Musty Books: “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr (1958)

What happens when a recurring dream becomes so lucid and involving that it feels more like reality than the everyday? Does the dream – unsettling as it is – become a more valid state of existence than the dreamer’s waking life?

Such is the quandary at the heart of Marianne Dreams. When the lively, imaginative Marianne falls suddenly ill on her tenth birthday with a curiously unspecified malady, she is confined to bed: potentially for several months. And her freewheeling lifestyle of riding lessons and slap-up feasts is transformed instantly into a claustrophobic existence of inactive misery; her world reduced to the toys and books that surround her, and the visits of three central adults: her mother, her doctor, and hired-in private tutor Miss Chesterfield.

After three weeks of this torpor, and understandably desperate for distraction, Marianne pokes around in her late great-grandmother’s old mahogany workbox and finds a stumpy, knife-sharpened pencil with which she draws that staple of every 10-year-old’s artistic repertoire: a slightly wonky house, with a curl of smoke rising from the chimney. It has a door, four windows and a surrounding fence, with some clumsily oversized flowers and a small army of harmless rocks in the garden. So far, so typical of a myriad of idle childhood drawings made in crinkly sketchpads on listless, mid-20th century afternoons.

Until, that is, Marianne visits the house in her dreams.

And the lop-sided house, with its blank windows and towering, misproportioned flowers, becomes a disquieting reality, bathed in an eerie, unrelenting half-light. A reality that impinges further on her everyday existence when the dream repeatedly recurs, becoming a staple feature of Marianne’s sickly, hallucinogenic slumbers. And the dividing lines between her waking life and her dream state crumble completely when, in an empty bedroom of the house, she finds Mark, a similarly unwell pyjama-clad boy with the thin, immobile legs of a polio victim. A boy that, in the real world, is another of Miss Chesterfield’s private pupils.

The true nature of Mark’s presence in Marianne’s dream is left deliciously ambiguous. In their waking lives, they never meet, or even communicate – everything that Marianne knows about Mark and his deteriorating condition comes second-hand, from the anecdotes of Miss Chesterfield. So is the real-life Mark, subsumed by serious illness and increasingly unable to stay conscious, actually sharing a dream with Marianne, or is he merely her constructed interpretation of Miss Chesterfield’s stories? We never find out for certain.

What is certain is the impact of these dreamed encounters on Marianne’s real-life outlook, especially as she realises that a flourish of her great-grandmother’s pencil during waking hours can create new additions to the dream. At one point becoming understandably angry and frustrated with her ongoing illness, and jealous of sharing the attention of Miss Chesterfield with the real-life Mark, she viciously defaces her original drawing: blanking out Mark’s window with furious scribbles, and turning the rocks into terrifying sentinels with blinking eyes, “keeping him prisoner under constant surveillance.” When she discovers the inevitable repercussions of this passing tantrum in their shared dream state, she begins to realise the sense of responsibility that she must now bear for the helpless Mark (remorseful, she draws food, books and other distractions for her new-found companion) and – indeed – the true nightmarish qualities of the world she has created.

What follows is a masterclass of claustrophobic, deeply unsettling fantasy fiction: the most unsettling aspect of all being Marianne’s consumption by said fantasy, and her detachment from a real world that now feels utterly irrelevant compared to her and Mark’s desperate attempts to escape the house. The encroaching terror of the barely-sentient rocks (re-christened, chillingly as “THEM” or “THEY”) becomes a more pressing concern than their real-life illnesses, especially when THEY begin to transmit their malevolent, monosyllabic thoughts to the children via the crackly transistor radio that Marianne has drawn into existence.

Sleep is the portal here. When Marianne falls asleep in real life, she “awakes” in the dream; and – indeed – vice versa. And her descent into the dream state is depicted with the utmost poetry: “She didn’t just go to sleep – she dropped thousands of feet into sleep, with the rapidity and soundless perfect of a gannet’s dive.” Unlike Marianne, Mark is a permanent presence in the house: is this a reflection of his more serious illness and his steep descent into long-term unconsciousness? Does his loss of everyday wakefulness result in a sleepless dream existence? Again, the ambiguity is left hanging in the pale, oppressive half-light of the nightmare.

