This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Detective of Dreams”, Gene Wolfe, 1980.
This story was first published in Kirby McCauley’s seminal Dark Forces anthology.
I admit I came to it expecting to be annoyed and disappointed, and I finished it annoyed.
I am not fond of Wolfe’s sometimes obliqueness and stories-within-stories plot. Nor do I subscribe to the notion that Wolfe is a writer for smart people. Such talk of any writer strikes me as reader vanity.
However, my annoyance was somewhat unfair, primed by the expectation that this would be what I call a weird story other than just a story packed with Christian symbology – though not a true allegory. After all, winning the vote to be discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group doesn’t make a story automatically weird, and it’s hardly Wolfe’s fault we came to him expecting one.
Still, McCauley’s anthology is a horror anthology, and this story in no way induced horror or uneasiness in me though I could see that perhaps some horror was intended by Wolfe.
The story is set in the late 19th century or early 20th century (we have references to Freud and the deposed French Emperor), and it takes on the style of that time with its detective narrator designating people and places with only a single initial.
To keep the interest up and to suggest a series character and occult private eye, we get references by the renowned narrator to previous cases involving a mummy and another with a woman hiding behind her portrait in the Louvre. As far as I can tell, Wolfe never returned to this character, but I am by no means well read in Wolfe’s large oeuvre.
The narrator is hired by D, whom he knows, despite the disguised identity, to be a secret policeman, Baron H. The price the narrator is offered for finding and destroying the Dream-Master, whose activities, at this point, we don’t know about, is a chair and table, both of gold.
And so the allusions and symbolism begins, and I might as well do the de-crypting along the way.
The whole offering of these rewards to the detective, particularly that golden chair, i.e a throne, sounds like Satan’s tempting of Christ in the wilderness. That would be Matthew 4:9 in the King James Version which is the translation all my following cites will be from.
The narrator goes to the city K which is described as a place where “the Middle Ages might almost said to have remained rather than lingered”. He finds a building with a plaque stating it was once a church and now a school. Given what comes later in the story, Wolfe is clearly not equating the city to some vanished medieval city of Christendom.
He interviews a woman, A, and asks her about her dream. (We get no explanation as to how he knows whom to interview in most of the story – he’s a great detective after all). She mends expensive dresses and sells them.
Her recurring dream is going to a house, after going through a narrow iron gate, via its garden. She sees a banquet. She sees the master of the house “robed like a king” at that banquet. She wants to please him but doesn’t know what to do. She wants to stay but is removed and taken to the garden where she can smell and hear a caged beast.
The symbolism of A’s dream is the hardest to decipher in the story. She weeps at not being allowed to stay. I think her fault lies in not allowing more intimate contact with people. She self-admittedly doesn’t like people. She gets part way, through a straight and narrow way, to Christ, the master of the house (Matthew 7:14). (The Dream-Master is never said to be Christ, but that’s my interpretation.) Perhaps the banquet is a reference to the parable of the ten virgins awaiting a bridegroom where only some are ready for him (Matthew 25:1-12). Her sin maybe in not following the “etiquette” at that banquet and accepting Christ all the way or not appearing naked since much is made of her dress. Being “born again” after getting salvation is to be born naked (John 3:3-6). However, none of the other guests are naked. Like all the dreamers the narrator interviews, she is sure she has seen the owner of the house elsewhere. Perhaps this is a reference to the divinity of Christ in all humans.
The next interview is with R, a prestigious banker. He has come up through poverty to head a bank. Recounting his dream, R emphasizes the master of the rich house (its details comport with A’s) is a man of flesh and blood, an emphasis on Christ’s incarnation. In this dream, the Dream-Master has a wounded hand, an injury that has reopened. This may be a reference to Doubting Thomas after the Resurrection (John 20:24-27). The amount and activities of the servants are emphasized. Here we may have a reference to the diligent servants referenced as being ready for Christ in the Parable of the Talents and the “good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:14-30.) We also learn the Dream-Master’s mother lives with him but he has no wife. I take this as a reference to Christ’s celibate state and the Virgin Mary.
The Dream-Master demands immediate payment from R for a debt. Presumably, this is a metaphor for Christ paying the debts of our sins, and, in turn, why we must accept Him. The Dream-Master even tells R, before he tries to get the money from somebody else who owes him money, that his debt can never be repaid but is forgiven. This is close to Matthew 18:23-35. As the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) has it, “And forgive us our debs, as we forgive our debtors.” R is afraid of the Dream-Master who has “complete power” over him.
R knows that the Dream-Master has other servants, ones quartered in the vaults beneath the house. “They are hideous, vile, and cruel.” I take these to be demons who answer to God though, to be honest, I don’t know if Catholic theology holds, as per the Book of Job, that even Satan answers to God. (I’m assuming Catholic theology is in play because Wolfe was Catholic.) R’s constant dream ends with one of those servants, his “paw” like a “filthy reptile”, opening his door. Each time the dream is repeated, the door opens wider.
The next interview is with a Countess. Her continual dream is of an execution, and the man to be executed, the Dream-Master, is tied to a tree and about to be shot. In his eyes, she sees the reflection of her husband, the man overseeing the execution. His reflection in the Dream-Master’s eyes is the true nature of her husband: “The man I have thought real is only a reflection of that reflection.” Is this Christ seeing into the hearts of men or Christ as the true man as well as God?
The detective, at story’s end, knows he is being watched. This is perhaps a reference to the powers and principalities of the world (Ephesians 6:12)? Yet the narrator chides himself for not “recognizing his old stories”. Is he talking about the Baron or the Dream-Master?
The story ends on a pretty obvious metaphorical note.
The detective enters a building with a picture of the Dream-Master in stained windows. He says the Dream-Master “understood Whom it was I had come for, and knew as well as I that His capture was beyond any thief-taker’s power”. Note the capitalized pronouns and the narrator’s inability to best the Dream-Master. The story’s ends with:
I destroyed the Dream-Master as He has been sacrificed so often, devouring His white, wheaten flesh that we might all possess life without end.
Dear people, dream on.
That is pretty clearly symbolizes communion in a church.
It’s strange this story was published in a horror anthology. It’s supernatural, of course, but, if it attempted to be horrific, it is only in the thoughts and emotions of those the detective interviews who have not accepted Christ like he has, a horror of a very intellectual sort and not visceral.
It’s not that I mind Christian allegories in weird fiction. I’ve liked Arthur Machen and Mark Samuels works in that vein, but, even divorced from its context which primes one to expect horror or weird fiction, this story did not stir me.
I wonder if G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday was an inspiration for Wolfe. However, that’s a book I only know second-hand.
I have finished most of the Gene Wolfe stories and books I’ve read with annoyance. Like you, I become exasperated with Wolfe’s “stories-within-stories” approach. Oblique references and confusing (for me at least) plotting leave me in a fog of doubt. Too much work for too little result.
Of his novels, I’ve only read the Book of the New Sun series. I’ve never gone out of my way to read his work, but, of course, he shows up in a lot of anthologies.