Beyond the Wall of Sleep

H.P. Lovecraft

20 Mar, 2014 09:46 AM

I have often wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon
the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to
which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are
perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences -
Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism - there are still a certain
remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permit of no ordinary
interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests
possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important
than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable
barrier. From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to
terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and uncorporeal life
of far different nature from the life we know, and of which only the slightest
and most indistinct memories linger after waking. From those blurred and
fragmentary memories we may infer much, yet prove little. We may guess that in
dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not
necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves
comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer
life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the
secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
It was from a youthful revery filled with speculations of this sort that I
arose one afternoon in the winter of 1900-01, when to the state psychopathic
institution in which I served as an intern was brought the man whose case has
ever since haunted me so unceasingly. His name, as given on the records, was Joe
Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the
Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive
Colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly
fastnesses of a little-traveled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of
barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed
brethren of the thickly settled districts. Among these odd folk, who correspond
exactly to the decadent element of "white trash" in the South, law and morals
are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any
other section of native American people.
Joe Slater, who came to the institution in the vigilant custody of four
state policemen, and who was described as a highly dangerous character,
certainly presented no evidence of his perilous disposition when I first beheld
him. Though well above the middle stature, and of somewhat brawny frame, he was
given an absurd appearance of harmless stupidity by the pale, sleepy blueness of
his small watery eyes, the scantiness of his neglected and never-shaven growth
of yellow beard, and the listless drooping of his heavy nether lip. His age was
unknown, since among his kind neither family records nor permanent family ties
exist; but from the baldness of his head in front, and from the decayed
condition of his teeth, the head surgeon wrote him down as a man of about forty.
From the medical and court documents we learned all that could be gathered
of his case: this man, a vagabond, hunter and trapper, had always been strange
in the eyes of his primitive associates. He had habitually slept at night beyond
the ordinary time, and upon waking would often talk of unknown things in a
manner so bizarre as to inspire fear even in the hearts of an unimaginative
populace. Not that his form of language was at all unusual, for he never spoke
save in the debased patois of his environment; but the tone and tenor of his
utterances were of such mysterious wildness, that none might listen without
apprehension. He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors,
and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at
least all that had caused him to say what he did; relapsing into a bovine,
hall-amiable normality like that of the other hilldwellers.
As Slater grew older, it appeared, his matutinal aberrations had gradually
increased in frequency and violence; till about a month before his arrival at
the institution had occurred the shocking tragedy which caused his arrest by the
authorities. One day near noon, after a profound sleep begun in a whiskey
debauch at about five of the previous afternoon, the man had roused himself most
suddenly, with ululations so horrible and unearthly that they brought several
neighbors to his cabin - a filthy sty where he dwelt with a family as
indescribable as himself. Rushing out into the snow, he had flung his arms aloft
and commenced a series of leaps directly upward in the air; the while shouting
his determination to reach some "big, big cabin with brightness in the roof and
walls and floor and the loud queer music far away." As two men of moderate size
sought to restrain him, he had struggled with maniacal force and fury, screaming
of his desire and need to find and kill a certain "thing that shines and shakes
and laughs." At length, after temporarily felling one of his detainers with a
sudden blow, he had flung himself upon the other in a demoniac ecstasy of
blood-thirstiness, shrieking fiendishly that he would "jump high in the air and
burn his way through anything that stopped him."
Family and neighbors had now fled in a panic, and when the more courageous
of them returned, Slater was gone, leaving behind an unrecognizable pulp-like
thing that had been a living man but an hour before. None of the mountaineers
had dared to pursue him, and it is likely that they would have welcomed his
death from the cold; but when several mornings later they heard his screams from
a distant ravine they realized that he had somehow managed to survive, and that
his removal in one way or another would be necessary. Then had followed an armed
searching-party, whose purpose (whatever it may have been originally) became
that of a sheriff's posse after one of the seldom popular state troopers had by
accident observed, then questioned, and finally joined the seekers.
On the third day Slater was found unconscious in the hollow of a tree, and
taken to the nearest jail, where alienists from Albany examined him as soon as
his senses returned. To them he told a simple story. He had, he said, gone to
sleep one afternoon about sundown after drinking much liquor. He had awakened to
find himself standing bloody-handed in the snow before his cabin, the mangled
corpse of his neighbor Peter Slader at his feet. Horrified, he had taken to the
woods in a vague effort to escape from the scene of what must have been his
crime. Beyond these things he seemed to know nothing, nor could the expert
questioning of his interrogators bring out a single additional fact.
That night Slater slept quietly, and the next morning he awakened with no
singular feature save a certain alteration of expression. Doctor Barnard, who
had been watching the patient, thought he noticed in the pale blue eyes a
certain gleam of peculiar quality, and in the flaccid lips an all but
imperceptible tightening, as if of intelligent determination. But when
questioned, Slater relapsed into the habitual vacancy of the mountaineer, and
only reiterated what he had said on the preceding day.
