The Dream Snake by Robert E. Howard
Weird Tales, February 1928
THE NIGHT was strangely still. As we sat upon the wide
veranda, gazing out over the broad, shadowy lawns, the silence of the hour
entered our spirits and for a long while no one spoke.
Then far across the dim mountains that fringed the eastern skyline, a
faint haze began to glow, and presently a great golden moon came up, making a
ghostly radiance over the land and etching boldly the dark clumps of shadows
that were trees. A light breeze came whispering out of the east, and the
unmowed grass swayed before it in long, sinuous waves, dimly visible in the
moonlight; and from among the group upon the veranda there came a swift gasp,
a sharp intake of breath that caused us all to turn and gaze.
Faming was leaning forward, clutching the arms of his chair, his face
strange and pallid in the spectral light; a thin trickle of blood seeping
from the lip in which he had set his teeth. Amazed, we looked at him, and
suddenly he jerked about with a short, snarling laugh.
"There's no need of gawking at me like a flock of sheep!" he said
irritably and stopped short. We sat bewildered, scarcely knowing what sort of
reply to make, and suddenly he burst out again.
"Now I guess I'd better tell the whole thing or you'll be going off and
putting me down as a lunatic. Don't interrupt me, any of you! I want to get
this thing off my mind. You all know that I'm not a very imaginative man; but
there's a thing, purely a figment of imagination, that has haunted me since
babyhood. A dream!" he fairly cringed back in his chair as he muttered, "A
dream! And God, what a dream! The first time—no, I can't remember the
first time I ever dreamed it—I've been dreaming the hellish thing ever
since I can remember. Now it's this way: there is a sort of bungalow, set
upon a hill in the midst of wide grasslands—not unlike this estate; but
this scene is in Africa. And I am living there with a sort of servant, a
Hindoo. Just why I am there is never clear to my waking mind, though I am
always aware of the reason in my dreams. As a man of a dream, I remember my
past life (a life which in no way corresponds with my waking life), but when
I am awake my subconscious mind fails to transmit these impressions. However,
I think that I am a fugitive from justice and the Hindoo is also a fugitive.
How the bungalow came to be there I can never remember, nor do I know in what
part of Africa it is, though all these things are known to my dream self. But
the bungalow is a small one of a very few rooms, and it situated upon the top
of the hill, as I said There are no other hills about and the grasslands
stretch to the horizon in every direction; knee-high in some places,
waist-high in others.
"Now the dream always opens as I am coming up the hill, just as the sun is
beginning to set. I am carrying a broken rifle and I have been on a hunting
trip; how the rifle was broken, and the full details of the trip, I clearly
remember—dreaming. But never upon waking. It is just as if a curtain
were suddenly raised and a drama began; or just as if I were suddenly
transferred to another man's body and life, remembering past years of that
life, and not cognizant of any other existence. And that is the hellish part
of it! As you know, most of us, dreaming, are, at the back of our
consciousness, aware that we are dreaming. No matter how horrible the dream
may become, we know that it is a dream, and thus insanity or possible death
is staved off. But in this particular dream, there is no such knowledge. I
tell you it is so vivid, so complete in every detail, that I wonder sometimes
if that is not my real existence and this a dream! But no; for then I should
have been dead years ago.
"As I was saying, I come up the hill and the first thing I am cognizant of
that it is out of the ordinary is a sort of track leading up the hill in an
irregular way; that is, the grass is mashed down as if something heavy had
been dragged over it. But I pay no especial attention to it, for I am
thinking, with some irritation, that the broken rifle I carry is my only arm
and that now I must forego hunting until I can send for another.
"You see, I remember thoughts and impressions of the dream itself, of the
occurrences of the dream; it is the memories that the dream 'I' had, of that
other dream existence that I can not remember. So. I come up the hill and
enter the bungalow. The doors are open and the Hindoo is not there. But the
main room is in confusion; chairs are broken, a table is overturned. The
Hindoo's dagger is lying upon the floor, but there is no blood anywhere.
