The Dream

The Dream is available to everyone. It is the Upside Down; the world through the wardrobe; the Hinterland; the place where the tornado takes you; and much more besides. But ultimately it is inaccessible.

“I was never supposed to be here, I was never supposed to know.” Jacob Kowalski

All of us have aspirations be they to earn more money, own a bigger house, drive a larger car, find a job which we find fulfilling, but these are not The Dream. The Dream is not aspirational. However, if you ever find yourself in Florida, surrounded by the Disney and Universal theme parks, you will experience The Dream being sold and marketed on a gigantic scale. Yet it is not a financial purchase. No-one can sell you The Dream and neither can you buy it, although if you do fall into The Dream you will find yourself grabbing at tangible artifacts to make it seem more real.

Unfortunately, explaining what something is not, fails to explain what it is. So probably the easiest place to find The Dream writ large is in the ever expanding universe of Harry Potter.

Initially a series of hugely successful novels, they were produced as a succession of films which took J.K.Rowling’s story about a boy wizard and turned it into a world wide phenomenon. Now incorporating spin-off movies, a theatrical production, as well as a seemingly endless amount of merchandise, the Potter universe is almost unrivalled in its reach and diversification. But the true reason for its success, amongst one sector of its audience at least, is down to The Dream, which is the desperate, urgent desire to exist within that fictional world.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Either intentionally or unintentionally, J.K.Rowling created an immediately accessible space which ‘you’ could inhabit. She did this by primarily creating a character, Harry, who was as ignorant of the magical realm as the reader. Just like those of us in the real world, he was unaware of an alternative dimension to his existence under the stairs. Yet unlike us, Harry received a key to enter The Dream in the form of an invititation to study at Hogwarts. Here Ron, Harry and Hermione could have their adventures but where you too, through the power of The Dream could also mentally exist. Through sheer force of will you could place yourself in the Potter universe and be sorted by the Sorting Hat, sit in Professor McGonagall’s classroom and live your own role, as well as partake in the larger Voldermort story-line, perhaps as a fourth addition to Rowling’s primary characters. Even now the entire Potter universe is in a perpetual state of expansion. Each additional film or experience adds to the overall detail of the Potter realm (yet always religiously following J.K.Rowling’s original blueprint). And as it grows so it becomes more and more imbued with its own sense of reality which allows the space within it for occupation to grow ever larger as well.

Other universes are equally open to The Dream. It is no surprise that Disney’s new Star Wars inspired Galaxy’s Edge theme park has been so well received. However, I would argue that some created realms are somewhat less accessible. Those worlds, as occupied by Batman and Superman, are ones where the habitable Dream space is limited. Mentally, to invest in the idea of being a playboy millionaire with a tragic backstory who uses his fortune into becoming a vigilante, takes far more effort, than it does to place yourself within a gigantic space opera or a school for wizards. This logic may sound bizarre or even non-sensical. How can one fictional world be more or less ‘accessible’ than another? But it is all in the delivery. Gotham as presented within the mainstream Batman franchise of films is a far different place to that revealed within Todd Phillips’ recent Joker (2019). Yet, depressingly, Joker’s brutal mechanics are probably far closer to home for most of us than the Gotham inhabited by Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego. We have all had dead-end jobs in back water towns and wished for something better, we all receive mail, we have all, for the most part, experienced climbing inside a wardrobe but we don’t all have a playboy lifestyle and we haven’t all crash landed in the mid-west in an alien space craft as a small child. However, on the superhero flip-side, anyone can be bitten by a spider (although it is unlikely that it will be radioactive).

