August 12th, 2005


Ghouls, Reanimation, Possession, and the Question of Identity

One of the things I brought up yesterday because it fascinates me is the question of we decide, especially in cases involving illegal reanimations of the dead or other occult means of assuming the shape and memories of the dead, whether or not the result "is" the same person. And the truth be told, in reality, we don't decide these things via religious values, or some abstract philosophy like the continuity theorem that I brought up yesterday as a straw man. We decide these things, like all complicated moral issues, via national discussion and debate, in this case going all the way back to freelance journalist Howard Lovecraft's famous True Detective sensationalized account of the complicated murders of Edward Derby and his wife, Asenath Derby (nee Marsh), "The Thing on the Doorstep." It's the same dynamic you saw in the Lacy Peterson case, or for that matter the O.J. Simpson case, two sensational (and sensationalized) murders that had nothing to do with the occult or other Forbidden Lore. Journalists see an unresolved emotional, philosophical, political issue and they see a sensational crime or incident that touches on the heart of it. They then ram it down our throats. We discuss the issue over the water cooler and in beauty salons and over the dinner table and in the letter columns of newspapers (and these days, on the Internet). And if the level of "tut tut"ing over the incident rises to the level of a mass uprising of hysteria and widespread demands that legislators "Do something!", then that's how we get new moral laws. Otherwise, the disapproved of behavior just gets reinforced as Not Nice via the fact that it gets you talked about disapprovingly, to varying degrees.

The "continuity" idea is a straw man, by the way, because we know of at least two violations of it. When I mentioned it, I was only thinking of one, the one that's touched on in "The Thing on the Doorstep." Since then, somebody reminded me of another example. In the "Thing on the Doorstep" case, the self-reanimated corpse of Asenath Derby claimed to have the soul of Edward Derby trapped inside it. The corpse was sufficiently compelling in its argument that Edward Derby's best friend (whose name escapes me, it's been too long since I last read about it) snuck a revolver into Arkham Asylum and shot the body of Edward Derby cold dead in an attempt to kill the murderess's spirit. The friend was, of course, found guilty of murder since the law at the time had not been updated to take reanimation or soul possession into account. Such things still being thought impossible, the law had no provisions for them. But since then we have been warned that human beings of partial Deep One ancestry (and possibly other rare individuals of particular telepathic aptitude) can, in fact, with the application of spells from the Necronomicon, force an exchange of souls with a targeted individual. So let's assume that Lovecraft got it right, and leading up to the death of the body of Asenath Derby there were several forcible exchanges of personality and memory beween that body and the body of Edward Derby. Under those circumstances, which one "is" Edward Derby? In cases involving ghouls, we rule that memory and personality are not sufficient to prove identity. In (fortunately extremely rare) cases like this one, we rule the opposite way. Is there any guiding philosophical principle by which we decide these things? No, we just "know" -- by way of long-running societal debate.

The other example that someone reminded me of, indirectly, involved the Great Race of Yith. Between 1908 and 1913, there were various newspaper accounts of a strange case, the apparently focal retrograde amnesia of a Miskatonic University professor named Wingate Peaslee, who simply woke up one day in 1908 with no memory of who he was, no longer even speaking much English, and completely ignorant of survival skills for the modern world. He regained his functional (but not personal) memories fairly quickly, even showing aptitude for skills which were beyond his prior abilities, but his personality seemed permanently altered in somewhat unpleasant ways by the amnesia incident. Then in 1913, he awoke from a brief illness believing that it was still 1908 -- his original memory, abilities, and personality had returned. All of which was completely baffling until he recovered his "real" memories of that 5 year period, when the "real" Dr. Peaslee had been telepathically hijacked back to Australia in the Permian Period into the body a member of an alien colony there/then, so that one of their number could explore our time. He was supposed to have had his memories of having been back there erased, but they gradually returned. Those he told of his returning memories wrote them off as bad dreams ... right up until the lost city of the Great Race of Yith was found by paleontologists in 1935, matching his description to the point where he could still navigate his way around the ruins. Since then, we've concluded that other people over the centuries remembering fragments of spells they learned from the Great Library of the Great Race of Yith are the origin of most of the forbidden occult lore that has since been made illegal (again) by all modern governments. (See Wingate Peaslee with Howard Lovecraft, "The Shadow out of Time," originally published in National Geographic back in 1936.)

But the relevance to the life after death debate is this. When I first heard of these stories as a kid, not only did I not know much of the neurology of memory formation, frankly, neither did anybody else. But the cases of Edward Derby and Wingate Peaslee fly in the face of everything we've learned since. When Edward Derby's mind was trapped in the body of Asenath Marsh-Derby, the sensory impressions received by that body should have been impressed on the brain of Asenath Derby, but somehow the same telepathic spell that forced the transfer must have continued to transfer the fresh memory impressions between the bodies. This becomes even harder to imagine when the gap between the two brains that swapped identities spans millenia, continents, and species, and yet it has been proven to have happened. So yeah, between 1908 and 1913, what was the legal, moral, "real" identity of the body of Wingate Peaslee? Under today's law and public morality, would that body still have been him, or the alien? If under today's law he would have theoretically been dead in 1908, who was he after 1913?

Wow, this is running much longer than intended. I haven't even started on what all of this has to do with fundamentalism and the War on Terror. I guess that'll wait for the weekend.

In the profoundly unlikely event that this is the first of these essays you've seen, click the "cthulhu" tag link above to see what this is all about. For those of you playing along in the comments, I started out really loving the made-up court and historical precedents and laws, but remember this: this stuff has been illegal and thoroughly suppressed since the mid 1930s. We're sneaking up on so many made-up cases that we're in danger of making such cases look common, if we haven't already gotten to that point. So think long and hard before making up any more occult incidents in the history from 1935 to 2005, and look over the existing occult incidents that Lovecraft, you all, and I have created before deciding that you have to make up yet another one to make your point. That goes double if the person using or abusing the Forbidden Lore wasn't a government agent, a law enforcement official whose duties would have required them to know this stuff, or a carefully-watched university professor studying the subject. I don't want to spoil your fun, but it threatens to break continuity if you make Forbidden Lore look commonplace. I'm supposing it to have been long known, since before most of us were born, that this stuff was possible, but for there to be no more people who know how to do it than who currently know how to manufacture the firing mechanisms for atomic weapons or weaponize anthrax spores.