Dreams and dream imagery are pervasive in the fiction of H.P Lovecraft; the word ‘dream’ or related terminology occur in numerous titles of his works. The first paragraph of his short story, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, provides a summary of his perspective on the significance of dreams. He writes: “Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences…there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation…”
He dismisses Freudian dream analysis as “puerile”. There is much, much more to the experience of the dreaming consciousness. “Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.”
Beyond the Wall of Sleep, which was originally published in 1919, is essentially a clinical case study. It describes the natural progression of a syndrome that is obscure but not unheard of in both science fiction and horror. Following his theoretical introduction, the narrator, who is an intern at a ‘state psychopathic institution’, relates the sad story of man named Joe Slater.
The patient comes from an economically depressed region of the Catskills, (probably not far from the location of The Lurking Fear). He is ignorant and unintelligent, prone to drinking and occasional violent behavior. Available records indicate throughout his life Slater would often wake from sleep and utter bizarre and inexplicable statements, on one occasion shouting about a “thing that shines and shakes and laughs.” Slater’s odd behavior increases in frequency and severity as time goes by, and culminates in the gruesome murder of an associate, who was presumably mistaken for Slater’s imagined tormenter.
Slater is later apprehended, but is acquitted of the murder due to his evident insanity. He is committed to the institution where the narrator is employed. The narrator describes himself as “a constant speculator concerning dream life” and wants to understand the source of Slater’s strange visions. He takes careful notes and tries to detect a pattern in the man’s ravings. He wonders: “Could it be that the dream-soul inhabiting this inferior body was desperately struggling to speak things which the simple and halting tongue of dullness could not utter?”
The narrator resolves to conduct a research project. He has a contraption—he calls it a ‘cosmic radio’—that he can attach to Slater’s head and to his own that will allow Slater to transmit his dream thoughts into the mind of the intern. There is some urgency, for Slater is dying. Slater precedes him in sleep, and as the narrator nods off, he begins to hear weird music, and see images of a strange city and country side. He is able to communicate with a fellow ‘brother of light’ who may be the ethereal version of the sleeping patient. What is remarkable to the dreaming narrator is that he is familiar with his surroundings, because he has been there before.
The vision loses intensity and begins to fade; the narrator and Slater begin to wake from their sleep and find themselves in the hospital again. Before they are fully awake, and just before he dies, Slater communicates telepathically with the intern. He provides him a greater understanding of the vast universe of time and space, and of their place in it. Finally, the narrator is told to look for him in the sky, close by the “Daemon-Star.” Later, an astronomer reports the presence of a new star, ‘Nova Persei.’
Joe Slater has experienced a kind of cosmic-psychic link with a superior intelligence, which, because of the inferiority of his own mind and body, is fatal to both his sanity and life. Readers may be familiar with an earlier case of this syndrome, featured in an episode of the original Outer Limits called “Cry of Silence.” (Second season, 1964) A man and his wife are trapped in a farm house by some inexplicable, unseen intelligence that is able to control the tumbleweeds, rocks, trees and frogs. The farmer who has rescued them tells them that a meteor has recently fallen into his valley, and since then things have been very strange—shades of The Colour Out of Space.
The farmer later dies but is reanimated by this alien intelligence in a particularly creepy sequence. As in a typical Lovecraft story, the couple later studies the farmer’s diary, which describes the alien intelligence and the farmer’s attempts to understand it. Under hypnosis, the husband is able to channel the thoughts of the alien entity. At issue is communication—as with Slater in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, a superior intelligence from far away is unable to communicate with or through the puny, inadequate minds of humans.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep is unique among Lovecraft stories for the compassion he shows his characters, the articulation of his theories about dreams, and for the religious overtones expressed. Reincarnation is implied, but so is a kind of transfiguration of the main characters into dream souls in a heavenly sphere. We would see this world were we not burdened with our mortal frames.
The voiceover at the conclusion of the Outer Limits episode says it best when it quotes the Book of John:
“‘And the light shineth in the darkness, and darkness comprehended it not.’ The sound of man probes the dimensionless range of space seeking an answer. But if it comes, will he hear? Will he listen? Will he comprehend?”