As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.
The Dreamers of Alamoi by Jeremiah Tolbert
“Dante was the first to conceive of Hell as a planned space,” Dr Bedelia Du Maurier tells an assembled audience in the 10th episode of the third season of Hannibal, “an urban environment.” Before Dante, Bedelia continues, we spoke not of the gates of Hell but simply the mouth of Hell — a shapeless, devouring pit with no real modus operandi.
I feel that Lovecraft’s structuring of his own ‘Dreamlands’ plays to a similar dynamic and that certainly, the author is also to be lauded for — quite literally — mapping out what may otherwise have been vague repository of images and half-formed notions of geographical space. But I also find it a blessing that Lovecraft never quite went the Tolkien route with his world-building either, and that the Dreamlands were allowed to accumulate in the author and reader’s mind in gradual drops throughout various loosely connected stories.
In this way, I think Lovecraft remains true to the psychology behind why we keep chasing after these spaces. It’s a comforting notion, to be able to travel to a place where the laws and conventions that dominate our daily life have been suspended in favour of some kind of sublime bliss; even if — to go with the original, Kantian notion of the sublime — this does not mean that what we would see and experience in these places is necessarily pleasant, or even safe.
With Lovecraft the concept gets a keener edge of poignancy, I think, because for all the implied eldritch horror of the Dreamlands, it feels as if he’d rather go there than face the realities of the modern world — a tic in his character that also speaks to the oft-discussed and deeply problematic ideological underpinnings of a lot of his work (to say nothing of how his public proclamations to this effect continue to be something of a blot on his reputation). It’s form of ‘negative escapism’, I think — not the idyll of Tolkien’s Shire, but an alienating and alluring space populated by strange, mushrooming presences, and whose geographical confines expand and contract to the whims of an ‘idiot god’.
Jeremiah Tolbert’s story develops on this motif in Lovecraft’s work — a motif that Lovecraft himself likely cribbed from his perennial source of inspiration, Lord Dunsany (who was, in turn, also an influence on Tolkien).
Tolbert gets the notes of desire and fascination right and, indeed, establishes an urban environment that despite its otherworldly nature still insists on carving out a concrete space, with the very architecture serving as an ominous, jarring construct — an element certainly in line with Lovecraft’s own stories in this vein.
“At first, he thought it only another hallucination that the two towers seemed to bend toward one another at their peak, but the vision did not waver. Realization arrived late: these were not two towers, but instead the opposing sides of an arch. Closer now, he could make out the ropes and pulleys lifting an enormous keystone into the heavens. It inched upwards as he watched.
“The dreaming construct would soon be complete. What would happen then was a great mystery, but not one Garen was eager to solve.”
Garen, our erstwhile protagonist, explores the contours of the Dreamlands with the hungry and often thwarted desire of a junkie. Strait-laced as Lovecraft may have been, he wouldn’t have been inclined to confront this aspect of his stories head-on. But it’s an evident element of the desire (with a capital D?) we have for these spaces… just as its erotic counterpoint is never too far behind, either.
‘Fantasy’ is a broad term — something we often forget, conditioned as we are to view literary genres in strict categories — and ‘dreams’ are even more vast in their potential.
But though Lovecraft and Tolkien may have stopped short of exploring the more R-rated elements of this universal trait, Tolbert — like Catherynne Valente and Clive Barker before him — isn’t shy of teasing the limits between reverie and obsession.