The Dreams in the Witch-House
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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
The Dreams in the Witch House
Read this story in the library
"The Dreams in the Witch House" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, part of the Cthulhu Mythos cycle of horror fiction. Written in January/February 1932, it was first published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales.
"The Dreams in the Witch House" was probably inspired by the lecture The Size of the Universe given by Willem de Sitter which Lovecraft attended three months prior to writing the story. De Sitter is even named in the story; he is mentioned as a mathematical genius, and remarked among other intellectual masterminds, including Albert Einstein. Several prominent motifs—including the geometry and curvature of space, and a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe through pure mathematics—are covered in de Sitter's lecture. The idea of using higher dimensions of non-Euclidean space as short cuts through normal space can be traced to A. S. Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World which Lovecraft alludes to having read (SL III p 87). These new ideas supported and developed a very similar conception of a fragmented mirror space that Lovecraft had previously developed in "The Trap" (written mid 1931).
An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia says that "The Dreams in the Witch House" was "heavily influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne's unfinished novel Septimius Felton".
Walter Gilman, a student of mathematics and folklore at Miskatonic University, takes an attic room in "the Witch House", a house in Arkham thought to be cursed. The first part of the story is an account of the history of the house, which once harboured Keziah Mason, an accused witch who disappeared mysteriously from a Salem jail in 1692. Gilman discovers that for the better part of two centuries many of its occupants have died prematurely.
The dimensions of Gilman's attic room are unusual, and seem to conform to a kind of unearthly geometry. Gilman theorizes that the structure can enable travel from one plane or dimension to another.
Shortly after moving into the attic Gilman begins experiencing bizarre dreams, in which he seems to float without physical form through an otherworldly space of unearthly geometry and indescribable colors and sounds. Amongst elements both organic and inorganic, he perceives shapes that he innately recognizes as entities, which appear and disappear instantaneously and at random. Several times his dreaming self encounters bizarre clusters of "iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles", as well as a rapidly changing polyhedral figure, both of which seem sapient.
Gilman also has nightly experiences involving Keziah Mason and her rat-bodied, human-faced familiar, Brown Jenkin, which he believes might not be dreams at all. In other dreams Gilman is taken to a city of the "Elder Things", and even brings back evidence that he's actually been there - a miniature statue of an Elder Thing that he'd broken off a balustrade in the city, made of unknown materials and a strange kind of alloy. Things appear to get worse and worse: Gilman dreams that he signs the "Book of Azathoth", under the commands of Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and the infamous "Black Man" (a form of the malign Nyarlathotep, which is, like Azathoth, a deity in the Cthulhu Mythos canon). He is later taken to Azathoth's throne at the "centre of Chaos" by this group, and is even forced to be an accomplice in the kidnapping of an infant. He awakes to find mud on his feet and news of the kidnapping in the newspaper.
On May Eve (Walpurgis Night), Gilman dreams that Keziah and Brown Jenkin are sacrificing the kidnapped child in a bizarre ritual. He thwarts Keziah by strangling her, but Brown Jenkin bites through the child's wrist to complete the ritual, then escapes into a triangular abyss. Awakening, Gilman hears an unearthly sound that leaves him deaf. He tells fellow boarder Frank Elwood his horrific story. At night he starts screaming. Elwood witnesses Brown Jenkin eating its way out of Gilman's chest.
The landlord abandons the house. Later, a gale wrecks the roof. Workmen sent to raze the building years later find Keziah's skeleton and books of black magic, mostly rotten or disintegrated. A space between the walls is found filled with children's bones, a sacrificial knife, and a bowl made of some metal that scientists are unable to identify. A strange stone statuette of the star-headed Elder Things from Gilman's dreams is also found. These items are put on display in the Miskatonic University museum, where they continue to mystify scholars. The skeleton of a huge deformed rat with hints of human or primate anatomy is also found; this also baffles academia, and so disturbs the demolition workers that they light candles of thanksgiving in a nearby church to celebrate the creature's demise.
