7 Great Works Of Literature (Written While Wasted)
Writing is a profession that famously appeals to people with a predilection for mind-altering substances. But we tend to assume that when it comes time to do the writing itself, most authors put their drugs aside for a while so they can get the work done. But it turns out that some of the most groundbreaking books in history were written by people in the throes of such incredible drug frenzies that it's amazing they could stop scratching the bugs crawling all over their hands long enough to actually write anything down.
For example ...
Stephen King Was So High In The 1980s That He Can't Remember Half His Work
Stephen King has written so many novels that you'd probably imagine he can't even remember some of them, and you'd be right. Cujo, for example, is one of King's personal favorite works, despite the fact that he can't remember writing it at all, because the part of his brain that contained those memories was killed off by enough alcohol to power a Saturn V rocket.
Making him one of the few people whose brilliant drunken ideas are in fact brilliant.
Stephen King's alcohol abuse is pretty well-known, as it's a strong theme in much of his early work. Perhaps less known is how, after he finally quit drinking, he dove headlong into coke, and not the kind that you mix with bourbon.
If King's entire 1970s repertoire came from the bottom of the bottle, then his '80s body of work was snorted off a mirror. For example, The Tommyknockers is a novel about a mysterious force that makes people more powerful, intelligent, and creative, but gradually transforms them into monsters the more they indulge in it. This is an appropriate theme for a book that was written by a guy with pupils the size of Spanish olives and tissues stuffed up both nostrils to stem the voluminous bleeding caused by all the "inspiration dust" he was snorting.
That's how you know it's working!
Coke might have been the fuel behind some of King's most celebrated work -- Misery, for example, was written at the height of his addiction -- but it also produced some amazing garbage. The Tommyknockers is one of his most critically panned books. And his first and only effort as a film director, 1986's Maximum Overdrive, about trucks that come to life and try to flatten Emilio Estevez, has gone down in notoriety as something you'd less expect from the master of the American novel and more like a movie based on the transcript of a maladjusted six-year-old playing with his Hot Wheels collection.
King admits that the movie's legendary badness has a lot to do with the fact that he was "coked out of mind all through production, and didn't know what was doing." He's clean now, but the existence of Maximum Overdrive is enough of a blight on King's life that he's sworn off filmmaking forever, deciding that making terrible movies out of his work is a job best left to other people.
"You're going to try to make a movie out of my short story about a Rita Hayworth poster? Yeah, let me know how that works out."
Not that King is the first horror author to draw inspiration from mood-altering chemicals ...
Frankenstein Was Inspired By A Night of Opium Madness
The common story behind Mary Shelley's The Modern Prometheus (or Frankenstein, if you're not an asshole) is that Shelley, her husband Percy, and their pal Lord Byron went on a camping trip with some other writer friends in which they invented horror stories over a log fire. The story Shelley came up with, about a mad scientist reanimating a corpse, was so goddamn cool that Percy urged her to publish it. This is more or less true, but the common account leaves out one crucial element: Like most camping trips, the one in which Shelley conceived of Frankenstein involved taking all of the drugs in the goddamned universe.
"Uh, actually, the proper term is 'Frankenstein's drugs.' It's a common misconception."
There's a suggestion that Shelley and her fellow literary friends were messed up on laudanum, an opium tincture that you could buy in a freaking drug store until the FDA ruined it for everyone. Those who recounted the nights that they camped in a cabin in Geneva recall that Percy Shelley got so fucked up that, while Byron was reading from a book of spooky poems, he leapt to his feet and started screaming that Mary's nipples had turned into eyes.
After calming Percy down from his bad trip, Lord Byron proposed that they should all write ghost stories to tell each other the next night, because as we've previously discussed, Lord Byron was crazy and didn't care too much about Percy's well-being. Mary Shelley retired and had an opium dream about a reanimated corpse that would become the basis for the story which would eventually inspire I, Frankenstein.
"I was tripping balls. What's their excuse?"
Over the following years, the attendees of this one drug-fueled camping trip went on to give birth to much of 19th-century literature. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, her husband became the accomplished poet behind Ozymandias, Lord Byron wrote Don Juan, and attendee John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, the precursor to Dracula, which is probably why you haven't heard of him. All in all, it seems we owe an awful lot of our literary heritage to a drug that we aren't allowed to buy anymore.
