This week, I met up with a few friends and we were talking about writing. I found myself telling them about the period-- I don't remember how long it was-- a few years ago, when I devoted myself almost exclusively to writing fiction. And that was pretty much all I did with my free time, and my weekends, and my holidays, for a period of at least a year, and maybe two years, and maybe even more.
I wrote a fantasy novel called The Black Feather (which was unspeakably awful-- even I wouldn't want to read it), a children's fantasy novel called The Bard's Apprentice (which one Irish publishing house considered for about a year, before rejecting it), a horror novel with the deliberately impish title The Snowman: A Horror Story, a young adult fantasy novel called The Man Who Could Make Worlds, and a collection of horror short-short stories called A Hundred Nightmares.
My friends were asking me why I would not go back to writing fiction. My first answer was that I didn't think I was all that good at it. Another reason is that I don't enjoy writing (or reading) fiction nearly as much as I enjoy reading and writing non-fiction-- the sort of stuff I write here. I did get rather wrapped up in my fiction as I was writing it, but I've taken infinitely more pleasure in writing this blog.
But our conversation did get me thinking about the subject. I've published some creative works on this blog-- poems and stories-- and I've always felt pleased (and relieved!) at their reception.
So I decided-- since I hate to think of those years of effort going to waste, and for the heck of it, and since its almost Halloween-- to publish A Hundred Nightmares here.
This was my collection of a hundred extremely short stories. I tried to fit each one on two pages. My other idea was that I would try to have as wide a range of genre, tone, intensity and subject matter as I could. Some are (or aim to be) spooky. Some are gentle. Some are gleefully over-the-top. Some are jokey. Some are realistic. Some are set in the future. I tried to mix it up.
I should say that, though I was moving towards faith as I was writing these, I was not yet a practicing Catholic. In fact (and rather remarkably) my spiritual crisis reached its crescendo the very day I typed the epilogue of A Hundred Nightmares. I then turned all my attention to investigating the claims of religion, and specifically the claims of the Catholic faith.
For this reason-- and because I really let rip when I wrote some of these-- some of the stories are, um, spicier than they would be if I had written them as a practicing Catholic.
Anyway, this little experiment is just that, an experiment. If it goes down like New Coke, I'll abort. And I don't intend to stop posting ordinary posts in the meantime.
So, I'll start off with the Prologue...here goes, and fingers crossed...
Prologue: The Black Bottle
“You saved my life”, said the old woman. “You deserve a reward”.
“I don’t need a reward”, said the young man, uneasily. “I’ll just go”.
“Are you afraid of me?”, asked the old woman, stepping closer.
Davy resisted the urge to step backwards. The smile on the Mrs. Canavan’s face was as sweet as could be, but even walking past this house had made him shiver as a child. There were all the rumours. The strangest people called to this house, at the strangest hours. Some of them came in rags, and some of them came in Rolls Royces, but they always had a desperate look about them.
The rooms were still smoke-blackened from the fire. Davy had been cycling past the house at the time. He’d found the old woman lying unconscious in her kitchen, dragged her out, and phoned the fire brigade. That was almost a week ago. Today, he had been passing the house—just passing—- when the front door opened and the old woman called him in.
“No, I’m not afraid”, said Davy. “It’s just…it’s just that…”
“That virtue is its own reward?”, asked Mrs. Canavan, laughing. She might have been in her eighties but she was still pretty, with rosy cheeks and bright eyes. She was dressed more like a schoolteacher than a sorceress. “Do you really believe that?”
“I don’t know”, said Davy, feeling like an oaf.
Mrs. Canavan looked him up and down, as though she was inspecting a yard of cloth, and suddenly her face grew solemn. “Don’t refuse a reward before you know what it is”, she said. “Come with me.” And she turned on her heel, sharply.
“Where are we going?”, asked Davy, following her.
“To your reward”, said Mrs. Canavan. “Come upstairs.”
He walked behind the old woman in silence. Their footsteps made no noise on the stairs’ thick carpet. Davy had never seen a house so neat and cosy, and yet, something about it turned his skin to gooseflesh. He felt a power here, a power both marvellous and terrible.
The first door at the top of the stairs was painted crocodile-green. “This is my little workshop”, said Mrs. Canavan, glancing back at Davy with a conspiratorial grin. “Or perhaps, my laboratory.”
She pushed the door open, and strode in. Reluctantly, Davy followed.
Here, the feeling of awesome power was stronger than ever, but the room itself looked pretty ordinary. Heavy, wine-coloured curtains hung on the walls. A striped couch sat in the corner. On a mirrored dressing-table, and hanging on the walls, were various pieces of bric-a-brac; African masks, snowglobes, music boxes, toy soldiers. A faint, sweet smell hung in the air.
