Lurid Dreams by Charles L. Harness
Avon Books, 1990
Price I paid: 90¢
Though basically a skeptic, William Reynolds had known out-of-body experiences in the past. But never before had he floated past the boundaries of Baltimore…and across the borders of time. And now, with the fires of Civil War looming on the horizon, the astonished graduate student was hobnobbing with none other than the dark poet Edgar Allen Poe. But their meeting of minds was to have chilling consequences. For a desperate Confederacy planned to use them both to remold the world—and to change history…for the worse.
Where do we even start?
Everything about the cover and presentation of this book makes it scream Shannon Tweed movie. Softcore Cinemax porn circa 1990—which is appropriate because that’s the year the book came out. It’s a product of its time.
Let’s focus on the font choice. Specifically the word “lurid.” For one, who the hell uses the word “lurid” except for people trying to sound vaguely sexy and the people who protest their existence? But that font. I swear. Anybody know what it’s called? I feel like I’ve seen it before..but where? Oh, but where…it sits at the back of my mind, waiting to come out…
Oh wow, Wikipedia rabbit hole. I didn’t realize that show was created by Stephen J. Cannell? And it ran for eight years? Jeez Louise.
So yeah, someone tell me what that font is called so I can change this blog to it.
Between title, sexy font, and Dorian Vallejo cover art that didn’t quite survive the scanning process (sorry? It was very glossy), I guess we’re all quite justified in thinking this book is about Sexy Times. Perhaps in dreams. What could it be? Could it involve people using dreams to have sex? Maybe they get caught up in a web of mystery and intrigue that can only be solved by more dream sex?
No. None of that happens. Not a single thing. You know what does happen? Time travel. Out-of-body experiences. Astral projection. Card psi. Edgar Allan Poe. Complaining about graduate school.
It’s also by Charles L. Harness, whose name didn’t even ring a bell until I was doing research. Yeah, I’ve read him before. Yeah, that book was 1953’s The Rose, a book widely regarded as seminal to the New Wave movement. A book I rather liked for its interesting premise of Science vs. Art, even though I didn’t agree with it. A meditation on creation, written poetically and sometimes transcendentally.
And so it turned out that Lurid Dreams was largely in that same camp! It’s weird! This book is not at all what I expected!
Our main character is William Reynolds. I don’t know what the back of the book means by saying that he’s “basically a skeptic,” because that never comes up. Surprise, surprise, the back of the book is full of lies. What he is, though, is a psychic. Specifically, he’s got two psychic powers: he’s a card psi, meaning he can mentally read cards or something, and he can astrally project. The book called it out-of-body, or OB, most of the time. He’s particularly good at it.
This book has an interesting take on psychic powers. Namely, everybody takes them for granted. The world beyond the immediate plot isn’t elaborated on very much, but one thing we do know is that casinos have special detectors to make sure that psychics, especially card psi people like William Reynolds, aren’t playing the system.
Reynolds is a graduate student. His thesis is on the topic of OB. Remember how I said that everybody in the book takes the paranormal for granted? Well, it turns out that there’s one person who doesn’t. It’s crusty old Dean Garten! And, of course, Dean Garten is critical to Reynolds’s thesis committee and, therefore, his doctorate.
A lot of this book, a lot a lot a lot of it, focuses on being a graduate student. Now, I didn’t go beyond my Bachelor’s for a number of reasons, but I have a lot of friends who decided to go on further, and so a lot of this book rings true. It represents graduate school as a constant hellscape of stress, exhaustion, anger, fear, and poverty.
Hey, Academia? Maybe lay off a little bit. Convincing people that destroying their physical and mental health in the name of that piece of paper is a pretty shitty thing to do.
William has a girlfriend, Alix, who is also a graduate student. Her thesis is about Freudian symbology in the world of Edgar Allan Poe. She’s got problems of her own, including a member of her thesis committee who has bluntly stated that he will not vote yes on her thesis unless she sleeps with him. Still, the two of them manage to survive with a lot of mutual support. It’s one of the healthier relationships I’ve ever read in a blog book.
The book opens with William conducting an experiment for, among other people, the crusty old Dean. He’s going to do an OB, float up to a high shelf, and find a note with a number on it. He’ll read that note, come back down, wake up, and recite the number. Easy peezy. He does so, and also takes a moment to astrally wander around the location for a bit. He notices two people he doesn’t recognize, and they both seem to be interested in the experiment. More importantly, one of those people seems to acknowledge his presence, despite being, you know, invisible and stuff.
