The Lost History of Dreams
The Lost History of Dreams, Kris Waldherr’s gothic, romantic drama is not a happy book, yet it’s strangely captivating.
Former Oxford scholar Robert Highstead has an unusual occupation – photographing corpses and the dying and making them look lifelike as possible. And he has a problem that complicates that profession – he can see ghosts on the glass plates of his daguerreotypes, specifically ghosts of those near and dear to him. Robert was once landed gentry, but he gave that up to marry his wife – and the three-year, cross-class, interracial marriage to a woman named Cressida – nicknamed Sida – has been extremely fragile thanks to her tendency to wander from the house for days…although for a very important reason. She and Robert live together in a fourth-floor apartment where birds frequently trespass unto their abode, yet he remains devoted to her and waits each time for her to wander back into his life, afraid that if they’re apart for an extended amount of time he’ll lose her forever. Everything changes when Robert receives a letter from his brother, John, who requests Robert return to the family fold and photograph the corpse of their cousin, Hugh de Bonne. Robert has heard little of his cousin before this, but does as requested. Once finished, he panics on seeing an apparition and tries to leave, but is held back by his brother. Together they discuss the family history.
It turns out that Hugh was once a famous poet whose last book – The Lost History of Dreams – is his masterpiece, a record of his tragic marriage to the heiress Ada Lowell. They eloped against the wishes of their disapproving families to live in the heart of the Black Forest, and there Ada became pregnant. She died in childbirth – as did the baby – and Hugh disappeared into obscurity in his grief, leaving his estate behind.
To avoid the noise of a crowd and further scandal, the family plans to bury Hugh in a special, ornate glass chapel commonly known as Ada’s Folly, built in the wilds of Shropshire. Hugh’s last request is to be daguerreotyped right beside his dead wife before the chapel is once more sealed, and it’s a mission only Robert can undertake.
Unfortunately for Robert, Ada left behind a niece, Isabelle, who was desperately devoted to Ada in life and has never gotten over her death. She’s the only one who possesses a key to Ada’s Folly. Robert must inform Isabelle that she has inherited the chapel and Weald House, Hugh’s home, and also gain her permission to have Hugh buried beside Ada and photographed there, an act she’s not likely willing to agree to. Nor is she be likely amenable to providing proof that she’s accomplished all of these tasks – posing beside Hugh’s corpse for a final picture. When Robert arrives at Weald House, he learns that Isabelle is bitter and angry about Ada’s history being erased in favor of Hugh’s fame, and the constant grasping of those inflamed by Hugh’s cult of personality. She refuses Robert’s requests, and he attempts to climb the walls of Ada’s Folly to see within – only to injure himself by falling from the chapel’s roof. A violent rainstorm conspires with his injuries to keep him at Weald House, and ultimately Isabelle relents – she will let Robert bury Hugh beside Ada and photograph the both of them together, if he, in his old position of historian, will write Ada’s story over the next five nights and publish it when he returns to London. As Isabelle takes Robert through a tour of Ada’s tragic life, Robert is pushed toward enjoyment of things that do not involve his wife – and threaten to push him toward a truth too shocking to comprehend.
The Lost History of Dreams is not a happy book. Robert and Isabelle are people caught fast by the hooks of mourning; their whole lives are dedicated to the deification and preservation of ghosts, literal and figurative, and they have built their lives around being unable to let go. Naturally they are drawn together to hiss, fight, and perhaps heal. They’re both sympathetic in their own way.
The atmosphere is eerie and unsettling, filled with happenstance and coincidences that point to fate at work. There are, of course, lots of little gothic touches; ghosts, permanent damp and cold, pianofortes being played in otherwise empty rooms, big barking dogs, amnesia, mistaken and obscured identities, lies, corpses, and a muddy intense love of the dead and obsession with death. But after a while, the gothic overtones become almost cartoonish in their stereotypical intensity and contribute to plot holes. Part of me found it ridiculous that Robert knew nothing of the cult of personality springing up around Hugh and his work, for instance, yet Robert lives in a bustling city and spends much time around mourning families due to his work, and has never heard of this infamous poet whose work has drawn together the grieving and brokenhearted. This is also the kind of plot that requires characters to be so stubborn in their faith that they do not do anything to change the circumstances of their lives until fate pushes them into acting.
The mystery here absolutely provides the most incredible, unexpected and interesting part of the story – fascinating and fresh, it leads to places completely unexpected. Though the final twist imposes an unnecessary weight that causes credulity strain upon the reader, it also feels well-earned. Yet between this and the heavily unoriginal trope-ness of the story, I can only offer The Lost History of Dreams a very qualified recommendation..