‘Tis strange that on the fifth of March 1766, though having enjoy’d London for little less than a month after my travels upon the Continent, I awoke with a curious resolution to see the North Country. Breakfasted alone and occupied myself with Mr. Walpole’s romance of ‘Otranto’ but could not shake the notion. Indeed, once fix’d, the impulse would not surrender its hold upon my imagination despite all my attempts and it was with difficulty that I kept my attention upon the romance of Theodore and Isabella. I fear that in spite of the talents that Mr. Walpole’s pen holds, Manfred’s visitation by the ghost out of the portrait found me half dead with fatigue and I succumb’d at last to slumber– though visions of the most disordered nature instantly grew large within my brain.
One would imagine that the falling helmets & dusty corridors of Otranto castle would follow me into my dreams. Instead, I found myself standing on the precipice of a great cliff overlooking the seashore. ‘Twas like no seashore on Earth, however – the sands as black as finely ground coal, the sea a rippling infinity of waters clear as a diamond’s face and yet tainted with the dark movements of what appear’d the boneless limbs of creatures hidden beneath its surface. They moved as they say the octopi that our sailors have seen upon Indie shores transport themselves, with a kind of writhing, crawling undulation. Seeing them put me in mind of the pale worms that are seen to rise out of the soil after the Highland rains; these were their progeny magnified a hundred times over – or their grandfathers risen from the clay of prehistoric ages. The circumference of some of those serpentine trunks and feelers must have out-compassed that of an elephant’s hind leg.
I would have felt too afraid even to draw breath were I not also desirous to see whether they would rise or not. Is this what our modern philosophes such as Mr. Burke mean when they speak of a fear that exalts man, a terror that pleases as well as dismays? Or was it simply the madness of my dreaming self? I shall have to ask Johnson, thought I, when next I see him. ‘Tis been too long since I have enjoy’d his learned company and surely this abstinence accounts for the peculiar turns that my imagination often takes. Yet our last meeting had serv’d to amuse me as much as it had, I think, displeased my dear and learned friend. I know full well that he dislikes my association with M. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mr. Wilkes with his Whiggish ways and yet I speak of it often and freely with him. Well, why should a man choose between three friends when he may have them all equally? Such is my own philosophy. I did not tell Johnson this in so many words, but I would be surprised in him if he did not read it in my eyes and occasional remarks.
The sea seem’d then to awaken beneath my dreaming eye as though impatient at my thinking of Dr. Johnson and Monsieur Rousseau on such an occasion. At the same instant, I felt again that unaccountable desire to be away – to change my location from London to some unnam’d bourne. It was a sensation of urgency such as I had never felt before and I think that it was then I first felt genuine fear. But it could not last long, for with it came the harsh jolt that we feel when, in dreaming, we seem to fall from some great height – and I awoke with a start, the coldness of sweat chilling my brow and limbs.
Then I open’d my eyes and felt a greater shock than even what I had sustained in my sleep. For I was no longer lying upon my moth-eaten sofa in London but was prostrate upon the grassy bank of a hillock overlooking a mansion. I sat up, rubbing at my eyes and finding that it was no longer morning but evening. How I had vanished from the centre of London to this remote portion of the country was quite inexplicable to me and I wondered if I did not dream still…
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