Perchance to Dream, a recent collection of Charles Beaumont's short stories, is perhaps the most endearing account of his writing in decades.
Perchance to Dream: Selected StoriesPublisher: Penguin Classics
Length: 322 pages
Author: Charles Beaumont
Publication date: 2015-10
Regarding weird, often ostracized fiction in the 20th century, one could easily demarcate such a period in at least two arrays. There are the performative writers, those who wrote with affection and not only with stories on their minds. Then there is the data venia maxima approach, the writing itself is always pensive and calculated, it seems to come out of the page as an entirely different entity. It's writing as something detached from the story. The writing, ultimately and stylistically, is as a performance. Under this category are the magnificent works of Hemingway and Faulkner, mostly authors who loved metaphors and symbolisms to convey deeper meaning to their art and craft.
Enter Charles Beaumont, the antithesis of the writer as some sort of ultimate performer. His was the incredibly prolific mind behind innumerable sci-fi and horror short stories, several Twilight Zone episodes, and a scriptwriter for various Hollywood movies during its golden era. Having earned a prominent career, Beaumont died at the (relatively tender) age of 38, suffering from what seemed to be, at the time, a mysterious brain disease.
In regards to his work in sci-fi and horror, Beaumont’s short stories encompass a wide array of topics and symbols, such as seeing death in your unconsciousness, society’s inconsequent pursuit of fame and beauty, and colonialism are just some ideas he used as fuel for his tales.
As Perchance to Dream, the latest (and possibly the best) collection of his work as a sci-fi and horror writer, seems to indicate, Beaumont was also a writer mostly devoted to exposing ideas -- freedom, humanism, the dichotomies behind good and evil -- via his writings. As he learned and then mastered beautifully with his work, ideas are the only things that truly linger in the reader’s mind. Putting style aside, they prevail for a long time. Yet, a Fixed Idea, as put by Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, when it is not dosed correctly, will bring death and sorrow to the world. That happens because ideas are inherently dangerous. They tend to linger.
Perchance to Dream has the guts to follow The Hunger and Other Journeys, the first and probably the most beloved of his collections of stories, as Beaumont’s best representation to date. It offers a wider picture of his talents, ranging from true horror stories (“Fritzchen”) and speculative fiction (“The New Sound”), covering a considerable time span of Beaumont’s life and works.
“Perchance to Dream”, the short story from which this collection borrows its title, appropriately is the first encounter we have with the author’s mannerisms. It's quintessential Beaumont in a variety of manners. In it, we are introduced to, as is initially apparent, a normal conversation between a psychiatrist and a patient. The subject of discussion is a dream that seems to be tormenting the patient. Only in the end do we get to know the patient’s true paranoia; he dies while asleep battling his fears.
Beaumont is often deemed a writer of horror stories, which ultimately might feed upon the supernatural and paranormal. Yet, “Perchance to Dream” showcases his penchant for horror as something found not in the outside world. True horror, as depicted in most stories in this collection, is found in the inner workings of the human mind.
Beaumont’s major output was released in the post-WWII period. As stated, his body of work suggest he operated as a perfect idea-writer and he was not immune to the theoretical fever that had spread over the world in the wake of World War II. That might explain, teleologically, why his characters see life and death, good and evil as dichotomies, and also why their suffering is caused not by the unknown, but rather by the excess in their lives and choices.
In Perchance to Dream, we witness the writer’s approach to a more fundamental kind of idealism since, as said, he is an idea-writer. Beaumont uses his writing as a vessel to communicate his ideals of progressivism, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, subjects in vogue at his time. Yet, his words rarely sound prophetic or patronizing. Even if his words come off as clear opinions on a given subject, his stances on a variety of topics – which resonate mainly because of the characters’ appeal – do not lose context.
For example, in “The Jungle”, one of his most politicized yarns, follows the story of Richard Austin and his wife Mag. Austin is, as it seems, an entrepreneur in charge of building an entire city in a distant land formerly known as a village. It is the home of Bokawah “the ignorant shaman”, as Austin puts it, and the people who used to live there. As it turns out, the city (Mbabara) ends up being cursed by the shaman’s tribe. The reasons for the casting of such a spell are transcendental and go beyond the aforementioned short story’s not so broad scope. In the words of the shaman,
You were destroying us against our will, Mr. Austin. Our world, our life. And such is your mind, and the mind of so-called ‘civilized’ men, that you could not see this was wrong. You have developed a culture and a social structure that pleased you, you were convinced that it was right; therefore, you could not understand the existence of any that differed. You saw us as ignorant savages – most of you did – and you were anxious to ‘civilize’ us. Not once did it occur to you we, too, had our culture and our social structure; that we knew right and wrong; that, perhaps, we might look upon you as backward and uncivilized…
Still, this little, messy manifesto is never offered without context. It only highlights how well integrated Beaumont’s view of the world was with his general body of work.
Beaumont was a pacifist at heart, a writer of ideas, mostly. This side of his work is better displayed in what is probably his best horror story, “The Howling Man”. It depicts the story of Dave Ellington, a traveler amidst a sojourn through Europe, who ends up ill in Germany and being care for at a monastery. As it turns out, a “howling man”, at the time, is being kept prisoner in the building. The reason for his imprisoning? Sexual transgressions.
In the aftermath, we’re presented with Ellington’s crisis of consciousness: symbolically, the “howling man” is nothing but the evil in the world which Dave considers releasing. His curiosity – and the responsibility he claims to himself -- brings him down. In the end, the man he once released ended up being Hitler, as put:
When the pictures of the carpenter from Braunau-am-Inn began to appear in all the papers, I grew uneasy; for I felt I’d seen this man before. When the carpenter invaded Poland, I was sure. And when the world was plunged into war and cities had their entrails blown asunder and that pleasant land I’d visited became a place of hate and death, I dreamed each night.
“The Howling Man”’s morals, as it happens with the best of Beaumont's work, seems to be the literal equivalent of stating that “hell is paved with good intentions”. The prophet inside of us all must die, under penalty of releasing evil into the world.
Which means, ultimately, that the characters in most stories of Perchance to Dream are here to represent ideas. Yet Beaumont has never seemed distant from his contemporaries who were benefiting from Realism’s stylistic excesses. Beaumont’s stories are thoughtful yarns on the nature of evil, life and death and, as the story which gives its title to this collection mentions, dreams and reality.
The final short story follows Mr. Goodhew, an audiophile in search of every grotesque sound that is possible to be recorded and catalogued and heard. It's hard to escape Beaumont’s poignant criticism towards narcissism in this story. Yet, in a surreal narrative line, the end of the world approaches and the character fails to capture the final sound he wishes he had recorded and played: the sound of his own death. The idea is simple: there's more than just speculative fiction and horror in Beaumont’s work. Within his work lies a life-affirming, Heideggerian philosophy.