“I have an explanation of sleep come upon me.” – Shakespeare
From the first of the dreamland mythos in ‘Polaris’, we move straight on to a second and much lauded ‘Beyond the walls of sleep‘, it has inspired heavy metal bands including ‘Black Sabbath‘ and movie makers (though to call the 2004 movie of the same name’inspired‘ stretches the definition, IMDB gives it a woeful 2.4/10 )… and as so often with Lovecraft, it has inspired multiple writers. Stephen King even quotes from it in ‘On Writing‘, he non-fiction guide to the art of the novel. While King uses a passage from the tale to demonstrate how ‘not’ to write dialogue, never Lovecraft’s strongest suit, it’s done so with genuine affection for both this particular story and Lovecraft’s work in general.
Written and published in 1919 (in an amateur publication called of all things ‘Pine Cones‘), Lovecraft himself said the story was partly inspired by an article in the New York Tribune in April of that year, from which he took the idea of the ‘backwards‘ Catskills population, which his narrator likens to ‘white trash in the south‘, and from the same article he took the family name of his lunatic ‘Slater‘. Quite what the real ‘Slater’ family thought of this is never recorded, but I suspect Lovecraft was reasonably sure they would never read his tale themselves considering his opinions…
As with ‘Polaris‘ Lovecraft is, you see, showing his prejudices, though as always he does so through his narrator. It is clear that they are opinions that Lovecraft shared to an extent himself. More amusingly, however, his narrator, a man obsessed with trying to understand dreams also displays his own (and possibly Lovecraft’s) prejudices against that other great interpreter of dreams Sigmund Freud with the wonderfully dismissive-
‘Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism.’ – Lovecraft
-Clearly, there is little respect due for the Austrian psychotherapist in the narrator’s view. Which establishes that he is a man of opinions if nothing else.
The narrator, unnamed as so often in Lovecraft’s fiction, tells the reader of his time working as an orderly in the state mental institution, and how he came into contact with a man named Joe Slater.Joe was incarcerated on the grounds of insanity after committing a string of murders. What interests the narrator about him is not so much the crimes Slater committed, but the murderer’s state of mind when he did so. Slater it seems has no recollection of the killings, only of ‘awakening’ for want of a better word, to find blood, quite literally, on his hands.
Slater’s history is a strange one, a member of a remote hill-billy type clan, he has little education and an intellect that is none the worse for it. Except when he has his episodes that is. For, occasionally, when he sleeps he becomes someone else entirely, and sometimes that ‘other‘ takes charge of the body of Joe Slater beyond his dreams. An event with occasionally bloody results. Little wonder then the courts found Slater to be insane, the narrator, however, thinks otherwise.
In someway’s this story is a reversing of the one told in ‘Polaris‘. Rather than the sleeper travelling in his dreams to inhabit another, in this case, the ‘other‘ comes to occupy the sleeper. In effect it is a tale of possession, but not by such simplistic tropes as the devil. Lovecraft is not one to deal with such prosaic demons. The narrator, also not one for naive concepts like simple insanity being the cause of a man to seem as though he is two people. He studies Joe Slater enough to understand the ‘other’ personality that comes to him when he sleeps is just that, an ‘other‘. Least ways because he can not attribute the things the ‘other‘ describes and says to a backwards, backwoodsman. One which he considers to be a regression from the educated, civilised society he is part of.
A mere orderly though the narrator claims to have been, is also a scientist, of the slightly barking mad variety, in that he has invented a device which allows him to commune with the dreams of others. Sneak a peek inside the head, as it were. But what he find in the mind of Joe Slater is not in any way what he expects. And this leads to a strange communion between the narrator and this ‘other’ mind in the body of Slater. Leading him to see the universe in quite different terms afterwards.
It’s at this point the real strength of Lovecraft’s rights shines through. That glorious descriptive tone that eats away at you, draws you in and makes you see a universe that is at once so strange and yet somehow so real at the same time. The impossible becomes reality and ‘Beyond the walls of sleep‘ is a minor masterpiece in this regard. Much like ‘
Much like ‘Dagon‘, it is the kind of story that Lovecraft excels with. For all his flaws the unworldly is where his writing has its greatest strengths and most disturbing images…
I could explain more of what the narrator discovers when he communes with the ‘other‘. But unlike some other stories to explain further would take something away from the story itself. It is one that needs to be read and experienced with your own imagination. Like much of Lovecraft’s strongest work.
I do not love this tale in the same way I love ‘Dagon’. I think its slightly weaker, and has less impact, and for all its power, it wanes somewhat towards the end. But that said it is still a masterpiece in its only way. So I’ll score this at 5 out of 6, though I suspect some would rate it higher.