Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today we’re looking at “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” written in 1919, and first published in the 1919 issue of Pine Cone. You can read it here.
“Rushing out into the snow, he had flung his arms aloft and commenced a series of leaps directly upward in the air; the while shouting his determination to reach some ‘big, big cabin with brightness in the roof and walls and floor, and the loud queer music far away’. As two men of moderate size sought to restrain him, he had struggled with maniacal force and fury, screaming of his desire and need to find and kill a certain ‘thing that shines and shakes and laughs’. At length, after temporarily felling one of his detainers with a sudden blow, he had flung himself upon the other in a daemoniac ecstasy of bloodthirstiness, shrieking fiendishly that he would ‘jump high in the air and burn his way through anything that stopped him’.”
Summary: Our unnamed narrator, who seems a much-educated and inventive fellow though only an intern at a state psychiatric institution, reflects on the significance of dreams. Some, he thinks, may afford glimpses into a sphere of existence beyond the mundane. Indeed, our dream lives may be our true, primary existence, our material lives merely secondary phenomena.
In the winter of 1900-1901, police bring Joe Slater to the institution. He’s a scion of the colonial peasants who settled the Catskills region, now much “degraded” by their isolation. A hunter and trapper, Slater is tall and brawny. Yet his watery blue eyes, scant yellow beard and drooping lip give him an appearance of harmless stupidity.
Associates always thought Slater odd because of the stories he’d tell after waking. In the “debased patois of his environment,” he’d rave about “great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys.” About these wonders he seemed as baffled as his listeners, and soon he’d lapse into forgetfulness.
His mental aberrations increased with age. One day he woke shouting his determination to pursue a dream-enemy, a “thing that shines and shakes and laughs.” He beat a neighbor who tried to restrain him to a lifeless pulp, then fled into the mountains. Apprehended, he remembered nothing of the crime except waking to see the mangled corpse at his feet. Interrogators note more incidents of waking rage, during which Slater vows he must kill his mocking dream-enemy by soaring through emptiness, burning all in his path. Doctors wonder at the gorgeous images this illiterate and untraveled man conjures in his fits. They decide Slater’s abnormal dreams dominate his simple mind to the point of insanity, hence his commitment to the narrator’s asylum.
Fascinated by Slater’s vivid dreams, the narrator befriends him and hangs “breathlessly upon his chaotic but cosmic word-pictures.” He speculates that some dream-soul may inhabit the dull body, struggling to communicate through the dull tongue. Fortunately, his earlier speculations about the energetic nature of human thought have already led him to devise an apparatus for thought reception, similar to the wireless telegraph. Hoping to “eavesdrop” on Slater’s dreams, he fits the transmitter of the apparatus to Slater’s head, the receiver to his own. Alas, time for his experiments grows short—deprived of his mountain freedom or worn by the turmoil in his brain, Joe Slater is dying.
On the last night, the narrator sits with Slater, apparatus attached. The dying man falls asleep. The narrator dozes. But weird melody “wakes” him to a spectacle of ultimate beauty: buildings of living fire, ethereal landscapes, an elysian realm. He floats, a being of light himself, like the “brother” who joins him. During their telepathic exchange, he learns this brother will soon escape from Slater’s body, shedding a periodic “planet-shell.” He’ll then be free to pursue his enemy even to the “uttermost fields of ether,” there to inflict upon it a “flaming cosmic vengeance that will shake the spheres.”
The narrator jolts awake to find Slater waking too. The man looks at him with eyes no longer rheumy but belonging to “an active mind of high order.” Telepathically the brother from beyond the walls of sleep informs him that Joe Slater is dead, too much an animal to sustain a cosmic intellect. Yet through Slater, brother has met brother once more. The narrator, like him, is a “roamer of vast spaces and traveler in many ages,” who might temporarily occupy corporeal forms as diverse as a man of ancient Egypt or a proud insect-philosopher of Jupiter’s fourth moon. Of his oppressor, the brother can only say that humans have felt its distant malevolence and so named its blinking beacon Algol, the Daemon-Star! Tonight the brother will avenge himself upon it, as narrator will see if he looks to the sky near Algol.
With that, the light-being departs, leaving Slater a corpse.
The chief of the institution, naturally, doesn’t believe narrator’s tale. He gives him an extended leave to recruit his strained nerves. But the narrator can’t forget what he saw in the sky the night Slater died. Nor was he the only one who saw it. In the words of eminent astronomer Garrett P. Serviss:
“On February 22, 1901, a marvellous new star was discovered…not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within 24 hours the stranger had become so bright it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months it was hardly discernible with the naked eye.”
