your head will collapse but there's nothing in it
November 16, 2010 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm suddenly very interested in stories, novels, films, music, poems, and comics/graphic narratives that take insanity, altered states of consciousness, and/or terminal illness as a primary theme. My general preference is for science fiction and speculative fiction, but suggestions from other genres would be very good as well.

I wouldn't describe this as a coping mechanism, exactly, but I guess that's more or less the intended purpose of the list. That the work be optimistic or upbeat is affirmatively not a requirement, though with regard to music at least I'd definitely prefer relatively up-tempo songs to funereal dirges. One song that would be good that I can't get out of my head this afternoon is Pixies' classic "Where Is My Mind?"

Thanks all.
posted by gerryblog to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This is a very common theme in HP Lovecraft's work, almost all of which is available here.

You might also be interested in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, available in the public domain.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:42 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Darren Aronofsky's film Pi is about a paranoiac mathematician.

In Spider, Ralph Fiennes is amazing as a very mentally ill man, in what is virtually a non-speaking role.

As for fiction, I think Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist has a mentally ill narrator, but that's a whole nother argument.

Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory is about a young lunatic.

Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie is ostensibly based on Jeffrey Dahmer, and it's a knockout.

I'm supposed to be working.
posted by scratch at 9:44 AM on November 16, 2010

I can think of a few films that may interest you.
Films that are of altered states:
Altered States
Fear & Loathing
Requiem for a Dream
Fear & Loathing (way better than the movie)
Anything by Leary
Checkout Huxley as he wrote some great books of altered states.

I'm missing some but there is a starter point for you. Most of them are drug induced altered states.
posted by handbanana at 9:47 AM on November 16, 2010

Philip K. Dick's short stories and novels; A Scanner Darkly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik would be good for the more speculative side of things, and for a more autobiographical take on his own issues with mental illness and altered states of consciousness, read VALIS and its associated companions, Radio Free Albemuth, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:48 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Someone already mentioned PKD but check his book "Valis"
posted by johnnybeggs at 9:49 AM on November 16, 2010

You might enjoy Drood, by Dan Simmons.
posted by jquinby at 9:51 AM on November 16, 2010

If you haven't seen it, pick up Videodrome.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:53 AM on November 16, 2010

Hunger by Knut Hamsun.
posted by the foreground at 10:03 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Faulkner's The Sound & the Fury. Unless I've got the wrong book in mind, roughly half the book is told from the perspective of a psychological "idiot," with no comprehension of cause & effect & time. Making a flow chart as you read is helpful. Having an English teacher explaining the thing page by page is even more helpful. (Picture a book where "it hit me" = "I fell on the floor & it hurt."
posted by Ys at 10:08 AM on November 16, 2010

All That Jazz may fit the bill, being both eschatologically trippy and generally amazing.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 10:10 AM on November 16, 2010

As for a book about insanity that doesn't need a secret decoder ring to understand: "When Rabbit Howls" by Truddi Chase is not to be missed. I can't remember if it's a biography or a fake biography, but it gets into multiple personality disorder vividly.
posted by Ys at 10:13 AM on November 16, 2010

The Yellow Wallpaper.
posted by Gator at 10:14 AM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Philip K. Dick's final "trilogy" of novels was written after he had a sort of brain event that he considered to be a transmission from another world; all three of the novels lean heavily on the idea, thematically.

The Divine Invasion
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

posted by hermitosis at 10:25 AM on November 16, 2010

Insanity as a coping mechanism is a recurring theme in Terry Gilliam's films. See not only the above-mentioned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but also The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys (sci-fi, even!), Brazil, Tideland, etc.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:26 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sound and the Fury. The entire novel is written stream of consciousness, but from 3+1 different perspectives. The first three are through the eyes of some deeply unreliable narrators: a mentally challanged man on his 36th birthday; a super-melancholic college student with severe OCD; a very embittered man whose veiw of the world is clouded by his anger towards a few people. The fourth is kind of weird and identifying the narrator is not so straight forward.

Also, Leopold Bloom is drunk for about half of Ulysses. There's a great scence of him in a brothel drinking absinthe.

