Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "Beyond the Wall of Sleep"

Spooky Synopsis: Joe Slater didn't look like a dangerous man. No, on first (and second and third) glance, he seemed nothing more than one of the Catskill-dwelling hill folk who delighted primarily in whiskey and sleep. But sleep was where his problems started. Even compared to his sluggardly relations, Slater liked his shut-eye. Yet he often flew into violent rages upon awakening, screaming incomprehensible descriptions about light-soaked vistas of empty space, a strange and haunting music, and a great, taunting being who sought his torment. Afterward, though, Slater could hardly remember his earlier agitation. It was what happened during one of these fugues that he committed the crime that landed him in a mental institution, beating a man to death with his bare hands, striking and striking and striking until his victim was a bloody pulp.

Lovecraftian Language: "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, yet separated from the life by an all but impassable barrier."

Eerie Evaluation: One doesn't need a doctorate in literary studies to deduce from "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" that Lovecraft had a poor opinion of rural New Englanders. The story describes Slater as "a low-grade paranoiac" and "backwoods dullard," one of those "decadent mountain folk" with "an absurd appearance of harmless stupidity" who was "pitiably inferior in mentality and language alike." Okay, okay, we get it Howard, he wasn't one of the urbane, intelligent city dwellers you so admired. It would be easier to brush aside such snobbery if the climax didn't turn on Slater being (in the words of one character) "too much of an animal, too little a man." A lamentable state, because otherwise "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" is a corker of a tale, with a cosmos-spanning cast, an epic struggle unbounded by time, and an almost optimistic tone foreign to much of Lovecraft's work.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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