What’s Cyclopean: The best vocabulary of the story may be “matutinal aberrations.” Use this phrase as an excuse next time you’re trying to explain your pre-coffee grumpiness.
The Degenerate Dutch: Who’s degenerate? The strange, repellent poor of the Catskills are!
Mythos Making: The cruel empire of Tsan-Chan is a popular destination for time-traveling superior life forms.
Libronomicon: The degenerate mountain folk have never even heard legends or fairy tales. You expect books?
Madness Takes Its Toll: Slater is one more person whose encounters with the cosmos land him in an asylum, and in the dubiously competent hands of early 20th century alienists.
Another early one, and like “Picture in the House” it starts with a manifesto. Where Picture’s opening marks the half-formed template for Lovecraft County and the horrors of Arkham’s back country, this is arguably the foundation for the Dreamlands—if not the specifics, than the idea that dreaming life marks a more vital sort of reality than waking. In passing, he thoroughly disses Freud, an absolute necessity if you want dreams to be anything more than a “puerile” representation of the most petty unacknowledged desires.
Read on, though, and the details seem to presage a very different subset of Howard’s later stories. First, though, you’ve got to get through some truly excruciating passages on how poor people in the Catskills are degenerate. So very degenerate. Did I mention degenerate? They have no imagination! No families! No legends or stories! It’s worse than you can imagine, oh god, the shoggoths!!!
I’ve said before that Howard’s fear of non-Anglo-Saxons is surpassed only by his complete freakout over the rural poor. Having spent a fair amount of time embedded in the exotic culture of upper class WASPs, I can report that some traces of this superstitious dread remain even in the modern specimen. The Other is scary because they’re obviously and intrinsically different. The person who looks like you, but doesn’t act like you or have your resources… if those lacks aren’t because of some likewise inherent, deep-rooted inferiority, the implications are too awful to be borne.
This is notably—and unusually—a story where Howard’s prejudiced obsessions work against the narrative’s needs. They do provide a useful plot point or two: Slater’s unbelievably thorough illiteracy means his visions must come from Somewhere Else. But coming awake to the body of a neighbor murdered by your own hand is a terrifying image, made far less terrifying since it happens to someone already dehumanized.
I have a distinct lack of patience with this aspect of the story, which seems to have inspired the whole business in the first place. Not only because the blatant prejudice is dull and irritating, but because of the embarrassingly bad (if typical of the time) psychological analysis, and the fact that I know a great many rural Catskills residents who are even now side-eyeing this story so hard. To my knowledge, none of them roll a D20 to determine each week’s new family configuration, but I suppose I could have missed something.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I was starting to compare this story, among Howard’s earliest adult work, with “Shadow Out of Time,” one of his last. One subtle bit of scariness in “Sleep,” not fully explored, is the idea that superior and inferior human alike are merely shells dragging on something infinitely greater and richer. While light-beings may find Slater more troublesome than an asylum intern, both are ultimately mere impediments to getting on with their bloodily vengeful work. The Yith find human bodies more convenient and jump into them deliberately, but demand that same world-shaking change in perspective. From where both entities sit (metaphorically, since neither cone-shaped beings nor creatures of transcendent light have chairs), all humans are basically jumped-up apes. Scary stuff, if your worldview depends on being at the top of the heap.
It’s a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, if all humans are merely beings of light temporarily weighed down with primate flesh, then we are all equals. On the other, the nature of those primate lives seems to make a real difference, and the story dwells far more on those differences than on the glories and terrors of the cosmos.
(The light-being’s joy at release from Slater’s body reminds me, oddly, of the client’s death in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’s worldview is as far from cosmic horror as you can get, but I rather wonder if this story influenced him.)
Speaking of the horrors and glories of the cosmos, it’s a good thing Howard brought up time travel before the not-a-climax. Even so, the timing required to have a supernova visible on Earth one day after the light-being’s release… damn. That is some careful planning. Is the to-the-minute timing a requirement to preserve causality, or is it all to make sure the beings still trapped in 1901 get their drama fix?
