These Are The 7 Best Nightmares In Popular Literature
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Last Modified 21 May 2021 First Added 26 October 2015
When they aren’t keeping us awake at night, nightmares are a useful tool for any author with a love for the gothic to bring terror and fear to their unfortunate protagonist.
Here is a list that will make for good Halloween reading, but hopefully not keep you up at night.
As Frankenstein falls asleep after working tirelessly on his monster, he dreams about embracing his beloved Elizabeth. Suddenly the dream turns to nightmare as Elizabeth becomes his dead mother, a corpse riddled with worms. He wakes up to find his monster, alive and staring at him.
‘I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created.’
In his most famous work, De Quincey tells us the reasons for his opium addiction and gives vivid descriptions of its impact on his life. In the following passage is a particularly nightmarish one:
‘I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever re-ascend. Nor did I, by waking, feel that I had re-ascended.’
Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the white whale led to some unpleasant nightmares which he relived every day. He would dream of a chasm opening up surrounding Ahab with flames, lightening and ‘accursed fiends’.
‘Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.’
Although not specifically referred to as a nightmare per se, many critics agree that Kafka is describing a nightmare when Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself turned into a hideous creature. Kafka’s description alone is somewhat nightmarish, let alone what he’s actually describing:
‘He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.’
This poem was written during the First World War and describes a recurring nightmare from the poet’s childhood. He describes a ‘Loomed gigantic, formless, queer, / Purring in my haunted ear / That same hideous nightmare thing, / Talking, as he lapped my blood, / In a voice cruel and flat, / Saying for ever, “Cat!… Cat!… Cat!…”’.
The poem ends with the poet in a trench during the war telling us that when he is shot, he won’t hear ‘Charge!’ but ‘a cruel voice and flat / Saying for ever “Cat!… Cat!… Cat!…”’.
Lockwood is snowed in one night during a visit to Wuthering Heights. He dreams that he broke a window and reached his arms into the cold outside air. As he grabs what thinks is a tree branch, he immediately realises he’s holding a small child’s hand.
‘The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in—let me in!”‘
Shakespeare enjoyed tormenting his characters in his tragedies. Perhaps the most famous is Macbeth, when the eponymous hero is anguishing about the murder of King Duncan. Speaking to his wife, he reveals he cannot sleep at night:
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly.’
This list of nightmarish reading is certainly not complete, please tell us in the comment section below about your favourite nightmare in literature.