On “Celephaïs” 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.

Escapism only works if you’re able to escape.

“Celephaïs” (full text) was written in November 1920 and first published in May 1922 in a magazine called The Rainbow. On both a formal and an aesthetic level, this is very much an example of Lovecraft returning to his creative comfort zone: We have the motif of the dreamer being snatched away from mundane reality, we have a somewhat melancholic landscape littered with decoratively ruined temples, and we have both additions and returns to the ever-expanding lexicon of Lovecraftian locations including the Plateau of Leng and the first mention of a town named Innsmouth.

Though “Celephaïs” may be ostensibly little more than yet another Dream Cycle story to be shelved alongside works such as “The White Ship” and “Polaris”, it contains a number of semi-autobiographical allusions that invite us to dwell for a while on the motivations behind the creation of the Dream Cycle, but more on that in a bit.

“Celephaïs” opens by introducing us to Kuranes, the assumed name of a man who lives in then-contemporary Britain only to visit a fantastical world whenever he falls asleep. As with many of his early stories,Lovecraft wrote “Celephaïs” by using one of his dreams as a writing prompt. In this case, the prompt is said to have been that of flying over a city and so the story reads less like a conventional narrative in which people do things and more like a travelogue or the description of footage captured by a drone as it flies over a fantastical landscape:

“He had been dreaming of the house where he was born; the great stone house covered with ivy, where thirteen generations of his ancestors had lived, and where he had hoped to die. It was moonlight, and he had stolen out into the fragrant summer night, through the gardens, down the terraces, past the great oaks of the park, and along the long white road to the village. The village seemed very old, eaten away at the edge like the moon which had commenced to wane, and Kuranes wondered whether the peaked roofs of the small houses hid sleep or death. In the streets were spears of long grass, and the window-panes on either side were either broken or filmily staring.”

This landscape was either created or discovered by Kuranes as a child and, having lost his way as an adult, he decides to try and return to the fantastical place using a variety of drugs and sleeping potions, but while Kuranes is still able to dream as an adult, he finds himself incapable of returning to the city of Celephaïs until he is met by a group of knights who march him through the English countryside, past his family’s old estate, and on to the city where he finds that time has passed, and his throne has been occupied by a usurper.

It is interesting reading this story after watching the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as it’s pretty clear that Dream was at least partly inspired by Kuranes. It’s also pretty clear that this story also provided a lot of the ideas that went into the comic’s opening story arc in which Dream is dragged out of the land of dreams and imprisoned in the mortal realm only to return home to find his dream-kingdom in ruins. In fact, the similarities are so pronounced that it seems relatively uncontroversial to say that Gaiman took this story, removed both the philosophical ambiguity and the psychological complexity, and turned it into the opening arc of his comic.

It’s interesting to note that while Lovecraft allows a bit of ambiguity over the question of whether Celephaïs exists independently of Kuranes, Gaiman makes it unambiguously clear that the Dreaming is as much an objective part of the world as the M25 motorway. Also interesting is the fact that Lovecraft echoes earlier stories in the Dream Cycle by presenting his dreamer as a fuck-up whose yearning for another world is always born of failure and melancholy. The fact that Lovecraft’s dreamers come from quite dark places gives the act of dreaming a sense of psychological transgression. Kuranes is a member of the British aristocracy but his family have lost their lands and he now returns to the world of dreams by indulging in drink and drugs. By having his dreamer be not only native to the world of dreams but also its legitimate monarch, Gaiman effectively strips out all of the psychological discomfort associated with the act of dreaming: Dream is not some fuck-up looking to check out, he’s a monarch returning home; a Goth Jesus Christ with none of the blood. These tonal differences between “Celephaïs” and Sandman also raise some interesting questions about why Lovecraft kept returning to the idea of being sucked into one’s own dreams.

Reading “Celephaïs” I was reminded of Tolkien’s riff on escapism and the idea that the happy endings provided by fairy tales offer an echo of the sense of spiritual fulfilment embedded in the Christian understanding of history. For the Christian, the long curve of history does not so much tend towards liberalism as towards deliverance and everything that happens in history serves a purpose in God’s great plan. According to Tolkien, fairy stories provide an echo of that sense of spiritual fulfilment by describing literary universes that function according to comprehensible human-scaled rules. The world of fairy stories, much like the world of Christianity, is a world where injustice, indifference, and existential bafflement are only ever instrumental pit-stops on the road to Divine Grace. Lovecraft was not religious but he was profoundly unfortunate and one could explain his fondness for dream stories in terms of a desire for escape.

In 1927, the French novelist Romain Rolland wrote a letter to Sigmund Freud about spirituality. In this letter, he described spirituality as an ‘Oceanic feeling’ of contact with the eternal. This Oceanic feeling sounds very similar to Tolkien’s echo of salvation and Freud explained it in terms of a resurfacing memory of early childhood where there was (to the infant’s mind) no difference between themselves and the world. According to Freud, this feeling of profound connection to the world disappears when children cease breast-feeding as they suddenly come to realise that food and comfort are not available on tap, they are things that exist out in the world and must be sought.

All of the Dream Cycle stories, including “Celephaïs” are about collapsing the walls between Ego and World. Lovecraft’s dreamers, like Lovecraft himself, are all losers and fuck-ups who yearn to escape from their problems only to find themselves transported to places that expose the weaknesses of the ego by transforming them into objective characteristics of the world. Think of the dreamer in “The White Ship” who turns his nose up at a series of dream-like utopias only to wind up right back where he started. Similarly, in “Polaris”, the ineffectual cowardly dreamer projects himself onto a wall where he dreams of standing to against the ravening hordes only for his cowardice and ineptitude to wind up contributing to the fall of civilisation. “Celephaïs” is another story of flawed escapism in that the destitute aristocrat dreams of escaping to the dream-world of his childhood only to arrive in his dream-world to find someone else sat on his throne.

I would argue that the downbeat nature of these Dream Cycle stories is born of Lovecraft’s conflicted feelings about escapism. Like the character of Rimmer in the Red Dwarf episode “Better than Life”, he projects himself into a series of dream-worlds only to wind up facing the exact same problems that caused him to desire escapism in the first place.

Reading Tolkien’s work on escapism I am always struck by the extent to which he seems to conflate the role of the reader with that of the writer. I can imagine that writers must experience intense satisfaction from creating worlds in which everyone has a place and everything makes sense but the reader’s experience of these exact same worlds will never rise higher than that of a story that fails to collapse under its own imperfections. That’s not so much an echo of divine, as a fart wafting down a corridor where the divine once stopped to smoke a fag.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that authorial attitudes to escapism reveal quite a lot about the authors: For Tolkien, the echo of grace was achievable through the act of scholarship and burying oneself in lore to the point where the Sun is blotted out and the real collapses into the imagined. For Gaiman, grace is a gift unearned that comes to you because you were born awesome and have great hair. Lovecraft rejected both of these visions of escapist bliss; for Lovecraft the search for grace was doomed from the start and destined only to explode in your face leaving you somehow even more spiritually bereft than you were when you first set out on your journey. For Lovecraft, happiness is not only fragile but born of profound ignorance as the search for grace, insight, or revelation can only lead to misery and madness.

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