Dreamland: Science and Musings on Sleep

I have been reading online over the past few weeks about how during the COVID-19 pandemic people are reporting having strange, vivid dreams. As to why this is happening, theories abound, but one of the more interesting theories is that withdrawal from our usual environments (caused by the quarantine) has left many subconscious brains searching back into the lost stacks of the mind for inspiration. The past, for many, is being dug up, and played out in new formulations while they sleep. How fascinating, I thought as I read, The dreaming mind is such a deep, welling place. 

That got me thinking about sleeping in general, and all the mystery that entails it. My own sleep has always been plagued by oddities, from having Night Terrors in my youth to run-of-the-mill somnambulism to a terrible case of Exploding Head Syndrome I got in my mid-twenties. My immediate thought was I should get a book on it from the library, ride the wave of my sudden interest, before I was triggered by the remembering that I, in fact, already own a book about sleep and its many variations, and had never gotten around to reading it.

So to my small-ish Tsundoku collection I went, and pulled from the back of my shelf Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall. A rather journalistic endeavor and easy reading, Randall’s book was a fun, intriguing exploration into what happens (and what can happen) when we lay our heads down at night. A little lacking in imagination but clear cut on facts and a good dose of wit to it, Dreamland is a good beginner’s guide to the strangeness of slumber and the nebulous workings of the unconscious mind. 

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“Whether any of us has a sleep problem or not, it is clear that we are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not that long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electrical lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.’ […]

“Because of the number of new findings in such a short time span, today’s researchers believe that they are in a golden age of their field. Sleep is now understood as a complex process that affects everything from the legal system to how babies are raised to how a soldier returning from war recovers from trauma. And it is also seen as a vital part of happiness. Whether you realize it or not, how you slept last night probably has a bigger impact on your life than what you decide to eat, how much money you make, or where you live. All of those thing that add up to what you consider you–your creativity, emotions, health, and ability to quickly learn a new skill or devise a solution to a problem–can be seen as little more than by-products of what happens inside your brain while your head is on a pillow each night. It is part of a world that all of us enter and yet barely understand.”  

It was neato to learn that Randall’s interest in the hidden elements of sleep were prompted by his own experience of sleepwalking. Always more of a talker in his sleep than a walker, David K. Randall woke up one night on the floor of his hallway, having no recollection of how he’d gotten there. Obviously, he’d been sleepwalking, but he’d never done it before and was baffled by what had happened, and slightly concerned it would happen again. When he sought out a specialist, a neurologist, all he received was an answer that led to more questions. The neurologist told him plainly, “I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that we know about sleep, but there’s a lot that we don’t know. If the sleepwalking continues, let’s try some sedatives. But I don’t want you to start taking drugs that you don’t need. Try to cut down on your stress and see what happens.” And that was that.

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Flipped image of Hebert Antoine Auguste Ernest’s lovely “The Little Violinist Sleeping” via FineArtAmerica.com

But being a reporter, Randall couldn’t just leave it at that. So began his adventures into the weirdness of sleep. Though the science was still in its infancy when Dreamland first appeared on the shelves in 2012, and hasn’t come that far since, Randall touches upon all sorts of topics, from Freudian and Jungian theories of our dreams, to criminal acts committed by sleeping individuals, to baseball stats, Randall’s book is a wonderland of fascinating discoveries and entertaining trivia. 

The book is 13 chapters, the first opening with Randall’s own bizarre encounter with his unconscious self that left him confused and dazed on the floor, to closing up shop with a fruitful experiment to see whether he could, as it were, brain-hack himself to a better night’s rest. Very readable and easy to follow, Dreamland is articulate and streamline. Choosing to touch upon as many subjects as he can instead of going into expansive depth of any one or two, the book has a jack of all trades feel to it that keeps it light, and keeps the pages turning. The information gained tastes a great deal more like data than knowledge, and that’s just fine, and Randall has a charming sense of humor that adds a component of warmth to the book, even in the drier bits. A reader is sure to find something that interests them, and sure to learn some new amount about sleep. My favorite chapters where “Between The Sheets”, “Game Time”, and “Breathe Easy”, mostly due to the surprising socio-economic turns they took that had never much graced my mind. 