Spiderman comic panels

Yet this is not a DC versus Marvel origins conflict (and I have no bias here, I am happy to nail my colours to the DC mast). Also, this is not about enjoying a story or engaging with characters on an emotional level, this is about something deeper than that, it is about wanting to actively be a part of a fictional realm. With that in mind, I believe a major reason which makes one ‘story’ more open to The Dream than another was stated, unintentionally, by Stan Lee when referring specifically to superheroes, he said that they ‘should be real people with real world problems’. But this is not to say that some ‘constructed realities’ are closed to The Dream, they are not. Any fictional realm, if it grabs the right person in the right way, can be their chosen escape route out of reality. The Dream is not limited by genre or story-line, although some stories are more conducive to The Dream than others. Indeed all that matters is whether the reader, the watcher, the consumer is willing to invest enough time and energy into creating the necessary space inside each reality for The Dream to exist. And it is an investment, an intense, emotional one, and as such it can and does extract a heavy price. Which beggars the question, why would you invest in The Dream at all?

Unfortunately, such a question assumes that investing in The Dream is a conscious decision, I don’t believe this is the case; it is less a planned journey from King’s Cross Station and more like an accidental tumble down a rabbit hole. You pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or watch Star Wars: A New Hope and the emotional pull can, for some, be overwhelming. You lose yourself in a place unrestrained by the dirt, gravity and gloom of our own mundane existence. Instead you are transported to an alternative dimension where you are no longer insignificant, no longer invisible. Suddenly the opportunity to be more than just a bit part player in your own narrative becomes not just available but somehow, inevitable, and this is the founding ideology behind The Dream, irrespective of characters, settings or stories.

Magic Kingdom fireworks

Nowhere is this crystallized more precisely than in the end of night firework display at the Magic Kingdom. Here, beneath the spires of Cinderella’s castle, people are sold the essence of The Dream, that you are a somebody, you do have value, and as long as you believe than you can achieve anything. It is a philosophy unfettered by the drag and draw of reality, and almost all of Disney’s output pushes it with a passion and a drive unparalleled by anyone else. Except the fireworks always end and you are forced to file down Main Street, avoiding the buggies and the exhausted, crying children, to head back to a crowded car park, where you climb into your battered Nissan for the long drive home. Reality really is a bitch.

And that is the curse of The Dream, you have to leave it behind, but like a moth to a flame, it keeps drawing you back. To see this in action you merely have to enter Universal’s Hogwarts or Hogsmeade parks and see the queues for Olivanders, the people dressed in house robes and the crowds gathering onto the Hogwarts Express. A sizeable proportion of these individuals are not just tourists experiencing an attraction, they are pilgrims visiting a shrine.

Harry Potter Gringottsin Hogwarts Universal Studios

Maybe everyone has a story waiting to draw them into The Dream, and the form these stories take can vary greatly. Books, films, comics, computer games, RPG, all offer a valid space in which The Dream can exist, although some complex, open-ended worlds require the dividing line between simply being an inhabitant and becoming an actual author of the fictional world in question, to become blurred. However, I would argue that being an author of your fictional world (within highly specified restraints ie: think Minecraft, Fortnite or D&D), is not the same as fan fiction, fan art, fan websites, etc. These are created to spread a followers passion concerning whatever fictional realm has snared them inside its hinterland maze. It also helps to cement their bond with The Dream, although it is not a necessary activity for every Dream adherent. Yet if you want to witness the creative infinity loop which can arise from such a passionate devotion to The Dream, film and comic conventions are undoubtedly one of the best places to visit. Whatever form The Dream takes, the devotees of their chosen alternative reality, for a short while at least, all rub shoulders. Manga aficionados, Marvel fans, those desperate to sit on the Iron Throne or enter Hogwarts or flip into the Upside Down, all merge discuss, cosplay and purchase.

Even those who would mock the inhabitants of The Dream are, invariably, locked into their own created space such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Each one is a cleverly packaged Excel sheet, where we fill in the data, populate it with images and videos, thoughts and emotions, and than use it to compare ourselves to the impossibly perfect lives posted by those we follow. At least within the Dream space offered up by Harry Potter, Star Wars, Stranger Things and many more, no attempt is made to hide its inherent fiction behind a veneer of truth. Those within The Dream, whatever Dream it may be, actively choose it over reality; Ready Player One without the hardware. Facebook and the like are by comparison a false dream space, a scam, which pretends to give you the keys to a kingdom of like-minded souls, only to have you end up talking only to yourself. Their endless scrolling, although addictive, does not have The Dream’s philosophy and as such is an empty realm. This is not to say that social media has no value or worth, it does. But when you see those slack-jawed individuals, constantly pulling down on their screens for yet another post or tweet – it is a world away from the wide-eyed, active engagement as seen within the followers of The Dream – although it should be said that being active in one realm does not preclude being active in the other.

