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:

https://networkonair.com/all-products/858-escape-into-night-the-complete-series

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:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Paperhouse-DVD-Charlotte-Burke/dp/B000H8RW1K

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.