On the third morning occurred the first of the man's mental attacks. After
some show of uneasiness in sleep, he burst forth into a frenzy so powerful that
the combined efforts of four men were needed to bind him in a straightjacket.
The alienists listened with keen attention to his words, since their curiosity
had been aroused to a high pitch by the suggestive yet mostly conflicting and
incoherent stories of his family and neighbors. Slater raved for upward of
fifteen minutes, babbling in his backwoods dialect of green edifices of light,
oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys. But most of
all did he dwell upon some mysterious blazing entity that shook and laughed and
mocked at him. This vast, vague personality seemed to have done him a terrible
wrong, and to kill it in triumphant revenge was his paramount desire. In order
to reach it, he said, he would soar through abysses of emptiness, burning every
obstacle that stood in his way. Thus ran his discourse, until with the greatest
suddenness he ceased. The fire of madness died from his eyes, and in dull wonder
he looked at his questioners and asked why he was bound. Dr. Barnard unbuckled
the leather harness and did not restore it till night, when he succeeded in
persuading Slater to don it of his own volition, for his own good. The man had
now admitted that he sometimes talked queerly, though he knew not why.
Within a week two more attacks appeared, but from them the doctors learned
little. On the source of Slater's visions they speculated at length, for since
he could neither read nor write, and had apparently never heard a legend or
fairy-tale, his gorgeous imagery was quite inexplicable. That it could not come
from any known myth or romance was made especially clear by the fact that the
unfortunate lunatic expressed himself only in his own simple manner. He raved of
things he did not understand and could not interpret; things which he claimed to
have experienced, but which he could not have learned through any normal or
connected narration. The alienists soon agreed that abnormal dreams were the
foundation of the trouble; dreams whose vividness could for a time completely
dominate the waking mind of this basically inferior man. With due formality
Slater was tried for murder, acquitted on the ground of insanity, and committed
to the institution wherein I held so humble a post.
I have said that I am a constant speculator concerning dream-life, and from
this you may judge of the eagerness with which I applied myself to the study of
the new patient as soon as I had fully ascertained the facts of his case. He
seemed to sense a certain friendliness in me, born no doubt of the interest I
could not conceal, and the gentle manner in which I questioned him. Not that he
ever recognized me during his attacks, when I hung breathlessly upon his chaotic
but cosmic word-pictures; but he knew me in his quiet hours, when he would sit
by his barred window weaving baskets of straw and willow, and perhaps pining for
the mountain freedom he could never again enjoy. His family never called to see
him; probably it had found another temporary head, after the manner of decadent
mountain folk.
By degrees I commenced to feel an overwhelming wonder at the mad and
fantastic conceptions of Joe Slater. The man himself was pitiably inferior in
mentality and language alike; but his glowing, titanic visions, though described
in a barbarous disjointed jargon, were assuredly things which only a superior or
even exceptional brain could conceive How, I often asked myself, could the
stolid imagination of a Catskill degenerate conjure up sights whose very
possession argued a lurking spark of genius? How could any backwoods dullard
have gained so much as an idea of those glittering realms of supernal radiance
and space about which Slater ranted in his furious delirium? More and more I
inclined to the belief that in the pitiful personality who cringed before me lay
the disordered nucleus of something beyond my comprehension; something
infinitely beyond the comprehension of my more experienced but less imaginative
medical and scientific colleagues.
And yet I could extract nothing definite from the man. The sum of all my
investigation was, that in a kind of semi-corporeal dream-life Slater wandered
or floated through resplendent and prodigious valleys, meadows, gardens, cities,
and palaces of light, in a region unbounded and unknown to man; that there he
was no peasant or degenerate, but a creature of importance and vivid life,
moving proudly and dominantly, and checked only by a certain deadly enemy, who
seemed to be a being of visible yet ethereal structure, and who did not appear
to be of human shape, since Slater never referred to it as a man, or as aught
save a thing. This thing had done Slater some hideous but unnamed wrong, which
the maniac (if maniac he were) yearned to avenge.
From the manner in which Slater alluded to their dealings, I judged that he
and the luminous thing had met on equal terms; that in his dream existence the
man was himself a luminous thing of the same race as his enemy. This impression
was sustained by his frequent references to flying through space and burning all
that impeded his progress. Yet these conceptions were formulated in rustic words
wholly inadequate to convey them, a circumstance which drove me to the
conclusion that if a dream world indeed existed, oral language was not its
medium for the transmission of thought. Could it be that the dream soul
inhabiting this inferior body was desperately struggling to speak things which
the simple and halting tongue of dullness could not utter? Could it be that I
was face to face with intellectual emanations which would explain the mystery if
I could but learn to discover and read them? I did not tell the older physicians
of these things, for middle age is skeptical, cynical, and disinclined to accept
new ideas. Besides, the head of the institution had but lately warned me in his
paternal way that I was overworking; that my mind needed a rest.
