Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The most elementary form of fantasy is conscious daydreaming, but the hallucinatory dreams we experience in sleep are what reveal the true range and strangeness of our fantasy life. Dreams are often bizarre but rarely so detached from the everyday as to offer a reliable haven of escape; what we most often find in Dreamland are distorted reflections of our anxieties.

When literary fantasies masquerade as dreams (see Visionary Fantasy) they cannot help but import the kinds of meaning for which we search our actual dreams in vain. The device of justifying a narrative by representing it as a dream is the most elementary in fantastic literature, fundamental to such medieval subgenres as the dream Allegory, although climactic awakenings came to be seen as the ultimate narrative cop-out once the notion of literary fantasy had become familiar and such apologetic moves no longer seemed necessary.

The suspicion that life itself may be a kind of dream, and we mere figments of it, is endorsed by several Far Eastern religious systems and incorporated into the fascinating worldview of the Australian Aborigines (see Dreamtime). It remains unsettling even when it is broached as lightly as in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass (1871). The notion that we might become lost in a dream so mazy that all our apparent awakenings are merely renewals is so uniquely ominous as to give Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare (1983) its title.

Many notable literary fantasies grew from seeds planted by dreams, the most famous examples being Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). This was to be expected in the 19th century, when laudanum was the only available painkiller; its influence on the literary work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) and others is notorious. Several French writers, including Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, forged literary fantasies out of dreams induced by opium and hashish, while Jean Lorrain (see Decadence) reconfigured dreams induced by drinking ether. Ann Radcliffe was in the habit of eating indigestible foods at night in order to induce nightmares she might harvest for her novels. Later writers were able to medicate themselves more carefully, but several of the most significant 20th-century writers of fantasy have made assiduous use of their dreams as a resource. Lord Dunsany's penchant for so doing, most clearly evidenced in A Dreamer's Tales (coll 1910), was echoed and elaborated by H P Lovecraft, whose exploits in this vein are described and exemplified in Dreams and Fancies (coll 1962).

Fantasies involving the submission of dreams to some kind of technical investigation or strategic control are common. Notable fantasies are "The Wonderful Glass" by Erckmann-Chatrian and Sphinx (1923) by David Lindsay. Dreamland is represented in these stories – tacitly, at least – as a kind of metaphysical Alternate World, a status which it is also afforded in The Wonderful Visit (1895) by H G Wells, Smirt (1934) and its sequels by James Branch Cabell, Marianne Dreams (1958) by Catherine Storr (1913-2001), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its sequels, Dreamwatcher (1985) by Theodor Roszak, The Bridge (1986) by Iain Banks (1954-2013), Bones of the Moon (1987) by Jonathan Carroll, Paperhouse (1988) and Only Forward (1994) by Michael Marshall Smith (1965-    ).

Collections of stories allegedly based on dreams, or which simulate dreams, include Dreams (coll 1891) by Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) and Strange Dreams (anth 1993) ed Stephen R Donaldson. Nightmares, as featured in Nightmares of Eminent Persons (coll 1954) by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and A Book of Contemporary Nightmares (anth 1977) ed Giles Gordon (1940-2003), have the advantage of innate melodrama. [BS]

further reading: Nightmare (1979) by Sandra Shulman; Dreamers (1984) by John Grant.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.