Do you ever have a moment where you wake from a dream and hear some lingering voice or cry in your bedroom with you? I’m not claiming I’m the only one. I know I have no special dreaming abilities. I can’t lucid dream and I certainly can’t get myself out on a nightmare once I realise I’m trapped in one. I do, very occasionally, snore myself awake. Yes, it appears even when it comes to my dreams, I’m a pretty harsh critic of my work.
Last night I woke up and thought I heard something. It wasn’t some death rattle whispering in my ear or the snarl of the latest beast I'd left alone in the labyrinth. No, it was something both far more normal and far more horrifying. I think I heard someone come home and kick their barking dog to shut it up. That’s what woke me up. If I didn’t dream it. There are a few people with dogs around here and it was hot last night. We had the windows open. Which always makes it tricky for me to sleep.
With the windows open, there’s…well, there’s a window of opportunity. Or that’s what it feels like. You have maybe half an hour to get to sleep, before the show starts outside. Footsteps shuffling to a front door. Someone sneaking out for a smoke and getting caught. People turning on their TVs and stereos. I remember, years ago, realising the guy over the road was watching True Romance at about one in the morning and then realising where he was in the movie. Which told me exactly how long he had left.
There are people around here with dogs. They’re outnumbered by the cat slave people, but there are some definite dog people too. Only none of them look like the type who would kick their dogs quiet. Still, I’m sure that’s what I heard. An innocent whining cry. We all know the sound. It’s fear and confusion. It’s panic and pain. Short and sharp. You can picture the dog cringing, recoiling away from a swung boot as it connects.
There was a definite menace in the silence that followed. I don’t think I heard a front door close, which makes me wonder if I heard anything at all. Still, that silence pressed down on me. It wouldn’t let me close my eyes. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t fearing for my own safety. My sleep, maybe; but not my safety. I lay there and waited for a violent encore. Raised voices. Doors slamming shut. Glass smashing. Or, worse, laughter.
Nothing else happened. I lay there. My eyes wide open. My ears unable to rest in case they were caught off guard by the second act. That quick moment of cruelty had changed things. It had made the night feel potentially flammable. It was as if someone had poured fuel and was searching for a match. Or maybe there had been a gas leak. The very air itself ready to ignite at the first sign of a spark.
Flat on my back, head pressed against the pillow, it struck me how quickly the everyday can become a source of dread. A couple of Decembers ago, in London, we were riding the tube and I saw a guy get up and head for the door whilst leaving a bag behind. My first thought wasn’t that guy’s forgotten his bag. My first thought was clear, simple and incredibly selfish. So this is how it happens. A moment later, he doubled back and collected it. Still, from then on, my nerves were on high alert. Every bag treated gently by its owner appeared suspicious. Every quiet person staring anxiously around the carriage made me want to move into the next one, whilst I tried to work out the blast radius in a tunnel.
Only that fear comes from a grander sense of the self in peril. I’m suddenly forced to see myself about to face some totally invasive and overwhelming danger. Fight or flight kicks in. You begin to tense, to picture possibilities. You brace yourself and imagine what you would do. Last night was different. If it happened at all. Last night was a short, sharp, brutal visitation. A moment where you didn’t look away in time and you also didn’t act to stop it. Maybe part of that dread is knowing you could have done something. The fear of it happening again it perhaps something to do with knowing you could once again act or fail to act. I’ve been there too. Nothing as selfish as bomb spotting or that time me and a mate sat watching ‘A Simple Plan’ the night it came out and saw a guy carry would looked like a rifle into the cinema and sit in the front row. No, I’ve been out on a Friday night and seen someone dragged into an alley. I’ve seen a man hit a woman and leave her on the pavement. One time, when I was about 16 or so, I had the pleasure of being on the other side of the coin when I was mugged in the town centre and found myself being watched by a crowd of people who did nothing. Some of them looked bored by it. Some of them looked annoyed by the presence of what they’d call ‘noisy kids’. A few of them, however, did have that dread look in their eye. They were trapped watching, neither able to act or leave and I’m pretty sure they’d get to watch it again and again as their day went on.
After a while, as last night became the early outskirts of this morning, I found myself beginning to trust the silence again. It stopped being silence. It became simply quiet. I rolled over, took a drink of water, tried to relax. That was when I became aware of something I’d not really thought of before. I’ve spent a pretty long time working on a novel that I want to scare people. Or at least freak them out. It has a pretty crooked plot which keeps some moments hidden until I’m pretty sure the reader isn’t expecting them. Like any scary story, it’s a magic trick. It’s constructed to keep the twists and shocks hidden around blind corners of plot. Only, here’s the thing, I don’t think any ghost or horror story will ever effectively convey dread the way a moment of violence can, especially if you believe you've heard it just beyond your open bedroom window as you were falling asleep. That is something that exists here, around us. It happens when we’re not expecting it and, in a sense, maybe that’s why some people like horror. It’s a way of facing the fear without it slipping too much pure dread into their bloodstream. It’s a drill, a simulation, a fire test of a sort. Just to make sure you can get to the other side of something that’s aiming to scare you from its hiding place in the shadows on the corner of your street.