Do all writers dream? I don’t know. Certainly, I dream a lot – long, technicolour dreams with full surround sound, dreams where I cannot escape the feeling of being chased, or watched, dreams of people, places, houses. A recurring theme of my dreams is that of disaster or apocalypse. I have lived through the end of the world in many different ways in my night time excursions – through plagues and rationing of food, light and fuel, through war-like scenarios where I must flee, trying to keep my baby safe, or through witch-hunts where the sky is orange with the glow of the torches as they come for me. Last week I also had my first ever zombie apocalypse dream, which was a new experience. Houses also figure significantly in my dreams, familiar houses where I discover hitherto unknown rooms, or even entire wings, places that are crowded with furniture, or falling down, or doors that open into narrow passages that I must negotiate to escape from some unnamed terror or threat.
I wonder how much these disaster dreams are fuelled by the kinds of programmes and films I watched as a child, and the kinds of books I read. Certainly, the apocalypse/end of the world/having to flee for my life theme has been there since I was a small child. The earliest of these dreams involved a volcano – that the mountain on which our village nestled erupted, and the lava came into the house – through the fireplace – forcing us to pack and leave. That dream involved a blue suitcase. Over the years the cases have changed, or become a rucksack, a trailer, a car, a trunk, and the places have changed, but the theme is the same.
I have attempted in the past to draw together these two themes in my writing. A post-apocalyptic novella I wrote whilst studying to be a nurse (mostly written in class) focused on place and on survival – the quest to get to a place of safety. This is a common theme in this kind of fiction. Another novella focuses on a world after a civil war, in which civil liberties are curtailed. The novel I wrote for the MA in Writing was about the house motif, which served as a character setting for the supernatural theme.
So what is it about these themes that is so enduring? I loved the disaster movies of the 1970s and the new rash of them in the 1990s/2000s. I loved the Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and more recently, Dante’s Peak, Independence Day, 2012, Deep Impact, and Armageddon. I don’t watch zombie apocalypse films but I do read this type of fiction, particular teen fiction, as it is something I share with my son and gives us something to talk about. And I enjoy it. The best post-apocalypse novel I have read is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk, which paints a picture of an alternative society in which community really does work as a social structure. This is followed closely by The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is in my top 5 favourite books of all time. The enduring fascination with a world beyond this one is something I have yet to unpick. I wonder if it is associated with the ways in which this society fails to support or nurture us, and a longing for something different, coupled with an innate knowledge that to build also means to destroy?
In this world of sudden floods and climate change, faced with a society that is reaping the rewards of short-sighted capitalism, I find myself railing against events, armed with the truths I have always known, yet never felt able to express. Of course there is flooding – if you cut down all the trees, and build on low-lying land, you will get floods when the rains come. It is the greatest arrogance of all to think that we can do anything to stop the immense and awesome power of nature. A friend of mine lives in a 17th century house (it could be earlier) in Somerset, next to a river. His house was built by knowledgeable people on a rise, overlooking the floodplain opposite. The far bank is lower than his bank – hence his house will never flood. We consider ourselves the most advanced society ever, yet we cannot accept the simple truths that nature is greater than us all, and that we must work with nature, with respect, and yes, fear, in order to create our lives and build our homes and survive, and thrive.
So I wonder if my dreams are simply the product of the innate knowledge of the human soul, that beyond us, beyond our petty thoughts and annoyances, beyond the myths and emptiness of celebrity culture and capitalist consumerism, we are powerless in the face of the might of nature. It is our own failing that we do not learn to work with that knowledge, but instead use mass media, the anodyne of the mind, to numb and dumb down the minds that would otherwise rise up and create.
I have always felt the urge to find a way to write about this, in fiction, in a manner that would convey the message of love and respect we should have for nature. I am not harking back to some mythical idyllic past – I am not that naïve. I am thinking of a future in which people dream new possibilities, and see challenges not as disasters in which heroic men and dubiously clothed women fight to survive, but as simple opportunities for growth.
And I wonder if others dream the same dreams as I do, and what they do with them.