- The Dreams in the Witch House
"The Dreams in the Witch House" Author H. P. Lovecraft Country United States Language English Genre(s) Horror short story Published in Weird Tales Publication type Periodical Media type Print (Magazine) Publication date July, 1933
"The Dreams in the Witch House" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, part of the Cthulhu Mythos genre 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 likely inspired by the lecture The Size of the Universe given by Willem de Sitter which Lovecraft attended three months prior to writing the story. 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).
Walter Gilman, a student of mathematics and folklore at Miskatonic University, takes a room in the Witch House, a house in Arkham thought to be accursed. The first part of the story is an account of the history of the house, which has once harboured Keziah Mason, an accused witch who disappeared mysteriously from a Salem gaol in 1692. Gilman discovers that for the better part of two centuries many if not most of its occupants have died prematurely.
The dimensions of Gilman's room in the house are unusual, and seem to conform to a kind of unearthly geometry that Gilman theorizes can enable travel from one plane or dimension to another. In his dreams Gilman is taken to a city of Lovecraft's "Elder Things", and even brings back tangible evidence that he's actually been there. Several times his dreaming self encounters a bizarre "congeries of iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles", as well as a trapezoidal figure, both of which seem sapient.
Of much more direct concern, however, are Gilman's nightly dream sojourns with the old hag Keziah Mason and her rat-bodied, human-faced familiar Brown Jenkin, sojourns which he increasingly believes are actually happening in the real world. One night, Gilman dreams Keziah, Brown Jenkins, and the infamous "Black Man" force him to be an accomplice in the kidnapping of an infant. He awakes to find mud on his shoe and news of the kidnapping in the newspaper.
On May Eve (Walpurgis Night), Gilman dreams that he thwarts Keziah from sacrificing the baby, only to have it killed by Brown Jenkin. Coming back to wakefulness in this plane, Gilman hears an unearthly cosmic sound that leaves him deaf. The next morning, Gilman is found dead in his room in the Witch House, a hole burrowed through his chest and his heart eaten out.
The landlord then abandons the house completely, and when it is finally demolished years later, 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 a star-headed "Elder Thing" is also found, and these items go on display in the Miskatonic University museum, where they continue to mystify scholars.
Walter Gilman, formerly of Haverhill, Massachusetts, came to Miskatonic to study "non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics", which he linked to the "fantastic legends of elder magic". He is troubled by mental tension brought on by studying too hard, and at one point is forbidden by his professors to further consult Miskatonic's collection of rare books, including the Necronomicon, the Book of Eibon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.
Keziah Mason was an old woman of Arkham who was arrested as part of the Salem witch trials of 1692. In her testimony to Judge John Hathorne, she had spoken of "lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond.... She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab." She later disappeared mysteriously from Salem Gaol, leaving behind "curves and angles smeared on the grey stone walls with some red, sticky fluid" that were inexplicable even to Cotton Mather. Gilman comes to suspect that Mason--"a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century"--had developed "an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter."
Mason is described as having a "bent back, long nose, and shrivelled chin". She wears an expression "of hideous malevolence and exultation", and has a "croaking voice". She dresses in "shapeless brown garments".
Brown Jenkin, Mason's familiar, is "a small white-fanged furry thing", "no larger than a good-sized rat", which for years haunts the witch house and Arkham in general, "nuzzl[ing] people curiously in the black hours before dawn". The creature is described:
Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch's blood, which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages.
The Black Man
In his dreams, Gilman is introduced by Mason to
a figure he had never seen before--a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features: wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric. His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position. The man did not speak, and bore no trace of expression on his small, regular features. He merely pointed to a book of prodigious size which lay open on the table....
This character is later identified as "the immemorial figure of the deputy or messenger of hidden and terrible powers--the 'Black Man' of the witch-cult, and the 'Nyarlathotep' of the Necronomicon."Also to be noted, a later reference to markings on the floor Gilman finds among his own footprints suggest the Black Man has cloven hooves instead of feet.
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.
Many later critics have shared Derleth's view. Lin Carter calls the story "a minor effort" that "remains singularly one-dimensional, curiously unsatisfying." 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."
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." 
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."
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 alternates 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.
- ^ Livesey, T. R. (2008). "Dispatches from the Providence Observatory: Astronomical Motifs and Sources in the Writings of H.P. Lovecraft". Lovecraft Annual (New York: Hippocampus Press) (2): 3–87. ISSN 1935-6102. pp. 71-3
- ^ S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 107.
- ^ H. P. Lovecraft, "The Dreams in the Witch House", At the Mountains of Madness, p. 263.
- ^ Price, The Azathoth Cycle, p. xii.
- ^ Joshi and Schultz, p. 128.
- ^ H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 4, p. 91; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 76.
- ^ H. P. Lovecraft, letter to August Derleth, June 6, 1932; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 76.
- ^ a b Joshi and Schultz, p. 76.
- ^ Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, p. 92.
- ^ Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 9.
- ^ Scriptorium - H.P. Lovecraft
- ^ Kenneth Hite, Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, 2008
- ^ Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House, Anchor Bay Entertainment UK.
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