10 Big-Time Literary Druggies

In the early 1970s, an anti-drug propaganda piece hit the airwaves: a grim-faced fellow displayed a hideous painting purportedly created by someone on acid. It was a violent work, one that appeared to have been painted with barbed wire instead of a brush, and if memory serves, the color palette was limited to black, grey, and a particularly nauseating blood red. Referring to the tripping artist, the dour gentleman intoned, “She thought it was beautiful.” The ad’s intent seems to have been to frighten impressionable youngsters like me into taking a solemn vow of abstinence from LSD, but – you guessed it! – it only made me eager to try acid as soon as I could find a reputable source. I figured that if LSD could make that ugly painting seem beautiful, just think what it would do to the shitty real world I was stuck in.

In this, the second part of a miniseries devoted to literary drunks and druggies, we recall the world’s greatest, most prominent writers who thrived on narcotics and hallucinogens. It’s an acid trip down memory lane. Curiously, the list is made up entirely of men. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t find any major literary ladies who were known as much for their drugging as for their writing. (Yeah, yeah, Alice B. Toklas and her pot brownies. Trouble is, she wasn't a writer.) Suggestions are welcome.

Hunter S. Thompson

Leading the list, of course, is the Gonzo stylist Hunter S. Thompson, who once memorably stated, “I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” His landmark Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas owed its success not only to Thompson’s manic, careening way with words but also to the accouterments he brought along to enhance his journey: “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.” Facing increasing pain from a variety of ailments, Thompson shot himself in the head at the age of 67.

Buy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream from Amazon.com


Stephen King

Just as Richard Burton was so drunk that he couldn’t remember making Bluebeard, Stephen King was so high that he barely remembers writing Cujo. The difference between the two, however, is that Bluebeard is a disgrace, whereas Cujo is a modern classic. And unlike Burton’s, King’s family pulled an intervention trip on him; they sat him down and confronted him with bottles of Xanax and Valium and NyQuil and cough medicine, vials of coke and baggies of pot, and piles and piles of cigarette butts and empty beer cans. They made their point successfully. King has been drug and alcohol free ever since.

Buy Cujo from Amazon.com


Aldous Huxley

To call Aldous Huxley, whose masterpiece Brave New World remains a staple of high school English classes, an acid freak is only unfair if you take the term acid freak as a cut. Huxley was a most serious tripper; he considered LSD and other hallucinogens to be portals into deep, mystical, spiritual perceptions of the sort experienced by holy people. Hunter Thompson dropped acid to party; Huxley dropped acid to pray. When he was suffering from the late stages of throat cancer, he wrote a note to his wife asking her to inject him with 100 mg of LSD. She did so. He died peacefully within a few hours. Bless him.

Buy The Doors of Perception: Heaven and Hell (Thinking Classics) from Amazon.com


Ken Kesey

The author of the blazingly brilliant novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey began his long and productive association with LSD and other hallucinogens as part of experiments conducted by the United States government – specifically the CIA. One presumes that the drugs were of superior quality; if only the rest of us could trust our dealers to the same degree. Kesey was fascinated by his experiences and went on to create a series of what he called “acid tests,” which featured his friends Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Alan Ginsburg from the Beats, music by the Grateful Dead, and certain canonical design elements of the psychedelic era: fluorescent paint, black light, and strobes. Like Huxley’s, Kesey’s use of LSD appears to have enhanced his sanity: his literary farewell was a plea for peace after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He died two months later of complications from liver cancer.

Buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from Amazon.com


Robert Louis Stevenson

Who’d’a thunk that the revered children’s book author Robert Louis Stevenson was into hallucinogenic fungi? If you only remember Stevenson’s classic kid's tales Treasure Island and Kidnapped, it seems a bit of a stretch. But Stevenson is also the creator of the classic doppelganger novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (there is no The in the original title), and suddenly his drug use makes a lot more autobiographical sense. Jekyll and Hyde, of course, is about a physician who conducts experiments on himself with a potion designed to separate his good side from his nasty one. Things don’t turn out quite according to plan. That was always my trouble with street drugs as well, though I’ve never killed anybody while flying on bad dope. At least not that I recall.