And it’s the distinctly unsaid that makes the story so potent: if the features of the nightmare world are dependent entirely on the drawings in Marianne’s sketchbook, then what exists beyond that? When Mark and Marianne escape the house, and set up a John Wyndham-esque “cosy apocalypse” homestead, barricaded into a lighthouse of her creation, what lies across the ocean that they wistfully gaze out upon? It’s a book filled with questions, and lesser authors might have unwisely attempted to provide logical, join-the-dots answers.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw a rational conclusion here: that the dream is a metaphorical reflection of Marianne’s feelings about her own illness – a nightmarish, sickly, twilit prison that mirrors her bedridden frustration – and that her escape from the house reflects her desire to return to the normal, carefree childhood that feels increasingly as though it belongs to a distant, impossible past. Catherine Storr’s achievement is in writing a story that leaves all interpretations open and valid, veering back and forth between the ennui of the humdrum everyday and the surreal, logic-twisting intensity of the nightmare with a dizzying aplomb that almost leaves us questioning our own sense of reality.

POINT OF ORDER: In 1972, ATV adapted Marianne Dreams into a six-part children’s series, Escape Into Night. It’s very good, and stars Patricia Maynard as Miss Chesterfield – she later married Dennis Waterman, and wrote the lyrics to the theme from Minder. It’s available here:

The book was also adapted into a 1988 film, Paperhouse, which takes a few more liberties than the TV series, but I rather liked it. It’s here:

MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy is a 1981 paperback reprint with pages the colour of a ripening tangerine. At some stage, it has been withdrawn (or liberated) from service in a West Yorkshire school, because the inside page boasts faded stamps boldly proclaiming “CENTRAL SCHOOLS SERVICES” and “BRADFORD MULTIPLE COPIES SCHEME”. And, on the back cover, someone has written, in pencil, “BIO”… presumably either a reminder to buy washing powder on the way home, or a misguided attempt to place the book in the “Biography” section of whichever library or bookshop it was residing in at the time. Although this in itself further blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, so feels entirely in keeping with the spirit of Marianne’s nightmares.

7 thoughts on “Musty Books: “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr (1958)

  1. Hap July 6, 2020 / 2:32 pm

    I just watched this on youtube – as a disabled person, in bed, during corona lockdown – and found it brought up a lot of unexpectedly real feelings about disability.

    You don’t see a lot of depictions of disabled kids where they are allowed to be crotchety, mean, unreasonable, brave, gutsy, actually-still-children, who have their own agency – and this story gives you two of them (the only other example I can think of is The Fault in Our Stars)

    More importantly, Marianne’s fantasy world brings her into contact with another disabled person – not a fantasy world in which she is “better” or well or more able to meet the expectations of non-disabled society. I connected that to the idea of “mutual aid” in activism, the importance of marginalised people creating their own support networks underpinned by their own values and experiences of the world, rather than trying and failing to fit themselves into a box they’ll never fit. Her hatred and anger at Mark, and later, her friendship and attempts to support him read to me as…related to the way that marginalised people have to learn self-love, and how easy it is to take out our own self-hate on other people like us, and in contrast, how self-healing it can be to spend more time taking care of people like you.

    In the TV show, Marianne talks a lot about her able-bodied friend Fiona and even tries to draw Fiona and some horses for them to ride into the house. But it doesn’t work, and we never see Fiona come to visit her while she’s sick; Marianne tries to have connections with her able-bodied friend, but both irl and in the dream world, Fiona isn’t there. The only person who is there, the only person she can connect with, are other people like her. Like it or not.

    I must say, the TV show makes this distinctly less “weird” by confirming that Marianne fell off a horse and broke her leg; if she’s hallucinating, it’s because of the boredom of bed (like in the classic Victorian metaphor-for-the-lives-of-women short story the Yellow Wallpaper). If the book features a mystery malady instead, that’s a lot more interesting; and there’s also a political dimension to that, especially in the way that women with mystery maladies like MS/chronic fatigue/fibro are undermined as “hysterics with a mental health problem” rather than people experiencing a genuine health crisis; it spirals out into all sorts of ideas culture has about both good health and also women. Very much like Yellow Wallpaper, actually.

