“Dreams in the Witch House, The“

“Dreams in the Witch House, The“
   Short story (4,940 words); written in February 1932. First published in WT (July 1933); first collected in O;corrected text in MM
   A mathematics student at Miskatonic University named Walter Gilman who lives in a peculiarly angled room in the old Witch House in Arkham begins having bizarre dreams filled with sights, sounds, and shapes of an utterly indescribable cast; other dreams, much more realistic in nature, reveal a huge rat with human hands named Brown Jenkin, apparently the familiar of the witch Keziah Mason, who once dwelt in the Witch House. Meanwhile Gilman, in his classwork, begins to display a remarkable intuitive grasp of hyperspace, or the fourth dimension. But then his dreams take an even weirder turn, and there are indications that he is sleepwalking. Keziah seems to be urging him on in some nameless errand (“He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos”). Then in one very clear dream he sees himself “half lying on a high, fantastically balustraded terrace above a boundless jungle of outlandish, incredible peaks, balanced planes, domes, minarets, horizontal discs poisoned on pinnacles, and numberless forms of still greater wildness.” The balustrade is decorated with designs representing ridged, barrel-shaped entities (i.e., the Old Ones from At the Mountains of Madness); but Gilman wakes screaming when he sees the living barrel-shaped entities coming toward him. The next morning the barrel-shaped ornament—which he had broken off the balustrade in the dream—is found in his bed. Things seem rapidly to be reaching some hideous culmination. A baby is kidnapped and cannot be found. Then, in a dream, Gilman finds himself in a strangely angled room with Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and the baby. Keziah is going to sacrifice the child, but Gilman knocks the knife from her hand. He and Keziah engage in a fight, and he manages to frighten her momentarily by dis playing a crucifix given to him by a fellow tenant; when Brown Jenkin comes to her aid, he kicks the familiar down an abyss, but not before it has made some sort of sacrificial offering with the baby’s blood. The next night Gilman’s friend Frank Elwood sees a ratlike creature eat its way through Gilman’s body to his heart. The Witch House is rented no more, and years later, when it is razed, an enormous pile of human bones going back centuries is discovered, along with the bones of a huge ratlike entity.
   The working title for the story was “The Dreams of Walter Gilman.” HPL states that it was typed by a revision client as payment for revisory work (HPL to August Derleth, May 14, [1932]; ms., SHSW). This may be Hazel Heald, who claimed to have typed the story. The existing manuscript (at JHL) may, however, be one that August Derleth “copied” (i.e., retyped) about a year later, as HPL suggests ( SL4.146). This typescript is remarkably accurate, and the typist seems to have had a fair ability to read HPL’s handwriting. HPL was so uncertain about the merits of his work that he elicited his colleagues’ opinions on the story before he submitted it anywhere, and so he circulated both the original and the carbon among his correspondents. Several seemed to like the story, but August Derleth’s reaction was very much the contrary, as HPL’s response suggests: “…your reaction to my poor ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ is, in kind, about what I expected—although I hardly thought the miserable mess was quiteas bad as you found it…. The whole incident shews me that my fictional days are probably over” (HPL to August Derleth, June 6, 1932; ms., SHSW). Elsewhere he elaborates on Derleth’s verdict: “…Derleth didn’t say it was unsalable;in fact, he rather thought it wouldsell. He said it was a poor story,which is an entirely different and much more lamentably important thing” ( SL4.91). In other words, in Derleth’s opinion the story was just like most of the work appearing in WT,on which HPL regularly heaped abuse. Accordingly, HPL refused to submit the tale anywhere and merely let it gather dust. A year or so later Derleth asked to see the story again and surreptitiously submitted it to Farnsworth Wright, who accepted it readily and paid HPL $140 for it. While the tale contains vividly cosmic vistas of hyperspace, HPL does not appear to have thought out the details of the plot satisfactorily. What is the significance of the Old Ones in the story? To what purpose is the baby kidnapped and sacrificed? How can HPL the atheist allow Keziah to be frightened by the sight of a crucifix? Why does Nyarlathotep appear in the conventional figure of the Black Man? What is the purpose of the abyss aside from providing a convenient place down which to hurl Brown Jenkin? How does Brown Jenkin subsequently emerge from the abyss to devour Gilman’s heart? It seems as if HPL were aiming merely for a succession of startling images without bothering to fuse them into a logical sequence.
   The story is HPL’s ultimate modernization of a conventional myth (witchcraft) by means of modern science. Fritz Leiber notes that it is “Lovecraft’s most carefully worked out story of hyperspace-travel. Here (1) a rational foundation for such travel is set up; (2) hyperspace is visualized; and (3) a trigger for such travel is devised.” Leiber elaborates on these points, noting that the absence of any mechanical device for such travel is vital to the tale, for otherwise it would be impossible to imagine how a “witch” of the seventeenth century could have managed the feat; in effect, Keziah simply applied advanced mathematics and “thought” herself into hyperspace.
   See Fritz Leiber, “Through Hyperspace with Brown Jenkin” (in DB;rpt. FDOC); Ronald Shearer, “The Witches in ‘The Witch House,’” Crypt No. 5 (Roodmas 1982): 26–27; Will Murray, “Was There a Real Brown Jenkin?” CryptNo. 7 (Lammas 1982): 24–26.

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