On “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Some folks’ll never be possessed but then again some folks’ll… like Cletus the slack-jawed Yokel.

A lot of creativity books talk about inspiration in terms comparable to the Titanic hitting the iceberg: You sail along in your day-to-day life and then suddenly, out of nowhere, your muse whispers to you and BANG you have an idea for a story or a piece of art. While there is doubtless some degree of truth to this understanding of human creativity, I think it downplays the involvement of the creator’s lived experience and ideological assumptions.

Ideology and lived experience are central to speculative fiction as the imaginary worlds that people create often reflect the author’s unspoken wishes and assumptions. Comic books are often described as power fantasies but this term is widely misunderstood. Comics like Superman and Batman are not fantasies because they describe beings with super-human powers. They are fantasies because they describe worlds in which those super-human powers can be used to make the world a better place. These worlds are shaped by an ideological commitment to the idea that it should be possible to solve social problems by punching (often poor and mentally-unwell) people in the face.

You can tell a lot about an author from the types of fantasies that inform their speculative writing. For example, if you read the novels of Ursula K. Le Guin you will find someone deeply concerned about ethical and political issues using her writing to foreground tensions and currents that are present in the real world albeit in a less visible manner. Similarly, if you happen to read the novels of Robert Heinlein, you will encounter a man who devoted a lot of time and energy to dreaming up worlds in which it was okay to be a fascist or to fuck your daughters.

Given that Lovecraft wrote horror, it is relatively straightforward to take his stories and work backwards to the fears that inspired their writing. This kind of reverse-engineering is particularly easy when dealing with race as Lovecraft’s racism is manifest not only in his depiction of non-white people but also in stories like “Polaris” where you can see him indulging in the same fantasies of oppression that you find in most right-wing media including – at the moment – the output of Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists who justify their bigotry through appeals to these weirdly sexualised fantasies about trans-women brandishing their hogs in toilets and changing rooms.

While Lovecraft definitely indulges in this kind of fantasising, there has been a tendency to cast him as an author defined by fantasies of supremacy and persecution. A lot of the pushback against this re-casting of Lovecraft has been routed in either misguided denial or hand-wringing contextualisation. To deny that Lovecraft was a racist and a reactionary is not only insulting to the kinds of people who would have been in the crosshairs of his politics, it is also to deny one of the main sources of his authorial power. My approach to Lovecraft is not to deny his reactionary politics but to unpack them and present them as merely an expression of the author’s conflicted self-loathing.

“Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is a nice rejoinder to the stories that came before. While works like “Dagon”, “Polaris” and “The Green Meadow” all find Lovecraft experimenting both with turning dream-imagery into stories and also with stories about dreams serving as portals to other places, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” steps back from that process and tries to put it into a broader conceptual context. This is obvious from the opening monologue:

I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life,

The story is written from the viewpoint of a man who is working as an intern in a mental hospital when the cops bring in an inhabitant of a remote part of the Catskill mountains. While “Polaris” may have hinted at how Lovecraft felt about people of Asian descent, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” makes it abundantly clear how he feels about poor people:

His appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts. Among these odd folk, who correspond exactly to the decadent element of “white trash” in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any other section of the native American people.

I was initially somewhat thrown by his use of the term “Native American” but then I was reminded of the character of Bill the Butcher in the film Gangs of New York who uses the term ‘natives’ to distinguish between people born in America and people who have merely immigrated there. So when Lovecraft says that the denizens of upstate New York are the most stupid of all the native Americans, he means white people born in the US.

Lovecraft returns to this particular well a number of times and layers on this kind of descriptive prose with a trowel. There’s lots of talk about rheumy vacant stares and mouths that hang open in blank stupidity because this is, at least in part, all about someone developmentally challenged showing uncanny flashes of intelligence and imagination that seem impossible to anyone with his level of education.

Named either Slater or Slaader, the man was brought in after violently attacking someone in what was presumed to be psychotic rage. Once committed to the mental institution, the man starts sharing these weird fantasies about needing to avenge himself of a laughing ethereal presence. While the doctors at the hospital all seem to agree that the man is just a psychotic plagued by a range of striking and unusually vivid hallucinations, the viewpoint character is convinced that these dreams must be coming from somewhere as Slater is manifestly too stupid and un-educated to have any imagination of his own.