So it would appear that opium has pulled way ahead of cocaine on the literature scoreboard, but we can't count out coke yet, damn it! After all ...
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde Was Written On A Six-Day Cocaine Binge
Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde gave us one of literature's most enduring characters. It's a story about a man who creates an addictive substance that makes him Hulk out into a violent asshole, which technically means that Stevenson created two enduring characters. Unsurprisingly, the famous novel about an unassuming man taking drugs to transform into a locomotive rage beast owes its existence to the legendary amount of cocaine Stevenson was using at the time.
The Strange Case Of "Doctor, My Nose Keeps Bleeding."
Stevenson spent his adult life suffering from the effects of tuberculosis, for which his doctor prescribed cocaine, because doctors back then were fucking awesome. The white rabbit wound up giving Stevenson a crippling addiction, but it also endowed him with a superhuman writing stamina -- he cranked out the first draft for Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, all 30,000 freaking words of it, in only three days while coked to the gills. Someone needs to send George R. R. Martin six or seven bricks of booger sugar as soon as possible.
However, this initial draft fell afoul of Stevenson's harshest critic: his wife Fanny, who supposedly burned it after declaring it "utter nonsense." Stevenson absorbed his wife's criticism, railed a few more lines, and wrote a second draft completely from memory. Another 30,000 words in three days. And remember, this was back in the days when novelists wrote everything in longhand with a feather quill by candlelight.
"Good thing quills are already hollow."
This second version won Fanny's approval and thus survived the Stevenson family fireplace to become one of the 19th century's most acclaimed novels. Which, again, was the result of two complete drafts written in less than one week by a man who was stratospherically high. We assume the majority of Miami Vice episodes were written in this fashion.
Ayn Rand's Novels Were Written While High On Speed
Ayn Rand is one of the greatest heroes of the libertarian right, despite the fact that no one actually enjoys reading her books. Her two most famous works, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, are essentially Bibles of free-market capitalism, and as anyone who has attempted to read either tome can probably guess, Rand was a perfectionist. This worked against her, though, when it came to meeting deadlines. The initial publisher for The Fountainhead, her first novel, dropped her like a flaming bag of shit after she failed to deliver a manuscript on time because she had spent years meticulously mapping out the book down to the last detail.
We won't spoil the ending, but let's just say Howard Roark would not have fared so well after 9/11.
By the time she finally found a new publisher, Rand was afraid of getting dropped again if she took too long to complete the novel. So she turned to Benzedrine, an amphetamine that was basically the early-20th-century legal equivalent of meth.
Over the next 12 months, Rand cranked out her manuscript, gliding through hundreds of thousands of words on a cloud of pure speed. But The Fountainhead was only the opening band for the epic Atlas Shrugged, one of the longest and densest novels in the English language, which was going to require even more obsessive planning (read: meth). By the time she put pen to paper for her masterwork, Rand's Benzedrine addiction was already making her aggressive, prone to mood swings, irritable, and paranoid.
You'd never know it from her book about how smart, rich people are persecuted.
Atlas Shrugged hit the shelves in 1957 as 645,000 words of narcotic-induced paranoid crazy, and would go on to become one of the most influential novels of all time, and a trilogy of the boring-est movies ever produced.
Voltaire Ingested A Nearly Lethal Amount Of Caffeine
Voltaire was one of the 18th century's most celebrated intellectuals, providing irreverent and comedic commentary on the philosophy and politics of the day. He was essentially John Oliver, 300 years before John Oliver was born. His enthusiastic and lighthearted attitude towards world events in an era where everyone was really serious about everything can be attributed, at least in part, to an amount of caffeine that would give a rhinoceros heart palpitations.
"Caffeine?" you say with a scoff, "I drink five Red Bulls a day, where's my Cracked article?" Yeah, sorry, but you're not even close. Voltaire was so addicted to caffeine that his face belongs on the front of every Starbucks in the world. We're talking about 30 cups of coffee a day ... and sometimes more than twice that.
