Author’s note: there are spoilers in this review.
My very first creative writing lecturer, Nurrudin Farah, once told me, “a good short story needs a good hook.” My fertile imagination at the time conjured up two images – that of punching your readers into some kind of blissful literary drunkenness or reeling them in like a good pike piranha. Imagination aside, whatever you do as a writer, the idea is to know that every good creative work needs an opening that hooks your reader, and I was hooked, punched or baited, right from the first seven words, “Living a secret life was never easy,” (7) that begin Sarah Doughty’s Dream Spell.
It is not always a creative work starts with seven words on page 7, and with a mind like mine, it screams symbolism – and here are the two relevant to that brilliant opening of Dream Spell. Jesus performed seven miracles on God’s holy Sabbath Day (which ran from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset). Of these seven miracles the fourth miracle is of particular relevance to this novella – A woman attending synagogue, who was made sick by a demon for eighteen years, is released from her bondage (Luke 13:11). Now, April wasn’t sickened by a demon (in a sense) but she was in bondage to demons – dark witches, Malleus Maleficarum, and “others willing to share information to save their lives,” (29). The second symbolism relates to the art of card reading. In the Tarot, seven is the Card of the Chariot, which is symbolic of the need to focus. If reversed it signifies inabilities to see things through. So you can imagine how this ties up with my contemplation of the end of the novella when April and Ian come together in spite of the obstacles thrown at them throughout the course of the narrative. April keeps her focus – “I wanted nothing more than to spend my life with Ian and Lily, at that farmhouse for as long as we possibly could. I wanted everything with my mate. I wanted to marry the man I loved. But it was more than that. I wanted to bind my soul with his, in that permanent supernatural marriage that would last for the rest of our days,” (60) and in the end she is rewarded for her tenacity and focus. There can be very few cycles in creative writing completed in such beautiful manner.
This was pleasing to read, especially considering the narrative deals with a world where “dangers came from many different places. There were the human hunters that called themselves the Malleus Dei Maleficarum. There were dark witches. And there were others willing to share information to save their lives,” (29). It was pleasing to read that in a world where taking the risk to try your luck at happiness was fatalistic as it led to being discovered by “dark witches, the human hunters that called themselves Malleus Dei Maleficarum, or others that might betray us,” (35) April and Ian knowing the fatalism of this “still wanted to try,” (35). The repetition here is deliberate in impressing on you the oppressive social reality Doughty expertly creates in this novella.
I liked the fact that the idea of the abnormal leads to the achievement of this wish. April is able to survive in this world and achieve her wish because of four (abnormal) gifts: the ability to “make spells no other witch can by using will,” the ability to hide her aura, and “the ability to draw others” to her, and the ability to “shield,” herself – “a defense mechanism designed to engage automatically to protect against magic meant to harm or kill,” (31). What is ironic though is the fact that if, like earthen witches who “didn’t need to cast spells to do what they wanted. They needed will — that deep desire to see something done,” (59) April can wish for something, why does she go through the suffering?
Thematically, the central concern of Dream Spell is the conflict between two primal competing human impulses: the instinct to live by rules, act peacefully, follow moral commands, and value the good of the group – deciding what group in this case is in itself a conflict. This is represented by her marriage to Robert, “The human. The man I didn’t love. But the man I married,” (25). The human, who would, as she says “give me the life I wanted … the perfect life,” (33-34). Conflicting with this is the instinct to gratify her immediate desires, and enforce her will – to be with her mate, Ian. “despite the world around us — the danger and uncertainty — he still wanted to be with me,” (19). “We knew the dangers. But we still wanted to try,” (35). “Then let me be the one to ask you if you still want to marry me, if you’ll bind with me despite all the dangers, and spend the rest of our lives together, raising and protecting our little girl?” (60). The author skillfully expresses this conflict in a number of ways, order (life with Robert) vs. chaos (life with Ian), reason (marriage to Robert) vs. impulse (attachment to her mate), and ironically, good (life with Ian) vs. evil (living with Robert/amongst humans). Interestingly ironical, in the novella, Doughty associates the instinct of order with ‘Other/Evil’ and the instinct of chaos with good. For instance, we read how April’s marriage to Robert (in the civilized, moral and disciplined world) gradually dissolves as she gradually immerses herself (through dream spells) into the physically erotic, wild, brutal, endangered life in the forest with Ian. This conflict is also expertly unraveled using several iconic symbols, the most dominant of which is the forest.
Usually, the forest is a mysterious place, usually inhabited by mysterious creatures, symbols of all of the dangers with which all characters in a tale must contend and penetrate if they are to find their essence and meaning of life. Cue pixies (23, 31) and the dark witch, Zoe (29, 32, 41, 42, 44, 69). The forest stands for the unconscious and its mysteries. Little wonder most of April’s unconscious memories are domiciled in the forest. I read in analytical psychology, the forest represents femininity in the eyes of men, an unexplored realm full of the unknown, and Ian expresses this when he says, “I know how much you like the lake and the forest, and I saw this place was up for sale … So I bought it,” (19). We can also see how being in the woods works an effect on Ian’s perception of April, “The sight of you in the water next to the lily pads with the moon shining down on you is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,“ (36).
