Other peoples’ dreams are notoriously less interesting than our own, but these 10 writers made something artful from the stuff of dreams and the plotlessness of visions. Not surprisingly, most of these stories feature either a fantastical element or the deep menace of a nightmare. In chronological order:
1. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)
Hanging out in the Swiss Alps during the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin (not yet married to Percy Bysshe Shelley) was roped into a highbrow writing contest. “We will each write a ghost story,” announced the party’s host, Lord Byron. Neither Byron nor Shelley came up with much, but two truly immortal monsters were born, via John Polodori’s The Vampyre and Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. With a head full of an evening’s talk of reanimation and galvanism, Mary Godwin did not sleep well: “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie….I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out…” She realized she had found her “ghost story.” “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”
2. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (1886)
The split personality—or, to be more scientifically accurate, disassociative identity disorder— got its most famous fictional account as the result of an 1885 nightmare. As Stevenson’s wife told her husband’s biographer: “In the small hours of one morning,[...]I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’ I had awakened him at the first transformation scene.” Sick and bedridden, Stevenson wrote and rewrote the story, publishing it as a novella the next year.
3. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961)
One of the best-ever novels about war apparently came unbidden to Heller, an ad man who had served in World War II. As he told the Paris Review: “I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.’ I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand…. I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon.”
4. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979)
In what Styron called “a kind of waking vision” one morning in the mid-1970s, the concept of his best novel came forward. He had been struggling with writing another book when he experienced “the remnant of a dream”: “I think there was a merging from the dream to a conscious vision and memory of this girl named Sophie. And it was powerful because I lay there in bed with the abrupt knowledge that I was going to deal with this work of fiction.” The vision involved Sophie “entering the hallway of this humble boarding house in Flatbush with a book under her arm, looking very beautiful in the middle of summer with a sort of summer dress on and her arm bared and the tattoo visible….I was seized by this absolute sense of necessity—I had to write the book. I realized then that it would end as it did in the book.” (Naomi Epel book)
5. Allan Gurganus’ “It Had Wings” (1990)
Featured in his collection White People, this story came from a dream in which he was standing in a suburban kitchen: “I saw something fall in the backyard that was the color of a Caucasian. It fell with a kind of smack onto green grass near a picnic table. It seemed to have fallen from about five miles up in the sky, straight down into this little yard.” The sound the body made stayed with Gurganus: “It was a sound that I registered on the page, when I finally wrote the story, as thwunk.” Another element that stayed was the idea that this creature had wings. “What I had to do, and what I always have to do, is find the character to whom this happened.” The end result, in which an old woman discovers a fallen angel in her backyard, was turned into both a song and a limited-edition book, for which Gurganus provided the illustrations.
6. Dan Chaon’s “The Bees” (2002)
Chaon’s disturbing portrait of a man becoming unhinged by his five-year-old son’s nightmares had personal roots: “When my son was about 4 or 5, he went through a period of having night terrors. He would wake up screaming and screaming at the top of his lungs and we would jump up and go running in and then he would suddenly snap out of it and settle back peacefully to sleep. But when I tried to go back to sleep myself, it was full of anxious, ominous dreams, and the beginning of this story came out of that experience, those nightmares.”
7. Julia Slavin’s Carnivore Diet (2005)
Emerging from the unsettling dreams Slavin (and many others) experienced during the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002, Carnivore Diet tells an unnerving story involving a mysterious beast stalking the district’s parks and alleyways.” Says Slavin: “No one really slept during that horrible time. I dreamed about eyes staring out from the woods. I dreamed about my son disappearing around corners.” Such fears gradually evolved into Chagwa, Carnivore Diet’s hermaphroditic man-eating monster.
8. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011)
This post-apocalyptic zombie story is told from the p.o.v. of an utterly average survivor whose job is to help clear buildings of the infected. It sprang from one of the many zombie dreams that Whitehead has said he has had since seeing Dawn of the Dead at age 12. He had houseguests at the time and in the dream, they had finally left. “In the dream,” Whitehead has said, “I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they swept all their zombies out.’” From this starting point, Whitehead proceeded to transplant these zombies into another of his complicated, favorite things, his hometown of New York City; Zone One is Lower Manhattan.
9. Jason Mott’s The Returned (2013)
Inspired by what Mott calls “a classic visitation dream,” The Returned tells the story of a sudden spate of individuals who come back from the dead, not zombified but just as they were when they died. In Mott’s dream, his mother sat at his kitchen table and the two of them had a conversation catching up on all Mott had been doing since she had died in 2001. “I woke up the next morning and genuinely expected to find her sitting at the table. It was that vivid.” The book, whose plot somewhat resembles the French TV series Les Revenants, has been optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company for an American series, due in March 2014.
10. George Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (2013)
In 1998, Saunders had a dream that he was in his own house, looking out at his backyard from a window that didn’t exist in real life. Outside were four women hanging on a line, and the line ran through their heads. As Saunders told one bookstore audience, they had “these beautiful white smocks and they weren’t hurt….In the dream the person I was in the dream wasn’t going “Omigod, what happened?’ He was saying, ‘I am so lucky. That is so great. We finally did it. We finally got the yard up to snuff for the kids.’ [Chuckles] So welcome to my dream life.” Saunders says it took years and innumerable false starts to refine the story’s well-meaning but hopelessly misguided narrator and to devise a narrative that didn’t come across like a lecture on oppression.