Since the dawn of sentient humans, we have been obsessed with dreams.
We are perhaps the only beings in the known universe with the capability to question and interpret our dreams. Mankind searches for itself behind closed eyes, casting probes out into the expanding and contracting multiverse of infinite possibilities, asking questions we are not even aware we’re looking for answers to. We have sought deep within our own subconscious to uncover hidden truths presented to us in flashes of color, barely-remembered feelings, and alien vistas. No dream is perhaps more highly interpreted and picked apart than one’s nightmares. It is in nightmares that we run from our pasts, pursue our own self-punishment, and search for our place in the infinite cosmos.
Some of the greatest horror authors have been inspired by the snatches of mystery and half-understood disquiet following them during the wakeful day that gives way to oppressive treks through nighted forests. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was plagued by night terrors throughout his youth, and many of his characters dream strange things themselves. Fantasy and Speculative Fiction author Michael Moorcock wrote of Prince Elric, who travels the multiverse on the moonbeam roads and visits with demons on the dream couches of decadent Melnibone.
And now a new class of writers of the weird explore the depth of their psyches in the latest compilation by Dark Regions Press, Nightmare’s Realm.
Nightmare’s Realm itself is well assembled, and there is an impressive A-list of authors including Ramsey Campbell, Nancy Kilpatrick (whom I’ve met–she’s a lovely lady), and Caitlin R. Kiernan, as well as an award-winning lineup of fiction writers who have stepped out of the waking world to bring us this talent-fueled, fast-paced, eclectic read, and there is no better way to kick off the compilation than with an introduction by editor, S.T. Joshi, the career scholar of the weird tale, as well as a poem by Joshi’s chief subject, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “To A Dreamer”.
The editors at Dark Regions Press have not only presented a masterful compilation, but they have successfully curated a collection of stories that tackles both the practical nature of dreams, specifically nightmares, and embraces the speculative and the weird tale in its purest form.
Sanity Needs Not Apply
One of my favorite aspects of Nightmare’s Realm is how many stories use the most common tropes of nightmare worlds to rob their characters of agency. In dreams, especially nightmares, we rarely have control over our own actions. From the very first story, “The Dreamed” by Ramsey Campbell, we see not only an example of the speculative or weird tale, but also the first example of lack of agency in a dream, in which the main character is trapped at a hotel in Greece that consists only of a travel agency, a single room, and a few restaurants. The author emphasizes an aspect of dreaming that I have often experienced myself: the feeling that I can’t open my eyes. I can see, and I can know what’s happening around me, but it’s as if my eyes are shut and I can’t move them. Campbell illustrates this perfectly while ratcheting up the tension to truly frighten the reader. It’s a great step off on the right foot.
Another of my favorites that perfectly sums up a dream scenario is the last story of the anthology, “An Actor’s Nightmare” by Reggie Oliver, in which the identity of an actor is fully subsumed in a coma. In this story the most impressive aspect is that everything is huge. The opera house is massive with floor upon floor of dressing rooms, wings upon wings of stage, row upon row up on eave upon eave of boxes and seats. I worked in restaurants for twelve years. There are still times that I dream I’m selling Greek food (yes, Greek food) in a Chinese restaurant (the one I worked in, but before it was remodeled, the way I remember it as a child) that was the size of an airport, where I can’t find my tables.
Death and Grief
Several of the stories deal with how a nightmare seems to represent trauma. Though not pure psychoanalysis, the nightmare tales dealing with trauma and death take a very philosophical tone. Nancy Kilpatrick’s story seems to deal with Frued’s theory of the underlying wish, in which the meaning of the dream can be interpreted as a subconscious wish for some sort of outcome. In Kilpatrick’s story, the narrator spends time with the first of this anthology’s many useless therapists (beginning to see not everyone was as fortunate with their therapist as I was) in trying to workout the underlying meaning of the dreams of suicide. Many of the stories operate on Freud’s level of dream interpretation, which speaks to past events rather than Carl Jung’s theory that the subject level dream analysis reveals individual transformations. My favorite of these is “Purging Mom” by Jonathan Thomas, in which the narrator is beset by dreams that his mother is trying to kill him from beyond the grave. Thomas deals with the grief of the son with dreams of the mother as Freud would have dealt with it, with the mother representing the literal mother, and dealing less with the identity of the dreamer, as Jung would have done. “The Wake” by Steve Rasnic Tem also deals with death and grief manifestations in dreams.
Spec Fiction, Sci-Fi, and the Weird Tale
For the philosopher, the multiverse traveler, the dream realms are places of fancy and endless possibilities. Following our dreams, whether they’re pleasant and quaint or a living Hell, leads to enlightenment and growth. Thus it is with the speculative stories of Nightmare’s Realm.
My favorites in the weird tales genre involved delving into the dream realms in search of answers, a seeker looking to alter the events of their lives…or to just get some damn sleep. “Sleep Hygiene” by Gemma Files, “In the City of Sharp Edges” by Stephen Woodworth, and “The Art of Memory” by Donald Tyson feature dreamers who venture willingly into their dreams and nightmares, each hoping to conquer their own demons for their own ends, a derailment from the previously discussed aspect of dreams in which the narrator has no control over his or her journey. These narrators take matters into their own hands in a very un-Lovecraftian attempt to regain control of their lives as a whole, though in a very Lovecraftian fashion, this does not always have the intended outcome.
The speculative tales venture far out into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy with stories like “Dreams Downstream” by John Shirley, “Cast Lots” by Richard Gavin, “Dead Letter Office” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and “The Barrier Between” by W. H. Pugmire in which each author explores the nature of dreams through the subject of a dreamscape, not necessarily the dreamer. Other speculative tales examine the “dreamer” through an entirely different lens, such as epilepsy in “The Fifth Stone” by Simon Strantzas. “The City of Sharp Edges” also explores this, as the dreamer is not just a seeker, but also blind.
The most speculative of these stories is at once the essence of Michael Moorcock and a moving tribute piece, “Kafkaesque” by Jason V Brock. This is by far one of my favorite stories of the entire anthology. Fans of David Bowie will recognize the chapter titles as well as the end, and give the obligated nod to the departed Starman, who was perhaps the greatest dreamer of us all.
When I asked Dark Regions to allow me to read and review an arc for the anthology, I did not dare think they would allow me to lay my eyes on such an exploratory, philosophical compilation. Nightmare’s Realm will ask you to dare to do more than dream as you read these stories. I am proud to have been chosen to preview this wonderful collection. I hope you enjoy Nightmare’s Realm as much as I did. You can purchase a pre-order of Nightmare’s Realm on Dark Regions Press’ official site.