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 Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Dreamers of Alamoi,” first published in Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer’s Swords V. Cthulhu anthology in 2016. Spoilers ahead.
“The dream plagues are the dreams of Them—those titans and gods from before language and song, the horrors banished outside by the first fires and spears.”
The madman is called Garen the Undreaming, among other less flattering names. He “leaves stories in his wake like petals from a dying flower,” and by this trail those who need his services find him, whether in a brothel, a winery or a temple–the places where he seeks relief pleasure for his “fractured mind.”
Scholars Meldri and Besthamun root out Garen in a meditation pit of the Goddess Sebun’s temple, where he’s subjected himself to humming acolytes for eighteen long days. The treatment, meant to “align Garen’s soul shards and restore his ability to slumber” has not worked; he dismisses the acolytes to hear the scholars’ proposal. They offer him access to their university’s Library of Dream if he will go to Alamoi.
This great town was once home to the finest masons and stoneworkers in the world. But seven years ago a dream plague struck it, causing all the residents to labor at building two great towers of dubious purpose. Why not let the dreamers build, Garen inquires. Because, Meldri explains, dream plagues come from the great Dreamers, gods banished to eternal slumber before the rise of humanity. Their dreams captivate men and cause horror and tragedy. Most plagues pass quickly, but not ashamani, the dreams of purpose. These cause calamities; there are stories of the banished demons using ashamani to construct gates out of their prisons.
Only Garen, who does not sleep or dream, can approach Alamoi. Anyone else will fall under the spell of the dream-plague.
Garen, a handsome man under his usual rat’s nest of hair and beard, enjoys a tryst with both Besthamun and her brother Meldri. Then he sets off for Alamoi, having learned how to create an explosive elixir to destroy the growing construct. His guide Tog schemes to kill Garen for the supposed treasures in his pack before they reach the plague zone, but they’re accosted by hillfolk brigands. Garen produces a talisman of safe passage from the mysterious pack. The brigands honor it for Garen—but there’s only one token, and Tog falls to their stone-tipped spears.
Garen arrives at Alamoi, to find countless dream-laborers swarming over two towering constructs that lean toward each other, opposite sides of an arch. They have only to place the massive keystone to complete the structure, and they raise it as Garen watches. He creeps through alleyways, where a gang of starving children attack him—too young to be useful to the ashamani, they’ve developed a taste for the easiest meat available. Garen escapes by climbing to a roof with the dexterity of a lizard. He’ll die anyway, the gang leader taunts, for the laborers’ work is almost done.
Garen imitates the gaits and sightless stares of the dreamers and squeezes through the milling crowd before the arch. They sway to a song they alone can hear; it reminds Garen of the time he was exposed to a dream from which he returned “lacking some deep, fundamental piece of himself.”
At the base of the arch, he starts concocting the explosive elixirs. The dreamers scream in unison, but don’t face him. They gaze upward, to where the keystone slips into place. A fetid breeze blows from it, “like the exhalation of some great beast.”
A buzzing swarm of pink abominations spill from the blackness within the arch. Behind them lurks an immense amorphous presence. Winged abominations dive at Garen, dreamers lurch to attack. Luckily for Garen, one of his many studies has been the martial arts.
He fights his way to his elixir and throws in the triggering essence. The world flares white. When Garen can see again, he’s in a chaos of terrible heat, screams and the tumult of collapsing stone. Flung clear, he witnesses the abominations attacking the surviving dreamers, tearing open their skulls and plucking out their brains, to store the organs in gray canisters slung on their bellies.
Claws seize Garen. Abominations lift him spread-eagled into the air. He’s sure he’s done for, but they toss him aside and fly off with their gruesome harvest. The archway’s gone, the Dreamer sealed away once more. The Alamoi dreamers begin to wake. Garen limps away from the city.
Eventually Garen goes to the Library of Dreams to collect his reward, but finds only questions to madden him further. For years he worries about the winged abominations released into the world. He finds no trace of them, but the question remains: Why, when they were harvesting brains, did they not take his? “Something beyond the pink meats had been their true goal. Whatever it was, Garen the Undreaming did not possess it.”
