Sunday, February 1, 2015

Dreams and Nightmares as Source Material

A number of horror and fantasy authors have made a regular practice to transmute their dreams and nightmares into compelling narratives or poetry.  H.P. Lovecraft is certainly an example, and there are probably many others.  In his two volume biography of the author, S.T. Joshi notes that Lovecraft’s well known story The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920), one of his earliest works, was based on a nightmare, as was his interesting prose poem, Nyarlathotep (1920), among several other works.  Lovecraft kept a “commonplace book” in which he jotted down dreams for later use.  He also shared dream material with some of his collaborators when he worked on joint efforts.

An expression of what might have been Lovecraft’s psychology of dreams can be found in the opening paragraph of Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919), one of his earlier stories:

“Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassible barrier…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.”

In Hypnos (1923) Lovecraft’s psychology of dreams became more of an ecstatic and terrifying theology.  The narrator describes drug induced explorations of the dream world—

“—of that vaster and more appalling universe of dim entity and consciousness which lies deeper than matter, time, and space, and whose existence we suspect only in certain forms of sleep—those rare dreams beyond dreams which come never to common men, and but once or twice in the lifetime of imaginative men.  The cosmos of our waking knowledge, born from such an universe as a bubble is born from the pipe of a jester, touches it only as such a bubble may touch its sardonic source when sucked back by the jester’s whim.”

My interest in dreams goes back to a couple of books I read back in the 1970s.  Celia Green wrote a fascinating study of dreams in which the individual becomes aware that they are dreaming—a phenomena closely related to “out-of-body experiences.”   Green’s 1968 book was called Lucid Dreams.  (Green and her colleague Charles McCreery later elaborated this work to produce what was essentially a “how-to” manual called Lucid Dreaming: The Paradox of Consciousness During Sleep in 1994.) 

Another important book at the time was Ann Faraday’s The Dream Game (1974).  Faraday, who was trained in Freudian and Jungian analysis as well as Gestalt psychotherapy, wrote a couple of popular books at the height of the New Age Movement.  She encouraged readers to keep dream journals and use the recorded material for personal growth as well as every day problem-solving.  Both Faraday and Green advocated using dream recall and lucid dreaming to transform nightmares into therapeutic and creative experiences.  

While these books are somewhat dated now, both of these experts on dream psychology are well worth reading.  (I am still grateful to the tenth grade English teacher who lent me her copy of Faraday’s book, which led to a lifelong interest in the subject.)

Out of curiosity, I informally surveyed a number of aspiring authors recently about their uses of dream material.  Not all of them were horror, science fiction or fantasy writers.  I asked them whether they felt that using dreams as source material for their work was still a useful practice, and whether there were any special challenges to creating fiction using dreams.  Thirteen people responded, some more than once to contribute additional information.

Unlike Lovecraft, very few of the respondents believed that an entire dream could be transformed into a coherent story, although one author indicated that she had used dreams in their entirety for the creation of poetry.  Another thought that perhaps “one in a hundred” dreams was long enough and detailed enough to use as the basis for an entire story.  It may be that Lovecraft had especially vivid or memorable dreams, or had trained himself to recall them in more detail.  Most of the respondents acknowledged considerable difficulty in remembering their dreams.  (I have found that the dream recall methods described in the books by Ann Faraday and Celia Green are quite effective if used consistently.)

Over half of the writers surveyed reported that they had used dream material more generally to stimulate ideas for writing or as a starting point for some creative project.  A few identified some specific applications of dream imagery:

1.      Because our dream persona is often different from how we see ourselves during the day, dreams may provide an opportunity to take another character’s perspective.
2.      Given the variable settings and activities that comprise the alternate universe of dreams, there is opportunity for writers to have experiences not otherwise possible in their waking lives.
3.      Dream imagery, insofar as it is the residue of nocturnal problem-solving, may provide solutions to struggles a writer is having with plot, direction and theme.

The intensely introverted Lovecraft made effective use of the dreams and nightmares he recorded in his “commonplace book”.  Some of his shorter pieces appear to have been minimally altered from the source material—for example, his prose poems and the unusual sonnets that comprise his Fungi from Yuggoth.  But even his better known works contain the dark, amorphous, shape-shifting creepy coherence of a nightmare.  A contemporary author who comes close to this effect is Thomas Ligotti.  See his marvelous The Shadow at the Bottom of the World (2005), and My Work is Not Yet Done (2002).   


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