So, leaving social media to one side, The Dream is a space created by a consumer of a created world within which they find a home, a place of worth, a location where they are no longer just a nerdy school kid, a boy under the stairs or even just the third man through the door. But what happens when The Dream dies? I would suggest, without exaggeration, that it is like a death in the family. It would be an eternally aching scar. You would be unable to return to the source material without feeling how all the hope and optimism generated by that world’s Dream had ultimately turned to despair due to the realisation that, both The Dream, and its associated potential were shown to be unachievable – Disney’s castles would, if you like, have been revealed to be nothing more than empty shells built on sand.

Jacob says goodbye to his friends before having his memory erased

There are many scenes across multiple films and books which bring into clarity the loss of The Dream, but one of the most effective is towards the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Jacob Kowalski has to leave the sanctuary of a subway station and walk into the rain which will erase all his knowledge of the magical, wizarding realm. His torment and misery are clear and he even asks, “It’s just like waking up, right?” but this is untrue and Jacob knows it. Once you have touched The Dream, reality without it is far harsher, greyer and lonelier than before. It is a place where with your small job, small house and small life, you are invisible amongst a crowd of millions; where you are not even the hero of your own life-story.

Nothing is original

One of the major questions I keep being asked since publishing The Haunted Mansion back in 2014 is, where did all the ideas come from? I guess the easiest answer would be to say I borrowed them, from everything I have ever watched, read or heard. But I think this would be doing me something of a disservice, since it is far more complicated then that. Instead, the books are like giant melting pots, filled with all the things I have absorbed over the years. This bubbling, shapeless mass is then mixed with my own thoughts and opinions, which I then try to mould into something vaguely coherent and readable.

But I am not alone in doing this, everything, from the earliest Batman comic through to Stranger Things or the latest Hollywood blockbuster is influenced by something. Sometimes these influences are explicitly mentioned, but more often than not, they are hidden away like Easter eggs in a computer game. But if you can learn to recognise these hidden gems, they can act as a road map to a whole host of surprising films, books, artists and ideas.

Since I grew up watching B-movies, reading pulp fiction and surrounded by comic books, all these things are reflected in both The Haunted Mansion and The Big Stench.

From the author H.P. Lovecraft through to Lon Chaney Jnr’s The Wolf Man via 2000ad and the stylistic movies of Mario Bava; the amount of material that wormed its way into the first two books of the Charlotte Entwhistle trilogy is huge. At first I thought I should try to remove all these references and write completely isolated from any outside influences, but this was impossible. The books are as much a product of Alex Cox’s Repo Man or William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, as I am. So I decided to throw all the movies, books, comics, soundtracks, songs, and more into the limelight.

Some you might easily spot. However, others are hidden, lost within the words like ghosts, shrouded by a foreboding fog on Grimpen Mire. With this in mind I have drawn up a short list of some of the more significant influencers. But, I should warn you that the below list is a long way from being a complete record of everything in the first two books, and that a fair amount of the items are not suitable for those with a delicate disposition.

 

The House By The Cemetery (1981) – Lucio Fulci

Any film by Lucio Fulci tends to raise conflicting opinions, but for some reason I have real affection for this bizarre, gory, dream-like re-interpretation of the Frankenstein story. However, unlike in Mary Shelley’s classic, here the both the surgeon and monster are one, combined within the unpleasant figure of Dr Freudstein, who has somehow managed to survive for 150 years in the basement of a New England home by replacing his rotting body parts with those he removes from victims of his own murderous rampages.

With logic firmly on the back burner, the entire film runs like an horrific hallucination. This includes the final scene in which a young boy has to escape the clutches of Dr Freudstein by climbing out of the cellar through a cracked tombstone in the ceiling; a scene which I deliberately echoed in the final moments of The Haunted Mansion.

