“I keep feeling like I ate welsh rarebit before going to bed, and ought to wake up any minute,” says a character in Cornell Woolrich’s “You Bet Your Life” (1937), collected in the new Night & Fear. The locus classicus for this dish’s oneiro-altering qualities is Winsor McCay’s comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which debuted in 1906 and is now featured in his Early Works (Checker). The M.O. never varies: A mundane situation grows lavishly out of hand—a bald man overdoes it with the hair tonic and gets exhibited as the “missing link”—until the last panel, where the fantasy is punctured and the waker decries his repast.
The phenomenon also pops up in the Astaire-Rogers film Carefree (1938): Shrink Fred induces patient Ginger to consume a specially selected menu (seafood cocktail mit whipped cream, lobster, the infamous w.r.), leading to some rapturous twirls in an enchanted grove. For a precursor, see John Kendrick Bangs’s 1899 novel The Dreamers, in which a group of aspiring writers hits upon surefire inspiration: “The club was to meet once a month, and eat and drink ‘such stuff that dreams are made of’; the meeting was then to adjourn, the members going immediately home and to bed; the dreams of each were to be carefully noted in their every detail, and at the following meeting were to be unfolded such soul-harrowing tales as might with propriety be based therein.” The resulting stories lightly lampoon those of Kipling, Doyle, and other contemporaries. To amend our Viennese friend: Dreams are never concerned with trivialities, but rather with another hit of the Worcestershire.