The Long Dream, and Caligari

Last year was a good year for short story publications, as I may have mentioned, and I’ve talked up a lot of them. I want to come back to one for a moment: “The Long Dream,” which is a story that was solicited by Joe Pulver, a little over a year ago, for his dream anthology, as it were, The Madness of Dr. Caligari. 

It is a very specific sort of anthology: the stories are all inspired by a famous and influential piece of cinematic art history, the groundbreaking expressionist horror silent, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That is to say, it is a step up in specificity to a lot of the other tribute anthologies that editors–Joe included–have put together, where the brush can be applied more broadly: writers take on stories inspired by the work of Robert Chambers, or H.P. Lovecraft, or Robert Aickman. Stories can range pretty far from the source in tribute, as long as they genuflect in the source’s direction. 

But mining a single work of art: that’s something else. It’s more a work of illumination. The product will be of necessity bound tightly with the subject matter… producing at its best, a kind of arms-length collaboration, or at the least, a decent piece of fan fiction.

I have some experience with putting together such a project. In 2015, my wife and I assembled a collection of stories about James Bond–in particular, James Bond as Ian Fleming conceived him. You couldn’t get in if you didn’t have something to say about that flavour of James Bond. There was some wiggle room. But not much. This was delicate work.

The constraints are even tighter with Caligari, and for that, more deliciously challenging. Robert Weine’s 1920 film is a surrealist masterpiece, set in a town of hallucinogenic distortion, its characters portrayed with expressionistic bombast. The ‘monster,’ the oracular somnambulist Cesare, is singular in purpose and affect. The villain, Caligari, is a marvellous creep of an alienist, but like Cesare, entirely singular.

But there was still wiggle room. Because while all the elements of this story are very singular–a zombie-like somnabulist, committing a series of proof-of-concept murders on behalf of the evil puppet-master Caligari–the context in which the film was made and released is vast. It is a film of and about Germany, fractured and broken after defeat in the First World War, and reanimating toward Nazism and the horrors of World War II. 

This is what interested me most: unsurprisingly, I guess, because I was working on the new novel, VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination, which is set in very late Weimar-era Germany. I’d already done the research, and so in “The Long Dream,” I applied some of it. 

The Madness of Dr. Caligari has more to recommend it than “The Long Dream.” The Table of Contents that Joe assembled includes the work of an A-list of writers in horror and the Weird, kicking off with Ramsey Campbell and finishing up with Gemma Files. All of these writers dove deep into a dark, dreamy posthumous collaboration with Weine and Pulver–making a book that is in its way, just as singular a work. The publishers, Fedogan & Bremer, are just putting together a special hardcover edition signed by all of us, and I am told that’s available for pre-order here. But hardcover, softcover, and e-book editions are also available, here.

That is indeed a plug. I recommend picking this one up. But to give you an idea of what’s in store, here’s the opening passage from “The Long Dream.”

In psychoanalysis as in all matters of scientific inquiry, it is too often the case that our failures advance our knowledge better than our successes. We can only truly take a measure of light by the shadows which surround it. 

.It is with this maxim in mind, gentlemen, that we begin our discussion of the case of a most unusual and shall we say enlightening patient of ours.
We will call him Conrad.

Conrad was a tall well-formed youth of sixteen when he first came to us. He complained of symptoms indicating anxiety and depression: which is to say, he was prone to bouts of melancholy and extraordinary lassitude. He was a vegetarian and loathed the touch of meat, much as he would recoil from human contact. His speech indicated a stutter. 

Conrad was reading in Vienna, and was referred to us by one of his tutors– an Austrian veteran who had consulted here for compulsive pederasty two years past and pronounced himself cured, prematurely in our regard. Because of that, we at first suspected that the tutor’s sexual attentions were a root of Conrad’s difficulties and our first meetings delving in this direction. 

Conrad claimed that his tutor had never touched him erotically, either with his consent or in an act of rape, and neither had he done to his tutor. Cesar described himself as a-sexual in orientation, expressing a loathing for the fluids and touch of man and woman alike. 

We inquired as to his relations with his father and this seemed to yield more. At first, Conrad claimed to never have met his father, who died in the fields when he was but an infant. But when we asked of his mother, Conrad said that his most vivid and earliest recollection of her was in a carriage, at the side of a tall and muscular gentleman with a bald head and a terrible scar across his jaw-line who waved to Conrad before they set out along a road through a thick wood. Was he his step-father? Or an uncle? Conrad was quiet for a moment and stammered that no: he was his father. 

“But you said your father died when you were young. 

“An infant,” he said. 

“This does not sound like the memories of an infant.” 

“No,” said Conrad, and his stutter became terrible as he explained that he must have been five or six at youngest. 

“Was it a photograph you saw?” we inquired, and at that, he shook violently and held himself, drawing his feet from the floor and his knees to his chest. We administered a small dose of chloral hydrate and were able to calm Conrad sufficient that he might elucidate a response. 

It was not a photograph, gentlemen. It was, Conrad confessed, a dream. 

Although we did not apprehend it fully until many years later, the dream was to be the crux of Conrad’s neurosis, and was to become the sole engine of our inquiry.

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