The Lovecraft Reread

Dreams Come True (Unfortunately): E.F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

This week, we’re reading E.F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower,” first published in Benson’s The Room in the Tower and Other Stories in 1912. Trigger Warning for suicide, treated as a symptom of Evil. Spoilers ahead.

“Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.”

Summary

Narrator, a constant and lucid dreamer, isn’t surprised that things dreamt sometimes come to pass in waking life. After all, dreams are largely concerned with people and places we know in “the awake and daylit world.” However, for the story he’s about to relate, he can find no natural explanation. It “came out of the dark, and into the dark it has gone again.”

The dream in question first assailed narrator when he was sixteen. He arrives at a red-brick house, is led through a dark paneled hall to a garden where a party’s gathered for tea. He knows only Jack Stone, a schoolfellow he rather dislikes. The rest are Jack’s family. The afternoon’s hot and oppressive. No one speaks. At one end of the house stands a tower much older than the rest of the building. Before long, Mrs. Stone says, “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.”

Inexplicably narrator’s heart sinks; somehow he knows the tower holds something dreadful. He follows Jack inside, up a many-cornered oak staircase, to be shut alone in a room with something awful until he wakes with a spasm of terror.

For fifteen years narrator suffers the dream, sometimes two or three nights in a row, usually about once a month. Familiarity doesn’t mitigate its terror—that grows with each repetition. The dream varies, but with sinister consistency. The characters age. One Stone sister marries. Mrs. Stone’s black hair grays. She grows feeble. After a six-month reprieve, a dream comes in which Mrs. Stone is missing. Narrator becomes giddily talkative, hopeful that her absence will change the course of the dream. But the Stones remain silent, looking secretly at each other. As twilight falls, Mrs. Stone’s well-known voice sounds: “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.”

Her voice comes from beyond the iron gate, where the grass is now sown thick with gravestones. By their gray glow, narrator reads the inscription on the nearest stone: “In evil memory of Julia Stone.” Then Jack leads him to the tower room, darker than ever and close with the odor of decay.

Narrator wakes screaming.

Never after does narrator dream Mrs. Stone alive, but it remains her disembodied voice that assigns him the tower room. He never sees Jack Stone in waking life, nor the house from the dream. Until…

One August narrator goes down to Sussex to stay with his friend John Clinton. As they drive to the house the Clintons have rented, the weather turns oppressive, and Narrator falls asleep. He wakes at the door of his dream house. He feels a thrill of fear but also curiosity. All’s the same: the red-brick front, the paneled hall, the garden and lawn, with wall and iron gate and tower. However, instead of a silent family, boisterous friends greet him. Tea proceeds cheerfully, until Mrs. Clinton says, “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.”

Narrator’s momentary horror passes into intense curiosity. He follows Jack up the same old many-cornered staircase to the familiar tower room. It’s just as he remembers, except that, hung over the bed, life-size in oils, is a portrait of Julia Stone, by Julia Stone. Nightmare fear retakes narrator, for though Julia is pictured as old and feeble, “a dreadful exuberance and vitality shone through the envelope of flesh, an exuberance wholly malign, a vitality that foamed and frothed with unimaginable evil.”

Clinton agrees the portrait’s no comfortable bedside companion. With a servant’s help, they take it down. It’s oddly heavy, and after they deposit it on the landing, all three notice blood on their hands. Yet when they wash, they find no wounds. Late that evening, Clinton points out another mystery. Clinton’s Irish terrier has developed a phobia about something outside the iron gate—watch him approach the gate bristling and growling, only to retreat howling into the house! Narrator spots a blue Persian cat purring and parading in a circle outside the gate, “tail carried aloft like a banner…having a Walpurgis night all alone.”

Oh, but Darius and Toby are friends, Clinton says, so Darius doesn’t explain why Toby’s in an uproar. And the cat’s its own mystery—why is it thrilled with the very spot Toby fears?

A sudden downpour drives men and cat indoors, but Darius continues to stare eagerly into the dark. Narrator goes to the tower room. With the portrait exiled, he soon falls asleep. Lightning wakes him to fear beyond anything he’s ever experienced in his dream—left in utter blackness, he’s certain something’s near him. Reaching out, he touches a picture frame. He leaps from bed, in time for a second lightning flash to show him Julia Stone’s portrait in its former place, and a figure at the foot of his bed wearing mold-stained white and the portrait’s face.

