Tormented dreams of Poe and H.P. Lovecraft


“It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in the future existence, we shall look upon what we think of our present existence, as a dream”
            Edgar Allan Poe

There is a subtle but undeniable parallel between the workings of two men, separated by a wall of time, spanning half a century. Both masters of their own craft, these two talented writers were  outcasts for the world around them and trapped in the realms of their own dreams.

The two men are Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Inevitably, those who enjoy the writings of Mr. Poe, tend to be drawn into the lore of Lovecraftian horror, and vice versa. Now, why is that? What is the unseen bond that ties these two literary minds together?

The answer we seek may look elusive and undecipherable, hidden in the rich legacy both men left behind. But, looking close enough, a much deeper sense of connection can be found, the one buried beneath the piles of words that speak of desperation, suffering, and above all – the unbearable horrors lurking in the deepest corners of the human mind.

The Macabre of Poe

The senior of the two, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, who is better known to the general public, is the man with quite a somber biography. Much of what is known about Mr. Poe is certainly something that a reader can expect upon reading his works.

In his earliest childhood, Poe was sentenced to a hard life. His father abandoned the family in 1810, one year after Poe was born, while his mother passed away only a year afterward, branding him an orphan. He was adopted by wealthy merchant John Allan from Richmond, Virginia., and here is where he gets the name, Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks to his foster father, Poe got into the University of Virginia, a prestigious school where he could pursue his passion for ancient and modern languages. But it is also the place where the young Poe was exposed to vices such as gambling and drinking. These will lead to great gambling debts, a quarrel with John Allan, and Poe’s eventual abandonment of the university after only one year. This opened the door to the world of suffering and struggling.

When he was 26, he married his first cousin, a 13-year-old Virginia Eliza Clamm, whom he was in love with. Around this time, Poe had decided to try his luck writing.

Poe was not an exceptional writer and he worked various jobs to make a living. At the beginning of his career, he was an experimental writer, and he wrote poems, satires, dramas, literary critiques, mystery stories, and even adventure novels. And, let’s not forget, Poe is considered to be the man who introduced the world to detective fiction, decades before Agatha Cristy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But it might be safe to say none of these bore such a great value, as did the writings he created in the last years of his life.

To understand what it is that makes Poe’s work so special, appealing, and timeless, one needs to look no further than the last decade of his life. That sad and bleak period led to his untimely death, filled with tragedy and grief, but also with prolific writing.

 Dream-Land

In 1842 Poe’s wife, Virginia Eliza Clamm, started to show signs of tuberculosis, the same disease Poe’s mother had succumbed to years before. This leads Poe down the path of increased depression, excessive drinking, and slow but graduate isolation from the world and other writers. It is during this dark period of his life, ironically that the best of his prose and poetry was conceived, molding Poe into the legend we know today. During this time, his themes clearly revolve around death, bizarre incidents, decomposing corpses, ghosts of deceased women, and premature burial.

In 1843 Poe published “The Tell-Tale Heart”, a story about a gruesome murder, told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator – a murderer. A few years later, in 1846, in “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe follows a similar disturbing concept. There are many indications, critics believe, that these stories were partially based on Poe’s real-life encounters and experiences during this period of isolation. In 1845, he publishes “The Raven”, a poem that is an instant success. The poem was praised for its musicality, structured language, and its style, pleasing at the same time both critics and audiences. Two years after his wife passed, in the year of Poe’s death, one of his final, and most acclaimed, poems – “Annabel Lee” was published. This one speaks of the narrator hunted by grief and mourning for his diseased young wife, and it is partially based on Poe’s own life. Both of these poems explore a man’s descent into madness, and it is easy to recognize Poe’s own suffering bleeding through these verses. The sadness of his loss, suppressed with an excessive substance and alcohol abuse, led Poe down the path of inevitable doom. And indeed, his death was a mystery much like the ones he wrote about in his tales. He died alone, in the hospital, after being found on a street lying unconscious and in need of help, in clothes that were not his own. Of horror he was living through in the last days of his life, we may never know.

But, while his macabre tales and ghostly poems speak of hopelessness and unbearable torments of the human mind, we need to turn to his, often overlooked, dream-related poetry to find some kind of solace or even hidden optimism.

It would be rewarding to know more about the dreams of Edgar Allan Poe, as we don’t have much to start with. He did not write extensively on the subject matter, so we have to work with what we have.

His first dream-related poem was published as early as 1827, named simply “A Dream”. In it we are introduced to an atypical, dark, and joyless place that exists inside of Poe’s dream. It reveals the dreamer’s inner sensations inevitably leading him to believe that even the waking world is some kind of a dream, an idea that will later grow on Poe. It will even pass on to another great dreamer, born four decades after Poe’s death, but we’ll get to that.

