Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . .

With this little number about a unnamed doctor reporting on his potentially psychopathic patient, a middle-aged man from the Catskill Mountains named Joe Slater. Slater has been having strange dreams frequently wakes in a violent rage, ranting about being a being of light and about how he needs to destroy his adversary, and will burn anything that gets in his way. The doctor tells us that, at one point, these rages became so violent that Slater beat a man to a bloody pulp. Since it appears Slater is unaware of what he says or does in his rages, the authorities assume that he is completely insane. However, the narrator believes that he is actually tapping into something else: a dream-existence that is incomprehensible to us in our waking lives.

This whole concept makes for a terribly interesting story in itself. However, I still had a hard time with this story because of the overt disdain the narrator has for Slater. There is a real racism and classism at work here, with the narrator repeatedly calling Slater a "degenerate" and a "decadent" that is typical of the people of the Catskill mountains. In fact, the narrator goes so far as to say:

Among those old folk, who correspond exactly to the 'white trash' in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any section of the native American people.

Frankly, as a modern reader, I found this pretty shocking, and kind of offensive. Of course, I realize that, when this story was written in 1919, and certainly for the time it is set (1900-1901), these wouldn't be unheard-of sentiments. The word "Hillbilly" came from somewhere, right? Still, it ends up rubbing me the wrong way. Throughout the story, I couldn't help but laugh at the narrator whenever he would make some sort of assertion that what Slater was saying in his rages had to have come from somewhere other than Slater's own mind on account of the "fact" that this degenerate hillbilly couldn't possibly be capable of such feats of imagination. It just seems like such a ridiculous argument for "proving" the presence of a supernatural force. As a result, the narrator comes across as a bit of an ass.

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