The Haunted Mind by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Tuesday’s Tale of Terror, January 15, 2013
Is there a state of mind, a supernatural zone, between the real and unreal? Examine the dream. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Haunted Mind, we enter a “midnight slumber.” If we were to dream of ghostly inhabitants, they would certainly be unreal yet we perceive these dream ghosts to be startlingly real, “wide awake in that realm of illusions,” as Hawthorne describes.
The Haunted Mind is probably one of the gloomiest stories Hawthorne’s ever written because he brings us into the subterranean psychodrama of sleep with pervasive phantoms and then blurs the wakefulness. A cunning device. And, to set his stage for deeper emotion, he uses of the second person you, “You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave ….” This forces us to think we are feeling this dreadful experience with the narrator.
A most extraordinary story, the prose requires a slow read as each sentence, each chilling word holds a great deal of imagery, realism, and insight. We need to read it slowly as if every line is a delicious bite.
We are introduced to the single character alone in his bed on a winter night, frost patterns on the window glass, snow-covered roofs, streets frozen, perhaps like this dream we are in. Symbolisms abound. While the character slips in and out of dreaming and half-waking, Hawthorne gives us intense descriptions of funereal ghosts passing by—wrinkled, fiendish, evil. A train of regret and sorrow follows, disappointments, shame, despair. What a pervasive eerie mood. We begin to wonder… are we dreaming of the underworld? Are we awake? Are we in some psychological prison of the mind? I think it was Poe who compared sleep to death, calling sleep “little slices of death.”
Hawthorne holds us captive when his character believes he cannot be persuaded that the dead “… neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls against the door of the tomb.” The deathly isolation in this story made me shiver, wishing for a warm fire to appear. And when the hearth’s embers do shed a bit of gleam, as the flames vanish, we are left to wonder what is real, the cold or the gloom.
“Yesterday has already vanished from the shadows of the past, to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future.” Where is this poor soul? Does he awake fully in his warm bed? Do we?
If we know Hawthorne at all, we know that the supernatural and self-discovery are common themes in his works. You must read The Haunted Mind (a quick read at only 1700 words) for an extraordinary experience into the wilderness of sleep between reality and dreams from a true master of literature.
Read it here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9209/9209-h/9209-h.htm
Stories about dreaming and alternate realities (the inner world) are my favorite, so The Haunted Mind ranks very high for me. That is probably why I wrote Night Sea Journey, A Tale of the Supernatural. I’m no Hawthorne, not near his talents, but my novel delves into the dreaming mind, into the fears that often emerge when we are immobile and frozen in our sleep. You’ll find that Hawthorne brings his story to a disturbing destiny, not just merely waking up to start a new day after unsettling dreams. In Night Sea Journey, my character, Kip Livingston, journeys in her dreams to find a new destiny—a reality that defies the expected and enters the supernatural realm of angels and demons.
Which brings me to the obvious question: Why do we dream? What are these secret nighttime journeys with strange faces and imaginary events? Is there some supernatural power going on here? If you’ve had a dream that has affected you or your life in some way (A ghostly one, maybe? Or a dream with the spirit of a dead loved one?) please post.
And stop by next Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.
Artwork is The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781.