(The estimated reading time for this is 5 minutes)
The inspiration for Nightmare Man couldn’t be simpler. I decided to directly address what I feel got me into writing horror in the first place: my night terrors.
In Nightmare Man, Jaimie is an artist by training and temperament, but is forced to work at a collection agency to support his family. He’s completely let go of his dreams, but they haven’t let go of him. Or rather, his nightmares haven’t, because he has night terrors about a shadowy figure he calls the nightmare man almost every time he shuts his eyes. It sucks. He’s constantly stressed out and exhausted. But he can live with his condition until the nightmare man turns its malevolent attention away from Jessie and onto the people he cares about.
I suffer from night terrors. In case you don’t know what a night terror is, it’s a nightmare with your eyes open. You see things that aren’t there: snakes, spiders, monsters, shadowy figures. Sometimes you can feel them, too. Oh, and you’re free to move. You hurl yourself around the room in combat with these creatures and whoever else is unfortunate enough to get in your way.
For the past three months, I’ve had night terrors almost every night.
Night terrors is a perfect condition to write horror about. When you’re watching a movie and a monster or ghost suddenly pops into view for a jump scare, you get a taste of what a person who suffers from night terrors experiences on a regular basis, except that you know what’s on the screen is fake, while when I see a monster suddenly leap from a dark corner, I think it’s real. It’s pretty easy to see the possibilities for scary stories. But it’s not the literal monsters-in-the-dark aspect that got me into writing horror. It’s the breakdown of perception.
My eyes are open. I’m moving around the room. I’m perceiving reality and reacting to it. But I’m also perceiving and reacting to things that aren’t there. That weird dream logic, the kind where things that shouldn’t make sense do, where you don’t even question them, I’m acting on it in the real world.
The study of how we know what we know is called epistemology. It’s a branch of philosophy that gripped my imagination when I was in college, I suspect because of my condition. Descartes’ demon is probably the most famous example of the sort of doubt created by an understanding of the limitations of perception. Descartes posited an evil demon that had the power to create an entire illusory world. Given this, Descartes began eliminating the things he couldn’t know for certain, and was left with only one sure piece of knowledge, the famous, “Cogito, ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am.” He then began to build the world back up, but his arguments for certain knowledge of the outside world were much weaker than his arguments against it.
The horror is right there. In his 17th century expression of this doubt, Descartes used a demon. Three and a half centuries later, the film Jacob’s Ladder is still terrifying, and the book House of Leaves is still mind-bending. And while most horror doesn’t deal explicitly with this doubt, I’d venture that most horror contains elements of it. A man living in a haunted house begins to see his family as the threat. A serial killer thinks he has the ability to identify people who’ve been possessed by demons. Body snatchers and pod people. Hallucinations and visions. And of course, you might already be dead and getting tormented in Hell.
My first horror stories were direct explorations of this doubt. They asked: how do you know that when you turn a corner you’ll end up where you expect, and how do you know that if you turn back you’ll see the place you came from? How do you know that you’ll wake up in the same life? How do you know that when you blink, your eyes won’t open onto a completely different world? And if that happens, can you trust your memories of how things were? Did the world or your mind change, and is there any way to tell the difference?
If you’ve read my previous work, you know I love monsters, but that idea right there, that’s what scares me.
Night terrors played a part in Among Prey, but they weren’t the source of the conflict. Besides, I’d been writing horror for years before first touching the subject in that novella. My condition has played a huge part in my interest in the genre and the way I express my take on the genre, and yet Nightmare Man is my first horror story with night terrors at the center. Why the wait?
I have to tell you that I’m not entirely sure. I know that I wanted to wait until I had the right story. There are so many ways to go with it, ways I still might go in other works. Maybe I was waiting for exactly the right take on the idea to gel in my unreliable brain. Or maybe I was waiting to grow as a writer, waiting until I could present such a personally powerful topic well enough for other people to understand. That all makes sense.
But I’ve read accounts from other horror writers about what’s happened when they stared into a certain abyss for too long. Having a book in progress means that the concept lives in your head for as long as it takes to get the book down. Sitting at the keyboard is only a fraction of the time I spend writing. For weeks, the nightmare man lurked in the shadows of my mind, both when I was conscious of it and when I wasn’t. Looking back, I wonder if I’d previously avoided exploring the subject because I was scared to, and I also wonder if that fear wasn’t smart.
I’ve never had night terrors for three months straight.
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