His consumption increased whenever he was working on something he considered important. His most famous work, the novel Candide, was written over five months and powered by so much caffeine that an overnight trucker would scream in horror at what the man was pouring into his body. It's reported that during the writing of Candide, Voltaire would average somewhere between 50-70 cups of coffee a day. That's like one cup every ten minutes, without breaking to eat. At that rate, it's amazing that he was able to continue writing, and not start scrambling around his neighborhood on all fours, spraying pedestrians with a constant stream of urine and feral hissing.
But you can bet that man was as regular as a sunrise.
This kind of lifestyle might sound like the surest recipe for a chest-detonating heart attack, but Voltaire lived to the ripe old age of 83 and died gently in his sleep. It was probably the first time he truly slept in his whole life, so the weight of all those frenzied restless years collapsed in on him like a dynamited mine shaft.
Sartre Owes His Philosophical Work To Amphetamines
You've probably heard the term "existentialism" before, but if you don't already know what it means, there's no way we can explain it to you in a way that doesn't sound like we're on drugs. Perhaps it's no coincidence that one of the topic's most defining figures, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, was literally on drugs when he came up with it.
You remember that time you got hammered and wondered if people see the
same colors you do? Now imagine you made a career out of that.
Sartre was kind of a celebrity in his time, which is impressive for anyone whose job consists entirely of the word "philosopher." Nevertheless, it was a different era, and Sartre's groundbreaking book The Critique Of Dialectic Reason, a work that required almost as much narcotics to write as it does to understand it, had a profound influence on a diverse group of people, from Jackson Pollock to J.D. Salinger to Fidel freakin' Castro. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but became the only person to ever refuse the award, because he was a drug addict, and that is a thing that a drug addict would do.
Burnt out on too much work, too little sleep, too much wine and cigarettes, and the burden of his famously depressing worldview, Sartre (whose most famous quote is "Hell is other people") needed a way to even out his schedule. So he took a daily cocktail of barbiturates, including Corydrane, a mixture of amphetamines and aspirin that won't eliminate headaches so much as make you not care that you're having them.
"'Suggested Dosage'? Won't be needing that ..."
The prescribed dose of Corydrane was one or two tablets in the morning, with perhaps another at lunch if he was in the middle of some particularly deep existential funk. Sartre heroically wound up eating them like peanuts, because existential funks were his beat. While penning The Critique, he was chewing around 20 pills a day, which makes The Critique doubly impressive, because he probably couldn't feel his arms while he was writing it.
The Communist Manifesto Was Written By Two Drunk College Students
It's hard to imagine one book that's had more of an influence on world events than The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Or at the very least, it's certainly the most influential book to have been written during an epic bar crawl.
Before he was the champion of the proletariat, Karl Marx was king of the fraternity. For someone who would go on to change the political landscape of the world for a century, Marx was actually kind of a shitty student.
Except unlike most obnoxious college students, Marx was would have had a reason for the Che Guevara shirt.
For his first year at the University of Bonn, he was co-president of the "Tavern Club," during what his father described as a period of "wild rampaging," a phrase here meaning "engaging in drunken pistol duels and riding donkeys while intoxicated."
Friedrich Engels wasn't exactly foreign to the concept of boozing up, either. While Marx was playing DUI Donkey across the countryside, Engels was sampling France's vineyards. He was "more or less squiffy all the time" which we assume means drunk, but could also just mean French. One of his biographers remarks that reading Engels' diary is like reading a J. Peterman catalog of really expensive wine.
"It exuded confidence, with a bouquet of corn on the cob, this unctuous little number
was quite spunky. Then I wiped and flushed and went to breakfast."
So when Marx and Engels first got together, it was absolutely over drinks. They met at the Cafe de la Regence, but they weren't wasting anyone's time by ordering coffee. In fact, the hangout session in which they put together their plans for The Communist Manifesto has been described as a beer-soaked, ten-day bender, a binge so spectacular that its hangover was the Cold War.
Michael Hossey has been following you to work, so why not follow him back on Twitter?
For more things drugs and alcohol gave us, check out The 5 Greatest Things Ever Accomplished While High and 6 Historic Events You Didn't Realize Everyone Was Drunk For.