Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919)
One of H.P. Lovecraft’s earlier stories, it opens on an insane asylum where we make the acquaintance of an intern who relates to us his experience over the last few weeks, most notably in relation to a certain inmate by the name of Joe Slater. A man of ostensibly little depth, Slater is afflicted by nightmares and visions which ultimately manifest themselves in violent outbursts. During one such tantrum he began raving about his vision of some alternate alien world, swearing to achieve revenge over some mysterious entity. Naturally, everyone in the asylum believes Joe to be an irremediable case of insanity, but the undergraduate intern has other plans. He has built a device for two-way telepathic communication, but so far hasn’t been able to achieve any results… that is until he tries it on Mr. Slater and makes discoveries meant for no human being.
Following the typical Lovecraftian structure of having the nameless narrator recounting his traumatic experience, this is one of the stories which helped set the tone for what people began to expect from the writer. He prods you with the promise of discovery, hooks you with the premise of a mysterious plane of existence lying in waiting, and reels you in with the actual journey towards enlightenment. While it might be argued it is merely a science-fiction story designed to do nothing but entertain, it still feels as if Lovecraft gave a shot at vaguely communicating some of his beliefs about how the world might function and the possible realities which can exist just beyond our line of sight. While I wouldn’t exactly call it very thought-provoking, there is a clear sentiment we might benefit from being open-minded towards the impossible.
While the asylum and Joe Slater’s entire state of story help create an uneasy atmosphere, on the whole I wouldn’t really categorize it as a horror story. Rather, I would categorize it as science-fiction with some horror elements thrown in as they seldom appear to be the author’s main focus. The sensations of mystery and insatiable curiosity are much more prevalent and make of this story an intriguing exploration of the idea stipulating planes and universes exist beyond your awareness.
Once again introduced to a nameless narrator, we go on a slightly different journey towards alternate realms and realities. The story begins as the man, living in a small swamp house, relates his observations of the night sky, and in particular of the Pole Star named Polaris which caught his attention and never let go. One night, he begins having vivid dreams of a majestic marbled city, with Polaris hanging right on it. As the dreams reoccur and he learns more about the city and its inhabitants, he suddenly finds himself amongst them in physical form, known as Olathoe. With the lines between truth, fiction, hope and imagination having vanished, who can say which of our realities is indeed the dream?
Quite short and very straightforward, Lovecraft uses the allure of a mysterious alternate reality (which actually may or may not be a reality) beneath an uncomfortably ominous element, the star Polaris, to arouse our curiosity about the narrator’s fate and the veracity of all he experiences. While we are learning more and more about about this city, we can’t help but keep wondering whether we’re diving into the madness of a lonely man or witnessing revelations which will only be known to him, destined to be believed by none.
Perhaps slightly unusual for a Lovecraft story, this one felt as if it had greater philosophical implications than his previous ones for he actually attempts to define what reality is, or more precisely, challenges us to do so with him. Being a very short story it raises far more questions than it gives answers, ultimately leading to many potential truths amongst which we have to decide for ourselves. I also found the ending itself to be quite enjoyable, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. While there definitely isn’t much horror to be found, it’s a welcome detour from what Lovecraft is generally known for.
From Beyond (1934)
Written in 1920 and published in 1934, “From Beyond” follows in the same vein as the other two stories we’ve discussed. An unnamed narrator is our guide through this journey as he recounts to us his experiences with Crawford Tillinghast, a scientist who created an electronic device allowing people to peer into other planes of existence, beyond what humans ought to be capable of. The narrator decides to subject himself to the experience and witnesses a strange and alien world which overlaps with his own, one populated with horrific creatures defying description. Things only go from bad to worse as the realities overlap in more ways than visually… but is it truly the case, or merely insanity resulting from exposure to a dangerously experimental electronic device?
Once again the theme of there being a plane of existence beyond the scope of what our senses allow us to perceive is touched upon, and this time from more of a horror perspective than before. There is very little awe or wonder associated with the alternate dimension, but rather fear and regret of having peered over the other side of the fence. The danger is very real, and what makes it truly palpable is how little information we have about the capabilities of these horrifying creatures, of their plans and intentions. We’re uncertain about the extent to which they can interact with the world, and whether the narrator must fear his own friend Tillinghast now as well.
Following the classic Lovecraft structure, “From Beyond” tries at once to mix horror and science-fiction and is perhaps one of the first short stories to have done it so convincingly. It even finds the time to ponder on the link between the physical and metaphysical, the potential existence of the abstract and reminds us that in the end, we can hardly prove or disprove the presence of that which lies beyond the scope of realities observable by us humans.