"Now, in my dreams, I never remember the other dreams, as sometimes one
does. Always it is the first dream, the first time. I always experience the
same sensations, in my dreams, with as vivid a force as the first time I ever
dreamed. So. I am not able to understand this. The Hindoo is gone, but (thus
I ruminate, standing in the center of the disordered room) what did away with
him? Had it been a raiding party of Negroes they would have looted the
bungalow and probably burned it. Had it been a lion, the place would have
been smeared with blood. Then suddenly I remember the track I saw going up
the hill, and a cold hand touches my spine; for instantly the whole thing is
clear: the thing that came up from the grasslands and wrought havoc in the
little bungalow could be naught else except a giant serpent. And as I think
or the size of the spoor, cold sweat beads my forehead and the broken rifle
shakes in my hand.
"Then I rush to the door in a wild panic, my only thought to make a dash
for the coast. But the sun has set and dusk is stealing across the
grasslands. And out there somewhere, lurking in the tall grass is that grisly
thing—that horror. God!" The ejaculation broke from his lips with such
feeling that all of us started, not realizing the tension we had reached.
There was a second's silence, then he continued:
"So I bolt the doors and windows, light the lamp I have and take my stand
in the middle of the room. And I stand like a
statue—waiting—listening. After a while the moon comes up and her
haggard light drifts though the windows. And I stand still in the center of
the room; the night is very still—something like this night; the breeze
occasionally whispers through the grass, and each time I start and clench my
hands until the nails bite into the flesh and the blood trickles down my
wrists—and I stand there and wait and listen but it does not come that
night!" The sentence came suddenly and explosively, and an involuntary sigh
came from the rest; a relaxing of tension.
"I am determined, if I live the night through, to start for the coast
early the next morning, taking my chance out there in the grim grasslands
—with it. But with morning, I dare not. I do not know in which
direction the monster went; and I dare not risk coming upon him in the open,
unarmed as I am. So, as in a maze, I remain at the bungalow, and ever my eyes
turn toward the sun, lurching relentless down the sky toward the horizon. Ah,
God! if I could but halt the sun in the sky!"
The man was in the clutch of some terrific power; his words fairly leaped
"Then the sun rocks down the sky and the long gray shadows come stalking
across the grasslands. Dizzy with fear, I have bolted the doors and windows
and lighted the lamp long before the last faint glow of twilight fades. The
light from the windows may attract the monster, but I dare not stay in the
dark. And again I take my stand in the center of the room—waiting."
There was a shuddersome halt. Then he continued, barely above a whisper,
moistening his lips: "'There is no knowing how long I stand there; Time has
ceased to be and each second is an eon; each minute is an eternity,
stretching into endless eternities. Then, God! but what is that?" He leaned
forward, the moonlight etching his face into such a mask of horrified
listening that each of us shivered and flung a hasty glance over our
"Not the night breeze this time," he whispered. "Something makes the
grasses swish-swish—as if a great, long, plaint weight were being
dragged through them. Above the bungalow it swishes and then ceases—in
front of the door; then the hinges creak—creak! The door begins to
bulge inward—a small bit—then some more!" The man's arms were
held in front of him, as if braced strongly against something, and his breath
came in quick gasps. "And I know I should lean against the door and hold it
shut, but I do not, I can not move. I stand there, like a sheep waiting to be
slaughtered—but the door holds!" Again that sigh expressive of pent-up
He drew a shaky hand across his brow. "And all night I stand in the center
of that room, as motionless as an image, except to turn slowly, as the
swish-swish of the grass marks the fiend's course about the house. Ever I
keep my eyes in the direction of the soft, sinister sound. Sometimes it
ceases for an instant, or for several minutes, and then I stand scarcely
breathing, for a horrible obsession has it that the serpent has in some way
made entrance into the bungalow, and I start and whirl this way and that,
frightfully fearful of making a noise, though I know not why, but ever with
the feeling that the thing is at my back. Then the sounds commence again and
I freeze motionless.