 

Carnacki, The Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson

This is actually a compilation of several stories published in the early 1900s which told the adventures of the paranormal investigator Thomas Carnacki. Apart from the ghostly content of the tales (or not, as often Carnacki would uncover a distinctly human cause behind the events taking place), I really liked the structure of the stories. Each one begins with Carnacki inviting a select group of friends to his London home and ends with them being dismissed once the tale is told. And I borrowed this idea of having such a solid beginning and end to each tale or chapter for The Haunted Mansion, although it all fell apart towards the end of the book.

 

The Evil Dead (1981) – Sam Raimi

Sam Raimi’s first full length feature film is a tour-de-force of blood, guts and humour. Documenting the arrival of a group of friends at an isolated wooden cabin, things quickly descend into anarchy when a tape is played which unleashes ancient demons into the world. With grotesque make-up, frenetic camerwork, a healthy dash of Lovecraft and the EC world writ large on the silver screen, The Evil Dead has been both banned and applauded all over the world for its non-stop aggressive style and Three Stooges humour.

It’s links to The Haunted Mansion and The Big Stench are many and varied but it is the bubbling, stop motion effects at the film’s conclusion which are reflected most explicitly in the acidic, viscous pool after Eliza the spider meets her own, untimely demise, on the floorboards of the Entwhistle Mansion.

 

H.P. Lovecraft – Collected Works

There are so many collections now out, devoted to Lovecraft’s work, it can be difficult to know where to start. But generally, the majority of his work touches upon the same ideas and themes; that there are eternal beings who operate in the shadows; there is ancient knowledge which has been handed down for centuries; retreating into insanity is the only way to survive. Obviously there is a lot more to his work, but what is important is how his ideas have spread throughout popular culture, to the point where merely mentioning his name or referencing the Necronomicon has become easy shorthand for an inescapable, timeless evil. But this barely touches upon the long and winding mythology Lovecraft created and which has since been added to and embellished by countless others. Personally speaking, if you want to find one story to start your journey through Lovecraft’s world you could do a lot worse then reading either The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward or The Colour Out of Space.

 

E.C Comics

I only had a few reprints of these infamous comics from the 1950’s, but they had a profound effect. With their fantastically gory covers, often simplistic stories of revenge and retribution and a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude where everyone and everything could end up chopped apart, eaten by a zombie or worse – I loved both their clarity of vision (even though it is somewhat warped) and their ability to stick to their own crazed logic. No-one ever woke up in Tales From the Crypt, sighing with relief about all the horror they had just experienced ‘being a dream’ – instead, if the characters woke up at all, it was invariably to find themselves in a far worse situation then the one they had just ‘left’. So, even though Lovecraft is influential, the rotting hand of pre-code E.C horror comics (and their ilk), still reaches out today, from beyond the grave.

 

Warlords of Atlantis (1978) – Kevin Connor

I saw this in a now long gone Barking cinema, when I was about 8 years old. Then it was a fantastically engaging adventure story, filled with giant monsters, flying piranhas and an evil alien race, and today I still feel the same.

Certainly, there are plot holes, scientific inaccuracies and maybe even the acting is less than perfect in parts, but it is all played out with such energy and panache that it is worth its weight in gold. So if you want to see the origins of the flying fish or the Aethersphere in The Big Stench, look no further.

 

 

Journey To The Centre Of The Earth – Jules Verne

My copy of this book fell apart several years ago, but the story of Professor Lidenbrock descending into an Icelandic volcano with his nephew Alex and an Icelander Hans Bjelke, stayed with me. The idea of a hidden world beneath our feet wasn’t new even in the early 1860’s, but Verne populated it with gigantic mushrooms, dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes, all of which turned it into a fantastic adventure story. Although it is not the sole inspiration behind Charlotte’s descent into The Big Stench, it certainly played a large part.

