Hunter S. Thompson is the poster boy for aspiring writers with drug problems.
The gonzo journalist was known to consume pretty much anything put in front of him and widely acknowledged his narcotic indulgences as a positive influence on his work. But Thompson isn’t the only author to take illegal substances in a bid to aid the writing process—drugs and literature have gone hand in hand for centuries, with some of the best (and worst) work written by minds altered by substances. Whether searching for inspiration or getting high to help concentration, here are a selection of books written while under the influence.
Anything by Stephen King in the 80s
During the most productive period of his writing career, horror author Stephen King was also in the grips of a severe drug and alcohol addiction. At his worst, he was known to drink mouth wash to subdue his alcohol cravings and snorted so much cocaine he had to jam cotton buds up his nose ‘to stop the blood dripping on to the typewriter.’ He also claims to have no memory of writing the award-winning novel Cujo, which is mind-blowing. King turned to drugs and alcohol to combat issues stemming from his troubled childhood and the tragic death of his mother. As his books began to sell, the author’s addiction accelerated as he feared he’d never write another bestseller without being high. After the release of The Tommyknockers, a book that was critically savaged, King’s family confronted him and gave him an ultimatum: them or the drugs. 30 years on and King is still sober, still married and continuing to release best sellers annually.
Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde
A tale that’s been adapted multiple times for film and television, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 horror tale concerns Dr Jekyll Hyde, a man with a split personality (thanks to a drug) who slowly begins to give in to his evil side. There are many stories concerning the writing of this novel, but the general consensus involves Stevenson coming up with the plot for the book after experiencing a nightmare while bedridden due to an undisclosed illness. Stevenson gave his original draft to his wife to edit, and after she told him she hated it, he threw it in the fire and started again. He frantically re-wrote the story over the course of a six-day cocaine binge, and the end result is nothing short of spectacular. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is considered a literary classic, and still gives me chills when I read it today.
Libertarian favourite Ayn Rand was known as a meticulous planner who took years to map out her first novel, The Fountainhead. When she failed to deliver the manuscript on time and was dropped by her publisher, Rand realised she needed something to keep her on track so she turned to Benzedrine, the 20th-century version of meth. Securing another publishing deal, she managed to turn the novel in on time and quickly embarked on its follow up, Atlas Shrugged, one of the longest books ever written. Rand was neck-deep in addiction by this stage, with her copious Benzedrine intake making her aggressive and paranoid, but also helping her complete the novel on time. The finished book contains 645,000 words and was released to generally negative reviews in 1957, proving sometimes the drugs don’t work.
A known heroin addict, William S. Burroughs’ breakthrough novel was written during an eventful sojourn in Mexico. Struggling to find heroin, he turned to the then-popular drug of choice: Benzedrine. During his time south of the border, he ‘accidentally’ shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer, claimed to be possessed by a demon spirit, and began work on Junky, a semi-autobiographical novel about a heroin user and dealer. The death of Vollmer sent him on a mission to South America for the drug yage (said to give users telekinetic powers), before he returned to the States with his finished novel ready for publishing. Junky is considered one of the first novels about addiction and the toll it can take on people’s lives, and also an engaging insight into Burroughs early years.
Last Exit To Brooklyn
Hubert Selby Jr’s most well-known work is arguably Requiem For A Dream, but it’s his first novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn, that shone a light on his substance abuse issues. After a yearlong battle with tuberculosis, Selby Jr found himself kicked out of the navy with no career prospects. Having developed a morphine addiction while in hospital and turning to the drink once back at home, Selby Jr decided to try his hand at writing. Last Exit To Brooklyn is an unflinching portrayal of life in 1950s Brooklyn. Comprised of six short stories touching on drug use, rape, domestic violence, and homosexuality, the book was the subject of much controversy and banned in Italy.
The Power And The Glory
Sometimes the use of amphetamines isn’t always for pleasure. English author Graham Greene was working on his manuscript for The Power And The Glory but running short of funds, so he got creative and decided to write a thriller, The Confidential Agent, as a means to make a quick buck so he could continue working on his other novel. Greene would write the thriller during the mornings and his magnum opus in the afternoon, dropping Benzedrine tablets twice a day to keep him focused. His dabbling in drugs worked, and The Confidential Man was finished in six weeks and sold well, allowing him a further four months to work on the controversial yet acclaimed The Power And The Glory.