He wakes up and everything starts to go to hell. He announces the number on the card, thirteen, and his graduate adviser tells him no, that’s wrong. The mean old Dean crows about how this is all a hoax and now he’s got the proof, hooray hooray. William is confused. He goes and fetches the paper and it very definitely says thirteen. His advisor, Dr. Loesser, says that that isn’t the number he wrote, though. Everybody gets really confused, and for some reason I didn’t quite catch, this just convinces the Dean even more that this is all baloney, so he cuts off all the money. Dr. Loesser resigns and moves to some other college. William is destitute.
That is, until he’s introduced to a fella named Colonel Birch. Birch represents a non-profit organization called The Confederate States of America.
He’s got a proposal, and…it doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’ll fund William’s graduate thesis if William does one thing. All he has to do is go back in time and convince Edgar Allan Poe to join the army instead of becoming a poet.
So much of this book only works in a sort of dream logic. There are wild leaps of faith, crazy assumptions, and people running along with the most bizarre conclusions based on all that. Sure, that kind of makes sense in a book called Lurid Dreams, even though that title doesn’t fit at all, but here’s the craziest thing: I was generally fine with it.
I don’t know how else to describe it other than the idea that I got caught up in the flow of this book. The Rose did the same thing. I was immersed, and while sometimes I might poke my head up at an odd or interesting concept, I mostly just kept it buried in the narrative. Like a dream, it’s only afterward that some things started to make less sense that I thought they did originally.
I think it’s just the way that Harness writes, and I 100% totally and unequivocally love and respect it. I’m in awe of it. I’m madly jealous of it.
One thing about this book is that it never really tells us when it takes place. I assumed, for the most part, that it was in the present day, author time. But it would just occasionally drop stuff in to make me question that. The main thing is that there are machines that can detect auras. It’s what the casinos use to prevent psychics from getting in. At another point there’s a blasé reference to an unmanned probe heading toward Alpha Centauri.
It’s not until nearly the very end of the book that I caught the first reference to an actual time period, and even that’s not overly helpful. All I know for sure is that this book takes place somewhere in the 21st century.
But the main thing that made me wonder is that there are computer programs called What-If. They began as a military school thing, allowing young officers-to-be to adjust the parameters of a historical battle and see what might have happened.
The What-If programs are insanely robust and detailed, and nobody questions the results. They’re taken for granted as the exact thing that would very definitely have happened.
For one example: Late in the book Alix runs a What-If that results in the Confederacy winning the Civil War and becoming an independent nation. The What-If machine not only verifies that this is what would happen, it also produces a version of the Gettysburg Address as read by Jefferson Davis. The full text of it.
And everybody’s like “Wow, crazy. But unquestionably correct.”
Side note: Alix worked as a What-If programmer before pursuing her graduate work. Her main contribution to the field was World History: What-If God had created Eve first, then made Adam from one of her ribs? It’s noted that this discovery was noteworthy in that it offended literally everyone everywhere.
Anyway, I bring all that up because, somehow or another, Colonel Birch decided that the best way to get the South to win the Battle of Gettysburg was to have Edgar Allan Poe be a Confederate general there. It has to do with Poe’s apparent bloodthirstiness, as evidenced by his writing in our reality.
William decides that yeah, taking on this project is a totally good idea.
You know what? Never once in this book does anyone think of how this history might pan out for, you know, enslaved people. People owned by other people, and the people who own them. Like property. You know, slavery. Owning people. Literally owning people. Owning. People. Human beings.
No, William jumps on board because this means he’ll get his Ph.D. A lot of this book details how determined he is to get that piece of paper. He would literally do anything to get it.
Alix gets signed on, too, since she’s an expert at Poe’s writing and what it says about his psyche.
There are very large chunks of this book spent analyzing the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Charles Harness obviously did his homework. It’s all very detailed. A lot of it is the kind of “this syllable shows up thirty-three times in his collected works, and it sounds a little like a syllable in his wife’s name” kind of stuff that would have made my eyes roll if I weren’t quite invested in this book otherwise.
William travels through time via soul travel or whatever, and sure enough, he meets Edgar Allan Poe.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that Poe turns out to be an expert OB practitioner himself. He travels through time all willy-nilly. When William first shows up at Poe’s deathbed, Poe recognizes him. Was expecting him. Mentions that they’ve met before.
Hereabouts the book did one of the things I hate it when time travel narratives do. It’s the “We’ve met before/This is our first time meeting” shtick. Now, on its face this isn’t a bad bit. What makes it bad is when a character just doesn’t get it. Hypothetically:
“Steve, it’s good to meet you again,” said the Chronoduke.
“But we’ve never met before,” said the freedok.
“Right! This is the first time we’ve met, but it’s also the fifth time!”
“We’ve met before, even though this is the first time you’ve ever seen me!”
“I don’t get it.”
“Goodbyeeeee, until the next first time!”
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT”
Like, maybe it’s because I’ve read a lot of science fiction, but if someone came up to me and said something like “nice to meet you again for the first time,” I’d immediately assume that one of us is time travelling right now, and likely will again.
