Writers have been adding levels of toxicity to their brains and bloodstreams since the beginning of time: self-diagnosing and self-treating their own misery, boredom, or lack of ideas with foreign self-altering substances. Shakespeare (whether personally familiar or not) included notions of an “insane root” in Macbeth to explain the hijacking of normality by paranormal encounters, and even the Bible references a burning bush that apparently talked to Moses (hallucination or miracle?). There is a fine line between persistent divine intervention and a drug problem, the latter calling more for an intervention that involves family members and drug rehab center admittance. Some great literary works were created while the authors were under the influence of drugs. Still, they could have benefited greatly from numerous substance abuse help options had they decided to seek treatment.
On the positive side, when such dalliances with illicit substances go unchecked, great literature is often the result. Substance-addled writers who fail to seek solace in a fellow human often find it on a blank page, which is always willing to listen without scrutiny to their deepest fears and darkest confessions (even if fiction is the medium). These folks pine for an outlet to quell the turmoil which rattles their brains, be it self-induced or not. In either case, one man or author’s pain/inner derangement is another man or reader’s spiked interest.
What follows is a list of the top ten substance-using-and-abusing modern writers that seemingly got high for our amusement, in spite of the consequences:
10. Charles Baudelaire
A prototypical libertarian of sorts (definitely a libertine at any rate), Baudelaire was a member of a Hashish Club, which existed between 1844 and 1849 . This early pot advocate, in the days where law didn’t intervene as needlessly as it does now, wrote his praises for the stuff (and, subsequently, opium), calling it one of the most efficient in drugs in creating the “artificial ideal”; he also used terms like “convenient” and “handy,” which is hardly the case today unless you happen to live in the Netherlands or know a UCLA student who has astigmatism.
9. Jean Cocteau
The death of a 20-year-old poet-friend Raymond Radiguet triggered the plunge of this French auteur and literary experimentalist (filmmaker, essayist, poet, novelist, playwright, etc.) into an opium-clutching state of eternal darkness. Death-related themes and imagery seemed to be smeared on the pages of all Cocteau’s work during this period of endless mourning. Les Enfants Terribles, written in only one week and undoubtedly his worst, documents his horrific withdrawal symptoms, while Opium, Diary of an Addict provides for his recovery by way of day-to-day journal entries, all emotional fluctuations and feelings of instability intact.
8. Stephen King
Another fan of the uppers, King also has a reputation for churning out a factory line of material in a short period of time, seeming to have a new thousand-page addition to an eleven-part thriller series every couple of months. Stimulants are directly responsible for feelings of invulnerability as well as an easy tap into a vast pool of ideas and seemingly ever-flowing creative energy. King admitted (particularly in an interview with the Observer in 2000) that he was very much a coke addict between the years 1979 and 1987, which explains his prolific literary presence and probably a whole bunch of his bloody noses. Plus, every one of his stories contains a psychic, a mad man, an over-emotional character, and someone with an inordinate supply of confidence (sounds like all the side-effects of cocaine to me).
7. Phillip K. Dick
This sci-fi writer was extremely, and unnaturally, productive between the years of 1963 and 1964. Hallucinogenics and speed-like drugs, such as Semoxydrine, ignited Dick’s turbo boosters and propelled his engendering of 11 novels, along with a few essays and short stories. Such drugs can certainly make a man boldly go where he’s never gone before (sober at least). (Image: Flikr – by NikiSublime.)
6. Aldous Huxley
Little did this author and mescaline-user know, he would inspire the career (as well as choice of band name) of the biggest hedonist in rock history, Jim Morrison. Huxley’s influential and suggestive book Doors of Perception is a call to arms of sorts for the embracement of mental expansion and uninhibited treks through the desert of possibility. He wrote, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” In other words, “break on through to the other side!”
5. William S. Burroughs
He wrote a book He called Junkie and wrote several others as a junkie. A heroin addict and Eukodol (an opioid) abuser, this man was as much a slave to the needle as he was the typewriter. His high point (despite frequent lows as per the vicissitudes of an addict) was marked in Naked Lunch, a semi-autobiographical tale of his many crossovers (occupationally, sexually, morally, etc.). Although the fact that he shot his wife in the head (by accident) during a failed William Tell routine is enough to account for his ongoing bouts of horrific imagery, he w
as a heroin addict prior (as was his wife). Her inadvertent slaying only prompted his need to pour out his thoughts on a steady basis. And so he did, the drugs helping him to color outside the lines and let him live in perpetual surreality (also known as Interzone).
4. Jack Kerouac
This author wrote about drug-fueled cross-country road trips with fellow beatniks and notorious fiends of the era in On the Road. Kerouac’s drug of choice seemed to surface in The Subterraneans, which was written in only three days, Benzedrine supplying a good part of the superhuman pacing. He received criticism for his unconventional use of language and disjointed narratives, but all is simply the product of experimentation. Some just can’t handle change, or else they fear the ingestion of such.
3. Robert Louis Stevenson
This rampant cokehead cranked out all 60, 000 words of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a matter of six days, like a god with a fondness for and infinite supply of space powder, resting only on the seventh. It’s hard to deny the similarities between the central characters and Stevenson himself, taking an unworldly substance that makes feral and horny beasts of civilized men, making this tale at least somewhat autobiographical.
2. Ken Kesey
Best known for his book about a loony bin which has been adapted into virtually every presentable medium, this author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had also been part of the government-financed MKULTRA experiments, which tested the effects of mind-distorting drugs like LSD, mescaline, and pot. He had taken the drugs himself and was prompted to write the novel about societal exclusion while working at a veteran’s hospital, sometimes interacting with affected patients while on acid.
1. Hunter S. Thompson
This author, when not providing trenchant as well as vitriolic political commentary (often attacking the Nixon administration to no end) was notorious for his limitless consumption of mind-altering substances. Thompson’s hallmark is his seeming nonchalance, at least as conveyed by his steady narrative, when the craziness starts to take effect. There’s hardly a college kid that’s not read the quintessential Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and memorized all the drug-related parts (most of the book’s subject matter), reciting lines using the Johnny Depp voice:
“We will close the drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping-pong ball. Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you learn to cope with seeing things like your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing.”