Clay F. Johnson

Writer | Poet | Pianist | sometime Alpinist | hopeless Romanticist

Ghosts from a Haunted Summer: Shelley's Vision and My Latest Nightmare

Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep,—that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley

Dark have been my dreams of late…but I feel as one new-awakened.


To those who read through my first bit of Romantic rambling will know that, for me, this year of 2019 is all about John Keats.  This is the bicentennial year of some of his greatest poems such as The Eve of St. Agnes, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, his brilliant odes, including “Ode to a Nightingale” which has haunted me for years, his witchy narrative poem Lamia that I plan to reread in July, and The Fall of Hyperion—the last was based on his original Hyperion that he apparently abandoned mid-sentence by April 1819. This inspired year of 1819 also saw some of Keats’s most beautiful love letters to Fanny Brawne, one of which I will write about in less than two weeks’ time.


However, there has been something else consuming my imagination this past week:  The Haunted Summer of 1816.  According to several sources, Byron read aloud German ghost stories translated into French titled Fantasmagoriana on 16 June 1816.  These ghost stories were read at the Villa Diodati during violent storms and, in the spirit of this dark & stormy summer without a summer, Byron challenged all to write their own ghost story afterward—there is no need to explain how this Gothic contest led to the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dr. John William Polidori’s The Vampyre.  The following day, or, most likely, later that morning after writing all night, Byron would add the date of June 17 to his unfinished vampire tale “Fragment of a Novel”.  And the next day after that on June 18, Dr. Polidori would write a most curious entry into his diary that I find both disturbing and humorous.


Began my ghost-story after tea. Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. Lord Byron repeated some verses of Coleridge's “Christabel”, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. Shelley, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.


If anyone reading this is immediately reminded of a scene from Ken Russell’s Gothic, you are not alone.  I only discovered an interesting inspiration in Gothic in recent years during absinthe-nights of poetry & madness, so Polidori’s diary entry was already familiar to me; however, I was happy to see that Russell did his research on this movie of mostly fantasy and even happier that he included Polidori’s account of Shelleyan madness.  That being said, Gothic is a bit much and I can only watch it and find inspiration in it while under the emerald influence of my own madness.


The lines from Coleridge’s Christabel which brought Shelley to such madness were the following:


Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side,
Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!


However, madness is nothing to speak lightly of no matter how much creativity & inspiration it seemingly awakens, and nor does it matter if such maddening inspiration materializes unsought or self-induced—any form of madness can lead to one’s ruin.  I will not make assumptions, but it seems that Shelley did indeed suffer from something throughout his short life.  He seemingly had hallucinations, he frequently consumed laudanum for physical pain and other ailments, he had a tormented & haunted imagination, he was fascinated by the occult & supernatural, ghosts & demons, he suffered from sleepwalking his entire life, and he was prone to vivid waking dreams & terrifying nightmares.  His cousin Thomas Medwin would later write:


After supping on the horrors of the Minerva press [Gothic fiction], he was subject to strange and sometimes frightful dreams, and was haunted by apparitions that bore all the semblance of reality. We did not sleep in the same dormitory, but I shall never forget one moonlight night seeing Shelley walk into my room. He was in a state of somnambulism. His eyes were open, and he advanced with slow steps to the window, which, it being the height of summer, was open. I got out of bed, seized him by the arm, and waked him—I was not then aware of the danger of suddenly rousing the sleep walker. He was excessively agitated, and after leading him back with some difficulty to his couch, I sat by him for some time, a witness to the severe erethism of his nerves, which the sudden shock produced.


Medwin would also write about Shelley’s waking dreams:


If, however, he ceased at that time to somnambulize, he was given to waking dreams, a sort of lethargy and abstraction that became habitual to him, and after the accès was over, his eyes flashed, his lips quivered, his voice was tremulous with emotion, a sort of ecstacy came over him, and he talked more like a spirit or an angel than a human being.