    I also love how successfully ambiguous the fantasy world is. Is it a positive or negative place? Safe or dangerous? A bit like when Mark Fisher writes about the Shining and says…we don’t know they are ghosts. We assume they are ghosts, and therefore, that they are malevolent. But we don’t *know* that. They’re like the black monolith in 2001: an incursion from the weird into the everyday, masterminded by an unseen intelligence. The Shining “ghosts” could, plausibly, be aliens. We never really know what they are and what they want and what the “rules” are (could you drive them out with an exorcism, for example? The Shining never even tries engaging with this line of questioning). I suppose this is an element of “weird fiction”, but I liked that in Escape into Night we’re never really able to categorise what Marianne’s Dream. You could make a version of this story in which it’s clearly “a fantasy world that’s better than her everyday life” or “a nightmarish environment in which she processes her real life trauma”, but somehow the dream defies these easy categorisations. Rather like the ghosts in the Shining…we sort of assume we know what the dream is and how it functions…but we don’t. We don’t know what it is, what the rules are, why it is happening, whether it is good or bad, whether there is an Organising Intelligence involved…& I think that’s what makes Escape Into Night *weird* fiction rather than just horror in general.

    Maybe Marianne is travelling to another planet, or to the underworld where the dead are, or to purgatory, or a parallel excistence? The narrative doesn’t rule it out. Maybe the actual dreamer is elsewhere? Again, the narrative doesn’t rule it out.

    (I have been trying to do reviews of the haunted gen/teatime folk horror/70s weird content I consume for my blog, and absurdly, I somehow assumed that I had nothing to say about Escape Into Night. Thanks for nudging me to write a comment. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • bobfischer July 6, 2020 / 2:57 pm

      That’s a beautifully-put and absolutely thought-provoking post, HAP – thanks so much.


      • bobfischer July 6, 2020 / 3:43 pm

        And yes, I love the ambiguity of the dream world. I always get a weird sense of “hygge” from those cosy apocalypse scenarios, when characters are thrown together in a relatively space refuge from the dystopian madness that’s raging elsewhere.

        And we get that in Marianne Dreams, in the lighthouse at the end, where there’s a suggestion that Marianne and Mark might actually set up a “permanent” home together there. You can imagine them both finding retreating into this mutual parallel existence every night on a long-term basis, while going about their everyday business during waking hours. It’s a rather lovely thought.


        • Gavin Lloyd Wilson July 23, 2020 / 2:39 pm

          [SPOILER ALERT: don’t read the following if you intend reading the book or watching the TV adaptation.]

          Yes, the book ends slightly differently from the TV show, in that the dreams do not cease for Marianne once she has recovered following her illness; it is implied that they will continue, possibly for the rest of her life.

          Furthermore, Marianne is no longer in control of the dream world because she brought The Pencil into that world and gave it to Mark. When we last see her in the dream world, she finds Mark has gone off in the helicopter having left her a note to say he did wait for her, but could only wait so long because the helicopter had been hovering around all day waiting for him.

          We don’t know if Marianne will ever see Mark again either, so maybe she’s doomed to wait for him alone for ever more in this environment that she created no longer has any influence over. Thus “Marianne Dreams”, the book, ends on a much more melancholy note than its TV adaptation, “Escape Into Night”.

          I am reminded of the final book in Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, “Moominvalley in November”, in which the Moomins themselves are absent having gone to live in a lighthouse* on a remote island in the previous novel (“Moominpappa At Sea”). Various of their friends and acquaintances, Snufkin, Mymble, Toft and others, move into the Moominghouse in Moominvalley to await the return of the Moomins. After various escapades, gradually they all move out of the house and go back to resume their own lives, all except Toft, who, convinced the Moomins will be back, is left looking out to sea awaiting their arrival.

          * (note: lighthouses again… there’s an undefinable something about lighthouses that has “hauntology” written all over it)


  2. zoefruitcake July 6, 2020 / 3:53 pm

    As I started to read about it I thought how similar it was to Paperhouse, turned out there was a reason for that. I will try and watch the adaptation, it sounds good


  3. Keith Seatman July 7, 2020 / 9:05 am

    Hi Bob. I to have a very musty old copy of Marianne Dreams and remember watching it on Southern TV with my sister. For a very young chap as I was back then it scarred the hell out of me (it was the voice from the wireless) It heavely influenced my track Words from the Wireless on the Scarred for life album.


  4. David Haraldson September 2, 2020 / 9:28 pm

    [With apologies for the late post/ thread necromancy]

    There is actually a sequel to “Marianne Dreams” called “Marianne and Mark.” I keep meaning to track down a copy but–while Marianne Dreams has been re-published fairly recently–the only copies of “Marianne and Mark” that I can find on the online second-hand market are eye-wateringly expensive.

    The Wikipedia page does make it sound rather interesting, though. [Spoilers, obviously: ]

    PS. I’m here because of The Sense of Place Podcast.


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