Madness, Enlightenment and The Festival
H.P. Lovecraft’s The Festival, first published in Weird Tales 5, no 1 in 1925, is about one man’s long, obscure walk into a bed at St. Mary's Hospital in Arkham, Massachusetts. The narrator returns home to his fictional hometown of Kingsport (based on the real town of Marblehead, Massachusetts) on the Winter solstice to observe a festival that has been the tradition of his ancient, pagan lineage. He is the descendant of New England witches and ancient weirdos (as so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists are), he knows the names of stars, and he is of fragile mind. That’s why by the end of the story our protagonist ends up in horror’s most infamous asylum, trying to forget the terrible things he saw, and reading the Miskatonic University’s copy of the Necronomicon for context to his madness.
Madness is a kind of death in cosmic horror, because it is a permanent end. The headboards of beds of St. Mary’s Hospital might as well be the slate headstones Kingsport that stick “ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse.” You can’t un-know the forbidden knowledge that is acquired on nights under a gibbous moon or bestowed upon you by tentacular voids. There is no return from the realization of the true nature of an indifferent cosmos, only the inevitable death that waits us all and confirms our insignificance.
In cosmic horror, madness has a special flavour. It is not a chemical imbalance, or the product of a brain injury, or just some sort of blanket term used to other and alienate those of us with disorders of the brain. Rather, madness is acquired through the attainment of true knowledge concerning the nature of existence. It is the product of a paradigm shift spurred on by a traumatic and educational event—enlightenment in a world without God.
For the narrator of The Festival, enlightenment comes in the form of a blasphemous revelation below the Kingsport church. He follows a procession of festival goers into the building, and then through a trap door in the floor that leads to a subterranean fungous cove, which lit by a pillar of green flame that casts no shadows. Monsters, cultists, and the eldritch piping of one of Lovecraft’s token otherworldly flautists aid in showing the storyteller that his reality is built on the lies of a society too ignorant, naive, and cowardly to comprehend such things let alone name them.
He escapes, choosing the world of normativity over the strange reality of his ancestors, and ends up in the care of Arkham’s doctors. The circumstance of his discovery by normal old townsfolk runs contrary to his memories of the night, and the reader is left with that most classic of horror trope questions: was it all a dream?
The answer is no. All the horror that the narrator of The Festival experienced was real. What is false is the world he retreated to. Madness is the inability to ignore the truths he beheld in the grotto, under the terrible glow of the flame. Madness is the name he gives his fear, that insignificance is all he has, that humanity is frail and impotent, that everything is built on a lie.
While one reading of Lovecraftian madness is a fantastical, ignorant portrayal of now known medical conditions, there is another that squares it with contemporary progressive thinking of mental illness and identity. Madness is a misnomer in cosmic horror—a label fixed to those who deviate from the norm. What horror does is subvert the idea of normativity, like an angsty teen, Lovecraft asserts, “Maybe the whole world is crazy and I’m sane.”
It is an empowering stance, one that debases normativity and grants a righteousness to the afflicted, albeit at a cost. The victory of the mad is that they know in advance nothing they’ve ever done or can ever do will quiet the deranged tunes of cosmic futes to which we all unwittingly dance. The musicians will play on, regardless of our observances, our sciences, or our fitting in with society. Like monks of the void, the mad ascend to a truth few can see, but which none can escape