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I am browsing through peculiar, delightful, bizarre little wonders at an antique toy store housed in a remodeled Victorian building. It is the far end of daylight; no lights have been turned on inside even though it is evident the bluish atmosphere we’re immersed in will soon become the dark of night.
I am surprised to discover how heavy and strangely delicate children’s toys once were. Porcelain, fabric, metal, wood, and paint are the elements that, crafted together by deft hands in a multitude of ways, gave rise to this Cambrian explosion of whimsical forms. Most often the objects I examine resemble life in some measure, but, more than I would expect, they depart disturbingly far from it.
Nearby, a little girl is kneeling on the floor. She is drawing with a sort of carbon stump, something like a burnt piece of branch, on rough cuts of what looks like parchment paper. She seems to be alone. Where is her mother? I wonder… The little girl sings a song, gently, almost inaudibly. It’s a performance for herself. How curious. I think I recognize the tune. I walk over closer to hear her better…
A chill goes up my spine. I do recognize this. It has been many years since I was a student of the dark arts, I’ve forgotten a lot, but any of us would remember this. She sings the ancient curse, the powerful one, the one meant to unleash a monster from the abyss prisons into the physical realm… Where did she hear THIS? How did she learn it? I find myself numbed as she keeps singing the horrible words in her gentle, musical voice. The contrast of sound and content is shocking, and it all gets worse when I notice what she is drawing.
Whether by chance, or from some inexplicable recollection, she is drawing a sequence of hermetic symbols I last saw in the rarest, most secret, most deeply forbidden arcane book. She draws the four figures, methodically, fluidly, one after the other, and before I can say anything, she is done. It’s a somewhat crude, but perfectly clear rendition of the four cryptograms that, drawn in the right order, in the presence of the right audible tune, will call forth an unstoppable, famished agent of the cruelest death. Still singing the curse, she dips her little finished creation in a shallow pan of liquid glue, and sticks it onto a larger piece of green construction paper. Humming now, she gets up and pins the drawing on a corkboard filled with them. It looks almost like a Christmas card. The drawings surrounding them are all of a far more innocent nature. They’re genuinely a child’s drawings; flowers, animals, butterflies, but this… Wait, Where is she?
She’s vanished. I walk up to the board to have a closer look at her drawing. In this incantation, the first figure would correspond to the demon that will be awakened. Here it is a female figure with a triangle on her head. If I remember correctly… that creature eats people. I feel a wave of fear run through me. This is the real deal. Regardless of how, the curse has been cast, the demon will come, and it will come here. I exhale deeply… Heaven help me. I pull the drawing from the wall. It is still wet with glue and very delicate. There’s only one thing to do: I should take it with me, unearth my long hidden copy of the forbidden book and find out how to undo this. I know there is a way but I can’t remember what it is, all I know is that I have very little time and that I will need the drawing. I look around; there is a blow dryer on a nearby shelf, and, miraculously, it is plugged to the wall. I grab it, turn it on, and aim it at the drawing to dry it. It is working at first, but the paper suddenly bursts into flame. The glue was flammable! I let go at the onset of searing heat on my fingers and watch helplessly as the entire little art piece turns to ash on its way down to the floor. It all happens in a second. What now?
Maybe burning the drawing undoes the curse. Yes. I think that’s it. It’s been destroyed! I begin to feel some relief.
Outside, screams approach.
From around the corner, four people come running: two men, a woman, and a young girl. They stampede in and through the store, yelling at me when they see me: “Run! RUN!! There’s a monster, it’s killing people!! It ate Paula!! IT ATE HER AND THEN THREW HER UP!!” They are horrified out of their minds. I follow in a rush, there’s no time to think. We trek through musty wooden hallways, pounding on locked doors, we don’t know where to go. “We should get in one of the walk-in fridges!” says one of the men. It’s as a good an idea as any, we take off running again. The building is much larger than I expected, it evidently used to be a hotel at some point, now dilapidated and abandoned. We’re looking for the old restaurant, which should have a walk-in fridge, but we somehow come to the end of one wing, and there’s no exit, and nowhere to hide. Some of the wooden planks on the wall have broken and we can see outside. The woman takes a look and screams… “IT’S ON THE OTHER SIDE!”
Then I hear it, and I experience the deepest flood of terror in my life.
It’s not a roar, or a moan, or a scream… It’s a sound I have never heard before; a plaintive, angry, deeply powerful rumble declaring war on human life. It is inhuman, evil, unstoppable. I realize there is no hope, it will get us. It’s what it’s here for.
