This is how Mrs. Dudley, the caretaker's wife in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, warns the new tenants that they'll be on their own in if anything goes awry at Hill House.
"So there won't be anyone around if you need help. We couldn't even hear you, in the night. No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that. In the night. In the dark..."
And that's when nightmares come for us. When we're asleep and defenseless and alone -- in the night -- in the dark, or as Stephen King wrote, "When the moon is down and the hour is none."
I know a lot about nightmares. I suppose we all do, but rarely do we talk about them. They're just dreams after all. They're not real. They're not the stuff of small talk among friends over beers at a bar or sipping lattes at a Starbucks. If you tell anyone a dream you've had that ends with, "a nd when I looked back ... its eyes were full of blood," the conversation will stop dead. Guaranteed.
No ... nightmares are what you tell your shrink or the person who was sleeping next to you before you woke them up because you were thrashing, moaning, or screaming in the night.
And when your partner asks, "What was it?" You just can't dismiss it as if it had been nothing ... just a dream ... not with your heart pounding and body slick with sweat ... it was definitely something. For as long as it lasted, it was real. As the grave-digger in King's Salem's Lot said, "I didn't see nothin' and I never want to see it again."
We describe looking objectively at people or events in "the cold harsh light of reality." The Daytime, where things neatly add up. Laws apply. There is order. But no matter how deeply we cleave to logic during the day, when we close our eyes to sleep ... Everything is True in The Dark.
What we can easily dismiss at noon will return to haunt us at night.
Stephen King knows this:
"At night, when I go to bed I am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I'm not a child anymore but ... I don't like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn't happen, of course ... The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle."
Morning comes and nightmares fade in the sun like old color snapshots. Details blur and recede until it becomes just another a half-remembered dream dissolving in the light. Like a deep terrible pain, fear is something we can remember having, but we don't experience it again in the remembering. We can describe what the pain or the fear was like in words, but we don't feel again the agony of it. I think it's a defense mechanism our minds use to keep us sane.
Dreams may lose their power at dawn but inevitably the sun sets. Yeah, I know a lot about nightmares. Recurring nightmares. They're like tenants in a run-down rooming house in the shi**y part of town. They each have their own room where they remain behind locked doors during the day because they all work the night shift.
To quote Stephen King again, "... there's something creepy about any repeating dream ... about knowing your subconscious is digging obsessively at some object that won't be dislodged."
If that's even remotely true, then I've been digging in the nightmare pit for decades without unearthing a single stone. It's like I've only been uncovering the outline of something unimaginably huge buried in the rock. I've had recurring nightmares for years. The robed figures lifting back their hoods revealing they have no faces -- I've had that one since I was five. The dimly lit parlor where I'm to sit quietly on an overstuffed couch reading my Topper comic book until something comes for me. It enters the room, but I cannot look up into its eyes. I stare fixedly at the base of the lamp on the end table because I know I should not look directly into its eyes. A claw-like hand reaches out and pulls the lamp's chain. Lights Out. Those dreams are the oldest tenants in my decrepit rooming house of nightmares.
I've learned two things from my dreamscapes: Everything Is True In The Dark and ... Once the screaming starts ... it's already too late. Whatever bad thing has happened ... the scream is just an exclamation point at the end of the sentence.
A million years ago back in the 70's, I briefly went to a therapist who was supposed to "help" me with my nightmares. He, along with everybody else in the "I'm OK -- You're OK" era, held the new Age-y position that "FEAR" stood for Face Everything And Recover. I dismissed that concept the moment he finished saying it. Like most of the gibberish floating around that silly decade, it had never been tested, but that didn't stop the touchy-feely crowd from embracing it fully. It sounded good, so it must be true. But I believed then, as now, that our hominid ancestors were able to pass their DNA down through the millennia because for them FEAR was the acronym for Fu*k Everything And Run.