This brings me to the main point of this post and future posts going forward: my own disturbing nightmares.  Although I do not delude myself for a moment to imagine that I share Shelley’s genius or poetic power, I do, unfortunately, share his susceptibility to vivid waking dreams & poisonous nightmares which have plagued me for as long as I can remember.  There are many reasons why I and others suffer such sleeping poison, most of them not the least bit poetic, but perhaps part of my own reason lies in the darkness from a lifelong obsession with all things Gothic combined with a long-established addiction to both crab-cakes & cake-balls.  For those not as obsessed with Dracula as I am and perhaps confused by my mention of crab, Stoker claimed that his dark inspiration for Dracula came about from a nightmare caused by eating too much crab meat dressed in mayonnaise.


Sometimes my nightmares can be inspiring and have indeed inspired poetry and ideas within novels I’ve been working on.  Other times, however, my nightmares have simply poisoned my thoughts and ruined the peace of mind needed for any sort of inspired self-reflection.  In an effort to both dilute the poison that still lingers unrevenged and a hope that some people may be able to help with interpreting such visions, I plan to write about my nightmares—the ones that won’t get me sent to Bedlam or fired from knavish jobs—every so often within this Writings & Ramblings section of my website.  I want to begin with my latest that I can remember which, perhaps inspired by my obsession with the Haunted Summer, occurred on June 17.


This nightmare was vivid, meaning the imagery in my mind was perfectly clear and lucid—days later every bit of it is still lingering ghost-like within every passing thought.  However, as I do with every lucid dream & nightmare, immediately upon waking I typed up everything I could remember on my phone.  This nightmare was no exception.  I can still see particular scenes with perfect clarity and I’m sickened by it.  I probably won’t be able to capture the horror by writing what I saw, but, like any dream or nightmare, the shadowy terrors are unique each to each.  The nightmare will be written out below in italics with a brief commentary afterward.  Given my experiences, some of the nightmare makes sense to me.  However, other parts are a mystery and I would love interpretations.


The Nightmare:


I was in a room that my mind was telling me was the apartment I had rented in Montreux, Switzerland in 2016, but it looked nothing like it.  There was no furniture, no chairs, no bed, and in a distant hall was a pale and ghostly horse that was pacing back and forth.  There was a large window which looked out upon a lake which I remember believing was Lake Geneva—the waters were that beautiful greenish-blue and I recognized the snow-covered Dents du Midi in the background.  I took out crumpled paper from my pocket that was itinerary for my travels, but the language was indecipherable.


The scene slightly changed and I was sitting at a desk in front of more crumpled papers, books, and a familiar box of cupcakes.  The room was smaller, the window was still there but the view of the lake had become black, and the horse was nowhere to be seen.  A strong scent of Earl Grey was all around me and my heart began to race and my hands started to shake uncontrollably.  The cupcakes, now displayed on a plate within the mess of papers, spoke to me, literally, though I could not understand the language.  However, I believed the sugar crash after eating them would help ease my palpitating heart which was only getting worse—it felt like I was having a heart attack.  More importantly, I felt the uncontrollable desire to eat them for the sole purpose of inspiration.  It felt like I had to consume them in order to be consumed by the inspiration they contained.


I took the first bite and my lips and face became numb, almost paralyzed.  My fingers became sticky from the sugar-cream filling and I became angry that I would ruin my laptop keys, although there was no laptop in sight.  I took another bite and I heard a violent, painful scream across the room, a bloodcurdling scream that was sickening.  In a corner across the room was a man sort of slumped in a chair, looking almost dead, but screamed horribly whenever he heaved a breath, shaking his body upward forcing his eyes wide open like he was gasping his last breaths.  I remember at first feeling pity, then guilt, but then I felt almost rage that someone would dare ruin the peace and quiet of the room.  The man was faceless, as in it was someone I didn’t know or recognize, but I was reminded of the people who seem to constantly bother me in cafés, distracting me out of inspiration with obnoxious questionings and cheerful stupidity.


The ghostly horse appeared once more and appeared as agitated as I felt, neighing wildly, flipping his head up and down with irritation and giving me side-glances as if I needed to do something about this noise.  I agreed with the horse, and I felt no human pity for this wretched thing slumped in a chair in my room.  I took another bite and more horrible screams echoed my ears.  This time the man clutched his side and an oozy substance ran between his fingers.  At this moment I knew consuming the cupcake was his death, and thus a fitting way to silence this noise pollution—the thought of consuming this sugary inspiration once again became my purpose.


