Robert Irwin's first novel, The Arabian Nightmare (1983), provides a clear model – and a convenient name – for the AN, a tale or Dream in which other tales or dreams are embedded in a process with no clear outcome. It is a narrative structure which has existed as long as has fantasy as a conscious genre, though it takes its name, and many Icons and narrative elements, from the Arabian Nights (see Arabian Fantasy). In Irwin's novel a man called Balian arrives in 14th-century Cairo on a complicated mission, settles into the local caravanserai, falls asleep, and enters through a Portal of dreams into a world of profound slumber. He soon dreams that he has awoken, but the dream continues. In the dream, he dreams again. He awakens (or dreams that he has awoken). He is suffering from the AN, a condition which may be described as that of inhabiting in dreams a Story the only exit from which is a further and deeper dream; in Irwin's novel the AN is furthermore a condition which in dreams subjects one to suffering without end, and which no one can remember having experienced after awakening (but if the dreamer awakens from a nightmare which he takes solace in remembering, he may simply be dreaming, from within the ongoing AN, that he has awoken). Moreover, and even more nightmarishly, none of the stories he is trapped in ever seems to finish, so that Balian (or the story of Balian) is never complete. He has become the Parody of a Soul, and his course downwards through one truncated story after another constitutes a parodic mockery of the impulse of Story to come to a resolution.
Irwin's novel is a late and extremely sophisticated Dark-Fantasy rendering of the nightmare of the story that fails to lead its bearers back into the world, and is very literal in that the nightmare is in fact induced by an actual dream; but various realizations of the apprehension that underlies it have appeared in the literature of fantasy. They include the first "ten days" of Count Potocki's The Saragossa Manuscript (1804-1805), Charles Nodier's Smarra (1821), L Ron Hubbard's Fear (1940 Unknown; 1957), Herbert Rosendorfer's The Architect of Ruins (1969), Gene Wolfe's Peace (1975), William Kotzwinkle's Fata Morgana (1977), Michael Ende's Mirror in the Mirror (coll of linked stories 1984), Lisa Goldstein's Tourists (1989), John Fuller's Look Twice: An Entertainment (1991), Scott Baker's "Virus Dreams" (1993) and Flesh & Blood (1994) by Michele Roberts (1949- ). [JC]