The forest also has great connection with the symbolism of the mother, it is a place where life thrives. In the city April cannot find peace. She says, “my life as a house wife and mother was weighing on me,” (10) but in the forest the opposite is the case. “Ian took a step forward as his free hand reached out, pulled the back of my head toward him, and then kissed me, hard, with Lily giggling in his other arm … Relief didn’t begin to cover what I felt in that moment … In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to spend my life with Ian and Lily, at that farmhouse for as long as we possibly could.” (60). In this regard, it is interesting to note that the forest, usually seen as a contrast with the city and comfort of the home, the home of outlaws (see Shakespeare’s As You Like It), a place that harbors all kinds of dangers and demons, enemies and diseases” – Zimmer in Cirlot (112), is nothing like that in Dream Spell. In this novella it is a place of rejuvenation where April finds some calm “He held me for a time, letting me feel his strength as he soothed me. After a while, I finally calmed down and realized the sun went down,” (32). This underscores what JC Cooper writes in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols that ‘Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol: the soul entering the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which man must penetrate to find the meaning.’ In Dream Spell April finds her meaning to life in the forest supporting Cooper’s belief that a “Retreat into the forest is symbolic death before initiatory rebirth,” and we see this firmly asserted by the end of the novella. This rejuvenation, this rebirth in the forest is engendered in part by water.
Water, one of the four western classical elements (the others being earth, air and fire), is another symbol that features severally in this novella. Normally, water symbolizes passivity, adaptability, purity, fertility, healing and cleansing. It is associated with the emotional-intuitive or feminine aspect, like fire is to the masculine. Now, the type of water in a narrative is just as important as its use as a symbol. My reading of the novella reveals, for instance, that taking a shower symbolizes moments of reflection, “I stepped into the shower and steam enveloped me as hot water slid down my bronzed skin. As I methodically tended to my hair and shaved, I thought about all that happened since the night I met Robert,” (9). It was also used to relieve stress, “I headed straight for the bathroom and turned on the shower, set to scalding. I smelled like hazelnuts. It was my favorite scent, but every time I breathed in, a feeling of loss and longing fell over me. So I washed away the stress of the day,” (28). In the forest where April and Ian meet in her dream spells is a lake. For Ian, this lake embellishes April’s femininity, “The sight of you in the water next to the lily pads with the moon shining down on you is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” (36), and represents the flow of life or fertility, “When the water reached our necks, he stopped walking and I shifted my hips, letting him enter me. With one thrust he was inside and I came with the force of a thousand setting suns, crying out into his mouth. He devoured every cry, every moan, and every whimper. And we stayed in that water, surrounded by lily pads, crickets, frogs, and the moonlight until we were both sated and spent,” (37).
Water generally cleanses and, as such, becomes inevitably a symbol of characters in narratives handling difficult life scenarios. So, though we have no ocean in this novella, its scope in relation to the earth and, therefore, its representation of obstacles or abysses from which things emerge or that characters must journey across to reach a destination, is served by the lake. Symbolizing consequently, mysterious places that pose great obstacles to characters or their being dragged down into deep depths by it, “kneeling in the frigid water and pulling my hands away from my face. “Listen to me, April,” he said with determination. “I love you and that will never change. I will always be here, waiting for you to come back to me … I brought you here, hoping you would remember me. Us. All that we had here. And yes, I want you to come back to me. I would give anything to have you back in my arms. For real. Not here in a dream … It was our last time,” (39-40). We see also, how this serves the purpose of a lake, which is often used as a symbol in narratives in which characters face great decisions or much introspection, “After he proposed, I couldn’t have picked a better moment to be with him than in the water, under the moon’s soft blue glow, minutes away from the house we shared,” (36). After this, April resolves to return and do anything within her powers to stay with Ian. It was time to connect the day-time housewife to the lover-mother molded in the forest by water at night.
Night in this novella is not a by-product of its genre. True, night can be used in connection to darkness and acts as a cover over the world, but in this novella it represents an ‘end of the road, “Until the previous night when all the memories came rushing back. I loved my husband, in a way,” (47). In this novella it represents peace or tranquility and escape, “there were some nights when I barely settled in bed and I found myself in oblivion. A blissful, dreamless state that left me feeling safe, loved, and happy … that night, I wanted to escape. Needed it,” (12). The point here being, there are two sides to the symbolism of night, night is the end of the day, where things are hidden in shadows but if there is a source of light, even a small one, then one has to take it as a sign the writer is trying to say something about some internal or external conflict. For instance, April says “As we made love on the beach for the first time that night, I forgot about my worries for a time. After we were sated and spent, we laid next to each other, panting from exertion and in each other’s arms once more, something whispered in the back of my mind. It’s never going to last,” (21). That voice, though ‘dark’ breaks the pleasurable darkness of the night. Reminding us that though things in the light are generally safe, things in the dark can, however, be susceptible to danger. This hovering foreboding serves the setting of this novella quite well.
