From Dreamland to Nightmare. The role of dreams in H.P Lovecraft’s narrative.

Portrait of the author on Delphi Classics Complete Works cover.

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.

—H.P Lovecraft: The Silver Key—

There is a place called Nightmare, where the Lord of Dreams keeps his monsters. All the people in this world add to it, but some writers and artists have created their own countries and strongholds beyond its boundaries. Being able to disclose part of their nocturnal terrors and weird daydreams by mixing them up with the ingredients of art, they invite us all to a sightseeing tour across landscapes minutely arranged to look alive. Of course the artist’s imagination deals very often with a realistic copy of a contemporary or historic reality. But the builder of strange worlds also tries to give his reader an impression of reality. As a matter of fact, there’s a live breath disquieting his creation: the breath of dreamscapes and nightmares.
This is more so with Lovecraft, whose narrative work I’ve been reading lately. From the tentative incursions into alien spaces to the perfect architectures of doom, dreams are woven in the fabric of his literature as a dramatic device, an obsessive theme and an important part of the reality described by (almost?) all the narrators. Dreams are seen as a fundamental part of human life, a parallel universe, a way of escaping the suffocating meanness of everyday existence.
Important as they are in universal literature, Lovecraft’s work is unique for their constant presence and their fundamental weight. We can say that, without doubt, almost every plot crosses the paths of Dreamland in one way or another. Dreamland he calls that territory where so many of his main characters seek the happiness they cannot find on Earth. Of Nightmare he speaks constantly without giving it any name. Dreamland is full of beauty and pleasure. A door, a step, an entrance, a cave, a desolate plain… And we find ourselves in Nightmare. The word itself appears many times in Lovecraft’s writings. Nightmares flow from hidden passages, from remote regions, from unexpected corners. The beauty of Dreamland suddenly slips into a nightmarish experience, such an adjective being profusely employed by the the author along with many other famous “lovecraftian” epithets.

In conclusion, dreams are always a road that leads to other realities, a path to Dreamland, a door to hidden worlds (the world of dreams, strange dimensions, the depths of outer space or the exterior void). And, accordingly, it would be possible to sketch a classification of Lovecraft’s stories based on the role dreams play in his plots. I will define several groups according to the role of dreams in the argument. This doesn’t mean that every story must belong to only one of them. As you can see, many titles are listed under two or more divisions.

1. First group: Tales in which the argument is a quest for Dreamland itself or a journey through it in search of a land or city of exceptional beauty, an ideal world which the protagonist chooses over the world of real things. So here Dream is the main subject, the landscape and the driving force behind the action.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Quest of Iranon
Ex Oblivione

2. Tales in which the relationship between dreams and waking life turns the other way round, in a progressive or sudden capsize, so dreams are the real thing while human life as we know it is but an illusion of much lesser value. This is also more or less true for the previous group, but there it’s a feeling that nourishes the quest, while here it’s the hinge of the plot itself.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep

3. Tales in which Dreamland is a door to further realities, other dimensions or states of consciousness which grant access to those dimensions, external spaces o planes of existence.
The Dreams in the Witch House
The Call of Cthullu
The Colour Out of Space
Through the Gates of the Silver Key.

4. Tales in which part of the action takes place in dreams or in a dream, with a continuity between the two realms resulting in an outcome conditioned by what should have been unreal because it happened in in the virtual realm of the mind.
The Transition of Juan Romero
The Electric Executioner
The Dreams in the Witch House

5. Tales is which the border between dream and waking life is unclear or progressively weaker until it vanishes.

These include the ones in which the protagonist gets lost in his dreams and remains there, because he is unable to come back (for example, he dies but goes on living in Dreamland) or he doesn’t want to.
The Silver Key
Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The ones in which the protagonist is locked outside the dream world.
The White Ship

The ones in which he barely escapes destruction in Nightmare… Or he doesn’t.
The Tree on the Hill
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Thing in the Moonlight

6. And then, almost every narration written by Lovecraft which doesn’t fall into the categories placed above can be included in a most general type: those which picture worlds that are presented as real under the convention of fantasy but have a strong taste of dream (nightmare in this case), from where they seem to have sprung.
At the Mountains of Madness
The Nameless City
The Festival
Under the Pyramids
The Dunwich Horror
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow out of Time

Dream and death are closely connected. Sometimes they seem to be the same thing. Sometimes, a character chooses death to go on dreaming forever, or to escape the ugly reality of the world that surrounds him.
The Thing in the Moonlight

Dream and madness are another fruitful couple engaged in a constant replay of the same ambiguous set of possibilities. Many of Lovecraft’s characters are driven mad by the terrifying experiences they undergo. Even more often the narrator places us before the following dilemma: these dreams that exert an action over the material world, that open the door to the vast spaces and hidden dimensions ¿are they the manifestation of a previously unknown reality, wider than that human beings are familiar with? ¿Or are they just delirium, a subjective experience, their apparent power and reality the result of an impossibility to distinguish between dream and waking life? This commonplace of fantastic literature cannot be absent from the discourse of Lovecraft’s heroes, who find the crack that leads to the unbelievable or the passage to Dreamland so swift and unaccountable. The equivocal atmosphere may be stronger, the doubts of the hero greater or lesser than his ignorance. He may even be totally blind to the truth, but at the same time capable of giving us data and facts which resolve the question towards the reality of the uncanny, the impossible. What kind of fantastic literature would we have if all those things did not occur in the world created by the author? Those things that cannot happen in our own lives, where we stay among the walls of the reality rendered by our senses and inexorable physical laws.