Buy The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Dover Thrift Editions) from Amazon.com


Thomas De Quincey

You gotta love a guy who titled his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I’m particularly fond of the modifier English, connoting as it does a certain primness and reticence that would be entirely absent if the eponymous druggie was, say, French. De Quincey’s opiate of choice was laudanum, a delicious combination of opium and alcohol that contains all the really good alkaloids – especially morphine and codeine – in a tincture form that one can ingest easily over ice if one chooses to do so. (Screw screwdrivers! Give me laudanum and Coke any day!) And contrary to anti-drug crusaders’ moralistic assumptions, De Quincey’s literary output suffered greatly when he wasn’t high. His is the reverse of a cautionary tale, and more power to him.

Buy Confessions of an English Opium Eater from Amazon.com


Samuel Coleridge

Laudanum was also the favorite medicine of Samuel Coleridge, the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, the latter being one of the druggiest epic poems ever written. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree….” A stately pleasure dome! Far fuckin' out! You could get really baked in a dome like this: “The shadow of the dome of pleasure/Floated midway on the waves…. It was a miracle of rare device,/A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” Just slide.

Buy The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics) from Amazon.com


Charles Baudelaire

Along with his friends Hugo, Delacroix, and Dumas, Charles Baudelaire formed a club much like the Mouseketeers, only Baudelaire and company spent their time drinking hashish-laced coffee instead of dancing around in little mouse-ear caps. They called it le Club des Hashishins, and they garbed themselves in Arab thobes, just to be different. That’s the legend, anyway. In point of fact, Baudelaire was much more of an observer than a participant in the Hashishins, preferring standard issue wine to the spiced, spiked coffee. Chickenshit.

Buy The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire With an Introductory Preface By James Huneker (Classic Reprint) from Amazon.com


William S. Burroughs

The author of the novels Junkie, Queer, and Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs defines the term transgressive. Indeterminate in sexual orientation, thereby upsetting gays and straights alike, Burroughs was also indiscriminate in his use of drugs, though heroin, a drug that even confirmed druggies fear, might be said to have been his lifeblood. He even sold the stuff for a time to support his habit. To be clear, though, Burroughs was drunk, not high, when he shot his wife to death while playing “William Tell” with a loaded gun.

Buy Queer: A Novel from Amazon.com


Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is possibly the most brilliant title ever. That it was thought up by a druggie ought to go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway to make a point: all of the writers in this list were aided, not hampered, by their drug use. Philip K. Dick loved a whole range of drugs, from the mellow (pot) to the freaky (mescaline). He took shitloads of amphetamines and tripped with abandon. He respected the effects that drugs had on his imagination, and he used what he learned while flying to create dazzling alternate worlds in his science fiction. Dick was no utopian, though; precisely the opposite. He wasn’t afraid to take chances – not in his drug use, and not in his writing. His visions were dark, his parallel universes disturbing. The drugs he took enhanced his genius, and he wasn’t ashamed.

Buy Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from Amazon.com

So who did I leave out this time? Who are your favorite druggie writers? Why are there no druggie women? So many questions to ponder as you curl up on your couch with a good book and a potent spliff.

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Leobardo Jiménez's picture
Leobardo Jiménez April 5, 2013 - 3:31pm

I would´ve included Jack Kerouac and Irvine Welsh also

Leobardo Jiménez's picture
Leobardo Jiménez April 5, 2013 - 3:39pm

Great list though, good memories...

Trina Fixthefernback McElroy's picture
Trina Fixthefer... April 5, 2013 - 3:52pm

You forgot Bret Easton Ellis. I believe he wrote Less Than Zero when he was a 19 year old college student on an 8 week crystal meth binge.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books April 5, 2013 - 3:58pm

There are a couple assumptive leaps being made in saying these writers were all helped by their drug use. We can compare them to other non-druggie writers and try to decide who's "better," but beyond the insane difficulty of even defining "better," there are too many unknowns to account for. And then the other option, comparing these writers to a parallel universe version of themselves who didn't do drugs, is sadly impossible.

