Stories that haunt the reader’s dreams
In Johanna Holmström’s short story collection Handbook of lucid dreaming violence is always close, on the periphery, and creeps slowly closer and closer. The book takes its place in 21st century Finland, in what at first glance are everyday stories about ordinary people. But darkness and evil always lurk around the corner.
A preschool teacher who dreams of immortal jellyfish is beaten by her husband. An older sister steals cheese sandwiches for her hungry little brother, while birds rain down on the asphalt. An old man hides large, human-like, carnivorous naked dogs in the apartment.
Through the course of reading, we travel towards the future at a calm and leisurely pace, and as the small stories unfold before us, the world of the book goes through climate disasters and pandemics. In the end, we are dropped into a dystopian 22nd century, where AI has taken over at the behest of humans and emotions are forbidden because they are inhibiting.
The common denominator among the characters in the short stories is the bottomless loneliness they all suffer from. There is no collective, and where the community exists, it is only pretend, for show, in the form of an agency that brainwashes children into becoming the cold-blooded killers of the future.
But despite the discomfort, cold and darkness found in each short story, there is a shift in the appeal the closer we get to the dystopian future. As the monsters go from violent men and unloving mothers to robots and world rulers, the characters become even more lonely but also more searching in nature.
They try to understand the world they have found themselves in, they go back to pondering the existential questions of life instead of giving up. And when the community is no longer pretend, something magical happens. A fire burns, lips meet, and life can begin.
In the publisher’s description of the characters it says: “Don’t invite them for too long. They can become guests who haunt you”. And I must admit that Silja in the short story Siskonbädden actually haunted me in a dream the same night I read it, but beyond that I feel a strange sense of missing these guests when I finished the book. After Line’s screaming little brother and Jonas who is unhappily in love and miserable.
Following the old man who, during his euthanasia, sits on the porch in an alternate reality, reflecting on the world he leaves to his children and grandchildren. “…that each generation has its own crisis to solve and that it becomes their life story. Maybe downfall is their life story, but then so be it.”
Short stories are not simple to write, it takes a special kind of precision to succeed in keeping a story so short and exciting that the reader builds on it in their head. And if you write a collection of short stories where all the stories are linked, are in the same world, it’s easy for them to feel lumpy.
But Johanna Holmström has written a brilliant collection where all the short stories are at the same high level, where the small codes that are cracked when you understand how everything is connected give the same feeling that I had when I was a teenager reading Absolutely Per Nilsson (think all the characters I love get to meet!).
The stories in Handbook of lucid dreaming emerges like the dense vegetation in the forest room of the future Abiogenesis, and I read as if I were walking among the huge leaves of monstera deliciosa. Running my hand over the damp bark, and all I want is to go deeper, deeper, deeper inside.