Joel Lane is one of the magazine’s most frequent contributors and arguably the quintessential Black Static writer. This story from #19 marked his fourth appearance, and I believe there’s another one waiting for a window of opportunity.
The opening line introduces both the protagonist and his situation – ‘The dreams didn’t come until Dennis started wearing the mask.’ Dennis has suffered from lack of sleep for six months. The doctors have diagnosed him with ‘sleep-disordered breathing’, and to counteract this he sleeps with a mask over his face connected to ‘a machine that pumped air into his throat overnight’.
Then there are the dreams, visions of a city that is falling apart, of blind cats and crows with mould on their wings. Most telling of all, he sees his parents who died eight years ago in a fire. Ensconced in the burnt out ruins of their home, they tell Dennis how much they miss him, how he can cross over and make them complete as a family again. Things aren’t much better for Dennis in his waking world – his relationships simply don’t work out, and conditions at his place of employment have become virtually unbearable. He is disconnected from all the things most of us find to anchor us in reality – family, friends, lovers, meaningful labour – and the nightmarish scenes that populate his dream landscape speak to this emotional disenfranchisement (and there is an element of culpability in this, the intimation that Dennis himself doesn’t respond as he should when people reach out to him).
Inevitably Dennis attempts suicide, and this is when we learn that he is an unreliable narrator; his parents come to visit him in hospital. Eight years ago, their marriage broke down, and Dennis has reconfigured this event as a fire in which both of them were killed. He is still in denial, maintaining that he doesn’t know these people who claim to be his mother and father, and the way in which he interacts with the couple in his dreams, their attempts to draw him over into their world, with claims that they can all be a family again, hint at a strong feeling of guilt on Dennis’ part, that right or wrong he somehow blames himself for the break-up, and finds it easier to believe they died.
Allowed out of hospital and ostensibly ‘cured’, Dennis’ disconnection seems complete. His words to a co-worker – ‘”I wouldn’t call this home”‘ – seem fraught with significance. The story ends with nullity mingled with potential of a sort, acceptance masquerading as release or vice versa – ‘Was there anything to connect with? Finally he drew the curtains, undressed, got into bed and put on the mask. With no idea where he would go next, asleep or awake.’
There are two strands to this story – on the one hand the personal side of things, with Dennis’ issues with his parents, and on the other the world of work, these two combining and playing off of each other to mould his troubled psyche. The latter aspects at times reminded me of Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done, tied in by such things as the executive nicknamed ‘Psychotic Barbie’ and the way in which the company refers to its ‘product’ rather than mention books. But where Ligotti’s protagonist channels a chaotic and destructive agency, Dennis becomes the victim of forces beyond his control.
Bleak as the landscape is in Dennis’ dreams, there’s a strong sense that his waking life is every bit as banal and minatory, and for the reader the true nightmare is that the scenes of urban breakdown and squalor don’t feel any less real than the events elsewhere in the story, and indeed thanks to the wonders of modern media reportage and rolling news, they are only a channel hop away. We are living in the dream time.
The heart of the story lies in this realm of dreams, whether we regard Dennis’ visions as simply the detritus of a burdened mind, presentiments of the future or genuine glimpses of an afterlife. They seem to hint at a higher or archetypal plane, some generation of the collective unconscious, but if so it’s a commonality that has been polluted by the way in which we live our lives – ‘All the people who died alone. Died without love, without meaning. They’ve brought the cold.’ There are echoes here of Christian and other belief systems in which actions in this world shape our existence in eternity, though it’s nothing as simple as the Heaven/Hell and reward/punishment dichotomies beloved of soap box moralists. More a matter of the baggage we carry with us.
And yet we must wonder if the mother and father who beguile Dennis in his dreams, also represent the tempter, are encouraging him to give up on this world by offering a promise of better things to come, an upgrade to be achieved through the sacrifice of self. Lane doesn’t provide an answer to this question (at the end Dennis has ‘no idea where he would go next, asleep or awake’); it’s something each reader must decide for his or herself.