Also, also: Hamlet pretends to go crazy. In doing so, nobody really knows if he's crazy or not.
posted by chicago2penn at 10:29 AM on November 16, 2010

King Lear is probably the most obvious example.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Crime and Punishment
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Wittgenstein's Mistress
Infinite Jest
Benjamin's "On Hashish"
Foucault: Madness and Civilizations, History of Madness

And of course Queen's I'm Going Slightly Mad.

posted by Lutoslawski at 10:40 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Memento, and the short story it was based on, Memento Mori.
posted by Gator at 10:52 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions both come to mind.
posted by lex mercatoria at 10:58 AM on November 16, 2010

Besters The Stars My Destination.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:59 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Random Acts of Senseless Violence is good.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:22 AM on November 16, 2010

The Yellow Wallpaper! Fantastic suggestion Gator!
That really is a great read.
posted by handbanana at 11:29 AM on November 16, 2010

Tarnation is terribly disturbing and moving.

In a completely different vein, The King of Hearts is a weird offbeat cult comedy about a WWI insane asylum (yes, you read that right). I heart it.

Also, I don't know if it's quite what you're looking for, but I'm surprised I'm the first to mention
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:39 AM on November 16, 2010

Set This House In Order and Bad Monkeys, both by Matt Ruff.
posted by 8dot3 at 12:25 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wit, starring Emma Thompson. I saw it when I was twelve, I still get chills. It's a movie, she has terminal ovarian cancer.
posted by hoperaiseshell at 12:40 PM on November 16, 2010

If you can deal with children with terminal illness (in this case, leukemia), I saw Ways to Live Forever at a film festival about a month ago and can recommend it. I think it's still making the film festival circuit so it may be a bit hard to find at the moment, but I'll mention it for future reference, hoping it gets an arthouse/DVD/streaming/etc. release at some point. The film was based on a book, but I haven't read it so can't comment on that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:27 PM on November 16, 2010

Leave Them Laughing, (the subject of which was recently featured in a metafilter post.).
posted by small_ruminant at 2:05 PM on November 16, 2010

Donny Darko is an eerie thriller about a troubled teen that sleepwalks, hears voices, and sees apparitions that tell him to do things. 84% on rotten tomatoes. Considered a cult-classic. Available for instant watch on netflix.
posted by Terheyden at 2:20 PM on November 16, 2010

Fight Club, natch.
posted by Terheyden at 2:38 PM on November 16, 2010

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys; The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh; and, of course, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 3:00 PM on November 16, 2010

Go straight to VALIS.
posted by Artw at 3:24 PM on November 16, 2010

This Alien Shore, by C.S. Friedman, is science fiction and deals with... well, PTSD and/or multiple personalities. Very cool.
posted by po at 5:26 PM on November 16, 2010

8dot3 has it. Set This House In Order is one of my FAVORITE books.

also, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
posted by bibliogrrl at 5:27 PM on November 16, 2010

Seconding This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman as a terrific fantasy take on the diversity of mental function.
posted by Ys at 6:39 PM on November 16, 2010

Also (last comment, I promise), you might sit in the dark and listen to Pink Floyd's album, The Wall, a few dozen times. Then watch the movie. Then go back to sitting in the dark and listen to the music (with a little more context). Preferably while your friends are speedballing in the living room & you're stuck in your head in a little room wondering why you can't and won't ever fit in.

To me, it will always be a chronicle of a young man totally fucked in the head by the times, circumstance, and his mother. But it's the words from the music that stick in my head and paint pictures. The animated bits are pretty awesome, too.
posted by Ys at 6:48 PM on November 16, 2010

Charles Burns' Black Hole concerns a sexually transmitted mutation in a small town. Those suffering from the disease are deformed and cast out from society. As with other comics by Burns, mental instability is also a theme. Very, very creepy.
posted by Rinku at 8:41 PM on November 16, 2010

In the Mouth of Madness - John Carpenter. Oh yeah.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:26 PM on November 16, 2010

The Maxx
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 12:44 AM on November 17, 2010

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
posted by Daddy-O at 9:36 AM on November 17, 2010

Showing up late to suggest Twilight, by Eli Wiesel, and Will Self's Great Apes.
posted by Spinneret at 6:30 PM on November 17, 2010

Shock Corridor, dir. Samuel Fuller, 1963.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 12:43 PM on November 19, 2010

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