Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Part 5 – Traveling through Space

Comic book version of Beyond the Wall of Sleep (mycomicshop.com)

In this last article on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” the astronomical references in the story are explored.  As S.T. Joshi notes in H.P. Lovecraft: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics 2001), HPL came across two articles that stimulated his imagination to write Beyond the Wall of Sleep.  The first was  an article in the New York Tribune, which mentions some inhabitants of the Catskill Mountains and refers to a family named the Slaters or Slahters.  The second is an article written by Garrett Putnam Serviss (1851 – 1929) who wrote articles about astronomy, science in general and early science fiction stories.

Garrett P. Serviss, journalist, astronomer, author of early works of science fiction (from Wikipedia.org)

As Joshi cites (2001) HPL was a fan of Serviss’s work and in his book Astronomy with the Naked Eye (1908) Serviss mentions that Dr. Anderson of Edinburgh found a new star fairly close to Algol (the Daemon-Star) in February 1901.  Within 24-hours this new star became fairly bright but within a week or two it had visibly faded and in  a few months it was hardly visible with the naked eye.  The star was actually a nova and was given the name Nova Persei.  This was actually the second nova discovered by Dr. Anderson, the first one being identified in 1891 and named Nova Aurigae.

The flash and then disappearance of Nova Persei near a star called the Daemon-Star obviously had a significant impact on HPL as he wrote Beyond the Wall of Sleep.  In the story the luminescent entity who talks through Joe Slater mentions that its enemy – the oppressor – is the “blinking” star known on Earth as Algol, the Daemon-Star.  As the entity prepares to leave the dying body of Joe Slater, he tells the intern to watch the sky close to Algol.  Again, Joshi provides some valuable information about Algol.  The reason why it is called the Daemon-Star is that it is actually a double star, or binary, system in the constellation of Perseus.  Thus, as the stars orbit one another, the visible magnitude of the “star” substantially changes.  These large changes in visibility have resulted in naming the star Algol, which is an Arabic phrase meaning “demon” or “mischief-maker.” (Joshi, 2001).  Thus, the luminescent entity was off to do battle with its enemy Algol, the Daemon-Star.


Algol, the brightest “star” in the constellation of Perseus is actually a binary star system (EarthSky.org)

Was it Algol that imprisoned the luminescent entity  within the physical body of Joe Slater for more than four decades?  Was this why the luminescent entity was seeking revenge against Algol?  While we may never know the motive behind the hatred for Algol, HPL documented the outcome of the battle through the article on Dr. Anderson’s discovery of Nova Persei.  That is, the entity must have confronted and battled with Algol only to be defeated.  The luminescent entity flared up, only to be snuffed out of existence by Algol.  Thus, the nova appeared, shined brightly but was gone in a matter of weeks; this must represent the entity’s defeat, for the binary star Algol still shines in the heavens.

To conclude this discussion, I want to briefly mention some of the locations the  luminescent entity cites where it could meet the intern sometime in the future.  One is the “shining mists of Orion’s Sword.”  This is a reference to the Orion Nebula, which looks like fuzzy spot or area in Orion’s Sword (the constellation).  The pink glowing color is actually hydrogen gas (asterisk.apod.com).

The Orion Nebula or, as described by HPL, the shining mists of Orion’s Sword (asterisk.apod.com).

Other times or places where they may meet include “a bleak plateau in prehistoric Asia.”  Is this possibly the first reference to Leng by HPL?  Others include unremembered dreams (is this a reference to the Dreamlands?) or in the far distance future when the solar system will be swept away.  This would be approximately 5 billion years in the future when the Sun will cool and expand.

Appearnetly the luminescent entity can easily travel through time as well as space, since before it left to do battle with Algol, it said that next year it may be dwelling in ancient Egypt or in the Tsan Chan empire 3,000 years in the future.  The entity and the intern apparently “drifted to the worlds that reel about the red Arcturus, and dwelt in the bodies of the insect-philosophers that crawl proudly over the fourth moon of Jupiter.”  As we discussed in a previous article on the moons of Jupiter, this was more than likely in reference to the moon Callisto.

insectphil_4moonofJup

An insect-philosopher from the fourth moon of Jupiter (from the talented artist Michael Bukowski; yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

To conclude, in spite of all of its powers and near-omnipidence, the luminescent entity could not defeat its sworn enemy, the binary star system of Algol.  Next time we will talk about HPL’s materialism philosophy and how it influenced his attitudes toward science and the latest scientific discoveries of the day.  Later we will delve into more of his stories, interpreting them within a scientific context, including “The Music of Erich Zann,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”  Thank you – Fred

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