What’s Cyclopean: The gale through the arch brings a smell, and the stench is indescribable. “It was… the unnamable!” Only now instead of a monster it’s a perfume.
The Degenerate Dutch: The hillfolk, who reject agriculture, supplement their hunter-gatherer lifestyle with a sideline in brigandry.
Mythos Making: The Dreamers visit plagues upon mankind with their dreams. Sounds a lot like Cthulhu turning over in its sleep, stirring waves of art and revolution. ““The dream plagues are the dreams of Them—those titans and gods from before language and song, the horrors banished outside by the first fires and spears. In their eternal slumber, their dreams twist the wakened and reshape those that they touch.”
Libronomicon: The scroll with the fire spell is a trap laid by the “mad thing” who dreamed it.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Madness also suits one perfectly to stop the rise of an elder god. Or more precisely, the inability to sleep and dream makes one mad, and also makes one immune to elder-ish dreams and thus perfectly suited to stop the rise of an elder god. Correlation, not causation.
In the last few months we’ve had the good fortune to travel with three invincible wizards, to use the term more or less loosely. First there was One-Eyed Jack, of Alter Reiss’s “In the Forest of the Night.” Then there was the Palm-Wine Drinkard of Amos Tutuola’s “Complete Gentleman.” And now we’ve trekked to Alamoi with Jeremiah Tolbert’s ingenious madman, Garen the Undreaming. All have amazing powers. Jack may pretend to be in his magical dotage, but in fact he can use his own death as a ploy, returning to baffle his murderous enemies and simultaneously feed his monstrous master-god. The Drinkard modestly calls himself the Father of gods who can do anything in this world; for all his dipsomania, he lives up to his boast by demonstrating the ability to turn himself into a lizard, a sparrow, even thin air.
And Garen? He may look like a “loose bundle of sticks and rags… made of elbows and knees, long-limbed, thin,” hair and beard “one tangled, rat-gnawed mess,” but a close observer will notice that the sea-gray eyes behind the tangles reflect more light than than the candle that illuminates them. The scholars discover he’s handsome enough for an invite to their bed, where he acquits himself well. Maybe it’s all that time spent in brothels. More, despite his fits of madness, his mind is one of the sharpest Besthamun’s ever encountered. Too bad he won’t survive his mission to Alamoi.
Oh yeah? No need to worry about Garen. He always has the exact superpower or supernatural amount of luck a tight situation requires: A token to get by murderous hillfolk, Spidey-like wall crawling, a matchless mastery of the martial arts. Once his village was exposed to a dream, and all the villagers died of it save Garen, from whom the dream ripped out “some deep, fundamental piece of himself.” His insomnia and dreamlessness are symptoms, then, and whatever “fundamental piece” controls sleep and dream is what he’s lost. I thought of the rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia and the even rarer sporadic fatal insomnia, the trigger of which is unknown. Either leads to physical and mental deterioration and finally coma and death. I thought, too, of the opening of Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
Maybe it was the absolute reality of the Dreaming Gods that came to Garen in his last slumbering escape from the reality of daily life, which he now tries to distance himself from with sex, drugs and humming acolytes. No good. He’s been struck mad and remains mad. Physically, though, he’s in great shape, his scrawniness notwithstanding. Looks can deceive—ask Besthamun and Meldri.
One-Eyed Jack has entered a dream realm. The Palm-Wine Drinkard ventures into the nightmare bush, where only monsters dwell. Undreaming Garen, ironically, becomes the savior of a world in which dream is revered, and dreaded. What these seemingly unlikely heroes have in common is the ability to kick butt, one way or many. Lovecraft’s principal dreamer, Randolph Carter, has no magic or leet fighting skill to compare with them. His “superpower” is, basically, making friends. He hangs out with King Kuranes of Celephais. He makes treaties with the curious Zoogs until they clash with his favored Cats of Ulthar. The Cats come to his aid when he’s been captured by Moon-beasts. He’s also tight with the Ghouls, who guide him out of the Underworld and join in his final battle with the Moon-beasts. Even the Night-gaunts eventually serve him as flying mounts. What a diplomat. What a schmoozer. Even Nyarlathotep gives him a private audience. We could use Randolph in Washington.