When the thunder rumble fades, he hears rustling movement, smells corruption. A hand fondles his neck, and he hears quick eager breathing. In the dreaded familiar voice, his visitor says: “I knew you would come to the room in the tower…Tonight I shall feast; before long we will feast together.”

The quick breathing nears narrator’s neck. Terror breaking his paralysis, he lashes out wildly. There’s a squeal, a soft thud. He’s out on the landing, with Clinton running up. Later Clinton tells narrator he found him white and swaying, a mark on his shoulder like a bloody handprint. Inside the tower room Clinton smelled decay, saw Julia Stone’s portrait back in place, found a thing spotted with earth, like what they bury people in. Then it was all he could do to get himself and narrator downstairs, shaken as both were.

Some may remember the story of a woman buried in the West Fawley churchyard, three times. Soon after each burial, the coffin was found protruding from the ground. At last the coffin was buried in unconsecrated ground outside the garden of the woman’s house. She had committed suicide in the tower room there. Her name was Julia Stone.

When the body’s again exhumed, secretly, the coffin’s full of blood.

What’s Cyclopean: This week’s adjectives are along the general lines of “dreadful,” deadly,” “evil,” and other such straightforward descriptors.

The Degenerate Dutch: No characters appear in this story other than monocultural aristocrats.

Mythos Making: Mrs. Stone is a pretty standard vampire relative to the things that might eat you in a universe of more cosmic horror.

Libronomicon: As an example of an mundane dream-come-true, author describes a dream of receiving a letter from a regular correspondent, swiftly followed by an actual letter.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The author (and possibly the author’s culture as a whole) may have confused sociopathy and depression.

 

Anne’s Commentary

When I proposed this story, I figured it suited our current meander through weird lit because, oh, dreams and cats. Okay, one cat, but a champion in Darius, ecstatic watcher over unconsecrated graves and thirsty sleepers. Our Reread has taught us the “lower” animals are sensitive to supernatural intrusions. Dogs are 100% reliable if you’re looking for an early warning system: Eldritch manifestation detected! Bark like mastiff! Yelp like puppy! RUN! Cats may go the Scaredy route, or anywhere along the Curious gamut, or straight to Yes! I’m SO In. You just have to know your feline. If Clinton had understood Darius, he’d have instantly solved his “cat mystery”: Oh, thanks, Dar. Honey, there’s a vampire buried outside the garden gate. We should get our money back on this place.

Going deeper, I picked “Room” because it’s one of my favorite “dream” stories. I find Benson’s description of his narrator’s recurrent nightmare so detailed, so psychologically plausible in its progression, that I can never escape from its tightening noose of suspense. The silent terrible Stones. The playing cards with all black suits, and some cards entirely black. Mrs. Stone’s voice passing her inevitable sentence on the narrator, pre- and postmortem. Masterful nightside traveling, Mr. Benson. Join Howard and Sakutaro at the Teahouse-Inn of the Many Dreamlands!

Wade one more metaphorical step, and I could plunge into psychosexual analysis of a story I never saw that way before. Still. Think how many times I read “Thing on the Doorstep” without seeing the thorny sex and gender questions it raised.

So why not plunge? You guys will save me if I don’t resurface within, say, 500 words?

It begins with the title. We have a room. In a tower. Where have we seen that lately? Hagiwara’s Cat Town has weird towers, but Poe’s “Ligeia” has the turret with a memorable room—arguably one of the most memorable in fiction, given Poe’s fervor in the description of its over-the-Goth decor. Benson’s room is run-of-the-Edwardian-country-house guest accommodation, except for Julia’s self-portrait. Guest bedrooms should be bland; uncanny paintings don’t belong. Nor do vampiric manifestations, here revenant Julia Stone. In Poe’s tale, revenant Ligeia! Who, we might say, has sculpted Rowena into her self-portrait.

I deduce that towers have something to do with this. Fantasy provides fertile soil for the metaphorical matrix, which thrusts up fruiting bodies all across the fictive landscape, graceful mushrooms or forbidding toadstools. Benson, ever the realistic fantasist, gives us a credible tower—last remnant of a older edifice, incorporated into a modern house as a status symbol, or at least a conversation starter. Usually architectural relics come with their own ghostly legends. Not the Stones’ tower. Its haunt will be modern, an interesting twist.

