Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The H. P. Lovecraft short story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was first published in the October 1919 issue of Pine Cones, and then reprinted in the March 1938 issue of Weird Tales (cover at left). It’s a striking effort: trapped in cliché and pulp absurdity at times, particularly in the narrative’s framing, but the imagination at play within that frame is often quite remarkable.

The story’s first half may have one sighing with impatience. Lovecraft can be slavishly derivative of Edgar Allan Poe at times, and he again makes use of Poe’s convention of employing a narrator of rather dubious sanity. The fellow here is an intern receiving his training at a mental institution. At one point, the institution's head doctor prescribes him "a nerve-powder" and sends him on six-month paid vacation to recover from nervous strain, but one will be doubting his psychological health long before then. The intern is fascinated by a backwoodsman who had been committed after gruesomely beating a man to death. The backwoodsman has fits during which he relates hallucinations of “great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys.” These hallucinations are especially preoccupied with an adversary described as “some mysterious blazing entity that shook and laughed and mocked at him.” The intern cannot reconcile these spectacular descriptions with the backwoodsman’s illiteracy, and he becomes convinced the man is representative of something beyond normal comprehension. To better understand the man’s visions, the intern hooks the two of them up to--believe it or not--an apparatus that enables a telepathic rapport. One may be a bit taken aback by the goofiness of all this, but what comes next more than redeems it.

In “Dagon,” Lovecraft made use of myth-derived material to set the stage for the story’s more visionary moments, and here he relies on rather junky science fiction. But to a much greater degree than with “Dagon,” Lovecraft plays to the essential appeal of his work. He promises an opportunity described in a line from Poe’s “Eleonora”: to “obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awaking, to find they have been upon the verge of the great secret.” The central passage of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” in which the intern joins the backwoodsman in his hallucinatory journey, lives up to the promise--it approximates the more spectacular sections of Dante’s Paradiso. And in the climax, Lovecraft dispenses with “the verge of the great secret,” and more or less presents it head-on. He plays notes similar to the revelation material in “Dagon,” but in a different key: the supernatural beings do not stand apart from humanity. They are an aspect of it: in part subordinate, and in part transcendent. With “Dagon” and its portent of conflict between humanity and a race of gods, Lovecraft turned the Romantic ideal of unity with the divine on its head. Here, he sets it up straight again, but with a particular spin: humanity and the divine are unified in some respects, but ultimately exist apart.

Lovecraft relies on hackneyed material, but only as a starting point. He uses it in the way a good jazz musician uses a pop standard: as a springboard for his own unique presentation. The dross in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” may take one back a bit, but it’s also the foundation for an imagination that at its best is quite visionary. In art, one is always happy to take the bad as long as the good comes with it.

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