"Now here is the only time that my consciousness, which guides my waking
hours, ever in any way pierces the veil of dreams. I am, in the dream, in no
way conscious that it is a dream, but, in a detached sort of way, my other
mind recognizes certain facts and passes them on to my sleeping—shall I
say 'ego'? That is to say, my personality is for an instant truly dual and
separate to an extent, as the right and left arms are separate, while making
up parts in the same entity. My dreaming mind has no cognizance of my higher
mind; for the time being the other mind is subordinated and the subconscious
mind is in full control, to such an extent that it does not even recognize
the existence of the other. But the conscious mind, now sleeping, is
cognizant of dim thought-waves emanating from the dream mind. I know that I
have not made this entirely clear, but the fact remains that I know that my
mind, conscious and subconscious, is near to ruin. My obsession of fear, as I
stand there in my dream, is that the serpent will raise itself and peer into
the window at me. And I know, in my dream, that if this occurs I shall go
insane. And so vivid is the impression imparted to my conscious, now sleeping
mind that the thought-waves stir the dim seas of sleep, and somehow I can
feel my sanity rocking as my sanity rocks in my dream. Back and forth it
totters and sways until the motion takes on a physical aspect and I in my
dream am swaying from side to side. Not always is the sensation the same, but
I tell you, if that horror ever raises it terrible shape and leers at me, if
I ever see the fearful thing in my dream, I shall become stark, wild insane."
There was a restless movement among the rest.
"God! but what a prospect!" he muttered. "To be insane and forever
dreaming that same dream, night and day! But there I stand, and centuries go
by, but at last a dim gray light begins to steal through the windows, the
swishing dies away in the distance and presently a red, haggard sun climbs
the eastern sky. Then I turn about and gaze into a mirror—and my hair
has become perfectly white. I stagger to the door and fling it wide. There is
nothing in sight but a wide track leading away down the hill through the
grasslands—in the opposite direction from that which I would take
toward the coast. And with a shriek of maniacal laughter, I dash down the
hill and race across the grasslands. I race until I drop from exhaustion,
then I lie until I can stagger up and go on.
"All day I keep this up, with superhuman effort, spurred on by the horror
behind me. And ever as I hurl myself forward on weakening legs, ever as I lie
gasping for breath, I watch the sun with a terrible eagerness. How swiftly
the sun travels when a man races it for life! A losing race it is, as I know
when I watch the sun sinking toward the skyline, and the hills which I had to
gain ere sundown seemingly as far away as ever."
His voice was lowered and instinctively we leaned toward him; he was
gripping the chair arms and the blood was seeping from his lip.
"Then the sun sets and the shadows come and I stagger on and fall and rise
and reel on again. And I laugh, laugh, laugh! Then I cease, for the moon
comes up and throws the grasslands in ghostly and silvery relief. The light
is white across the land, though the moon itself is like blood. And I look
back the way I have come—and far—back"—all of us leaned
farther toward him, our hair a-prickle; his voice came like a ghostly whisper
—"far back—I—see—the—grass—waving. There
is no breeze, but the tall grass parts and sways in the moonlight, in a
narrow, sinuous line—far away, but nearing every instant." His voice
Somebody broke the ensuing stillness: "And then—?"
"Then I awake. Never yet have I seen the foul monster. But that is the
dream that haunts me, and from which I have wakened, in my childhood
screaming, in my manhood in cold sweat. At irregular intervals I dream it,
and each time, lately"—he hesitated and then went on—"each time
lately, the thing has been getting closer—closer—the waving of
the grass marks his progress and he nears me with each dream; and when he
reaches me, then—"
He stopped short, then without a word rose abruptly and entered the house.
The rest of us sat silent for awhile, then followed him, for it was late.
How long I slept I do not know, but I woke suddenly with the impression
that somewhere in the house someone had laughed long, loud and hideously, as
a maniac laughs. Starting up, wondering if I had been dreaming, I rushed from
my room, just as a truly horrible shriek echoed through the house. The place
was now alive with other people who had been awakened, and all of us rushed
to Famings's room, whence the sounds had seemed to come.
Faming lay dead upon the floor, where it seemed he had fallen in some
terrific struggle. There was no mark upon him, but his face was terribly
distorted; as the face of a man who had been crushed by some superhuman force
—such as some gigantic snake.