Speaking of my mind, Dreamland was certainly a book that got me thinking about my own inner mechanics. Recently, I learned about an area of the brainstem called the PONS which regulates respiratory and sensory functions, and is in fact the little switch that turns off our motor functions while we sleep. But for those of us who are somnambulists (sleepwalkers), our PONS areas frequently decide not to turn off when the lights go out, and we are left running around and acting out our dreams, so many of us waking up cooking sunny-side eggs, stumbling on stairs, or completely prone on our living room floors. It got me thinking, What disrupts this? Why some and not so many others? The clockwork of the mind is a fine, intricate machine that loves to suddenly sproing springs. Much like many other mysteries, sleep is an entity who when answers a question is poised to ask twenty more.     

And that’s the review. A good enough read that taught me new things, got me thinking, and helped satiate my curiosity on the recent coronavirus pandemic dreams going around. David K. Randall’s Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep gets three out of five stars. 

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Gustave Courbet’s “Portrait  of Juliette Courbet as a Sleeping Child”, mere graphite and paper, via Wikiart.org

Sweet dreams, everyone.  


The featured image is Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June” produced in 1895. Painted with oil paints on a 47-by-47-inch (1,200 mm × 1,200 mm) square canvas, it is widely considered to be Leighton’s magnum opus. “Flaming June” disappeared from view in the early 1900’s and was rediscovered only in the 1960’s. It now resides at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, via Wikipedia – Thank you.      

In the House in the Dark of the Woods

When one thinks of folklore it is unlikely the considered would include the United States. More likely candidates would be the isles of Great Britain and Ireland with their abundant fairy faith traditions, or perhaps Malaysia, with its spectacular wealth of ghosts and spirits. The folklore of North America, in most minds, tends to lean toward Mesoamerica and that of Native American or Mayan culture, before the Europeans came and (supposedly) sucked all the good stories out.

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Page of the Nain Rouge from Legends of Le Détroit. Illustration by Isabella Stewart

It’s hard to argue against this perspective; it would appear Americana was less into creating its own lore and fables and more into borrowing from other traditions. This is no doubt due to the melting-pot—but, a few interesting ones stand out. The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens; the mischievous spirit of northern Wisconsin, the Hodag; the red Demon of the Straight, Nain Rouge, of Detroit; the Bell Witch Haunting of Tennessee; of course, there is Bigfoot. A lot of USA folklore exists inside urban legends, those scary stories told at sleepovers with a bag of potato chips and a flashlight tucked near the chin. Strangely, clowns dominate in this arena of tale telling, as every kid who grew up in the Midwest knows the spooky meaning behind the rather confusing idiom, “Clowns can lick too.” The myth and legends of the USA can no doubt present a bit of a challenge to the classical folklorist.

But there is a period of USA history that is indeed loaded with folklore and tall tales. Colonial America, surprisingly, has an enormous body of writings that have survived and remain an engaging treat to any folklorist or investigative individual interested in the study or dabbling of folkloristics.

And here enters fiction; colonial America is a particularly uncharted land. After all my years of reading, I can say that the amount of authors I’ve read that chose to plant their flag in colonial America is quite small. Usually when it happens, it is an indulgent romp of semi-historical account involving romance of some kind, or, it is the Salem Witch Trials. Either way, the pickings are slim. Passing through the bookstore, I spotted a red paperback with an eerie design of pale clutching hands circling a wolf’s head. Gravitating towards it, once it was in my fingers I flipped it over to find the words “this magical and frightening tale of colonial America” and I spanked it to my friend immediately, saying, “Wow, colonial America, something for you!” He bought it promptly, and about a month later, I got to sink my teeth into In The House In The Dark Of The Woods by Laird Hunt. 

Narrated in the first person, the small novel opens on a young married woman searching for berries out in the forest by her humble home. Already, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods has the distinctive feel of a fairy tale. Quickly over the next few pages our protagonist becomes lost; darkness swiftly skates into the tall trees; our confused and increasingly frightened heroine desperately tries to find her path back, to no avail. Her mind wanders, her thoughts and memories move in and out. Through a progression of events, she finds herself laid up in a mysterious house, somewhere in the dark and wending wood. A woman named Eliza who lives there tends to our lady’s bruised and battered feet. But there is more to Eliza than meets the eye, and soon the darkness itself begins to speak. 

