Among the many ideas that H.P. Lovecraft popularized in the field of pulp fantasy is the notion that "magic" is nothing more than supremely advanced science as seen from the perspective of one who does not understand its workings. He returns to this idea again and again in his works, perhaps nowhere more explicitly -- and effectively -- than in "Dreams in the Witch House," first published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales. The story takes its title from the disturbing dreams experienced by a mathematics student at Miskatonic University named Walter Gilman. Gilman has taken up residence in the former haunt of Keziah Mason, a woman reputed to have been a witch in the 17th century and who supposedly escaped capture by means of her black magic. The Witch House has an evil reputation and, over the course of the centuries since Mason's disappearance, its inhabitants have died under mysterious circumstances.
It's precisely for this reason that Gilman decides to rent a room in the Witch House.
Gilman believed strange things about Keziah, and had felt a queer thrill on learning that her dwelling was still standing after more than 235 years. When he heard the hushed Arkham whispers about Keziah's persistent presence in the old house and the narrow streets, about the irregular human tooth-marks left on certain sleepers in that and other houses, about the childish cries heard near May-Eve, and Hallowmass, about the stench often noted in the old house's attic just after those dreaded seasons, and about the small, furry, sharp-toothed thing which haunted the mouldering structure and the town and nuzzled people curiously in the black hours before dawn, he resolved to live in the place at any cost.As it turns out, lodging at the Witch House is unpopular, owing to the dark legends associated with it, and he finds it easy to obtain a room there. Gilman's interest in Keziah Mason is at least partly "professional," for he had come "to connect his mathematics with the fantastic legends of elder magic" and to believe that "a mediocre old woman of the seventeenth century [had] an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter."
The story's titular dreams are bizarre and frightful, filled with images and feelings Gilman cannot quite explain. Others seem almost real and feature not just the reputed witch Keziah Mason but also her grotesque familiar, Brown Jenkin, a huge rat with human hands and feet. While these dreams disturbed Gilman, they also seemed to have aided him in unexpected ways:
He was getting an intuitive knack for solving Riemannian equations, and astonished Professor Upham by his comprehension of fourth-dimensional and other problems which had floored all the rest of the class. One afternoon there was a discussion of possible freakish curvatures in space, and of theoretical points of approach or even contact between our part of the cosmos and various other regions as distant as the farthest stars or the trans-galactic gulfs between themselves -- or even as fabulously remote as the tentatively conceivable cosmic units beyond the whole Einsteinian space-time continuum. Gilman's handling of them filled everyone with admiration, even though some of his hypothetical illustrations caused an increase in the always plentiful gossip about his nervous and solitary eccentricity.As his dreams take on an ever more nightmarish turn, Gilman discovers signs that he is sleepwalking and that, seemingly, Keziah Mason is urging him to join her in her dark activities, leading Gilman to question his sanity. "Dreams in the Witch House" continues on in this vein, leading to a conclusion that is far from satisfying as a piece of fiction, even if it does further advance Lovecraft's thesis that magic is nothing more than misunderstood advanced science.
I've always been fond of "Dreams in the Witch House" myself, but it's generally held to be one of HPL's weaker efforts, particularly among recent critics who (mistakenly in my view) see Lovecraft primarily as a cosmic "philosopher" rather than a pulp fantasist who used cosmicism to embellish his tales. For them, "Dreams in the Witch House" is too lurid and conventional in places -- a crucifix, given to Gilman by a Catholic priest, fends off Keziah Mason at one point -- to be a "true" Lovecraft story. Leaving that aside, there's no question that the story's plot is weak and characterizations thin, but, even so, its central ideas are compelling, compelling enough that I can find pleasure in it nonetheless. Is it one of Lovecraft's best? Certainly not but it's still an intriguing bit of fiction that I continue to find enormously inspiring.