The viewpoint character becomes so obsessed with Slater that the doctors soon organise for him to take a month’s paid leave but before he departs the hospital, the intern decides to hook Slater up to a machine of his own invention. This machine works a bit like a radio but instead of detecting, translating, and amplifying radio waves it amplifies “intellectual energy”.

At first, the device only allows the intern to perceive what Slater is seeing and what he sees is a lavish fantastical realm that recalls the eerie sub-European landscapes of Lovecraft’s earlier dream stories:

The sound of weird lyric melody was what aroused me. Chords, vibrations, and harmonic ecstasies echoed passionately on every hand; while on my ravished sight burst the stupendous spectacle of ultimate beauty. Walls, columns, and architraves of living fire blazed effulgently around the spot where I seemed to float in air; extending upward to an infinitely high vaulted dome of indescribable splendour. Blending with this display of palatial magnificence, or rather, supplanting it at times in kaleidoscopic rotation, were glimpses of wide plains and graceful valleys, high mountains and inviting grottoes; covered with every lovely attribute of scenery which my delighted eye could conceive of, yet formed wholly of some glowing, ethereal, plastic entity, which in consistency partook as much of spirit as of matter. As I gazed, I perceived that my own brain held the key to these enchanting metamorphoses; for each vista which appeared to me, was the one my changing mind most wished to behold. Amidst this elysian realm I dwelt not as a stranger, for each sight and sound was familiar to me; just as it had been for uncounted aeons of eternity before, and would be for like eternities to come.

After exploring the dream world, the intern makes contact with the presence that seems to have been fuelling Slater’s lapses into intelligence:

He is better dead, for he was unfit to bear the active intellect of cosmic entity. His gross body could not undergo the needed adjustments between ethereal life and planet life. He was too much of an animal, too little a man; yet it is through his deficiency that you have come to discover me, for the cosmic and planet souls rightly should never meet. He has been my torment and diurnal prison for forty-two of your terrestrial years. I am an entity like that which you yourself become in the freedom of dreamless sleep. I am your brother of light, and have floated with you in the effulgent valleys. It is not permitted me to tell your waking earth-self of your real self, but we are all roamers of vast spaces and travellers in many ages. Next year I may be dwelling in the dark Egypt which you call ancient, or in the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan which is to come three thousand years hence. You and I have drifted to the worlds that reel about the red Arcturus, and dwelt in the bodies of the insect-philosophers that crawl proudly over the fourth moon of Jupiter. How little does the earth-self know of life and its extent! How little, indeed, ought it to know for its own tranquillity! Of the oppressor I cannot speak. You on earth have unwittingly felt its distant presence—you who without knowing idly gave to its blinking beacon the name of Algol, the Daemon-Star. It is to meet and conquer the oppressor that I have vainly striven for aeons, held back by bodily encumbrances. Tonight I go as a Nemesis bearing just and blazingly cataclysmic vengeance. Watch me in the sky close by the Daemon-Star. I cannot speak longer, for the body of Joe Slater grows cold and rigid, and the coarse brains are ceasing to vibrate as I wish. You have been my friend in the cosmos; you have been my only friend on this planet—the only soul to sense and seek for me within the repellent form which lies on this couch. We shall meet again—perhaps in the shining mists of Orion’s Sword, perhaps on a bleak plateau in prehistoric Asia. Perhaps in unremembered dreams tonight; perhaps in some other form an aeon hence, when the solar system shall have been swept away.

Though perhaps not as resonant as Lovecraft’s best prose, this passage is bursting with lovely ideas and evocative details: the insect philosophers of Jupiter’s fourth moon! The 50th Century Cruel Empire of Tsan Chan! There’s also the use of (what were then) cutting-edge scientific ideas melting into fantasy and the idea of advanced beings inhabiting the bodies of lowly humans. To read about the rivalry this being has with a comparable being and how he has been trapped in the body of a stupid human really reminded me of Lovecraft’s later possession stories as well as games like Nephilim.

