In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword. (Job 33:15-18)
Horror fans are most likely aware of the interesting relationship between dreams—or more specifically, nightmares—and horror entertainment. Several of the best known horror tales of all time, among them Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula all had their origins in the nightmares of their respective authors. Quite a number of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories were fashioned from remembered dreams, among them “Dagon” (1919), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), among others.
Lovecraft’s perspective on the nature of the dreaming experience is described in the opening paragraphs of his well-known “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), in which he expresses the familiar, if unsettling view that “…this less material life [i.e., dreaming] is our truer life, and that our vain presence on this terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.” Lovecraft’s version of Zhuang Zhou’s famous question—whether he was a man dreaming about being a butterfly or the other way around—is more complicated these days with the advent of virtual realities created by astounding new technologies.
In a more contemporary venue, Thomas Ligotti has some fun with Zhuang Zhou’s conceptualization in his 1986 story “Dream of a Manikin”, discussed below. Various authors have used dream imagery for inspiration and indeed, aspiring horror writers have been encouraged by some to keep a log of nightmares as source material.
H.P. Lovecraft used dream imagery as the germ of longer, more elaborate narratives, either embellishing a particular image, or rewriting dream material into a more recognizable story format. His “The Evil Clergyman”, published a couple years after his death in 1937, seems to show an idea that is midway through this process, an incomplete sketch that is not quite a story yet.
S.T. Joshi feels that many of Lovecraft’s tales were prompted “…by some innocuous, fragmentary image that comes to occupy a very small place—or indeed no place—in the finished tale.” This underestimates the predominant role dreaming and dream material have in Lovecraft’s fiction and in his collaborative work. Lovecraft’s well-known biographer describes “The Evil Clergyman” as “hardly worth discussing”, but this seems to give the item undeserved short shrift. It is interesting as a transitional piece, mined from a letter Lovecraft wrote to an associate, who called initially called it “The Wicked Clergyman”. The story appeared in the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, and combines both supernatural and proto-science fiction elements. (See also Lovecraft an Anglican Priest?)
In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated October 22, 1933, Lovecraft comments on one of the latter’s dreams, as well as two of his own. One of these is the origin of “The Evil Clergyman”, and the other seems very suggestive of what later became “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936):
Your unusual dreams are tremendously interesting, and much fuller of genuine, unhackneyed strangeness than any of mine…Some months ago I had a dream of an evil clergyman in a garret full of forbidden books, and of how he changed his personality with a visitor…Then about a year ago I dreamt I awaked on a slab of unknown substance in a great vaulted hall, dimly and obscurely lit, and full of similar slabs bearing sheeted objects whose proportions were obviously not human. From every detail I gathered the horrible notion that I could be nowhere on this planet. I also felt that my own body was like those of the other sheeted shapes…
A different approach to the use of dream material can be found in the work Thomas Ligotti. Although he makes use of bizarre or arresting images, it is the structure of the dreaming experience itself that appears to create the nightmarish coherency of his stories. Through repetition and clever, nearly subliminal use of evocative phrases, through subtly morphing settings, imagery and character relationships, Ligotti creates disturbing, dreamlike meditations that challenge conventional assumptions about reality and the nature of existence.
An example of this is his intricate short story “Dream of a Manikin” which can be found in the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986). The story initially appears to be a lengthy letter from the narrator to a fellow psychiatrist—a collegial discussion of a patient named “Miss Locher”, whom the two have treated. (It should be noted that psychiatrists are already intrinsically creepy because of the hubris of their presumed expertise, and hence culturally defined authority, regarding the human mind—which is the scariest place on earth.)
It is clear early on that this case study—whose dreams are analyzed and found to be weirdly connected with events in the narrator’s life—is not the real focus of the correspondence. Typical of Ligotti, the narrator’s intellectualization of Miss Locher’s nightmare, his objectification of her, is a pathetic strategy to maintain distance from the real horror. By degrees he discovers that Miss Locher’s experience is only part of his own larger and more encompassing nightmare: it’s his relationship with his female colleague, one that drives him to question the reality of his own existence separate from her:
After hearing Miss Locher tell her dream story, I found myself unconsciously analyzing it much as you might have. Her multiplication of roles (including the role reversal with the manikin) really did put me in mind of some divine being that was splintering and scarring itself to relieve its cosmic ennui, as indeed a few of the well-reputed gods of world religions supposedly do.
Ligotti is playing with a number of ideas in “Dream of a Manikin”. One is the notion, ever more popular these days, that the human soul or personality is not single or unified, but a collective of competing subroutines, a “we” more than an “I”. And he also has some fun with Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly story, (he names him Chuang Tzu), which his clueless narrator tries unsuccessfully to dismiss. Near the end, he wails:
Forget other selves…Only first and second persons matter (I and thou). And by all means forget dreams. I, for one, know I’m not a dream. I am real Dr.—…So please be so kind as to acknowledge the reality of my existence.
Like a number of his stories, “Dream of a Manikin” is worth re-reading to appreciate its subtlety and depth of ideas. The image of a divided self, or even a dis-integrated “body politic”, is especially resonant this election year. Whoever or whatever unites the warring parties of a single soul, or of a nation, gets to say what reality actually is.