If we're really looking to say whether drugs help or hinder creativity, we also have a massive unknown to take into account. Even with hundreds, thousands, or millions of cases where drugs were proof-positive "creative uppers," we still wouldn't know how many potentially creative people were hindered by drug use. I know people who get high and write brilliant work. And I know people who have stunning potential but wind up spending their time smoking bowls and watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic instead of getting any creative work done.

Interesting, interesting list, though. I'm especially fascinated by Huxley's presence. I definitely don't pick up a "pro-drug" vibe from Brave New World.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading WATCHING THEM BE by James Harvey April 5, 2013 - 3:59pm

Thanks! Those three are definite contenders.


edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading WATCHING THEM BE by James Harvey April 5, 2013 - 4:15pm

Well, Rob.... I don't see any great "assumptive leap" here. The comparisons you suggest aren't logical. To say that these writers were assisted by their drug use (and I must qualify the statement I made in the piece itself by saying that Stephen King is the exception: he writes just as well off the stuff as he did on) is not to say that they are better writers than non-druggies are, nor is it to say that they would necessarily write worse if they hadn't done drugs. These seem to me to be false arguments, and it's not fair to ascribe them to me only to knock them down.

What I'm saying is that these writers used their experiences while on drugs to create great writing. Whether they would have written the same things without taking the drugs isn't the point; that's an assumption no one can make. The point is, they did take the drugs, and they did do the writing. And the writing they did was great.

Am I prescribing drugs as a means to good writing? Certainly not. I've written good stuff and terrible stuff while on drugs. At the same time, I'm not devaluing drug use as a means toward creative thinking. As Nancy Reagan used to say, "Just say know."


zoetropez's picture
zoetropez April 5, 2013 - 5:53pm

Surely ex-junkies like Jerry Stahl and Denis Johnson deserve a nod (no pun intended), not just for their dope appetites, but for the fact that they've seemingly beat their monkeys into submission and lived to write well another day. A heroic dose of meth and heroin surely goes a long way to grease the gears if for no other reason than it renders the chair 1000x more comfortable and the words practically slip out like wet bars of hotel soap.

Or so I've heard.

Also noteworthy, I think, are the cases of Bill Burroughs, Jr. and Jan Kerouac, who seemed to literally wilt under the burdens of their bloodlines.

Kelsey James's picture
Kelsey James April 5, 2013 - 6:13pm

Well as for druggie women, I'd have to say that my favourites would be Elizabeth's Wurtzel's Ritalin/cocaine addiction memoir "More, Now, Again", and of course anything and everything by Cat Marnell (also she's got an upcoming memoir as well entitled "How To Murder Your Life"). Cat is the only female writer (I've come across so far) that is so open and honest about her current battle with drugs.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading WATCHING THEM BE by James Harvey April 5, 2013 - 7:30pm

zoetropez: That's one beautifully written post, pal! I'm amazed and impressed!

Kelsey: I'm not familiar with either of them. I'll take a look, once I'm done with Anna Karenina, which may take some time!


Dena Puglisi's picture
Dena Puglisi April 5, 2013 - 10:44pm

Irvine Welsh!

pauldyson's picture
pauldyson April 6, 2013 - 3:00am

JG Ballard

Ina Sordidworld's picture
Ina Sordidworld April 6, 2013 - 11:07am

Edgar Allen Poe

Ina Sordidworld's picture
Ina Sordidworld April 6, 2013 - 11:07am

Edgar Allen Poe

Felipe Rodrigues Araujo's picture
Felipe Rodrigue... April 6, 2013 - 11:09am

great list, just one thing: it's Allen Ginsberg

selenem's picture
selenem April 7, 2013 - 2:15am

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was apparently an opium user. Carrie Fisher has had a long and well-publicised battle with drugs. But most of the other famous female addicts tend to be musicians. Courtney Love, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, etc....And a nod to Florence Nightingale, who was also an opium user.