Two years after his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, in 1844, Poe publishes another important poem named “Dream-Land.” This one offers us a deeper look into the world of Poe’s dreams, describing it as a dangerous place ruled by a nightly phantom, while, at the same time, the region around the dreamer is soothing and peaceful…

Poe’s final, and perhaps most important dream-related poem will be published in the year of his death in 1849. Titled “Dream Within a Dream,” it speaks of a narrator who, much like in a Dream-Land, wonders if all life is a dream. Knowing what we do now of Poe’s life, it is only soothing to think these were some of the few peaceful thoughts Poe had in his mind, to comfort him, help him with the grief, and above all, help him understand the hardship of life he had endured in those years of suffering. Verses he left behind are as eternal as the dreamer narrator exploring the limits between waking life and a dream, and between life and death. Words of salvation, and inspiration for those who read them, as they were for the one who wrote them. In a way, these poems were a vessel in which Poe had stored his dreams to preserve them, protect them, and pass them on to those who were to follow.

Now let’s skip a century, and see where this vessel might have ended up.

Lovecraft’s nightmares

Sometime after Poe, another man discovered the importance of human dreams and dedicated his life to writing about it. This man’s name was Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Lovecraft never hid the fact that Poe was one of his influences, if not the biggest one. In fact, Lovecraft respected Poe so much he described him as “The God of Fiction”! Upon closer examination, we can see how these two writers have had not just a similar creative output, but also similar lives.

Lovecraft grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. When he was just a boy, Lovecraft’s father Winfield was committed to a hospital for a psychotic episode, where he died after five years. This left Lovecraft growing up with his mother Sarah Susan, a caring but mentally unstable woman, as will be seen later, during Lovecraft’s teen years. At the time, Susan and the young Lovecraft lived with Susan’s parents and her two sisters.

From a very young age, Lovecraft was very keen on reading and writing, drafting his first literary works around the age of 7. One of his earliest influences was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illustrated by Gustave Doré. Those familiar with Dor’és work, especially his black and white wood engravings, can notice how morbid and menacing these illustrations can appear. These images, combined with grief and gloom inside the Lovecraft’s house, were the seed for what is later to become Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle”.

Much like Poe, Lovecraft faced tragedy on more than one occasion during his childhood. It is said that when his grandmother passed away, the family was trapped in gloom and despair. During that time, Susan and her sisters wore black mourning dresses that frightened Lovecraft so much – he developed nightmares that will stay with him for the greatest part of his life. However, in these nightmares, Lovecraft soon begins to recognize the inspiration for his writing.

A call of cosmic horror

In terms of dreams, dream poetry or even dream worlds, we might say Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle is the largest, most ambitious, and most devoted project Lovecraft has worked on. Some critics even go as far as saying that Lovecraft was so afflicted by his nightmares and dreams, he transcribed them onto a paper.

In any case, the end result is a borderless place, filled with abstract remains of Lovecraft’s memories and thoughts, a place of unimaginable distances between continents and even planets. The word is filled with waypoints, named and unnamed cities, mountains, lakes and seas, but also portals that lead to the uncharted regions, too wild to be explored, and too terrifying to be remembered for those who try.

It is easy to realise Lovecraft was indeed an outcast most of his life, an individual who was forced to live in fear, secluded and isolated from the rest of the world. It is no wonder that he sought refuge in the world of dreams, just as his predecessor Edgar Allan Poe did in his time.

From the very young age, Lovecraft claimed he was hunted by creatures he later came to name the “night-gaunts”, winged creatures who come to him in nightmare worlds. This might be one of the causes for Lovecraft’s mental weakness, as he is known to have suffered more than one nervous breakdown in his childhood. He had only one weapon he could use against these nightmares and it was a pen. Naturally, he started writing about the world of dreams, seen through the eyes of made up characters.

Early 1920’s see Lovecraft slowly emerging from his isolation and starting to get back into the society. Under the heavy influence of Lord Dunsany, a visionary fantasy writer, Lovecraft enters what can be called his golden era, and starts writing stories from the Dream Cycle.  Among the first published stories dealing with this phenomenon is “Polaris” a short story describing lucid dreaming of an unnamed protagonist while he is observing Pole star in the night sky. A similar concept can be found in the “White Ship”. These two stories, albeit short, offer a great insight into Lovecraft’s notions of space and dream, as well as the ways in which these two are interconnected and traversable. “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “Cats of Ulthar,” and “”The Statement of Randolph Carter” are soon to follow. The last one introduces us to Randolph Carter, a recurring character in Dream Cycle stories, Lovecraft’s alter-ego, a man who travels dreamlands. Around this time, Lovecraft starts writing a draft of what will later be named “Ctulhu Mythos”.