Before I could finish the cupcake, the horse began making growling noises and started to violently tear away the flesh of the man like some predatory animal.  The horse’s neck was tense and swollen with veins, glistening with sweat, the ears were pinned back, and the ripping-notes of tearing skin sounded wet.  The horse was no longer ghostly or ethereal, but solid white, yet sort of glowing, and there now appeared to be a rider—whether or not the rider was human or creature I do not know.  I felt the need to look away when the horse turned carnivore, but when the flesh-ripping sounds & screams died down, I turned back and discovered another altered scene.


The room still had walls, but it seemed more cave-like, more like a dungeon dwelling with jagged stone.  The man was now a skeleton, but he seemed to still wear a face of flesh, and he was no longer slumped in agony but standing perfectly upright and looking at me—I remember the strange feeling that I was about to get in a fight with it and I felt relief that the face seemed soft enough to punch.  Then I noticed the horse in the corner like a shadow.  The poor creature was now rider-less and, in my mind, became a horse I used to help take care of at university.  He began to approach me curiously like he knew he was about to get a minty little treat.  I patted his neck and told him he was a good boy.  I kept saying this repeatedly.


The floor suddenly became flooded and I had the panicked belief that we had missed our boat—to where I know not.  The horse almost immediately sunk beneath the waves and became frantic.  Only his head was above the water, his eyes were open wide and wild with horror, his nostrils were flaring and gasping for air, and he was making awful gurgling sounds.  I was somehow not affected by the water and I was now in a state of complete mental breakdown, trying desperately to pull the poor drowning creature out of the water.  But I had no strength.  No power.  I could barely move.  I was entirely useless.  I was yelling so loudly that I recall feeling something burst in my throat and heart.  I kept on, desperately screaming please and swim until my heart felt like it was in my throat and on fire.  I felt something warm come out of my mouth and I imagined it was blood.  I slumped into the water.


But then I was above the water again and I remember pulling at the horse’s mane, trying with all my strength to pull it out.  Suddenly my strength came back and I no longer felt paralyzed and useless.  I felt like I was making progress, but then the horse became weightless and I no longer saw his horrified eyes and head above the water.  The mane now became tangled around my fingers like dead hair, like sick strands of what felt like leafy decay, like a mess of rotting branches & leaves that one would find in a diseased bog.  I felt like I had let the horse drown, and I felt this horrible sense of guilt.  I felt sick.  I felt like I had failed this poor creature and it was a disgusting feeling.


The scene changed once again and once more I was standing in the same room in which the dream began. The horse was now tethered to a lead and I had it firmly in my hand.  I remember a sensation of panic and fear that the water was about to come back and drown us both.  I pulled at the rope but now he was the one paralyzed, unbudging & immoveable.  I fell to the ground and I remember pulling with all my strength, feeling once again desperate like he was about to sink beneath the waves again.


The horse finally began to walk with me toward the former window which was now a familiar painting.  When we reached the painting I felt the need to enter it to escape this room which felt like was about to become an ocean.  I clawed at it, scratching away the paint and even the framing.  At this point the horse began to fight me.  He reared up and neighed wildly, pulling me back toward what I believed to be the section of the room that was about to become filled with water again.  I remember yelling, but I don’t recall what.  When I began to desperately pull the horse toward the painting, he started to bite at me violently and I remember feeling a burning pain at my back and arms.


Even though I felt a sense that I was about to be eaten like the man had been earlier, I was for some reason more concerned with the horse drowning, and thus I kept pulling at him with all my strength into this painting.  Suddenly I felt the sensation that we had entered it.  It felt wet, and the air was musty and all was black.  Then we seemed to materialize out of it into a different area which felt foreign and strange.  Although I believed I had pulled the horse out of the painting with me, when I looked down I saw dozens of little black furry creatures, perhaps puppies or kittens, all staring up at me with yellow eyes making strange noises.  I felt horrified and sickened by this, as if I had failed the horse again and tore it apart when entering the painting.  However, wherever I was now, the sun was shining and I heard the sound of chirping birds.