Why not modern, though, when it’s specifically narrator’s haunt? His paramount fear, given its dream-expression at sixteen, the crest of adolescence. It’s dangerous to equate a nameless first person narrator with the author, but here I’m tempted. Around sixteen, according to his diaries, Benson was crushing on fellow students. I wonder if his narrator, at sixteen, might have crushed on someone like Jack Stone, who plays so strangely pivotal a part in the story-dream for someone narrator hardly knew and didn’t like. Could be narrator liked Jack Stone more than narrator’s willing to relate.

At Jack’s home, there’s a tower. Oh, obvious phallic symbol. Are things looking UP for narrator? Except why is the tower so OLD? Why does Jack’s MOTHER give narrator a room on TOP of the tower and tell JACK to take him there? That’s way too open-minded a parent for the period, and how mortifying for her to KNOW, and for JACK to know, and for JACK to take him up the tower stairs and leave him alone in the tower room with WHAT?

On the outside, the tower may be phallic. What about on the inside? Now narrator is getting into a nightmare of dark halls and tight many-turned stairways to a room of horror. The female anatomy may not be given a close metaphorical translation, but I’m reading vulva, vagina, uterus. Traitor Jack, leading narrator on to think he’ll be a lover, but instead he’s a PIMP, and a pimp of his own mother, because all along it’s Julia Stone in the tower room, creature of blood in the home of blood. A man who touches her will find out—he’ll be sullied by her blood, and then she’ll demand his as recompense.

Honest, I scared myself there, and I’m not a sixteen-year-old boy who’d grow up to write some of the most delightful female characters ever, those being the ones who never threatened the (discreetly) gay male characters with gross sexual advances. Also one of the most subtly terrifying female characters ever, the apex social predator Miss Mapp.

Now, while I shiveringly imagine Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in Julia Stone’s portrait, laughing with “nameless glee,” I’ll retire to my very much ground floor room.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

So this is relatable, right? Most people have disturbingly repetitive dreams, maybe even nightmares. Maybe even about iffy lodging choices—I can’t be the only one who has dreams about non-Euclidean architecture combined with moving stress, can I? And most people have shown up for an overnight stay, only to discover that it’s a touch more sketchy than anticipated. If Benson were writing “The Room in the Tower” today, it’d be an Airbnb listed as “Cozy, Historic Tower Convenient to Golf Course.” Some places turn out not to actually have A/C or decent locks. Others have creepy vampire portraits. If you wanted predictability, you’d have paid extra for a hotel.

My point is that this week’s Scary Thing is both legitimately scary, and easy to connect with real experience. Such promising ingredients! Alas that the full recipe feels a bit off, at least to me. (Maybe it needs salt? Useful as a protective ward, if nothing else.) Benson spends a lot of time building up our anticipation for the Tower, but when it finally appears Narrator is only briefly discombobulated before devolving to “intense curiosity.” This itself could have been effective—inexplicable calm in the face of disturbing events mirroring and amplifying the original dream’s inexplicable terror. But it doesn’t actually achieve that effect. The replacement of Silent, Terrifying Family with Gregarious, Friendly Hosts thoroughly pulls the wind out of the narrative sails. Especially when Narrator’s friend and host proves entirely willing to believe the worst of the portrait, sees everything Narrator sees, and is a helpful ally when an ally is needed. The result is a story that never works up any real momentum. A scary thing happened, we dealt with it, we’re all fine. Yay?

The denouement is then irksome on top of being ineffective. My History of Attitudes Toward Mental Illness is a bit out of date, but I do think this isn’t entirely Benson’s fault – suicide in his time was still treated as a sign of sin rather than illness. There’s a long, if no-longer-much-used, tradition of monsters created from such corpses. But that doesn’t help this modern reader, for whom the Final Reveal raised eyebrow more than heart rate. Mrs. Stone appears to have been a nasty bit of work when alive, and is certainly nasty work when dead; depression does not appear to have entered into it. Are we meant to infer some ritual gone wrong—or perhaps, right, for dubiously vampiric definitions of right?

Also, why is she waiting for Narrator in particular? Clearly there’s no history of painting-related murders in this house. Why him? Why now? Is Mrs. Stone just a picky eater? This, and not the vaguely-superstitious-yet-ableist excuse for her vampiric state, is the explanation that I eagerly await.

 

Next week, Alter Reiss’s “In the Forest of the Night,” because Ruthanna was on a Rewriting Lovecraft panel with the author at Scintillation and got curious.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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