Hauntings of the Past, Hauntings of the Future: Crafting Dreams in Fiction
By Audrey T. Carroll •
Dreams have woven their way into fiction from The Iliad to The Lord of the Rings and beyond. They can, of course, serve all kinds of purposes—deepening understanding of a character’s fears, desires, or motivation; revealing backstory; clarifying personal stakes. In the real world, dreams can feel like they’re granting us a strange sense of the through lines from one point in our life to the next. In fiction, they can become scenes which exist outside of linear time, breaking free of the confines of narrative structure. All at once, dreams can be trauma and prophecy, backstory and foreshadowing. Even for people who think that dreams are just the odd way in which our brain keeps things moving along through the night, the artifice of fiction still makes this crossroads of connection possible. Dreams provide an opportunity, too, for playfulness on the writer’s part; they need not be literal, and, in truth, likely shouldn’t be. Instead, dreams are a space where strangeness and surreality are expected, and as such they can use metaphor, symbolism, and poetic language to heighten a particular aesthetic inclination.
Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist is an atmospheric novel: Gothic in its manifestation of trauma in a house, magical realist in its use of prophecy and transformation—a family epic that is part multigenerational tragedy and part sitcom without the laugh track. The novel follows protagonist Meridia, beginning with her unhappy childhood marked by neglect and abuse, and continuing through her marriage and the birth of her only child. After further abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law and a deep betrayal by her husband, Meridia starts a new life for herself and her son, forging a path where she is financially independent and freer than she’s ever been.
Trauma and prophecy are two elements woven throughout this novel, in scenes both waking and dreamed. Setiawan’s use of the dream elements allows for analysis of how one might handle the dream and temporality in fiction. When she is a child, Meridia lives with her emotionally abusive father, her negligent mother, and the ghosts and mists which haunt them in a house that can act and react like a character in and of itself. In one instance, an entity appears to haunt the young Meridia in her home: “The dream had come again in the night, and the yellow-eyed ghost had this time turned up in her bedroom mirror.” Moments such as this blur the line between her real experience and her dreamed one because magic and trauma are intertwined, touching every conscious and unconscious moment of her life. The yellow-eyed ghost is a recurring figure, tied not only to Meridia, but also to her mother’s emotions, and to the distance between the two characters. In the hauntings of her dreams, the distance between mother and daughter is made more tangible, grotesque, and horrifying.
The tension between trauma and prophecy in dreams might exist exclusively—that is, one dream deals with trauma while another, separate dream explores prophecy. These elements might be made more obvious in the dreams within fiction when they also occur in the novel’s waking world so that the dreamworld is working in concert with the real world of the novel. For example, in Of Bees and Mist, the fortune-tellers come into town, which is how Meridia meets her husband, and their presence (whether a reader believes them to be authentic or not) suggests the possibility of prophecy in the novel’s world. Shortly after, still early in Meridia’s courtship with her husband, a young deer washes up on a beach in a coffin. Meridia has a sense of dread, a premonition that something deeply wrong lies in the future for her, though she does not know what until after this event comes to pass, when the narrative directly invokes it again. The fortune-tellers and the deer in the coffin work as elements that make prophecy feel like a genuine possibility in this world; the house and the mists are inescapable elements of trauma. They work in tandem, too, with one of Meridia’s recurring dreams:
It was the same dream she had been having for years. The bright flash of light traveling at great speed, followed by a thump and a dreadful scream. Then came Ravenna’s arms, squeezing her while a burning liquid fell over her cheeks. This time, she managed to peer into the darkness and catch her mother’s face. To her shock, it was not Ravenna who stared back at her. It was the ghost she had first encountered in the mirror more than a year ago. The dirty yellow eyes spun and exploded out of their sockets.
This particular dream further bleeds into the waking world. When Meridia’s mother-in-law reveals that Meridia’s mother attacked Meridia’s father with an ax, Meridia sees “the kitchen…spinning, the floor bobbing, the ceiling plunging, and in the midst of the commotion she saw a blinding flash leap up from the haze of nightmares.” This flash is suddenly clarified as the ax that her mother wielded. The truth was revealed to Meridia in a dream before anyone else shared it with her, and this truth is the source of the family’s trauma, something which she, as a baby, should not have remembered, but due to the nature of dreams—and the supernatural elements at play here—the event has emblazoned itself on Meridia’s mind regardless. In having this recurring dream haunt Meridia—along with the other ghosts and mists and living houses—the trauma’s impact on her life is unmistakable. The dream enhances the emotional threads of the story, clarifying the importance of backstory in understanding the full arc of this character from birth to fully independent woman.
