The Nightmare that Saved My Story

By Cynthia Ray

For months, I’d been experimenting with different endings for a horror story called ‘Bite’, involving genetically modified, invisible spiders. The first ending culminated in utter annihilation of the protagonist and the world.  I hated it…uber depressing.  The second attempt to find a satisfactory finish hung itself in an unbelievable twist of fate.  The third was bizarre, believable perhaps, but flabby.   It didn’t have that satisfying snap that I craved.

Now some of you are going to stop me right here and tell me that one should always know the ending of their story before they begin writing.  I don’t disagree–I did know the ending, but it changed.  Everything changed, and not just once.  But I had to keep going because I knew there was a good story in there.  I could see it, taste it and feel it.  The process reminded me more of sculpting than writing.  Michealangelo said, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me…I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.”  That’s what I felt compelled to do; to  reveal the story; causing it to arise alive and warm from the blank pages to caress the world.  Sadly, its feet were stuck in stone.

So I’d been writing all day, working on the fourth conclusion to my tale.   My character needed to find a way out of the insurmountable problems I had thrown in her path, but she just couldn’t get there.  She struggled on her own, so I gave her a boyfriend to help, but he ended up being a miserable failure and I had to write him out the story again.   She told me she needed to rescue herself, not be rescued.  She needed to change-not just endure events.  But by the end of the day, although she had struggled valiantly, and heroically attacked her assailants, thereby saving the world, she herself died in a lake of steaming blood.  I slammed my laptop shut with a bang and shook my clenched fists at my silent muse.  Enough!

That night, I was visited by a familiar nightmare.  I’ve had the same vivid and terrifying nightmare since I was a child-the one where I’m endlessly trying to escape from a horrible evil, something monstrous.  One night, a pack of slavering hounds with yellow eyes, another time, a fire-breathing devil or a company of cruel Nazis. Or perhaps the sound of a crashing door and someone breaking into my house to kill me.  But this night it began in the dark hall of an abandoned hospital, with a huge ball of dead flesh rolling toward me, covered with bloody bites.  A foul malevolence emanated from it, and an overwhelming sense of dread and horror enveloped me.   In a panic to escape, I fled from floor to floor, hyperventilating, sweating & stifling my sobs.  On the OB floor, a desperate woman begged me to save her baby.  I pulled them along with me to the elevators.

Down, down, down until the doors opened into the kitchen galley.  We hid there, clutching the baby, holding our breath and drawing into ourselves in fear, but the entity came after us, relentless.  We tumbled down the stairs, jumping over steps, floor after floor.  At the very bottom of the staircase,  an immense pile of trash and refuse blocked our way.  A dead end.  In despair I turned, and there it sat, perched precariously on the ledge of a window looking down over the city, hundreds of flights up, cocky and smug, knowing it had us trapped.  (Yes I know it was a basement, but it’s a dream for heavens sake, it doesn’t have to make sense).

The creature stared out over the mountains and clouds, seemingly unaware of our presence.  I determined to destroy the thing.  Bravely, I snuck up behind it and kicked it so hard my food ached.  Nothing happened.  I pushed and kicked with all of my might.  Then pushed again.    It SHOULD have fallen from the ledge, but it turned towards me with sneering black eyes.  Instead of fear, a rush of anger boiled up from my gut.  For once, I didnt run.  I stood and faced the thing,

I shot up out of bed, adrenalin pumping, angry and tired; tired of nightmares with no way out; tired of invincible antagonists; tired of dystopian visions of dark worlds of destruction and most of all, tired of steaming piles of shit endings.  It HAD to change.   And then, like a nuclear explosion, a light burst into my consciousness and blew everything else away.  I knew how my story would end.  I knew how  to put power into my heroine’s hands.  She wouldnt run and she wouldn’t die.  I laughed out loud.  All of that before coffee made me giddy.

When I sat down to finish the story at last, my hands tingled with excitement as courage flowed into the veins of my protagonist.  Of course, there were still rivers of blood, murder and mayhem, but she resolved the situation brilliantly, banished the evil antagonist and made it out alive, altered forever by her experience.   The fact is, we both changed.  I walked away from the story empowered as a writer .  I  am left with a visceral knowing that it is always better to turn and face your fears than to run and hide from them.Image

For some reason, I couldnt find a picture of a genetically modified invisible spider….

The Architecture of Nightmares

by Christina Lay

Behind the train station on a thickly wooded hillside, the Victorian mansion abides at a safe remove from the hustle of modern life.  In the sunlight, it appears a friendly place; the spirits that may or may not linger are quiet and an easy elegance drapes the facade with the allure of simpler times.

Step onto the front porch and peer in past the thick lace curtains and wooden shutters. Through the warped glass the grand staircase is visible.  It curves up and away into a private world those on the outside can only imagine.

Find a long brass key in your pocket.  How did it get there?  It doesn’t matter, now that you’re inside.

Standing in a closed off hallway, smell the sharp medicinal tang of sickness, the cloying honeyed tang of tea steeping and the wet mud of the hillside, pressing ever downward.  Slide back the pocket doors on the left and reveal, in the parlor, a gathering of women in elaborate, restrictive dresses, their movements and speech constrained by social requirements, caged by lace and disapproving frowns.  They sip tea from delicate porcelain cups.  Across the hall in the sitting room, an old woman lies in bed, dying.  She is deaf but she loves company.  She wants to take your hand, and hold it forever.

Pass by the door to the basement where the handy man digs his own grave.  In the kitchen, an old man drops dead on the sticky yellow linoleum.  Never mind.  Step over his body.  In the mudroom, a séance is taking place.  They don’t notice the dead man’s ghost drift through.

Move quietly up the staircase; let your hand glide along the bannister smoothed slick by grasping hands. Pass by the rough-planked maid’s room where young women toil in drafty confinement, and go on to the grandmother’s room where the closet door opens itself, revealing nothing but stained white aprons and musty sweetness.  The spiders in this room never rest, filling the corners of the high ceiling with their webs.  On the sleeping porch, the family gathers in the frigid air to banish the threat of tuberculosis.

The stairs to the attic are plain, and steeper than the others.  In the corner of this sloped space there is a little tower room where the retired army doctor plays solitaire, polishes ceremonial swords brought back from war, and spies on his wife as she prunes roses on the front lawn.  The click and clack of the tea service doesn’t reach this far, but the whispers of a century seep upward through the warped floorboards.

Stairs to the attic

Stairs to the attic

You are in their world now.  The dead have drawn you in, past locked doors, into forgotten trunks, into a dark future where memory abides alone, isolated and twisted by lonliness.  Silence and dust repel all light. The further into shadows you move, the less chance you have of finding your way out.  Or even remembering there is an out.

Down through floors, ceilings, floors, all the way to the granite foundation, broken dreams sink into the abyss of time.

It is this abyss that lies at the heart of the nightmare, the dark spider in the basement, the crazy aunt chained in the attic.  This haunted house is merely scaffolding for the psyche, full of places to hide, so many doors to bolt, keys to slip into pockets.  Behind doors secrets fester.  Repressed fear, grief, shame, heartache, locked away so long that they’ve become monstrous, are waiting for the sound of a key in the lock.

Down in the mudroom, the séance calls to you.  Strangers murmur – Who are you? Why do you linger? What do you want here?

What side of the locked door are you standing on?

(My apologies to the Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House, from where these stories have been misappropriated.  The SMJ House is not haunted, but it appears in my nightmares nonetheless.)