 

 

The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter

John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawk’s 1951 film The Thing From Another World, returned to the original source material, a short story by Joseph W. Campbell Jnr called Who Goes There. In doing so, Carpenter ended up creating an horrific tale with extraordinary body shaping special effects by Rob Bottin.

It is a seemingly straightforward story of a shape-shifting alien taking over the occupants of an Antarctic research base, but with a pulsating score by Ennio Morricone and Carpenter, a stand out performance by Kurt Russell and the aforementioned effects work, it becomes a paranoid masterpiece. Initially panned by the critics when it was first released, it is now recognised as a classic and very possibly Carpenter’s best film.

 

Inferno (1980) – Dario Argento

This is the sequel to Argento’s gloriously vibrant Suspiria (1977) and although not as immediately sensational as that film, it is just as engaging. Like its prequel, it takes on the story-line of the Three Mothers, and the gradual awareness of the protagonists that they may be living under the same roof as an ancient and influential, evil.

The entire film is wrapped in a oppressive, dream-like, miasma which is highlighted by one particular scene is which a character discovers a flooded room in her building’s basement and has to take a swim when she accidentally drops her keys. It is a magically surreal moment and one which I considered long and hard whilst writing Charlotte’s own dive into the liquid Stench.

 

Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott

With dark corridors, hanging chains and even a giant ‘alien basement’ covered in huge eggs, Alien is often described as a haunted house movie in outer space. However Ridley Scott’s film replaced an evil spirit with a parasitic creature brought on board the interstellar ship Nostromo, by the unwitting (and unlucky) John Hurt.

With a palpable sense of tension throughout, aided by a restless camera constantly prowling and the almost ever present pinging of a motion detector, it gave audiences their first proper taste of a grimy, blue collar space environment and has been copied by almost every Science Fiction horror film since. Only Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is probably more influential in the SF genre. The sequel (aptly named Aliens (1986)) had Sigourney Weaver return as the heroine to face hundreds of the vicious creatures.

 

Frankenstein (1931) – James Whale

Along with Tod Browning’s Dracula made the same year, few films are so fundamental to the horror genre. Picked apart, analysed and endlessly parodied, remade and re-imagined, both films aren’t just solid classics, they are cornerstones within cinema as a whole.

The story follows the scientist Henry Frankenstein as he attempts to create human life from the body parts fetched for him by his hunchbacked assistant Fritz. Unfortunately, the monster they create is hideously misunderstood both by his creator and the world about him and it responds with violence and aggression. All of which culminates in the monster being trapped in a windmill and seemingly burning to death at the hands of a mob of angry villagers.

Encased in the now iconic make-up by Jack Pierce, Karloff delivers a nuanced performance which succeeds in highlighting that the creature is not just a murderous machine but is instead a tragic individual, brought back to life by a scientist who never contemplated the consequences of his actions.

How Frankenstein and its outstanding (and arguably superior sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935)) manage to stand the test of time and surpass all the other versions, is a testament both to James Whale’s direction and Boris Karloff’s performance.

 

The Haunting (1963) Robert Wise

Bedeviled by bad luck, misery and death, Hill House is a large, foreboding mansion. With barely a straight angle anywhere, doors which open and close by themselves and the odd, hard to explain, cold patch; the building is opened up to a study of paranormal activity by a small team of pseudo-experts.

Although no spirits are ever actually seen, the threat of some awful presence hovering just behind a door or round a corner, is tangible.

Based upon the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, if there is an archetypal haunted house film, this could well be it.

 

Collected Ghost Stories – M.R James

I think I first came across the work of M.R James as BBC adaptations at Christmas. They were often chilling tales of unlucky walkers who stumbled across an ancient artifact and unwittingly conjured up an unstoppable phantom. Probably the most famous of his stories (due in no small part to the short film directed by Jonathan Miller in 1968), was Whistle and I’ll Come to You based on the story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad. It was only after watching this and the other adaptations that I read the actual stories and was not disappointed. They are all extremely well written, and although often seemingly set in the most benign locations, the horror and creeping tension seem all the more intense. A lot of the BBC films are now available to watch on Youtube.