It had long been my belief that human thought consists basically of atomic
or molecular motion, convertible into ether waves or radi ant energy like heat,
light and electricity. This belief had early led me to contemplate the
possibility of telepathy or mental communication by means of suitable apparatus,
and I had in my college days prepared a set of transmitting and receiving
instruments somewhat similar to the cumbrous devices employed in wireless
telegraphy at that crude, pre-radio period. These I had tested with a
fellow-student, but achieving no result, had soon packed them away with other
scientific odds and ends for possible future use.
Now, in my intense desire to probe into the dream-life of Joe Slater, I
sought these instruments again, and spent several days in repairing them for
action. When they were complete once more I missed no opportunity for their
trial. At each outburst of Slater's violence, I would fit the transmitter to his
forehead and the receiver to my own, constantly making delicate adjustments for
various hypothetical wave-lengths of intellectual energy. I had but little
notion of how the thought-impressions would, if successfully conveyed, arouse an
intelligent response in my brain, but I felt certain that I could detect and
interpret them. Accordingly I continued my experiments, though informing no one
of their nature.
It was on the twenty-first of February, 1901, that the thing occurred. As I
look back across the years I realize how unreal it seems, and sometimes wonder
if old Doctor Fenton was not right when he charged it all to my excited
imagination. I recall that he listened with great kindness and patience when I
told him, but afterward gave me a nerve-powder and arranged for the half-year's
vacation on which I departed the next week.
That fateful night I was wildly agitated and perturbed, for despite the
excellent care he had received, Joe Slater was unmistakably dying. Perhaps it
was his mountain freedom that he missed, or perhaps the turmoil in his brain had
grown too acute for his rather sluggish physique; but at all events the flame of
vitality flickered low in the decadent body. He was drowsy near the end, and as
darkness fell he dropped off into a troubled sleep.
I did not strap on the straightjacket as was customary when he slept, since
I saw that he was too feeble to be dangerous, even if he woke in mental disorder
once more before passing away. But I did place upon his head and mine the two
ends of my cosmic "radio," hoping against hope for a first and last message from
the dream world in the brief time remaining. In the cell with us was one nurse,
a mediocre fellow who did not understand the purpose of the apparatus, or think
to inquire into my course. As the hours wore on I saw his head droop awkwardly
in sleep, but I did not disturb him. I myself, lulled by the rhythmical
breathing of the healthy and the dying man, must have nodded a little later.
The sound of weird lyric melody was what aroused me. Chords, vibrations, and
harmonic ecstasies echoed passionately on every hand, while on my ravished sight
burst the stupendous spectacle ultimate beauty. Walls, columns, and architraves
of living fire blazed effulgently around the spot where I seemed to float in
air, extending upward to an infinitely high vaulted dome of indescribable
splendor. Blending with this display of palatial magnificence, or rather,
supplanting it at times in kaleidoscopic rotation, were glimpses of wide plains
and graceful valleys, high mountains and inviting grottoes, covered with every
lovely attribute of scenery which my delighted eyes could conceive of, yet
formed wholly of some glowing, ethereal plastic entity, which in consistency
partook as much of spirit as of matter. As I gazed, I perceived that my own
brain held the key to these enchanting metamorphoses; for each vista which
appeared to me was the one my changing mind most wished to behold. Amidst this
elysian realm I dwelt not as a stranger, for each sight and sound was familiar
to me; just as it had been for uncounted eons of eternity before, and would be
for like eternities to come.
Then the resplendent aura of my brother of light drew near and held colloquy
with me, soul to soul, with silent and perfect interchange of thought. The hour
was one of approaching triumph, for was not my fellow-being escaping at last
from a degrading periodic bondage; escaping forever, and preparing to follow the
accursed oppressor even unto the uttermost fields of ether, that upon it might
be wrought a flaming cosmic vengeance which would shake the spheres? We floated
thus for a little time, when I perceived a slight blurring and fading of the
objects around us, as though some force were recalling me to earth - where I
least wished to go. The form near me seemed to feel a change also, for it
gradually brought its discourse toward a conclusion, and itself prepared to quit
the scene, fading from my sight at a rate somewhat less rapid than that of the
other objects. A few more thoughts were exchanged, and I knew that the luminous
one and I were being recalled to bondage, though for my brother of light it
would be the last time. The sorry planet shell being well-nigh spent, in less
than an hour my fellow would be free to pursue the oppressor along the Milky Way
and past the hither stars to the very confines of infinity.
