Like a lot of new parents, one thing that’s changed in my life is the significance of children’s television. My baby girl might only be nine months old, but she’s very definitely acquired an interest in certain television shows, including a BBC show called ‘In The Night Garden’.
If you’ve never seen it, it’s a very odd show. On the one hand it’s a traditional sort of children’s programme with bright colours, harmless adventures and catchy little songs. But on the other hand the fictional world within which the stories unfold defies simple explanation. It’s not set in some sort of fairyland, but instead all the action appears to take place in the imagination of a sleepy child…
“What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he showed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. The more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to try to describe them on paper.” — ‘Celephais’American writer H P Lovecraft is best known for the novellas and short stories that (posthumously) became known as the Cthulhu Mythos. These deal with what he referred to as ‘cosmic fear’, that is, the terror that would befall anyone who discovers humanity’s real (and frighteningly insignificant) place in the universe.
But several of Lovecraft’s stories are closer to what we’d nowadays consider the fantasy genre. These are commonly referred to as his Dunsanian stories since they were heavily influenced by Lovecraft’s appreciation of the Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany. In some of these stories Lovecraft supposed that during dreams certain gifted dreamers are able to enter an alternate reality (sometimes called the Dreamlands), though this aspect of the stories is not necessarily as consistent as later writers have supposed. So while some writers treat them as if Lovecraft intended them to form a single Dream Cycle of myths and tales, others disagree, and Lovecraftian expert S T Joshi has argued quite convincingly that the Dreamlands as imagined by many modern readers simply doesn’t exist in the short stories and novellas as Lovecraft wrote them.
Nonetheless, whatever its literary merit, the idea that Lovecraft had created a world accessible through dreams has gained a degree of purchase on modern culture that can’t be denied. Several novelists have written their own stories set in the Dreamlands, perhaps most notably the British horror writer Brian Lumley, creator of the ‘Necroscope’ horror novels. It’s also turned up in roleplaying games (‘Call of Cthulhu’ for example) and video games (such as the Emerald Dream in ‘World of Warcraft’).
On top of these examples though, I’d like to offer up another: a BBC program for preschoolers, ‘In The Night Garden’.
“Well did the traveller know those garden lands that lie betwixt the wood of the Cerenerian Sea, and blithely did he follow the singing river Oukianos that marked his course. The sun rose higher over gentle slopes of grove and lawn, and heightened the colours of the thousand flowers that starred each knoll and dangle. A blessed haze lies upon all this region, wherein is held a little more of the sunlight than other places hold, and a little more of the summer's humming music of birds and bees; so that men walk through it as through a faery place, and feel greater joy and wonder than they ever afterward remember.” — ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’Beauty is the signal characteristic of those Lovecraft tales that explore dreams and the imagined worlds they create. While there’s no canonical list of Dream Cycle stories as such, several short stories and one novella are invariably placed within this category. These include the short stories ‘Celephais’ (written in 1920), ‘The Silver Key’ (1926), and ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ (1932); and the novella ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ that was not actually completed by Lovecraft in his lifetime and only published posthumously by Arkham House in 1943 under the auspices of August Derleth. Nonetheless, ’Dream-Quest’ is the most sustained piece of Lovecraft’s writing that plays with the idea that dreaming opens up pathways to alternate realities, and that to some degree our dreams actually change those realities, building beautiful cities or imagining terrible monsters as the case may be.
The hero of ‘The Dream-Quest’ is Randolph Carter, a very thinly veiled version of Lovecraft himself. Like Lovecraft he sees himself as a man out of his proper time; he begrudges the prosaic demands of modern life and instead prefers the delicate and mystical beauty of his own imagined landscapes and cities. In ‘The Silver Key’ Lovecraft explores this idea even more deeply, connecting the love of imagined things with the innocence of early childhood that allowed imagined things to have their own reality unlimited by the mundane facts of life. The silver key of the title is an artefact that allows the user to travel backwards in time, to their own youth, and in doing so Carter not only returns to his own childhood but also becomes the king of the imagined realm of Ilek-Vad.
Whatever else may be said of the Night Garden as portrayed in the TV show, it does seem to be explicitly set in a child’s imagination. Each episode begins with a (real) child being sung to sleep by an unseen parent. The viewers are then transported to a small boat within which the child’s Dreamlands avatar, Iggle-Piggle, would seem be sailing across an open sea under a starlit sky. Humanoid but not quite human, Iggle-Piggle takes part in a lot of what happens in the Night Garden, but he isn’t a part of it. As each episode closes we see the various inhabitants go to sleep, but not Iggle-Piggle. When dreams end Iggle-Piggle doesn’t sleep; he must instead wake up; in short, he’s us: we all dream of course, but despite Lovecraft’s lament, none of us belong in the Dreamlands.
“Renewing his fluttering sound, he waited patiently; and was at last rewarded by an impression of many eyes watching him. It was the Zoogs, for one sees their weird eyes long before one can discern their small, slippery brown outlines. Out they swarmed, from hidden burrow and honeycombed tree, till the whole dim-litten region was alive with them.” — ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’Iggle-Piggle may be a visitor to the Night Garden, but he has good relations with the inhabitants there. These include flirty, ragdoll-like Upsy Daisy and the appealingly earnest Makka Pakka whose main aim in life seems to be cleaning things. But perhaps the most sinister of the denizens of the Night Garden are the Tombliboos. They’re gregarious, hyperactive, inquisitive, and live inside a giant bush.
Ostensibly toddler-like creatures with limited language skills and a raucous approach to music making, the Tombliboos may have a darker side that’s not explored within the show as we see it. But hints are given here and there. Their home defies the laws of physics, being bigger on the inside than the outside, but actually a lot of objects seem to work that way in the Night Garden (and, it has to be said, in Lovecraft’s stories as well). More worrying perhaps is their approach to dental hygiene. Their toothbrushes are simply enormous, which beggars the question of just how big (and sharp) their teeth might be. We don’t see their teeth, but their frenetic pack mentality suggests that the Tombliboos are more likely to be active carnivores than harmless vegetarians.
They also have large eyes with big black pupils, very suggestive of nocturnal animals. In ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ the protagonist, Carter, meets with Zoogs who we are told live in the forest, enjoy listening to stories, and mostly feed on fungi. But we’re also warned that they are not beyond eating meat should the opportunity arise, and that many dreamers who have entered their woods never came out… are the Tombliboos, perhaps, a child’s imagining of the Zoogs?
“…to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic Ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.” — ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’
Ah yes, the Haahoos. Difficult to describe these in any terms that make sense. They’re huge balloon-like objects with faces and colourful patterns painted on them. But they’re apparently living things too, of immense size and ponderous movement. They appear to be benign, or at least indifferent to what goes on around them, slowly bouncing along wherever they want, occasionally dancing slowly and awkwardly to whatever rhythm they keep time to.
Parallels with the ‘ultimate gods’ mentioned in several of Lovecraft’s stories are obvious. The Haahoos are certainly big, they’re definitely absurd, and so far as we can tell, they’re mindless as well. There’s also the fact that whenever they’re encountered the narrator makes a point of calling out their name in a rather specific way, stretching out the syllables so that it’s less a word and more a cry.
More than a little reminiscent of that most ubiquitous of cultist invocations — “Ia! Shub-Niggurath!” — is it not?
Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted sandworms.
This article was originally published Nov 9th 2015.