The All Has Read Project #3: Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Welcome to The All Has Read Project, a biweekly read-along in which Everything Is Scary is examining the works of H.P. Lovecraft starting with his famous Arkham Cycle. This week our topic is Beyond the Wall of Sleep, which can be read in full at The H.P. Lovecraft Archive.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s earliest written stories, first published in 1919 in an amateur journal called Pine Cones. Told from the perspective of an intern at an asylum, the short story brings sci-fi ideas of interstellar beings and telepathy into the weird fiction realm of dreamlands and pessimism. At its heart there is a longing to ascend beyond the tragic limitations of our human form, but the tale’s core themes are undercut by Lovecraft’s signature bigotry.
The story concerns the relationship between the intern and a patient named John Sater, a man from the Catskill Mountains in New York. He is labeled a degenerate, genetically inferior by the intern, but also brings with him an interesting malady: he is becoming intermittently possessed by some inhuman force, jabbering on about otherworldly planes and an adversary from the stars on whom he seeks vengeance. It is during one of these telepathic episodes that Slater kills his neighbour, a crime for which he is confined to the asylum under the intern’s care.
The intern becomes inspired by Slater’s raving visions of interstellar vistas, which in turn moves him to seek confirmation of a long held theory of his: that dreams are the prime mode of reality and our so-called waking life is but a virtual facsimile of true experience (here again we see Lovecraft getting fun mileage out of simple inversions of assumed truths). Using an apparatus he dubs the cosmic radio, the intern attempts to telepathically communicate to the entity he believes is possessing Slater, and after dozing off while hooked up to the dream machine, momentarily transcends his moral form. He enters a fantastic musical realm of brightness where he encounters the true entity inside Slater and telepathically comes to understand its imprisonment. Upon waking, the intern witnesses the mountain man’s death only to see him momentarily re-animated by the light-being, who speaks of cosmic vengeance before his inevitable departure which coincides with a supernova that is strongly implied to be the luminous alien exacting his vengeance on the oppressor humans have named Algol the Demon-star.
The truly awesome imagery of photonic beings ripping holes in bad suns for purposes of cosmic revenge is delicious. A lot of what I like about Lovecraft’s work is how visual it can be when it’s not retreating to the safety of un-speak, and Beyond the Wall of Sleep is filled with fantastic pictures that blend the mythological (Slater’s body being discovered in the hollow of a tree on the snowy night of his neighbour’s murder), the mystical (beings of light floating in space), and the mad scientific (the cosmic radio connecting the cranium of an alienist to a patient). Furthermore, the idea of dreams acting as a type of portal through which humans can access other worlds in a real and meaningful way is a key component to Lovecraftian mythology.
Sadly, Beyond the Wall of Sleep fails to truly land its pessimistic message that life is but a dream we can never escape because humans are insignificant. And the reason it fails has to do with a deep rooted problem with the author himself that too frequently manifests in his fiction: Lovecraft hated everyone who wasn’t a particular type of New England white.
If We Are Nothing We Are Also Equal
It has long struck me as a miracle of irony that Lovecraft, the popular literary poster child for cosmic pessimism, was so fixated on his perceived genetic and cultural superiority. So much of his work acts as a parable for the nihilistic and yet, despite his purported intention of illustrating that humankind is nothing in a vast, idiot universe, he still thought it was so important to include his personal prejudices in so much of his writing.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep is notable in showing just how refined Lovecraft’s bigotry was. The character of John Slater is a white man, but Lovecraft hates his hillbilly white trash stock so much that, after pages of constant reminders that Slater was practically sub-human, in the end dialogue between the intern and the cosmic entity, the alien from another world goes out of its way to state that Slater is an objectively inferior person.
“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.”
It’s the alien bigotry that truly ruins this story. At the time of writing, eugenics was still a paradigm of medical professionals like the intern, so even a modern writer with progressive views might still characterize him as condescending to Slater for reasons solely to do with story. Obviously in literature characters must hold worldviews, often problematic or atrocious ones, other than those of the author. This is how fiction works—stories run on conflict, so if we all agreed with every character from the outset there would be nothing worth reading. But in this case, the glowing entity encountered by the intern serves as an objective third-party who corroborates ideas of genetic superiority based on inheritance, tipping Lovecraft’s political hand and hobbling the story’s potential as a pessimistic text.
By corroborating the intern’s eugenic biases, the strange star-bigot robs the story of a full character arc. As it is, the intern is rewarded for little reason other than his heritage, having his worldviews reaffirmed, undergoing no personal change, and even getting a paid vacation from his boss who dismisses the episode as proof the intern needs a rest. Unlike the narrators of previous stories we have examined in the project, the protagonist of Beyond the Wall of Sleep isn’t driven mad or tortured by his experiences, which in itself feels very anti-Lovecraft.
But a stronger, more truly cosmic arc would be this: intern believes he is superior to Slater, is confronted with human insignificance, realizes that he is no different than the person he once loathed.
As you might already know, or at least probably expect, Lovecraft’s bigotry is much worse in later examples of his writing. And I will be broaching the subject as it comes up because it is important to understand how Lovecraft’s prejudice inevitably sabotaged much of his best work. In cases like this, I think it could be fun to see if, by removing the racism, the stories can come closer to depicting a more thematically pure human insignificance. So that being the case, I think a stronger, darker arc would have the intern, who believes he is superior to Slater, forced to confront his own insignificance and realize that he actually is no better than the mountain man because we are all nothing. I think it could be as easy has making the final monologue more hostile, or even perhaps just indifferent to the intern.
In this case, taking out the objective nature of the story’s genetic politics strengthens the power of the story. Imagine the despair of being a thoughtful fantasist who suspects that dreamlands are real, finally receiving objective confirmation of your theory, and then being told that through sheer chance you were not shown such transcendent experiences while a man whose very nature you hate does. A bigoted character has the potential for a longer fall into deeper despair than his equality minded counterpart, but only if the world he exists in abides by the true laws of the indifferent cosmos and not those of some shallow minded wannabe gentleman author.
The supernova described at the end of Beyond the Wall of Sleep actually happened.
That supernova was millions of light years away too, corroborating the star-bigot’s claims that the realm of the cosmic souls is not bound by human experiences of time.
According to the notes in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, there is no evidence that there were ever hillbilly white trash communities in the Catskills Mountains.
The interstellar odyssey involving sentient stars is reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson’s cosmic masterpiece The House on the Borderland, which just so happens to be my favourite classic horror novel. Please read it.
Join us again next time when we meet our first Lovecraftian God in Nyarlathotep!