Dreams are among the most belabored of subjects because their mystery is belied by how simple they appear to be. How often have we remembered a phrase or occurrence in the middle of a rather ordinary day then understood that it was the memory of a dream not of reality? How often has a dream spoken in truth about feelings and thoughts that we could not reveal in our daily interaction? Let us forget once and for all the psychobabble that has stunk in rotting heaps for decades only to be recycled and gain in stench: life cannot be reduced to the primitive symbols of the unimaginative and the neurotic. On the contrary, life is to be enjoyed in the plenitude of its secrets by those fortunate enough to be granted enough of it. So if you love what magic life may hold, you can imagine what awaits us in death, which brings us to this terrible little tale.
Our narrator has the distinct advantage of anonymity and the even greater advantage of being able to stagger the details of his story in four personal letters. What the recipient Robert, ostensibly his brother, thinks of these epistles is never revealed. The subject matter is their Uncle Henry, a Rector in what appears to be Cambridgeshire, where our narrator has decided to head. Upon arrival, he asks around regarding Uncle Henry's movements then registers the following composition:
The facts are these. On Friday the 19th, he went as usual shortly before five o'clock to read evening prayers at the Church; and when they were over the clerk brought him a message, in response to which he set off to pay a visit to a sick person at an outlying cottage the better part of two miles away. He paid the visit, and started on his return journey at about half-past six. This is the last that is known of him.
And who expected him in that cottage, visited subsequently for the sake of reconnaissance by the narrator? One man who was "very weak," and a wife and children who "of course, could do nothing themselves." Uncle Henry seemed normal to these witnesses, wore his bands in glory, and traipsed happily back homewards after his work of consolement was accomplished. The narrator indicates that he himself ventured out in an attempt to trace his uncle's course, but only during the day, as he "was not in trim for wandering about unknown pastures, especially on an evening when bushes looked like men, and a cow lowing in the distance might have been the last trump." He interrupts his letter-writing for a visit from the curate with the heartfelt observation that had Uncle Henry appeared on that copse "carrying his head under his arm," he would have been little surprised.
The oddness of Uncle Henry’s last hours cannot be gainsaid, and how odd could they possibly have been? The narrator enters the King’s Head with the hopes of a detective; he is informed, with no small acrimony, that his Uncle was particularly unkind to the barkeep soon before his disappearance. On Christmas Day proper, the narrator and the selfsame hosteler take to the greens anew, and after questioning some women and "pointing with his stick, to distant cattle and labourers," the old fellow declares the resources exhausted. Later that night, the narrator meets a tramp who proves to be equally uninformed. In the course of conversation, however, the tramp produces this classic puppet set which triggers in our narrator one of the greatest nightmares in literature:
I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face – it was yellowish white, I may remark – peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli's foul sketch. To others he was polite and carneying – particularly to the unfortunate alien who can only say Shallabalah – though what Punch said I never could catch. But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby – it sounds more ridiculous as I go on – the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.
The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed not the usual house front, but something more ambitious – a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural – in fact, I should say a real – moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head – what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch.
The only regret I have about this amazing passage is that it cannot, for space and other reasons, be included in its entirety. And while the detail about Punch stopping to fan himself after his massacre may rank among most the chilling in this master's works, one should be more worried about the dream's even more disgusting conclusion. Suspicions grow like copses on those darkest of winter nights that once echoed with Pagan festivals, those nights on which all kinds of hairies and nasties surfaced without the slightest peep of a trump. Then again, maybe someone simply gave poor Uncle Henry the hairy eyeball.