When I said that this story reveals a lot about how Lovecraft saw himself, I was referring to the fact that the story’s viewpoint character is neither Slater nor the doctors treating him. Instead, it’s a guy who is still working as an intern despite the fact that he invented a machine that allows him to see people’s dreams. Like a lot of conservatives, Lovecraft displays authoritarian tendencies that manifest themselves as deference to people of higher status (in this case, the doctors) and a bottomless hatred for their social inferiors (in this case, Slater).

The presumed history of the intern maps quite neatly onto what we know of Lovecraft’s education as while his high-school transcripts and amateur journalism show real signs of intelligence, he would routinely struggle with the training required to acquire professional qualifications. As a young man, Lovecraft wanted to become an astronomer but he could not be bothered to learn the maths. He then moved on to studying chemistry but struggled with the organic components. It’s not that Lovecraft was incapable of learning these things, it’s just that he seemed to respond to minor set-backs by abandoning his aspirations, declaring himself physiologically incapable, and withdrawing from the world. This pattern would play out again and again throughout his life until the death of his mother left him with nowhere to withdraw to and that’s the point at which the depression, fear, and negativity really came to the fore in both his fiction and his experience of daily life.

This story tells us a lot about the limits of Lovecraft’s imagination as you can see him, on the one hand, deferring to the doctors who diagnose him with mental exhaustion and, on the other hand, expressing real grief and resentment over the fact that this ethereal presence was wasted on someone like Slater rather than on an intelligence such as his own. Lovecraft’s conservatism meant that he was only able to feel contempt for Slater but you can also see the way that he identified more closely with the marginalised idiot than he did with the respectable professionals. This is the exact same tension that was manifest in both “The Alchemist” and “The Tomb”.

I liked “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” a lot more than I have liked some of the recent stories if only because the psychiatric framing device positions the story closer to our world than the world of dreams. Used in this way, I really liked the wildness of the dream imagery as well as Lovecraft’s riffing on ideas of racial memory and the collective unconscious but I definitely prefer it when the engagement takes place with one foot rooted in the real. This being said, I do not love this story and the thing preventing me from loving it is the fact that it hinges upon the idea about there being something eerie and impossible about mentally ill and developmentally challenged people being creative. In reality, the creative potential of such people has been recognised since the middle ages.

This is definitely one of the areas in which Lovecraft was blinded by his own upbringing and lack of formal education as there is a long history of uneducated and cognitively-impaired people producing great art. In fact, much of the greatness of these artists comes from the fact that they are uneducated and so cannot draw on the imagery and ideas of collective culture. Nowadays we refer to these kinds of people as Outsider Artists but the phenomenon was already well known in Lovecraft’s day. In fact, the phenomenon was so well known that people like Kandinsky and Klee spent the early to mid-1910s consciously trying to imitate the style and approaches of artists who had grown up with no education as well as significant mental and cognitive problems. Given what we know about Lovecraft’s creative politics at the time, I suspect he would have been horrified by the idea of classically-trained artists trying to paint like the inmates of insane asylums but, by the time this story was written, it was already very much a thing and so “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” hinges on something being impossible and unsettling when it was in fact already quite a widely understood and admired phenomenon. In fact, if you look at Lovecraft’s personal history, the psychological hardships he endured, and his failure to gain much traction in the worlds of either education or employment, you might argue that Lovecraft is much closer to an outsider artist than the likes of Kandinsky or Klee.

The more I read Lovecraft, the more I see someone who knows that he is trapped between two worlds: On the one hand, he someone with enough intelligence and self-awareness to recognise that he was not doing well. On the other hand, he was someone who came from a privileged background and whose mother was manifestly judging him by the yardsticks of her social class. Much of what we know about Lovecraft can be understood as an attempt to reconcile these two incompatible sources of self-imagery. Part of what makes his voice so singular is the fact that while he is forever tapping into racist and classist narratives, he has enough self-awareness and intelligence that his sympathies keep drifting to the figure of the cripple, the outcast, the beta, the loser, and the fuck-up. Those sympathies are obvious from the way that the protagonist of this story is revealed as a kind of Outsider Scientist and it’s obvious from the way that the protagonist obsesses over the yokel to the point where he tries to crawl inside his dreams. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” may not quite hit the mark for me as a story but it certainly reminded me of why I find the work of Lovecraft so utterly compelling.

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