The story has generally received negative criticism, some calling the plot too vague and others too explicit. August Derleth's negative reaction to the unpublished story was conveyed by Lovecraft to another correspondent: "Derleth didn't say it was unsalable; in fact, he rather thought it would sell. He said it was a poor story, which is an entirely different and much more lamentably important thing." Lovecraft responded to Derleth: "[Y]our reaction to my poor 'Dreams in the Witch House' is, in kind, about what I expected—although I hardly thought the miserable mess was quite as bad as you found it... The whole incident shows me that my fictional days are probably over."
Thus discouraged, Lovecraft refused to submit the story for publication anywhere; without Lovecraft's knowledge, Derleth later submitted it to Weird Tales, which indeed accepted it. According to the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright asked Lovecraft for permission to adapt it to radio. Lovecraft rejected it, writing "What the public considers 'weirdness' in drama is rather pitiful or absurd... They are all the same - flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings, and superficial mechanical situations."
Many later critics have shared Derleth's view. Lin Carter calls the story "a minor effort" that "remains singularly one-dimensional, curiously unsatisfying." Steven J. Mariconda called the story "Lovecraft's Magnificent Failure...its uneven execution is not equal to its breathtaking conceptions,which are some of the most original in imaginative literature". Peter Cannon claims that "most critics agree" that "The Dreams in the Witch House" ranks with "The Thing on the Doorstep" as "the poorest of Lovecraft's later tales."S. T. Joshi referred to the tale as "one of [Lovecraft's] poorest later efforts."An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia complains that "[w]hile the tale contains vividly cosmic vistas of hyperspace, HPL does not appear to have thought out the details of the plot satisfactorily... It seems as if HPL were aiming merely for a succession of startling images without bothering to fuse them into a logical sequence."
Recently, more favorable criticism of "Dreams" has appeared. Weird Tales's current Lovecraft columnist, Kenneth Hite, calls the story "one of the purest and most important examples of sheer Lovecraftian cosmicism," suggesting that it is the most fully fleshed-out expression of the author's "From Beyond" motif, also explored in such stories as "The Music of Erich Zann", "Hypnos", and "The Hound". Lovecraft critic and Prix Goncourt award-winning novelist Michel Houellebecq situates the story within what he calls Lovecraft's "definitive fourth circle", classing it alongside seven other tales that comprise "the absolute heart of HPL's myth [...] what most rabid Lovecraftians continue to call, almost in spite of themselves, the 'great texts'."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
"The Dreams in the Witch House" was made into a short segment for Showtime cable television's Masters of Horror series, directed by Stuart Gordon, under the title H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House. It alters the plot and minor details of the original and puts it in a contemporary setting, with Keziah Mason becoming what the film's promotional materials refer to as "a luscious she-demon" and neighbor Frank Elwood changing genders to become Frances Elwood.
"The Dreams in the Witch House" was brought to the stage in 2008 by WildClaw Theatre Company in Chicago, in conjunction with Weird Tales Magazine's 85th anniversary, under the title "H. P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House". It was adapted and directed by WildClaw Artistic Director Charley Sherman.
A much looser adaptation inspired by the tale was the 1968 Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka. The Crimson Cult, Witch House, The Crimson Altar). It starred Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, and Michael Gough.
The story and characters were adapted by the author Graham Masterton, in his novel Prey.
In 2005 Dreams in the Witch House was used as the name of a compilation CD from the band H. P. Lovecraft.
In 2013, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society made a rock opera concept album called Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera based on the work. The project is a Swedish/American collaboration between producers and songwriters Chris Laney, Anders Ringman, and Lennart Östlund and lyricists/book-writers Sean Branney, Mike Dalager and Andrew Leman. The album features Bruce Kulick and Doug Blair on lead guitar on some tracks. From those who have reviewed it, the album has received positive feedback but has not received mainstream attention.