I can’t close without applauding Tolbert’s insertion of pink-hued and buzzing abominations into the climax of his story. They fly on iridescent wings! They pluck skull-meat out of their victims and store it in gray canisters! Must be our old friends the Mi-Go. They just brighten up any day, don’t they? What great attitudes they have—fail to get your Great One back into a plane ripe for ravening? Make the best of a bad situation and harvest some brains.
Only the dream-capable brains, though, so not Garen’s. Not good enough for Yuggoth! He never forgets the insult.
Well, who would?
As long as you’re going to play with Lovecraftian madness, you may as well make it truly uncanny. And in a story of Sword-and-Elder-Sorcery, that madness might drive a hero (hero-ish protagonist, anyway) to adventure. What better source of such madness than a loss of dreams? Bonus points that while the source is uncanny, the effects on mental stability are if anything understated in the magical version. Deprive someone of their REM sleep for a couple of days, a thing researchers tried in the 60s and 70s, and people start hallucinating. The brain will have its visions, one way or another. And as Anne mentions above, long-term effects are much nastier. Sleep, we need it.
Garen’s tale comes from Swords V. Cthulhu, an anthology of sword-and-sorcery-and-cosmic-horror—an uncommon sub-subgenre these days, but one with a rich history. Weird Tales and the other pulps cheerfully mined and combined their various sources of drama. Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith were as likely to encounter non-Euclidean geometry or tentacled abominations as barbarian princes. If you can ram Cthulhu with a ship, then you can stab It with your stabby knife, right? Or your magical grenade, whichever.
The setting flows naturally (or unnaturally, as the case may be) from “Call of Cthulhu,” even though Cthulhu’s never directly named and the lurking horror in the background may, in fact, be an entirely different Dreamer. But the most intriguing part of “Call,” for me, has always been the seismic ripples of the titular entity’s dreams: the creative mania that comes upon privileged artists, the to-Lovecraft-terrifying uprisings in parts of the world where he really would have preferred the subjects of empire content with their lot. In “Alamoi,” these ripples gather into waves and tsunamis. Dream plagues wash over towns and leave again—or in the case of Alamoi, fail to do so. And the creations of those in thrall to the plagues are inevitably bad news for anyone in the vicinity. Garen, unable to dream, is immune to Dreams as well, able to walk amid those thralls and destroy their work.
As a bonus, whatever Galen lacks seems to be what the creepy bird-things that made it through the portal were hungry for. Dreams, presumably. Nice, juicy, squishy pink dreaming brains. Might those be Mi-Go? Maybe Bear and Monette’s version, who gain some unknown power from their canistered brains, even more than Lovecraft’s originals who really just want long, cosmopolitan chats with their brainy companions/prisoners.
The sleeplessness, while useful in this particular case, isn’t particularly pleasant for Garen himself, and the angst-ridden effects also make for a classic sorcerous hero. The bisexuality is less classic, but a welcome addition. As long as you’re going to seek brief solace in the pleasures of the flesh, why not be egalitarian in your seeking? And he may as well get as much as he can out of Meldri and Bethsamun, since they’re doing the same with him.
Final note: Normally I’m not much for post-apocalyptic soul-tainting cannibalism, but forgive it here given the soul-breaking influences in the area. But I do have to mention, around the children trying to get at Garen’s juices (really?), that until quite recently, eating people to survive when nothing else was available was generally considered socially acceptable, and that soul-tainting aftereffects have not been often documented. And, should you fear your neighbors when disaster strikes, it turns out that people are actually pretty reluctant to eat each other when there are still squirrels and pigeons to be found. You can all relax now. Unless an eldritch plague hits us; then all bets are off.
Next week, August Derleth’s “Seal of R’lyeh” answers the call of the sea. There’s text online, quality somewhat iffy; you can find the original in Derleth’s The Mask of Cthulhu.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, 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.