The setting of a literary work often has a significant effect on the protagonist and this novella is no exception. There is no doubt the setting does influence April’s mood and the outcome of her actions. The prevalent mood of the novella is the dangers of exposure: “Not only did I have no idea how it was possible that she was moving those toys over her head for her enjoyment, but I didn’t know what I could do to keep her from doing it in front of anyone else. It was too dangerous for anyone, even Robert to see her do something like that,” (10); “Living in a world like ours meant that happiness never lasted long. Discovery was inevitable. Danger was constant,” (22); “My little girl was using power again. Yet she didn’t have an aura to indicate that she was other. That both terrified me and filled me with pride. But that was also a very dangerous thing,” (44); and “But that wasn’t all. The dangers ahead were much more complicated, much more intense than I ever thought possible by trying to live amongst the humans,” (47). Considered together, it couldn’t have been pleasant being April, and one would forgive her her infidelity of seeking bliss in the arms of her marked mate. This overbearing mood sets up the simple but frantic nature of the novella’s plot.
The plot of the novella is simple – April, a witch married to Robert, a human, feels a strong pull to her mate, Ian, a witch she can only associate with in dream spells. But as her physical world dissolves, the dream world assumes solidity, and at the end they find a lasting bond through marriage. I wish it was this simple – the plot of Dream Spell is anything but this. Sarah Doughty uses the climactic plot in this novella. Where the novel begins near the story’s conclusion – the opening sentence of the novella suggests this, “Living a secret life was never easy,” (7). This statement suggests much significant action has already occurred – she is married, she has a daughter, Lily, and wait for it, though she is married to a human, Robert, Lily can perform tricks. Plus she tells us “Ending up pregnant was the last thing I expected. That was because witches and other supernatural creatures, or others, couldn’t conceive unless we wanted to. So it came as quite a shock,” (8). Something had to be wrong, and Doughty spends the rest of the novella expertly unraveling what is wrong. Though her story-telling skills and knowledge of the subject matter is maestroic, somehow I feel Doughty crammed too much into this novella, and this makes the structure of this novella is a bit testing.
Structurally, the author employs dream spells that alternate with present time and past events. The flux between these three time sequences is difficult in part to grasp and requires careful focus. For instance, is the beginning of chapter 5 (21-22) a flashback? Also, the flashback on page 32 where Robert comes to her rescue and introduces himself for the first time I feel is somewhat delayed. The love-making scenes (19-20), (26-27) and (35-37), expertly described, are, however, somewhat repetitive, cyclical and they slowed down the pace of the narrative. For instance, the love-making scene (26-27) doesn’t move the plot forward considering how it ends, “we would lose each other again. It was only a matter of time,” (27). You almost tend to expect what April and Ian will do when they meet at the cottage. There are two important consequences of using the climactic approach in this novella. First, the author has been ‘forced’ to include pertinent information about the past in the form of exposition. For instance, because I was having to either read the actions or have characters discuss what they have done and what brought them to the current situation, in essence, filling in gaps about previous events, I found it very tedious and confusing. Second, a novella with a climactic plot should normally cover a brief span of time. With all the preliminary incidents in the past, the plot of this novella does not move directly to the climax. In fact, the point of attack in this novella does not come till Chapter 16 when Robert says, “You’re a witch, aren’t you? Some kind of devil worshiper?” (50), where the hunter is also introduced. I say this because the opening line on page 7 suggests she has a secret, and Robert doesn’t come to this realization until page 50. Also, Zoe, the white witch who turned black in the novella, Zoe, makes a cameo appearance here, though she kills no one, her casting a glamor on Ian almost destroys his relationship with April. Then she tries to kill April but fails because April is able to protect herself. Then there is the cameo by the hunter. Whereas these two cameos contribute to the actions of the novella, the overriding driving force in the novella, however, appears (on the surface) to be April’s vaccilant mind. That is, until you consider the subconscious effects of these two on April’s mind and reality. Subtle, yet powerful.
Last thoughts: A great read! Once again, I learnt a whole deal about the world of witches. Pity, considering the powers they possess, they see themselves (being other) as inferior. I love the truism of the line “True evil was in the heart and soul of a person, not some kind of devil,” (50). I learnt about Glamour, “No. I never touched her and I sure as hell didn’t go dark. She set a glamour for you to see it as if it was real, (25); “The dark witch created a glamour to make me think Ian betrayed me in every way imaginable. Not only making me see him as a dark witch, but also seeing them together inside that cabin,” (44). Try using that excuse as a human! I learnt about night shade – “creatures that were created and lived in the dream realm. Their specialty was to bring a person into a dream and keep them there. They could alter time and create the dream itself, depending on what the witch that created it wanted,” (17) hence, my favorite exchange from the novella has to be, “You don’t remember because you erased me. I’ve been trying to reach you since you left.” “I erased you?” He nodded,” (17). Well, it will take a lot to erase the pleasure reading this brilliant piece gave me.
© F-K Omoregie 2016