And then I woke up.  I know that I woke up because I heard the sound of birds chirping rather loudly outside my window.  Oftentimes I dream of my alarm going off before I wake up.  Other times I dream of my alarm and it does not wake me up—I have been fired from good jobs before from my problems with so-called alarm clock dreaming.  Either way, I awoke feeling a horrible sense of disgust and I was soaking wet with sweat.  A lovely way to start my day.


We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day


Much of this nightmare makes sense to me, especially with regard to guilt (something I’ve suffered all my life including in childhood), the cupcakes & Earl Grey (see below), where I was in Switzerland, trying to enter the painting (I assume this is my form of escapism, which I’m always seeking), and the drowning scene of the horse which I believe goes back to being traumatized like most of my generation after watching The Neverending Story—although the latter image might deal with something else that I wish not to write about.


However, there are other things within this dream which confuse me, making me wonder if it has some specific meaning.  Does the chair-slumped man have significance, first believing he was dead, then being horrified by his bloodcurdling screams and wide-eyed breathing?  What about my first feeling pity and guilt for him, then feeling irritation and my wish for him to shut-up no matter the cost?  Does this mean I’m a horrible person?  Sure, most people vex me beyond belief, but that doesn’t mean I want to see them torn apart alive by a man-eating horse—on second thought, sometimes I would like to see this.  And, most importantly to me, what about the black little creatures walking about my feet after materializing from the painting?  This may not sound very scary, but for some reason this was one of the most horrifying moments of the dream.  It left me with a feeling of sickening disgust, like I was responsible for tearing apart the horse and changing him into these furry little things with eyes, all looking up at me and making noises that didn’t seem alive.  I would love to have opinions on this, even if such opinions are not exactly flattering to my mental state or psyche.


I do not think this will take away from possible interpretations, but I would like to write about some of the inspirations behind the nightmare—just to give a bit of clarity to the insanity.  First, if it’s not already obvious, I am fascinated & obsessed with the “Haunted Summer” of 1816 and traveled to Switzerland, including the Villa Diodati & Château de Chillon, in 2016 on the bicentennial anniversary.  This, no doubt, gave inspiration for the room scene in Montreux, which was the city I stayed in directly after visiting the Villa Diodati and the Frankenstein exhibition at The Bodmer Library titled Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness, or, in French, Frankenstein: Créé des ténèbres.  Given this particular week of June 16, and the lingering thunderstorms that have haunted my area, it’s understandable why this was on my mind—including Polidori’s account of Shelley’s vision of madness, which I had reread several days before my nightmare.


The cupcakes, however, were Scottish and had nothing to do with my haunted summer.  They were from an award-winning cupcakery in Edinburgh that I became hopelessly addicted to while living there last fall/winter—more specifically, they were the “Black-Bottom” cupcake from Cuckoo’s Bakery on Dundas Street.  It was an obsessive addiction not only to fill a void I was dealing with at the time, but also to help with inspiration in finishing a poem that I wrote while staying in Whitby weeks earlier, appropriately titled “Lines Written by Moonlight at Whitby Abbey”—it was a full moon on 24 October 2018, I was alone at the abbey, and I was consumed by strange inspiration.


I also had a bit of a tea-obsession with these cupcakes, always Earl Grey, sometimes drinking as many as 20 fresh cups within a single writing session—I even developed a strange habit of taking deep breaths directly over the box when feeling “low”.  Although this cupcake-addiction & tea-obsession helped with my inspiration & writing (the Whitby Poem is my personal favorite to date, and it will be published in a small NY press later this year), it also caused heart flutterings, paranoia, uncontrollably shaky hands which I called the bergamot-jitters, and severe sleep loss.


Anyway, this little write-up has become, as usual, much longer than expected so I will end this here. Although I am not expecting many interpretations, I do hope some people will leave comments below—I really am curious to read what people who study and/or have an interest in such things have to say. Dreams & nightmares have been a part of the creeping shadows within my mind all my life, and they have gotten worse and more disturbing in recent years. I had one nightmare this past January in Edinburgh while feverish with the Scottish flu that still haunts me; I don’t dare write about it. However, looking forward, I do plan on writing about future nightmares which will, no doubt, poison my sleep and haunt each wandering thought for years to come. If you have an interest in such macabre imaginings that exist within the darkness of a haunted mind, then keep an eye out. More nightmares will come. They always do.

© 2019 Clay F. Johnson