Confessions of an English Opium-Dreamer
When I had the idea for this story, all I knew was that there would be a man, addicted to opium, entering an opium den and hoping for a vision.
For me, writing is a layering of details, small inspirations piling up and connecting to each other until I have a complete story. Most of the details which inspired this story came from items I encountered when exploring the G. Edward Cassady, M.D., and Margaret Elizabeth Cassady, R.N., Lewis Carroll Collection in spring 2019. I love working with archives, where scattered bits of so many lives come together in one place, and a large part of the reason I wanted to compete for the Wonderland Awards was so that I could have a chance to write a story inspired directly by what I found in an archive.
I’ve always been both fascinated and repulsed by the Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland who forces Alice to confront the multiplicity and changeability of the self. And in the Cassady collection, I found a card published by Green Tiger Press bearing a colored version of one of the book’s original illustrations by John Tenniel, where the Caterpillar, blue and stern and pouting-lipped in his gold-sleeved robe, sits smoking an ornate and magnificent gold hookah. This connection drawn between drugs and fantasy influenced my decision to use opium addiction as a literary device to explore fantasies and longings, and this illustration also guided me to question within my story the fetishization of the East which went into so many nineteenth- century British opium addictions. I also found another Green Tiger Press card with another Tenniel illustration, this one of the Jabberwocky. Tenniel’s terrifying conception of the monster directly shaped my own.
In Through the Looking-Glass, the White Queen is odd and “lives backwards”, but she is never terrifying. The ominous, foreshadowing screaming of the White Queen in Mrs. Carroll’s Alice, an opera whose program and libretto I discovered in the collection, informed the creation of my more unsettling version of the White Queen. Since I wanted my protagonist to be an artist, I also wanted to make the White Queen a Pre-Raphaelite fantasy gone wrong. The book The Red King’s Dream, or Lewis Carroll in Wonderland in the collection helped me decide on this interpretation, since it reveals that Lewis Carroll actually had connections to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. (He met some of the members when they arrived to paint the murals at the Oxford Union. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also wrote nonsense rhymes, even wrote to Carroll saying he admired some of the poetry in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) And Carroll’s academic interests and career shaped those of the protagonist’s father in my story.
Outside the collection, I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and mined them for details—the golden key, the glass table, the corridor of doors, Rowlands’ Macassar-Oil, some of the White Queen’s dialogue, the existential threat posed to the protagonist by the dreams of the Red King, and more. Many minutiae in my story have their roots in Carroll’s writings. For example, I nicknamed a character Louse in partial homage to all the animals named after their species in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I also owe a large debt to Thomas De Quincey, whose book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater inspired the story’s title and some of its structure, and to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an excerpt from whose poem “Kubla Khan”, allegedly composed during an opium dream, appears in my story.
For me, Lewis Carroll’s tales of Alice in Wonderland are about the power of the imagination to enrich our lives, to allow us to question what we think we know to be true. Alice enters worlds which tear up her sensibilities and her learned laws of reality, but she also remains able to return to “real life” afterwards, a more complex (and confused) human being, better able to “keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood”. And yet, without condemning the imagination, the books also delve into the dangers of living only in one’s mind, of chasing illusion and never thinking with clarity. This darker, nuanced side of the imagination is what I set out to explore in my story. Nonsensical things happen, but some of the nonsense is only nonsense because the protagonist has no handle on what is happening to him. His longing for another world to enter becomes its own pitfall, but that longing also interacts with his creativity in complicated ways, informing his creativity even as that other world is not his creativity’s only source. Wonderland is both his ruin and his salvation.