A well-defined shock separates my final impression of the fading scene of
light from my sudden and somewhat shamefaced awakening and straightening up in
my chair as I saw the dying figure on the couch move hesitantly. Joe Slater was
indeed awaking, though probably for the last time. As I looked more closely, I
saw that in the sallow cheeks shone spots of color which had never before been
present. The lips, too, seemed unusual, being tightly compressed, as if by the
force of a stronger character than had been Slater's. The whole face finally
began to grow tense, and the head turned restlessly with closed eyes.
I did not rouse the sleeping nurse, but readjusted the slightly disarranged
headband of my telepathic "radio," intent to catch any parting message the
dreamer might have to deliver. All at once the head turned sharply in my
direction and the eyes fell open, causing me to stare in blank amazement at what
I beheld. The man who had been Joe Slater, the Catskill decadent, was gazing at
me with a pair of luminous, expanding eyes whose blue seemed subtly to have
deepened. Neither mania nor degeneracy was `visible in that gaze, and I felt
beyond a doubt that I was viewing a face behind which lay an active mind of high
At this juncture my brain became aware of a steady external influence
operating upon it. I closed my eyes to concentrate my thoughts more profoundly
and was rewarded by the positive knowledge that my long-sought mental message
had come at last. Each transmitted idea formed rapidly in my mind, and though no
actual language was employed, my habitual association of conception and
expression was so great that I seemed to be receiving the message in ordinary
"Joe Slater is dead," came the soul-petrifying voice of an agency from
beyond the wall of sleep. My opened eyes sought the couch of pain in curious
horror, but the blue eyes were still calmly gazing, and the countenance was
still intelligently animated. "He is better dead, for he was unfit to bear the
active intellect of cosmic entity. His gross body could not undergo the needed
adjustments between ethereal life and planet life. He was too much 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 in my torment and diurnal prison for forty-two of your terrestrial years.
"I am an entity like that which you yourself become in the freedom of
dreamless sleep. I am your brother of light, and have floated with you in the
effulgent valleys. It is not permitted me to tell your waking earth-self of your
real self, but we are all roamers of vast spaces and travelers in many ages.
Next year I may be dwelling in the Egypt which you call ancient, or in the cruel
empire of Tsan Chan which is to come three thousand years hence. You and I have
drifted to the worlds that reel about the red Arcturus, and dwelt in the bodies
of the insect-philosophers that crawl proudly over the fourth moon of Jupiter.
How little does the earth self know life and its extent! How little, indeed,
ought it to know for its own tranquility!
"Of the oppressor I cannot speak. You on earth have unwittingly felt its
distant presence - you who without knowing idly gave the blinking beacon the
name of Algol, the Demon-Star It is to meet and conquer the oppressor that I
have vainly striven for eons, held back by bodily encumbrances. Tonight I go as
a Nemesis bearing just and blazingly cataclysmic vengeance. Watch me in the sky
close by the Demon-Star.
"I cannot speak longer, for the body of Joe Slater grows cold and rigid, and
the coarse brains are ceasing to vibrate as I wish. You have been my only friend
on this planet - the only soul to sense and seek for me within the repellent
form which lies on this couch. We shall meet again - perhaps in the shining
mists of Orion's Sword, perhaps on a bleak plateau in prehistoric Asia, perhaps
in unremembered dreams tonight, perhaps in some other form an eon hence, when
the solar system shall have been swept away."
At this point the thought-waves abruptly ceased, the pale eyes of the
dreamer - or can I say dead man? - commenced to glaze fishily. In a half-stupor
I crossed over to the couch and felt of his wrist, but found it cold, stiff, and
pulseless. The sallow cheeks paled again, and the thick lips fell open,
disclosing the repulsively rotten fangs of the degenerate Joe Slater. I
shivered, pulled a blanket over the hideous face, and awakened the nurse. Then I
left the cell and went silently to my room. I had an instant and unaccountable
craving for a sleep whose dreams I should not remember.
The climax? What plain tale of science can boast of such a rhetorical
effect? I have merely set down certain things appealing to me as facts, allowing
you to construe them as you will. As I have already admitted, my superior, old
Doctor Fenton, denies the reality of everything I have related. He vows that I
was broken down with nervous strain, and badly in need of a long vacation on
full pay which he so generously gave me. He assures me on his professional honor
that Joe Slater was but a low-grade paranoiac, whose fantastic notions must have
come from the crude hereditary folk-tales which circulated in even the most
decadent of communities. All this he tells me - yet I cannot forget what I saw
in the sky on the night after Slater died. Lest you think me a biased witness,
another pen must add this final testimony, which may perhaps supply the climax
you expect. I will quote the following account of the star Nova Persei verbatim
from the pages of that eminent astronomical authority, Professor Garrett P.
"On February 22, 1901, a marvelous new star was discovered by Doctor
Anderson of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that
point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it
outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a
few months it was hardly discernible with the naked eye."

Next Classic Story >>


Post a Comment
No comments yet! Be the first
Your Comment

Do not post other site's link, it will be considered as spam