And if the narrative already has explicit time travel of some variety, like this book, it certainly shouldn’t take someone most of the novel to figure out that the solution is oh yeah time right.
William and Poe have a lot of back-and-forth stuff, where Poe will mention a date or an event, William will come back to the present and talk to Alix about what it all means, she’ll come up with crazy-specific details from, like, “The Tell-Tale Heart” a few times to prove that Poe means something, and William will go to that time and place to start again.
It all comes down to a particular card game, and the number thirteen. Yeah, in case you were wondering about that weird thirteen at the beginning of the book, it was all Poe’s doing. Also Poe was one of the mystery people, the one that recognized William’s spirit form.
The mystery resolves amid a lot of philosophical meandering about he nature of creativity and its relation to madness and tragedy. Honestly, it was that part that I enjoyed more!
A whole chapter, chapter nine, is a little vignette about certain historical figures talking to God before coming down to Earth to do their stuff. We get all these imagined conversations, where Beethoven tells God that he wants to write the greatest nine symphonies ever written, to which God replies that this is a good idea, and the price is that you’ll be stone deaf. Or Keats, dying at 26. Van Gogh having no recognition in his lifetime. That sort of things. It’s an odd little bit that stands out in an otherwise pretty darned odd book. I loved it, though.
Finally we learn that the key point in Poe’s history that needs changing is a card game while he was in college. In reality, he lost that card game and plummeted into debt, causing him to drop out of school and return home, whereupon he took up the life of a writer. If history can be altered that Poe wins the game, he’ll live the life of a courtly Virginia gentleman and join the Army, become a general, and win the Battle of Gettysburg.
William sets up this huge, elaborate setpiece involving all of the thesis committee for him and Alix. He causes all of them, even that wretched old Dean, to OB with him, whereupon they recreate that fateful card game. I’ll admit I don’t actually understand why all this had to happen, but it did, and at the time I was fine with it.
William has rigged the deck so that Poe has no choice but to win this game. Because all of the pertinent college faculty are there, they’ll have no choice but to give William his doctorate, and also Alix because all of her psycho-symbology research brought it about.
Not mentioned: How, exactly, any of this will matter if history is changed so dramatically that none of it can possibly take place. Also not mentioned: About four million enslaved human beings.
Everything works to a tee, except that in the end, Poe still loses the card game. It turns out that Poe is also a card psi, and a very good one, and he actually set this all up so that he could lose the game after all.
Apparently, the real timeline has Poe winning and all that. Throughout the book, Poe has been manipulating William just for this purpose. Mega-psychic Edgar Allan Poe saw the future and couldn’t let it happen.
For the slaves?
No, for the poems.
Colonel Birch (who was present at the psychic thesis defense) drops dead for some reason, but also for some reason William and Alix take it for granted that he also traveled back in time to Gettysburg, where he was able to win the battle and the war. But this was in an alternate timeline, so it doesn’t effect anything in the book.
Also, Birch had a pretty sizable supply of Confederate gold stashed away in a Swiss account, and now William and Alix get all of it? Because the non-profit CSA was, in actuality, Birch and Birch alone?
And so the book has a happy ending for literally everybody. And also literarily everybody.
I won’t try to justify my enjoyment of this book. I know I just painted it as garbage. It really wasn’t. So much of it didn’t really make sense, but I feel like that’s either intentional or at least to the benefit of the thing. It’s just that trying to tell other people about it in a concrete summarization doesn’t do it any kind of justice.
And howdy gee did the publishers not do it any favors. Everything about the outside of this book made it seem like it would be horrible. But in a fun way. I didn’t get any fun horribleness this week, and I’m a bit disappointed. Instead I got something that was quite good in a dreamlike way that makes me wish I could write like that. Plus a lot of meditation on the nature of creativity, which yeah, can come across as a little masturbatory in some cases but not in this one.
And, most importantly, I wanna go read some Poe now. Weird.
4 thoughts on “Lurid Dreams”
I have been re-reading a stack of Sherlock Holmes pseudo-scholarship — there was once a whole cottage industry of that and I have a pile of them in cheap paperback — when I ran across this quotation:
“A book may be amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity.” I totally get that, and I totally get why you liked Lurid Dreams. Harness looks like an author I have to seek out.
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“One thing about this book is that it never really tells us when it takes place. I assumed, for the most part, that it was in the present day, author time. But it would just occasionally drop stuff in to make me question that.”
Could it be that the book is doing what Alan Moore did in Watchmen? It’s set in ‘present time’, but due to the changes the author made (people know about and accept psychic powers) present time ain’t what it used to be. Am I giving Lurid Dreams too much credit?
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I think that’s a pretty solid headcanon.
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