Lovecraft: The Tug of Dreams

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dan Harms, author and scholar on both H.P. Lovecraft and the occult, was good enough to start posting the new Foreward to the latest edition of his Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia. In Part II, he also made interesting mention of Lovecraft's influential dreams. As satellite commentary, it's important to pause and consider just how titanic dreams were for HPL throughout his life. For a good many tales, particularly the ones including weird marvels instead of sheer horror, dreams are clearly the primary impetus. Thus, this impromptu catalog and notes on Lovecraft's dream-heavy pieces:

  • The Dream Cycle: Including "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath," "The Silver Key," and more loosely, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key." These chronicles of Randolph Carter are the pinnacle of Lovecraft's dream works, as their very setting, plot, and resolution is intimately tied into the dream world. The incredible environment of "Dream Quest," exhibiting the Leng Plateau, fungoid-populated Moon, interstellar sky, and suggestions of eerie Kadath itself, is one that could've only originated in the nightly visions of HPL. Likewise for the many creatures seen: Zoogs, Gugs, the lunar toad-fungi, and the terrible Night Gaunts, among others. It's not too great a stretch to imagine nightmares played a role in the trilogy's final tale, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," rich with alien Yaddith's wizened anteater-like civilization and world consuming Dhols. "The Silver Key" follows Carter's awful longing for the dream majesties of his past. This, like other stories, melds the dream into the real world of space and time. This tale, however, serves as a better indicator of Lovecraft's philosophy on dreams than many, as the dream appears a superior force capable of shaping the material world and space-time, with a little help from proper tools like the Silver Key.
  • "The Dreams in the Witch House:" Yet another yarn obviously wrapped up in dreams. In this case, however, the haunting visions afflicting the story's Walter Gilman are febrile nightmares. Dreams are also a mechanism of what might be called mathematically-linked occult here, as Keziah Mason (the witch) uses them as a sinister force to torment Gilman and bleed across space-time into the world. Although Lovecraft himself remained a firm materialist with a dismissive attitude toward the occult, it's reasonable to assume some of his own nightmares brought on the inspiration for this piece. Moreover, perhaps the more outre mysteries and forces of Lovecraft's nightmares played upon his understanding of history and science, resulting in the unique mix of magic and advanced science. This is pure, unprovable speculation, but what isn't in so many of the gray areas not stated in the letters of Lovecraft's personal and literary life? It's also worth noting "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" highlights another incidence of dreams as tools from beyond with the ability to manipulate reality, here for the ends of a cosmic entity. Like Gilman's experience though, dreams are superior to space-time, as the closing monologue suggests where the breaching of many times and places are mentioned with dreams as instruments.
  • Other Dream Quests: Like elements of the Dream Cycle and the intense yearning seen in both "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" and "The Silver Key," other Lovecraft stories carry these themes. However, "Celephais" and "The White Ship" rearrange them in different ways that ultimately drive home different messages. "Celephais," with Kuranes' lust to return to his beloved Ooth-Nargai, is not just another Silver Key story or case of dreams seeping into reality, as in "The Dreams in the Witch House." It's the clearest case where Lovecraft bolsters the dream as an escape, even from life itself. This is likely a direct consequence of HPL's own pining after dream-power as a means of breaking through even life itself, which he considered "a hideous thing" on more than a few personal and literary occasions. "The White Ship" suggests a different mood as dreamworld fantasy is piled atop the already quasi-surreal environment of the lonesome lighthouse. The ship's destruction in a failed attempt to reach fabled Cathuria implies the polar opposite of Celephais' resolution, and possibly Lovecraft's own fearful recognition of the shortcomings of dreams: the inability to escape through them, and the disastrous disappointment awaiting those who might try.
This is just a cursory view of Lovecraft's dream tales and the influence of his own visions. A great deal more can easily be said, and perhaps will be here in another post.

-Grim Blogger

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