But what drew Davy’s attention immediately was a wooden rack that hung from the far wall. It looked like a spice-rack, but instead of holding jars of nutmeg and saffron, it held miniature alcohol bottles. There were perhaps three dozen, and each held a differently-coloured liquid.
The one that pleased Davy’s eye the most was full of a rich purple fluid. It gave off a faint but bewitching glow.
Before he knew what he was doing, he had crossed the floor and was reaching his hand towards it.
“Stop”, said Mrs. Canavan, softly.
His arm froze, suspended in mid-reach. But he didn’t take his eyes from the purple bottle. “I’ll take that one as my reward”, he said.
“Oh, dear”, said the old woman. Her voice was weary, almost mournful. “I was afraid you’d want that one.”
“What does it do?”, asked Davy, though that seemed like a minor consideration. He simply had an overwhelming desire to taste whatever draft it contained. It beckoned him.
“Many things”, said Mrs. Canavan, stepping closer. “That’s a bottle of charm, that is. Whoever drinks that potion will make the most of whatever he has inside him. He’ll push all his gifts and brains and personality as far as they’ll go. And you wouldn’t believe how far that is, even for the least-favoured! Drink that, and you can hardly miss being successful. And loved. And wealthy.”
“I want it”, said Davy, staring into its depths, which seemed infinite. “Please”.
“Whoever wants to drink from that bottle”, said the old woman, “has to drink from another bottle, first.”
Davy made no reply. He was still staring at the purple fluid.
“The black one”, said the Mrs. Canavan. “On the bottom shelf”.
Davy’s eyes, reluctantly, sought out the black bottle. There it was. It looked entirely unremarkable, like a bottle of ink.
“What does that do?”, he asked.
“It makes you sleep”, said the old woman, matter-of-factly. “And it gives you nightmares.”
“Just that?”, asked Davy, looking at her suspiciously.
“There’s no just to it”, said Mrs. Canavan, a little irritably. “Drink that bottle, and you’ll sleep for one night, but it will seem like a century to you. A century of fear. You might say that it holds all the nightmares that ever were.”
Davy flinched a little at that, but only a little. He wanted the purple bottle, more than he had ever wanted anything in his life.
“It won’t harm me, will it?”, he asked. “I mean, they’re just nightmares, aren’t they? They’re not real?”.
“Did I say it wouldn’t harm you?”, asked Mrs. Canavan, sharply. “You’ll wake up, for sure, but who knows what will be left of you when you wake up? Or what world you’ll wake up in?”
Davy was still trying to make sense of that when she went on: “As for whether they’re real... Davy, nightmares are the Devil’s mirror. And one of the Devil’s chief delights is to mix fact up with fable, till there’s no pulling them apart.
“That draft will show you many things that were, many things that are, and many things that are to come. It will show you many monstrous fantasies, too. Where the border lies, who ever knows?”
There was silence in the little room for a few moments, apart from the drone of a far-off plane.
“Can’t I just drink the other one?”, asked Davy. “Please? I saved your life.”
The old woman gave him a wry smile. “I suppose you could do that”, she said. “I mean, you’re a strong young man, and I’m a frail old woman. How could I stop you drinking whichever one you want to drink?”
Davy stared at her sullenly, suspiciously. Then, suddenly, a desperate expression passed over his face. Anyone who saw it might have expected him to strike the old woman.
But, in a moment, it passed. He gave a heavy sigh.
“I’ll drink the black bottle”, he said, his voice husky. “If I have to”.
“Go ahead and drink it, then”, said Mrs. Canavan. “If that’s what you really want.”
Davy turned back to the rack. He stood there for a half a minute or so, hesitating. Then he reached forward, took the little bottle, unscrewed its lid, and swallowed its contents in one go. He expected it to taste foul, but it had a rather sweet, treacly test.
“What now?”, he asked, after a few moments, when nothing had happened.
“Now we take you to a bed”, said Mrs. Canavan. “Now your long voyage begins.”
As soon as she said the words, Davy felt like he was standing on a ship. The floor seemed to be swaying beneath him. Instinctively, he reached out towards the woman, although-—all of a sudden-—she was little more than a blur before him.
Her hand grasped him by the forearm. He never would have expected it to be so strong, so sturdy. It pulled him forward, and he followed, like a child led by its mother.
The world was dissolving around him, being replaced by...blackness. It was the inky fluid that had been in the bottle. It was inside him now. It was the endless tracts of outer space. It was the primeval night.
With his last flicker of waking thought, Davy felt his body pressing down upon a soft mattress. Then he was falling, falling through that black void, falling from a great height towards unimaginable depths.
And then he was dreaming, and this is what he dreamed….