selenem's picture
selenem April 7, 2013 - 2:16am

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was apparently an opium user. Carrie Fisher has had a long and well-publicised battle with drugs. But most of the other famous female addicts tend to be musicians. Courtney Love, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, etc....And a nod to Florence Nightingale, who was also an opium user.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie April 8, 2013 - 1:56am

Great list. Check out George Carlin on writing [on drugs]:


zoetropez's picture
zoetropez April 9, 2013 - 3:34am

Courtney Love? Carrie Fisher? Florence Nightingale? Sure, they were/are women...not sure how literary they are.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books April 9, 2013 - 5:24am

@Ed: I wasn't meaning to attack; I'm sorry if I came off that way. The statement "all of the writers in this list were aided, not hampered, by their drug use" seemed to be embedded with the assumption that these authors did better with drugs than they would have without. The statement also seemed to imply that drug use is, therefore, potentially beneficial to the creative process (at least for certain individuals).

I'm not actually arguing against these points exactly. I'm simply arguing against the answers being known. The assertion that drugs and fantastic creativity can co-exist is made evident (as your response suggests), but there are so many interesting questions and unknowns and possibilities worth discussing.

My feeling isn't one of being pro- or anti-drug when it comes to creativity; I've no sense of (conscious) moral agenda and have done plenty of writing while on opiates, cannibanoids, and/or amphetamines (said mostly because I sense I've come off as more anti-drug than intended). My overriding emotion here isn't combatitiveness but curiosity, and if I'm feeling defensive on something it's on coming to a firmer conclusion than I'd like---if only because I'm not done feeling curious and interested yet, and I'd like to continue seeing discussion, research, stories, etc.

And, again, just in case it's not clear---I have only respect for you, Ed, and no disrespect was intended by the points I brought up. If you weren't intending the implications I read into your text, that could easily be a shortcoming on my part---but potentially a shortcoming others share, and so hopefully this remains a path of conversation that may benefit those readers as well.


Yosef Heinric's picture
Yosef Heinric April 11, 2013 - 4:48pm

What about bret easton ellis in the 80's? I think only Tony Montana has snorted more blow.

Yosef Heinric's picture
Yosef Heinric April 11, 2013 - 4:48pm

What about bret easton ellis in the 80's? I think only Tony Montana has snorted more blow.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading WATCHING THEM BE by James Harvey April 18, 2013 - 12:38pm

Hi, Rob - And if I came off as hostile, I certainly didn't mean to. I get defensive too easily. I regret that trait. Your points are all reasonable, though I think - as you say - the answers are not knowable. To ask if a writer would have been just as good without drugs as he was on drugs is like asking whether Allen Ginsberg would have been a better poet if he'd been English. Maybe; maybe not. And please note: I spelled it correctly this time.

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines April 22, 2013 - 4:14pm

Why are there no druggie women?

SUPER interesting question.Maybe we just don't hear about it??

Cheryl Strayed and Lidia Yuknavitch have been addicted to heroin and gender aside, I hold them both amongst the most influential writers of today. 

Brian McElmurry's picture
Brian McElmurry April 26, 2013 - 7:52pm

Druggy women writers:

Bill Holiday actually wrote an autobiography that suggested an affair with the woman warden of her prison; It was a good book. Of course, she struggled with a heroin addiction.

Jack Kerouac's daughter Jan was a speed addict in her early teens and then an opiate addict later in life; died of liver failure in her 40's. She wrote a few books.

Megan Boyle's current liveblog goes over her use of adderral/xanax/heroin and crack (though mostly addy and xanax). It's at 166,000 words. May not be everyone's cup of tea, if they're a muumuu house 'hater'.

Cat Marnel, someone already mentioned.

Molly Jong-Fast "Normal Girl" was a good druggy book; She's no longer a druggy; a mom and responsible now.

There's more, I'm sure.


Razvan Teodor Coloja's picture
Razvan Teodor Coloja May 16, 2013 - 6:08am

Also Poe, Kerouac, Ginsberg.