Garrett P. Serviss was a real astronomer and science fiction writer, and Algol (Beta Persei) is a real star, brightest light in the Medusa’s head that constellation Perseus totes across the sky. Considered an unlucky star, it’s also been called Gorgona, al-ghul or El Ghoul in Arabic, Rosh ha Satan (Satan’s Head) in Hebrew. Namesake for the stellar class known as Algol variables, it’s an eclipsing binary and hence something that shines and shakes as if with mocking laughter as Beta Persei B periodically passes before the brighter Beta Persei A. All in all, a suitable star to play the part of Lovecraft’s cosmic oppressor, with a suitable 1901 nova-neighbor to play the avenging brother of light. Neat dovetailing of facts from which to spin a fiction.
Interesting to turn from the fantastic treatment of dreams in our late Quest to this more science fictional treatment. Or pseudo-science fictional, I should say? Mystical-rational? We’ll get the full theosophical explanation in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key“—here’s the larval version of that. We also get the kind of gadget that usually ends its user in a lot more trouble than the long vacation this narrator earns. Based on the premise that the “atomic motion” of thought can be converted into electromagnetic energy, the “telegraphic” telepathy device reminds me of that gizmo they use in the movie Brainstorm. There’s also the technique for experiencing/invading others’ dreams in Dreamscape, but as I recall, that’s more psychic than mechanical. And then there’s the psychic and mechanical technique for full-scale brain transfer perfected by the Yith! “The Shadow Out of Time” is foreshadowed here by the mention of the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, to come 3000 years after narrator’s experiments with Slater. In “Shadow,” Tsan-Chan’s reign occurs circa AD 5000, which corresponds to the dating here. More: The brother of light mentions insect philosophers on Jupiter’s fourth moon. These bring to mind “Shadow’s” sapient coleopterans, who will dominate the earth after humanity. Given the paucity of intelligent beetles on present-day Earth (or so we like to think), could the conquering coleopterans of “Shadow” migrate here from Jupiter rather than evolve in situ?
In any case, an impressive linkage of cosmic history between the early and the late stories.
We’ll see “degenerate Dutch” again in “The Lurking Fear,” including some upper-class examples of the type. Joe Slater is the most developed of Lovecraft’s lower-class examples, unless we go beyond the Dutch into English variations on “white trash,” and yes, Lovecraft uses the term here. In that case, we have to deal with the denizens of Dunwich. But sticking with the Dutch. As in “Lurking Fear,” these rustics have devolved due to isolation and its inevitable result, inbreeding. Yet they come across as more pitiable than monstrous. Their decline is due to geography—their more fortunate brethren do fine in thickly settled districts. They’re not lupine but bovine: “half-amiable.” We can even work up some sympathy for Slater, whose family never come to visit him in the institution, leaving the narrator his sole friendly contact. And what does Slater do when not in the grip of dreams? He sits by the barred window weaving baskets, perhaps pining for his old mountain freedom.
He’s not a bad sort, poor Joe. Still, a refined man can only embrace him from a distance. He’s still decadent, debased, sluggish, stupid, sorry, decaying, and so are his kind, whites sliding backwards instead of climbing to higher heights of civilization—as they ought? Or, since they do no better than any other race given little opportunity, is there any intrinsic racial “ought?” I’m feeling, from the narrator’s repeated slip from sympathy to disgust in “Walls of Sleep,” that the 1919 Lovecraft did emotionally expect more from Caucasians, per se.
An open question for me is whether everyone hosts one of the beings of light our narrator discovers himself to be, merely bound for a time in a material body. I mean, is the being of light the body’s own soul, or an interloping prisoner/sojourner? Kind of leaning toward the latter in Slater’s case. And there it would be again, the problem of identity, and invading identities.
The brother of light behaves as if Slater were a prison, imposed perhaps by the oppressor itself. And exactly what happens when the brother seeks his revenge? He tells the narrator that his enemy IS Algol, the Daemon-Star. In that case, poor brother fails, doesn’t he? He appears near Algol as a nova, an exploding star, but the explosion doesn’t destroy Algol. The nova flares, a challenge, then fades, leaving Algol still shining and winking in derision.
Still, as it happens. GK Persei (or Nova Persei 1901) seems to be a cataclysmic variable star, one that goes through cycles of outburst and quiescence. Since 1980, the outbursts have become regular, lasting two months every three years. In which case, we readers can smile to think the brother of light is still flaring at Algol and can keep on flaring unless it does finally go supernova and destroys itself.
In which case the brother could become a nice quiet philosopher beetle, having done his worstest?
Next week, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” reminds us that before embarking on genealogical research, the safety-conscious should first check for signs that they’re in a Lovecraft story.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.