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[..] It came in a chorus this time, from the front room and outside the window, yes, but now also from other places: from down in the root cellar under the wood plank of the floor where Eliza did her scratching, from the ceiling boards, from the chimney shaft, from the walls, even from my own room. Who is moaning in my room? I thought. Is it me or is it Eliza? Only here I was and here was she. The moaning stopped. “Eliza,” I said. But she did not move at the sound of my voice any more than the Eliza in the front room had. “Eliza,” I said again, more loudly, and though the shape in the bed before me stayed silent, the moan sounded alone once more. 

It came from farther down the hall, from a room I had not yet entered. I took Eliza’s candle with me for there was no light or very little by this door. I stood before it for what felt like a long time. At last I pulled at the latch and held up the candle and there lay Eliza curled on the floor. A smell of wet and burning both came toward me. Her eyes were open. She was looking at me.

“You should go and rest now, Goody,” she said.

I did not move. “Where are you?” I asked.

“In the house in the dark of the woods.”   

It took me some time to like this book. There is a heavy lag in the former-middle of the text that leaches hard at the attention span; however, luckily this drag does not last for long. Laird Hunt’s writing is extremely paced, though occasionally, a blade of beautiful prose slices through, and the style and function is very much like those of colonial writings, giving the novel a genuine feel that fits the period. The story itself tumbles more like poetry, as if Hunt were feeling out the bottom of a murky pool with his toes. With a smart slash of Magic Realism in the signature, the main element of the book is nebulous, evading stringent categories and strict lessons. Laird Hunt seems to be exploring what most fairy tales—modern and old—seek to accomplish: a way of navigating and understanding the dangers and cruelties of the world, safely. Affection and abuse, confinement and freedom, respect and shame are just some of the binaries Hunt traverses on his journey. Our three main characters, Eliza, Captain Jane, and Goody, are all women of tragedy, and rather grimly, Laird Hunt tells their conflicting tales through a combination of metaphor, fabulism, historical fact, and perhaps most of all, memory.

Disquieting at parts but mostly just brow raising, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods is plump with fantastical imagery. Intersecting timelines, astounding insect swarms, flying boats, frightening transformations, a bird with massive human arms, Hunt’s imagination comes in force. That said, often times the force feels just that–forced. It seems that the storytelling itself—the fleshing of characters, the intents of events, the never-ending road of internal dialogue—was left to the wayside as Hunt plowed his pen into his inkpot, determined to make the strange stranger and the magical more magical. It leaves a book that is full of pain, mystery, and resurrection oddly hollow. Reading In The House In The Dark Of The Woods was like going through Samsara, a repetition of circumstances and a square dance of trading places that at best leads to little further understanding and at worst to head-scratching confusion. The scenes are phantasmagoric, the enchantment at times wonderful if not also jarring. But Laird Hunt, so very determined it would seem to be as elusive as he can, gives little to hold on to. The reader is left with a handful of soot, and the novel is quickly lost to the back of the shelf before being hauled out to be exchanged for some credit at a secondhand bookstore.

Nevertheless, there are some bright parts. Chapters 18 through 25 are particularly engaging. For a book of 28 chapters and an epilogue, its a promising show of writing. Hunt is at his best when he gets out of his own head and into the moment. When given a character and a sole perspective, Hunt’s writing flounders, as though he were attempting to build a house on stilts without proper anchoring. But put that character into motion, have them interact with the characters and world around them—damn, then Hunt delivers. Often times the dialogue In The House In The Dark Of The Woods (and there is quite a lot) is like reading an author playing ball with himself. But given some patience, Laird Hunt proves himself to be a capable writer. For a moment, a reader can almost forget all the slosh they slugged through to get there. For a moment, Hunt breaks into something great.         

All and all, Laird Hunt’s seesawing fairy tale of colonial America is a fine read. A good writer, and a good enough storyteller, Hunt has woven a vibrant, detailed tapestry, and though the expression of light and color would seem to outweigh the precision of the needlework, it is still a beautiful piece of art. Give yourself three afternoons, drink it in; a reader can no doubt be swept away by Hunt’s occasional stunning verse or a rolling dynamic scene. Muscle through the mucky parts, and make it to the final page. I thought it was worth it, so hopefully, you will too. 

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3 stars for Laird Hunt’s colonial folktale In The House In The Dark Of The Woods.