On the other hand, trauma and prophecy can thread together in a dream. One could even argue that this choice enables the most potent use of dreams in fiction—they are a crossroads, a liminal space outside of time where all of a person can be on the page in a singular scene. In one dream, Meridia is chased by bees and the stench of dying roses—the motifs associated with her mother-in-law’s supernatural and oppressive abilities—until she jumps off a cliff. Then Meridia is grabbed and transforms into her child self, walking with her nurse. Her nurse had been the first to reveal some of the dynamic between Meridia’s parents to her, a revelation that caused the nurse to immediately be fired. In the dream, Meridia asks the nurse to stay, but the nurse says that seeing Meridia is her dying wish. The mists—the same ones which mysteriously haunt Meridia’s childhood home, the ones which whisk her father away in the night and return him in the morning, the ones which her mother curses—appear at the end of the dream. The nurse’s last conversation with Meridia combines the past (“Shh! What would your mother say if she saw you?”, an echo of earlier sentiments) with prophecy: “Listen carefully. The next time you see the three mists together—”
Meridia never hears the remainder of the prophecy. This omission heightens the ominous tone of the dream, a foreshadowing that has not yet taken full shape in the narrative. Her husband wakes her, telling her “You’re having a bad dream.” But Meridia knows that dreams contain truth, and so she
arranged her arms frantically around her belly. “No—no—not a dream,” she stammered. “The nurse—my nurse—was saying good-bye.”
Then she remembered. What would happen the next time the three mists appeared together? The thought pinned her head with needles and kept her up for hours.
Meridia knows that the warning about the mists has to do with her future; she protects her stomach, wrapping her arms around the very symbol of the future which she carries inside of her. It is not until Meridia knows why the mists take her father, and why they later take her husband, that Meridia understands the nurse’s prophecy in full. The thread from the past to the future is not one that provides perfect clarity, and yet Meridia is haunted by the mists, by the trauma caused by her parents, by the way that her own marriage will face a similar turmoil in the years to come.
Dreams can be a difficult-to-manage device. Weaving together many craft elements—and threads of a life—the way that Setiawan does with Meridia’s story can bring attention to the artifice of fiction. However, dreams also grant insight into the more unpleasant aspects of a psyche that may be repressed even when the reader has access to interiority of a character’s conscious perspective. Dreams have the benefit of making a character face certain aspects of their life; they allow a subconscious to take over as narrator for a moment, and that subconscious tells its story even if it’s not a story that the conscious self wants to hear. This holds the potential for narrative friction and tension. The messy nature of dreams, their lack of strict fidelity to reality, and their potential for direct engagement with elements such as foreshadowing and backstory may make a writer hesitant to attempt writing them. For these reasons, dreams in fiction may even feel complicated to the point of being taboo. But still, each story deserves and requires a unique considered approach.
A story or a novel might call for including dreams in the narrative. Some characters might be the kind to remember dreams; others may not. Some may find dreams odd but ultimately meaningless; others may put a lot of stock into interpreting what they’re dreaming about and why. Writing a dream might work in a fantasy world where trauma and prophecy are realities of everyday life. Dreams can also work in a realist story, where their strangeness can be used to understand the strangeness of everyday life. A well-developed dream scene might also provide narrative texture, particularly by breaking a certain pattern or rhythm that could feel monotonous for the writer.
Even if the dreams don’t make it to the final draft, even if they are lost in revision the way that we lose them as we blink ourselves awake, writing our characters’ dreams can still be a fruitful exercise for a writer. A writer can use a dream to delve into a different mode or aesthetic, to tackle craft from a new angle, to gain a new perspective on the story that they’re telling. Even if a dream never meets the reader’s eyes, it has the opportunity to demonstrate to the writer a fuller prism of the character. What does the character dream about? What do they desire? What motivates them? What makes them avoid going to sleep at night? What haunts them? What do they refuse to admit even to themselves? And maybe these revelations not only ease the writing of the character. Maybe they also help to clarify a theme, deepen a plot element, add connective tissue between what the protagonist is doing and why. If we can risk a more imaginative conceptualization of what dreams can do in fiction, stories gain the potential to become more richly character-driven, exploratory, and adventurous.
AUDREY T. CARROLL is a Best of the Net nominee, the editor of Musing the Margins: Essays on Craft (Human/Kind Press, 2020), and the author of Queen of Pentacles (Choose the Sword Press, 2016). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in (mac)ro(mic), Miracle Monocle, The Broken Plate, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, So to Speak, and others. She is a bi/queer and disabled/chronically ill writer who serves as a Diversity & Inclusion editor for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. She can be found at @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Featured image by Andrew Neel courtesy of Unsplash