If you’ve read Lovecraft you know the man had tells. I’ve mentioned his worship of the god that is setting. He defines the term “story of the weird” with his eerie backdrops and other-worldly creatures. His other-worldly language and names for these monstrosities is also one of his great strengths. Most of the time encounters with these abominations leaves the people in his stories broken mentally or dead, but rarely bloody, rarely grotesquely maimed.
Not this time.
“The Dreams in the Witch House” gets bloody, and the story is better for it. Poor Walter Gilman is another of Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists who has stumbled into the greater world of other dimensions, witchcraft and death. He is something of a math whiz, and this knowledge coupled with his unfortunate dwelling conspire to pull him into Keziah Mason, the Black Man, and Brown Jenkin’s trans-dimensional world of shadows.
Lovecraft has an excellent concept in this story: that advanced math and old-world folklore combine to unlock the secret knowledge of trans-dimensional travel, immortality and the ability to move through solid objects. A scoop or two more of quasi-scientific knowledge and this story comes dangerously close to science fiction. Some of the details of witches and their dark powers are described by Lovecraft: “The hidden cults to which these witches belonged often guarded and handed down surprising secrets from elder, forgotten aeons; and it was by no means impossible that Keziah had actually mastered the art of passing through dimensional gates. Tradition emphasises, that uselessness of material barriers in halting witch’s motions; and who can say what underlies the old tales of broomstick rides through the night?”
Gilman has recurring dreams that grow stronger and more vivid containing a bent crone of a woman and the little rat-creature Brown Jenkin. These tour-guides-from-hell drag him through to other dimensions inhabited by horrors only Lovecraft could conjure.
Each morning Gilman awakes with physical evidence of having left his bed, but no evidence that he left his room: “At once he saw there was something on the table which did not belong there, and a second look left no room for doubt. Lying on its side – for it could not stand up alone – was the exotic spiky figure which in his monstrous dream he had broken off the fantastic balustrade.”
I have no evidence that this is the first instance in fiction of physical evidence being retrieved from the dream/subconscious level of existence and being brought into the physical/corporeal world. However, it has to be one of the earlier, if not the first, instance of this sort of plot point. Modern readers will recognize this sort of thing from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in which dream monster Freddy Krueger can kill you in your dreams and your living body dies in its sleep. Later the “Matrix” movies make use of this sort of thing in which a person’s mind is in a “game” and if a person is killed in the game/matrix their body dies in the real world.
This, for us today, is not an original idea. As I read this story I was struck by how original this might have seemed to Lovecraft’s earliest readers.
Gilman gets pulled further and further into this other dimension and is included in hideous blood rituals that kill toddlers. He tries to stop this ceremony to no avail, and eventually is killed for his attempts at stopping these acts. As Elwood, a fellow tenant and student, befriends and tries to help Gilman he witnesses Brown Jenkin dispatch Gilman most gruesomely: “It would be barbarous to do more than suggest what had killed Gilman. There had been virtually a tunnel through his body – something had eaten his heart out.”
Earlier in this story as Gilman fought the crone Brown Jenkin also bit and bled to death a two year old gathering the baby’s blood in a rune-covered light metal bowl. As I said in the opening, this is a very grisly and blood-soaked tale by Lovecraft standards. This actually comes as a bit of shock and that is a welcome addition to the narrative.
As with nearly all Lovecraft the exposition-style of storytelling is frustrating and drags things to a crawl. Once a person knows this about Lovecraft you can make your peace with it and read Lovecraft for the other pleasures he provides. However, “The Dreams in the Witch House” has some logical disconnects and plot points that conspire to scuttle the overall narrative.
First, I love the coupling of math, witchcraft, other dimensions, and folk lore. I think this is brilliant, and the promise of Gilman “stumbling” into this knowledge and the other-dimensional witches coming to him through his dreams all works well.
But after the contact is made with Gilman the reader is left asking why? Why did they include him? I thought they would try to kill him to keep their secret and to maintain their other-dimension hiding place. When they didn’t try to kill him I wondered what their purpose was. He didn’t help them do anything. He fought them when they killed the two year old boy, and then they do kill Gilman.
This is a plot point that could be solved with just a couple lines of dialogue:
“Who the heck are you people?” Gilman asked looking around the other-worldly landscape.
“I’m Keziah Mason,” she said.
“The witch? What do you want from me?”
[Insert any reason for their contact with him you’d like.]
However, this conversation never takes place. This is a big deal as it is kind of the heart of the story. Gilman cracking the code of these other dimensions is great. Lovecraft could have had him stumble upon these baby-killers in the walls. He could have had them trying to off Gilman. Instead it’s played as a half-assed middle ground that just doesn’t work very well.
The other major logical disconnect is the lack of options Gilman has. Lovecraft almost alleviates this when he has Gilman move in with Elwood on the second floor. But fresh rat holes and eerie lights descending around this room aren’t enough to motivate Gilman to hit the road. He just goes further and further into these other-dimensional dreams and eventually to his doom.
It’s too passive. He’s too passive. He’s a student, and a math genius. Why can’t he fight? Why can’t he stand and fight The Black Man? Why can’t he step on Brown Jenkin? I cheered when he kicked the little deformed rat, but it just bounces back and eats his heart out.
The story doesn’t need Walter Gilman to win. He’s against some pretty major foes, foes who have defied death for a long time and who know the secrets of the dimensions far better than he does. But he goes too easily into this story. A little more fight in him and this would be one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. But he’s too weak and that weakness saps the story overall.