There is also a point of view that reveals the source from which the opposition of joyous, exulting dreams vs evil, despairing nightmares draws its primordial energy. Everywhere in Lovecraft’s work we discover the presence of two emotional poles working to render a highly strung atmosphere. Looking over the whole panorama, Nightmare is the dominant region in the earthly and unearthly lands we travel after the voice of Lovecraft’s narrators and heroes. But their dreams and tales fall inside one of two great opposite classes just as there are two extremes of emotion pulsing at their cores. There seems to be no intermediate territory.
Sometimes, in their pursuit of beauty or spiritual pleasure the characters end up finding the most horrid revelations. As a matter of fact (of fictional fact), a small line divides exultation from despair, light from darkness. There is a very special story, with a great deal of poetic suggestiveness in it, whose thread is made with the matter of this Lovecraftian truth. Here we see both poles in action, sustaining all the vagaries of weather and soul. Nature and emotion are tied to each other, the latter being at the mercy of the first, struck by joy and the power of the sun, abated by gloom and the hints of cosmic horror that emerge from the depths of the sea. It’s title, The Night Ocean. A text that is more a poem than a tale, though it tale-tells of certain horrid things that show up briefly in the light where they don’t belong.

As for the texts where the experience of the heroes is treated as real, though it belongs to hidden depths of reality that emerge from the chasms of time, they are, in essence (to put it in Michel Houellebecq’s words), “the absolute heart of HPL’s myth, which contains what most rabid Lovecraftians continue to call, almost in spite of themselves, the “great texts.”

These are the “great texts”, as cited by the French writer:

“The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)

“The Colour Out of Space” (1927)

“The Dunwich Horror” (1928)

“The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)

“At the Mountains of Madness” (1931)

“The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932)

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1932)

“The Shadow Out of Time” (1934)

In “The Dreams in the Witch House” the reader knows better than the protagonist (not an exception, really, in Lovecraft’s tales). He knows that those dreams are not such, that through the gates of sleep the consciousness of the hero is transported to other planes and other worlds as real as the very city of Arkham in which he lives and dreams. In all these cases (a very fine example is “At the Mountains of Madness”) alien worlds and fantastic architectures, unsettling experiences of strangeness and horror are described in an objective, scientific language. “The style of scientific reporting adopted by HPL in his later stories” says Houllebecq “operates according to the following principle: the more monstrous and inconceivable the events and entities described, the more precise and clinical the description. A scalpel is needed to dissect the unnameable”.
Especially if we are used to trod the paths of HPL’s Dreamland, we feel the breath of dream in those impossible journeys that are real in the fiction world of the characters. The more objective the language, like a transparent glass showing the inconceivable, the more clear the sensation that they are made from materials collected in the secret gardens of the mind, like those vivid, acutely limpid images that we are granted while diving in the inner pools of sleep. Just as we were invited to the land of Dream in Celephaïs or The White Ship, or even in tales where the narrator doesn’t explain that we are travelling there (like The Other Gods, for example), here we are invited to take part in scientific explorations of worlds that have the taste of the oneiric. The colossal walls and ramparts of the cities left behind by The Old Ones, the home of The Great Race, the underworlds, the planets of monstrous beings sometimes evil and sometimes indifferent towards the human race, they all lay before us the territory of concrete dreams through which we are carried detailed accounts interspersed with bursts of extraordinary impressions. So the material of nocturnal visions sustains the possibility of a very special daydreaming which us, readers, share with the author, allured by a voice that turns it into an objective reality communicated by measures and empirical descriptions. Just as if we were looking at someone else’s dream.

This feeling I had while reading that all Lovecraft’s literature, and not only those texts than openly are dreams or deal with the matter, is the spawn of Dream (even the narrations where the most objective language is used) gets a confirmation in the following words of Houllebecq, whose essay I have read after finishing the last of HPL’s narrations:

Dreams were what Lovecraft knew well—they were, in a sense, his preserve. Few writers have used their dreams as systematically as he did; he classified the furnished material, he treated it. At times he was enthusiastic and wrote down a story in the immediate aftermath of a dream without even completely waking (this was true of “Nyarlathotep”). Other times he retained certain elements to insert into a new framework, but in any event, he took dreams very seriously.

All the quotes are from

Houellebecq, Michel; King, Stephen. H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Cernunnos. Kindle Edition. Translation from the French by Dorna Khazeni.

Published by Mary Wolfhouse

Writer and freelance journalist. Mary Wolfhouse is a pen name and also an Internet avatar.

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