After a paragraph of preamble about how dreams may actually be a transport to some other life, no less real than the one we live in the material world, our protagonist gets around to the actual plot:
It was from a youthful reverie filled with speculations of this sort that I arose one afternoon in the winter of 1900–1901, when to the state psychopathic institution in which I served as an interne was brought the man whose case has ever since haunted me so unceasingly. His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts. Among these odd folk, who correspond exactly to the decadent element of “white trash” in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any other section of the native American people.
Just in case you were worried that Lovecraft was only racist against black people. Have no fear: Lovecraft’s racism contains multitudes. Seriously, though, Lovecraft really wants you to know how sub-humanly incompetent he thinks Appalachian people are:
Though well above the middle stature, and of somewhat brawny frame, he was given an absurd appearance of harmless stupidity by the pale, sleepy blueness of his small watery eyes, the scantiness of his neglected and never-shaven growth of yellow beard, and the listless drooping of his heavy nether lip. His age was unknown, since among his kind neither family records nor permanent family ties exist; but from the baldness of his head in front, and from the decayed condition of his teeth, the head surgeon wrote him down as a man of about forty.
Lovecraft then moves on to describe the manner in which this Slaader fellow (I find the misspelling offered more compelling than the more common Slater, so Slaader it is) sometimes tells of “the unknown” in a way that frightens those who listen, and always soon after waking (presumably because of a venture into some terrifying dream world). But even now he’s not done insisting upon the stupidity of Appalachians:
He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did; relapsing into a bovine, half-amiable normality like that of the other hill-dwellers.
Show me on the doll where the redneck hurt you, Lovecraft.
As Slater grew older, it appeared, his matutinal aberrations had gradually increased in frequency and violence; till about a month before his arrival at the institution had occurred the shocking tragedy which caused his arrest by the authorities.
You know what’s weird? Lovecraft had grown out of this kind of purple prose, and here he is growing back into it. Maybe I just find it more noticeable because the story itself is only hinting at any interesting dream world concepts, and in between those hints spends 3+ paragraphs leveling total contempt at everyone who isn’t exactly like the author? I’ll save you a Google, though, “matutinal” means “during the morning.” Anyway, the “shocking tragedy” referred to is that Slaader tried to jump into the sky to kill some kind of dream beast, and when his neighbors came out to try and stop him (why? It’s not like he was going to succeed, he was trying to jump into the sky), he killed one of them. Hence, the institutionalization in a friendly 1920s insane asylum.
The institutionalization avails the doctors an opportunity to witness his reports of the dream world personally. Apparently some great shining entity has wronged him, and he intends revenge. Fire features prominently. The details of the setting of the dreams is scant in the narrative, but apparently only because they’ve been excluded and not because Slaader isn’t giving any. That, or the docs have a really low threshold for being impressed by setting building:
On the source of Slater’s visions they speculated at length, for since he could neither read nor write, and had apparently never heard a legend or fairy tale, his gorgeous imagery was quite inexplicable. That it could not come from any known myth or romance was made especially clear by the fact that the unfortunate lunatic expressed himself only in his own simple manner.
You think that poorly educated people have fewer fairy tales and superstitions?!
The man himself was pitiably inferior in mentality and language alike; but his glowing, titanic visions, though described in a barbarous and disjointed jargon, were assuredly things which only a superior or even exceptional brain could conceive.
Seriously, Lovecraft’s spite for Appalachians is incessant. If this weren’t a single short-story post, I’d already be putting a moratorium on it. I kind of am, in that there’s more, but I’m skipping over it without commentary unless it gets worse.
The narrator just casually mentions that he created a fucking mind-reading device in college, and he plans to use it to directly extract information that he believes Slaader is unable to convey with his limited vocabulary. After hooking his brain directly up to Slaader like it ain’t no thang, our narrator enters his dream. Here he is a creature of burning luminescence, and so is Slaader. Soon, Slaader’s angel form says, his physical body shall die, and he shall burn his way across the Milky Way to get his revenge on…uh…the guy. The one they don’t like. Whoever that is.
You might think that Slaader and our narrator both being weird dream angel creatures implies an equality between them, despite the narrator’s earlier prejudices. You would be wrong.
“Joe Slater is dead,” came the soul-petrifying voice or agency from beyond the wall of sleep. My opened eyes sought the couch of pain in curious horror, but the blue eyes were still calmly gazing, and the countenance was still intelligently animated. “He is better dead, for he was unfit to bear the active intellect of cosmic entity. His gross body could not undergo the needed adjustments between ethereal life and planet life. He was too much of an animal, too little a man; yet it is through his deficiency that you have come to discover me, for the cosmic and planet souls rightly should never meet. He has been my torment and diurnal prison for forty-two of your terrestrial years. I am an entity like that which you yourself become in the freedom of dreamless sleep. I am your brother of light, and have floated with you in the effulgent valleys. It is not permitted me to tell your waking earth-self of your real self, but we are all roamers of vast spaces and travellers in many ages.[“]
So Slaader is but an unworthy vessel that this angel creature is happy to shed, but the narrator’s “true self” is the angelic one. The burning creature doesn’t say “Slaader is an unworthy vessel and so are you,” which would be a properly cosmic horror ending to the story, but instead addresses the narrator as though he and his dream self are one and the same.
And that is it. Lovecraft even acknowledges in the narrative how there’s not much of a climax:
The climax? What plain tale of science can boast of such a rhetorical effect? I have merely set down certain things appealing to me as facts, allowing you to construe them as you will. As I have already admitted, my superior, old Dr. Fenton, denies the reality of everything I have related. He vows that I was broken down with nervous strain, and badly in need of the long vacation on full pay which he so generously gave me.
Perfectly realistic, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good story. In fact, that usually means the opposite. He does offer evidence from a third party to verify that he wasn’t having a nervous breakdown, though, specifically some luminary astronomer:
“On February 22, 1901, a marvellous new star was discovered by Dr. Anderson, of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months it was hardly discernible with the naked eye.”
Algol being the star which is the enemy of Slaader’s dream self. Lovecraft’s had a bunch of protagonists who were either completely delusional, with every element of their story false, or they were completely sane and accurately reporting supernatural occurrences. This protagonist is another in that vein, although here we have the evidence to place him pretty firmly in the “sane and had an actual supernatural encounter” category.