mechanics of travel and uses these as a means of exploring themes such as madness, drug-use and suicide.

The story’s unnamed narrator speaks of being slowly driven mad by the requirements of day-to-day living. Lovecraft glosses over what this actually means and while my first instinct is to view this as a story written from the perspective of a depressed man who self-medicates with opium, I think that between the attitude towards substance abuse displayed in “Old Bugs” and the general squeamishness about recreational drug-use displayed in “The Crawling Chaos”, I suspect Lovecraft left this area of the story deliberately vague. We can read it as a story of a man sick of living or as a story of a man who is literally in physical pain and taking opioids to escape his physical suffering.

The narrator begins by describing the things he has seen on previous trips and these little vignettes are all consistent with the types of imagery that Lovecraft reaches for when he’s trying to give us something dream-like: Lots of people drifting in boats, lots of ruined temples though this time the It’s A Small World rides through Arcadia are disrupted by a darker presence:

“After a while, as the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness, I would often drift in opiate peace through the valley and the shadowy groves, and wonder how I might seize them for my eternal dwelling-place, so that I need no more crawl back to a dull world stript of interest and new colours. And as I looked upon the little gate in the mighty wall, I felt that beyond it lay a dream-country from which, once it was entered, there would be no return.”

So this is a story about someone who is actively weary of the real world and trying to escape reality with the use of opioid drugs. At first, the drugs take him to magical places but the more times he visits, the more bored he becomes with both the imagery and the general vibe. This is another interesting departure from other Dreamlands stories as “The White Ship” is also about a man being unsatisfied by the world of dreams but his opposition to the cities he drifts past are invariably moral and cerebral in nature. This dreamer doesn’t object to what he finds in the Dreamlands… he’s just bored and that boredom pushes him to travel deeper and deeper until he encounters a huge wall.

Unable to pass through the door in the wall, the dreamer spends ages trying to find a crack in the wall until he eventually comes across an old book containing the wisdom of dream-sages who had the wisdom never to be born (a wonderful idea in itself). The book describes what lies on the other side of the wall in ambivalent terms: Some describe it as horrific; others describe it as impossibly beautiful. This ambiguity is the story’s thematic core and that theme is ably reflected in the fact that the dreamer admits that his desire to escape compelled him to ignore all of the warnings.

Upon returning to the waking world, the dreamer takes a larger dose of his chosen drug and this allows him to pass through the gateway in full knowledge of the fact that he will never return:

“But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.”

For my money, this is one of the darkest and most powerful paragraphs that Lovecraft had written by that point in his career. The sentence structure is simple and the word choices are uncharacteristically restrained; an echo of the absolute glorious simplicity of what the dreamer finds on the other side of the gate: Pure, shining, perfect nothingness. This is an end to pain, an end to sadness, an end to frustration, and an end to experience; dissolution into infinity and an escape from the demons of being alive.

It’s interesting that while “The Crawling Chaos” was written by Lovecraft, it was based on someone else’s ideas and experiences. Jackson described her experience of an accidental drug-overdose to Lovecraft who turned it into a story that stopped just short of being about the desire to commit suicide. “Ex Oblivione” is a deeper, darker, and clearer riff on the idea of killing yourself and I suspect that Lovecraft felt compelled to return to this particular well because he felt anxious about taking someone’s story of a near-death-experience and turning it into a story where taking a load of junk and disappearing into a warm, white light is made to sound really attractive.

Not for the first time, I am starting to feel the urge to delve into Lovecraft’s private correspondence as this run of stories feels like it might have come from something of a psychological sea-change in Lovecraft. Indeed, Lovecraft’s earliest stories including both “The Alchemist” and “The Tomb” are all about his shattered sense of self, the tension between the ego-inflating belief that he was some sort of aristocrat with the manifest reality of his life as a friendless, unemployed fuck-up who couldn’t go outside in daylight let alone summon the spoons to finish high-school. Many of Lovecraft’s wilder bigotries are clearly attempts to bolster his ego by railing against such perceived inferiors as ethnic minorities, white foreigners, and the rural poor. “Celephais” marked the beginning of a run of Dreamland stories that are all noticeably darker and psychological than those that came before. They also make references to suicide that are increasingly direct and increasingly central to the narrative. “Ex Oblivione” is not just a Dreamland story; it is a Dreamland story so bleak that contemporary publication would probably require a content warning. It is literally a story about how awesome it would be to kill yourself by taking a load of drugs. What makes me curious about Lovecraft’s personal correspondence is the fact that the darker turn to these Dreamland stories follows hot on the heels of one of Lovecraft’s most reactionary works and I am curious as to what happened in the Winter of 1920 to make Lovecraft first wallow in racism and then, when that didn’t keep the self-loathing at bay, openly write about suicide.

Lovecraft was a deeply unhappy man whose entire life was overshadowed by tragedy and madness. He may be famous for his rubbery monsters and his sense of cosmic horror but that line about dissolving into the native infinity of crystal oblivion? To me that feels like the naked singularity of a mental health crisis. This may be a story about dissolving into infinite light but it feels like it was written from a place as black as pitch.

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