We run back in a mad panic through the building, all the way to the other side, we find a door, and run outside across a grassy field. At the far end of the field there is a dirt road and beyond, the village. Maybe if we make it to town, maybe if we can be among other people we’ll be safer…
A car appears from the left, speeding across the road ahead of us, leaving a trail of dust behind it. It cuts us off right as we’re approaching the roadside, and stops. A man is driving it. A woman is in the passenger seat, and she gets out immediately. She wears a soiled white dress, and she’s covered in… vomit, from head to toe. She is wearing a conical white hat.
“IT’S HER!!” screams one of the men.
She looks like a normal person under her layer of gastric refuse, except… she has no eyes. She’s not exactly a monster; she’s monstrous. Fear is her weapon, and we’re awash with it. I’m frozen in place, trembling, helpless… She’s looking at all of us. My eyes are tearing up, I’m not sure I can stand up much longer, but I manage to muster a fleeting, inquisitive thought: Who is the man driving the car?
“She’s deciding who to eat next…” says the man next to me in a quivering voice.
She walks over to the woman in our group, who is now crying hysterically, sobbing, shaking, unable to move or walk away. The demon opens her mouth into jaws of inexplicable size and bites the woman’s head off in a single horrific motion. The crunching sound of the breaking neck is sickening. As the demon swallows the head whole, the woman’s body falls on hands and knees before us… and she begins to scream through her severed trachea, as blood gushes out from her arteries… The scream is the most shrill, blood-curdling, horrifying sound, and I’m looking at that opening drenched in a cascade of blood, emitting an inhuman, unbearably loud sound, as if all the accumulated horror of the world had found an outlet through this woman’s truncated neck. Blood blood blood scream scream SCREAM SCREAM…
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Sitting up in bed, in the dark, I draw great gulps of air, as if I had emerged from underwater just in the nick of time to stay alive. I am drenched in sweat, shaking, my heart a runaway horse in my chest. I press my shaking hands over my face, muffling a whimper, then have to breathe again. Breathe, breathe…
Everything frightens me: the walls, the dim reflections on the mirrored closet, the thought of what could be under the bed. I take several more deep breaths, and try to calm myself down. It was only a dream, a nightmare. You’re ok. Everything is ok. It takes me a while to collect myself, and when a semblance of calm begins to arrive, two silent tears run down my face. But I don’t want to cry about this. I am not a child. I clear my throat and shake my head, trying to collect myself further. I remove my sweat-drenched shirt and fall back into the mattress, trying to find a comfortable position in which to rest for a moment. Glancing over at my clock I see that it’s almost 4 AM.
Deep breaths… I’m not sleeping anymore tonight. That’s a given.
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Over the years, I’ve experienced many vivid, intense dreams that I’m able to recollect in their entirety. A good number of those have been nightmares. Ugly, end of the world nightmares. I keep a dream journal because I am convinced there is much to be learned about ourselves from the narratives we assemble in our minds while unconscious, and because, in my case at least, these other-wordly experiences can often be awareness-raising.
In the wake of our most recent senseless tragedy, I’ve read and taken part in online discussions examining the nature of empathy. Are we truly moved when something terrible happens to a complete stranger, and if so, to what extent? Parts of the nebulous answer I’ve been able to compile for myself have to do with how the tragedy is presented to us, which determines the extent to which we’re able to see ourselves in it. Another aspect has to do with an anthropological paradox: the greater the number of affected people the less like an individual story it seems to the human mind, so the disconnection is greater—which does not mean we can’t experience moral outrage and be moved to action, only that the personal emotional connection is more tenuous. We can find many great examples over decades of photojournalism in which a single emotional image was the catalyst for altruistic action by others.
In his ambitious and powerful book The God Delusion, Dr. Richard Dawkins argues that suffering is unnecessary and should be entirely avoided if possible. While I greatly admire Dawkins’ work as a science educator and advocate for secular thinking, this is one point on which I strongly disagree with him. Suffering, of any sort, is painful and should be mitigated of course. But I am highly suspicious of the idea of abolishing suffering altogether as a principle.* Our species is one that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is able to but does not learn from the experiences of others. A key ingredient of what we call empathy is our ability to understand suffering, and for many of us, suffering can only be understood as an experience. For me, for this one individual typing these words right now, it was the tragic circumstance of my early years and a great many beatings by life that have raised my awareness—perhaps I’m a brute in that sense. But I am able to understand pain and horror for that reason. For a great many—if not most—of us, to suffer is to learn.
The dream described in this entry was real to me. It was horrible. I had no idea I was dreaming until I woke up. Before that, it was truly happening. I was there.
From the Dream Journal
December 21st, 2012
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*It should be duly noted that this proposal is at best utopian. For the vast majority of us, the structure of human life is such that we’ll experience duress at some point or another.