When you go to bed at night, you know that once you fall asleep anything can happen. There is a good chance that you are about to go on a great adventure. Indeed, dreams tend to be larger than life. They can make you escape the mundane and experience the exciting. Or they can make you re-live the everyday and put a neat spin on it. Those are the kinds of good dreams attending to our inner hopes and ambitions, yet there are also bad dreams fueled by our deeper fears and sorrow. Nightmares trap you in the most unpleasant situations that fill you with utter despair. Even after you wake up from them and you catch your breath, you are still haunted by them. They are so sinister in nature that they are hard to forget and even harder to overcome.
In The Time of the Ghosts, nightmares are one of the major recurring themes. Kat keeps having them over and over again. No matter what she does, they creep back into her mind and become all the more intense with each new iteration. Kat first confesses her nightmare to Ann:
It’s like I wake up, but I’m still asleep. And there’s something. It sits on my chest and I tell it to get off. It doesn’t. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. And it sits on me heavier and heavier and heavier and I’m suffocating and I can’t do anything. (28)
As she keeps returning to this place of misery, the picture starts to clear up and she realizes that it is “[a]n animal sitting on her chest, pressing the air out of her” (117). She also notices that the “heavier and heavier and heavier” pressure on her chest transforms into a force that “drained and drained and drained” all of her joy (28, 117). Moreover, she suddenly catches the sight of two eyes “piercing [her] soul” that even follow her into the real world (117–118, 190–191).
This disturbing image is by no means unfamiliar to us. Nightmares in which we are unable to move, scream, or breathe are quite common and the overall aesthetic of this vision portrays a rather prototypical example of Gothic terror. But even though this nightmare might not shock us anymore, it still intrigues us as if we had encountered it for the very first time. As modern readers, we pride ourselves on our ability to recognize any literary trope. We think that our intellectual capacity can expose any manipulative attempt to grab our attention. And yet, while reading about this nightmare, we still inch our way towards the edge of our seat. In this rare instance, our reason is outweighed by our imagination, as the Gothic spectacle stands supreme. There simply is something so curious about this nightmare that we cannot help but to give into it. We feel such a strong reaction to the prospect that Kat could die in her dreams, because she has been our character of identification. And this danger seems so real and imminent, because Kat has been portrayed as so innocent and unstable. The Gothic nightmare escalates the tension of this novel, significantly, and imbues it with a greater sense of gravity. After all, it was Edgar Allan Poe who openly proclaimed that “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (165).
However, this passage does not just evoke a literary significance, but also a visual one, because the vision seen by Kat is also eerily similar to one painted by Henry Fuseli:
The Nightmare was first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show of 1782, where it enthralled thousands of visitors. Initially, art critics were puzzled by this image, though, since it “did not make explicit reference to a particular literary or mythological source” (Frayling 11). Consequently, they tried to decipher what inspired this painting by comparing it to similar scenes in established texts like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Paradise Lost. This debate clouded the painting in “an aura of mystery” that drew an unusual amount of visitors who tried to make sense of it on their own (11–12). Chief among them was Horace Walpole, the writer of the first major work of Gothic fiction, who exclaimed that The Nightmare was a truly “shocking” sight to behold (10). As the exhibition came to a close, critics reconsidered the work and reaffirmed its impressive execution which justified it as a “well conceived” piece of art regardless of its source (12). Afterwards, an unprecedented amount of printings of The Nightmare were distributed all around the world, “until it became the way of visualising bad dreams [and] the design for depicting monsters of the night” (13). Therefore, it should be of no surprise that this exact picture has also made its way into the Australian mindset. Whether it is the author or the character who consciously or unconsciously evokes The Nightmare in their description, it is apparent that the impression of this painting has become part of their mental lexicon.
So, after looking at the literary and visual meaning of this nightmare, one might as well analyse it on a semantic level. Thus, it suddenly becomes interesting how Samuel Johnson actually first defined a nightmare:
n.s. [night, and according to Temple, mara, a spirit that, in the heathen mythology, was related to torment or suffocate sleepers.]
A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.
“Saint Withold footed thrice the would,
He met the nightmare, and her name he told;
Bid her alight, and her troth plight.
[And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!]”
(Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.119–123)
It is quite astonishing how almost everything discussed so far can be contained in this small definition from 1755. First, Johnson examines the etymology of the word and remarks that “mara” can be traced back to its origin as a tormenting spirit in Germanic Neopaganism. Afterwards, Johnson presents his actual definition of a nightmare: “[a] morbid oppression in the night.” This specific term is not unfamiliar to readers of The Time of the Ghosts, though, since Polack also described Kat’s nightmare as “[a]n oppression surrounding her” (117). Furthermore, Johnson explains that the dreamer experiences “[a] pressure of weight upon the breast,” which is also prominently featured in Fuseli’s and Polack’s work. Finally, Johnson references another work of art, King Lear, which was also the same text that critics consulted to make sense of The Nightmare. However, Fuseli, who “made his name as a ‘painter of Shakespeare’” (Frayling 10), has actually cut ties with this canonical piece of literature, since he does not depict a witch or sorceress as the source of evil. Instead, Fuseli refers back to the folkloric explanation of this phenomena. In The Nightmare, a “mara” — a demonic and apelike incubus — sits atop of its defenseless victim and stares relentlessly at the viewer of this scene. And in The Time of the Ghosts, this sensation is being vividly recalled:
I feel strange, she thought. Like those eyes were piercing my soul. Like a hurt lay inside. I don’t know if they made it worse or were investigating to see what it was that hurt. They were clinical, though. Those eyes didn’t care. They may have been human, once. They may have cared, once. But when they were looking at me they were cold and clinical. Yucky. Very, very yuck. (117–118)
We have come full circle. One Gothic nightmare was felt very strongly in a very similar way by two different people, at two different times. And if you have ever experienced a nightmare like this, you know exactly why they stand united in their interpretation of it. Nightmares are truly intense and uniquely distinct.
Frayling, Christopher. “Fuseli’s The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and the Ridiculous.” Gothic Nightmares. Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, edited by Martin Myrone, Tate Publishing, 2006, pp. 9–20.
“Nightmare.” A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755, johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/1755/nightmare_ns.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Graham’s Magazine, vol. 28, no. 4, 1846, pp. 163–167. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/grahamsamerican04grisgoog/.
Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.