Among the titles that need to be mentioned here are: “Celephaïs,” “Nyarlathotep,” “The Other Gods,” “Azatoth,” and, above all, one of his most important novellas, the centerpiece of his Dream Cycle – “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In the latter, we can find the most detailed account of the so-called Dreamlands, narrated by no other than the dream-traveler Randolph Carter.

The shared dream-quest

It is important to note the degree of care Lovecraft has put into his writing to help his readersexplore, in great depth, the potential of humankind to dream. During his short life, Lovecraft was in the centre of the body known as “Lovecraft Circle”, an affiliation of fellow writers joined in a mutual venture of creating and sharing a universe Lovecraft dreamed about. Many of these friends earned respective names for themselves such as Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Donald Wandrei, August Derleth, and Clark Ashton Smith. It is thanks to these people and their writings that Lovecraft’s name, and his lore continued to live. All of these writers would occasionally, while building their own stories and universes, freely borrow from Lovecraft’s opus, joining him in his eternal dream quest. It is only in the early 1990s that Lovecraft’s work started to be acknowledged in modern literature, and became so influential and unique that the term Lovecraftian was coined for it.

But what if the power of Lovecraft Circle was not as narrow as we might initially think? What if, in his own infinite universe of dreams, Lovecraft found a way to summon not just the present dreamer, but also those who dwell in the past, and are long passed away? What if a simple reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s dream poetry would be enough to establish a connection with the long deceased genius?

Looking at the works done by both of these men, while knowing the struggle they had to go trough their, otherwise ordinary lives, one can’t help but notice the common traits emerging from their writing.  Through their words, we see into their dreams. And while Poe was more of a mystery to us, a man who died just as he lived – in obscurity and suffering,  Lovecraft is the one who was more revealing, speaking more clearly of darkness and terrors that lurk behind the waking worlds – the terrors hidden in the deepest corners of our subconsciousness.

Lovecraft pointed out how fragile is our own reality, and how potent are our dreams. He believed that universe is so vast and filled with forbidden knowledge that it would be destructive for the human mind to even ponder about it. It is the essence of Lovecraft ideology, after all, that humanity as a whole is just a tiny speck of dust compared to the infinite chaos that is universe; so insignificant and utterly unimportant that it can be erased from existence in a second. Such a realisation scared him beyond measure, and was perhaps the main reason why he turned to dreams to seek solution. He believed that  a dream state supersedes the potential of the weak human body and can allow us to wonder in cosmic wastelands. And so he did. Much of his writing tells us about this quest.

This is where Lovecraft’s dreams collide with the dreams of  Edgar Allan Poe.

To understand the connection between Poe and Lovecraft we can look at it as one man passing the seed of inspiration to another, through time and space. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course.

In a similar fashion, the famous writer Dan Simmons was touched by verses of a long deceased poet, named John Keats. He dedicated entire sections of his novels to portraying Keats’s thoughts and character, and even borrowing titles of Keats’s poems for the titles of his novels. And let’s not forget one of the most important works in the history of literature – Dante Aligihieri’s “The Divine Comedy.” Here, we see a poet’s fascination with a fellow poet who lived in ancient Rome (about 13 centuries before Dante was even born), the famed Virgil, whom Dante portrays as one of the main characters in his masterpiece.

We can only speculate about the exact moment when Poe’s word was heard by Lovecraft and the bond between these two men was created. It might just be a single passage or a verse from one of Poe’s collections that did the job. But what secret revelation was hidden in that sacred bond? Was it fear of the realisation that the whole universe might be just a dream, and all lives in it are equally meaningless, as Poe came to feel? Or was it the encouraging opportunity to travel beyond the borders of reality and freely explore, like Lovecraft did, the vast spaces of the unconquered cosmos?

While it is easy to assume these two were unified in the notion that the whole existence is futile and all sense of destiny is lost, the legacy these men left behind can tell us otherwise.

It was perhaps the realisation of such a harsh truth (truth these two men believed, at least) that sentenced them both to life revolving around a long, painful pursuit. Both men died in agony; sick, alone, and broken spirited, thinking about their ruined lives, and wishfully hoping there are more worlds to explore upon their passing. The irony here is – they died not knowing they had already finished their quest. In fact, they did more than that! They proved to us that a single man with a pen and dreams can, indeed, have a significant role in the world! Both men died never finding out about their true purpose. They died as martyrs but became immortal legends, living now, in the worlds created in their dreams, admired and praised by many – a destiny none of them could foresee even in their most daring dreams.

And who knows what was the exact moment or the exact words Lovecraft came upon while reading Poe, that sparked his imagination, and encouraged him to embark upon a never-ending pursuit of dreams. Yet,we may very well assume, in the interest of the suiting conclusion, that it was this passage of Poe’s poem that offered the revelation, as it applies for both writers equally:

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone? 

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

Edgar Allan Poe: “Dream Within a Dream”

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