Riding the Mare

Night terrors, what selves they (sometimes) make

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in Features • Illustrated by Alexander Hotchkiss

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When I was very young, too young before much in life could normally occur to disturb one’s rest, I was nonetheless not a good sleeper. The prospect of retiring for the evening caused my hockey-playing, backyard brook-exploring self to quake. I’d be slotted for what felt like several hours of nightmares, vivid and violently vivid, a dream theatre I was perpetually desperate — though without success — to avoid.

Art critics speak sometimes of the “hyperreal” — that is, a rendering, an eyeful, of reality that appears more real than real, like the standard lens of life’s microscope, has been shuttled out in favor of a glass of greater strength. Those simple legs of the grasshopper now look like an excised portion of the mandible of a daemon’s, having bounded from hell. Still the same object; experienced as anything but.

There was a menace in those evenings for me. Even in my sleep, it felt as though a fist with icicle fingers, complete with whorled, hoarfrost knuckles, held my heart as if to caution, by way of a looming threat, “One swift squeeze and this entire organ will go up in juices.”

One reoccurring cast member — he was tantamount to the highly versatile character actor of my nightmare movies — I dubbed Mr. Creed. The door across the way from my room had a pattern of charry knots upon it, chestnut-sized circumferences of obsidian cohering into the visage of an old man’s face, an old man much pain-wracked.

He looked as though he felt like whoever met his gaze was the individual responsible for his anguish. I concluded, not unnaturally, but certainly not helpfully, that sleep time would become comeuppance time, given that it was I who looked upon him, without wishing or meaning to. Field of vision. This was problematic for me, but what I figured was good sport for him. Sometimes, as I dreamed, I had to avoid running into him in the woods, other times while walking the neighborhood alone, after a storm, when no one ever seemed to venture outside in my unconscious interludes, save Creed. He was a post-nor’easter, ambulatory, nightly stressor; deadly door dude. If I were cleverer, I might have called him D-Cubed.

My parents, though, were accommodating when I begged, “enough, I can’t deal with this upstairs business for a while.” They’d let me grab my Star Wars sleeping bag and camp out in the living room next to the family room. Me in my Aqua Man Underoos, my room-adjacent parents watching Dallas, or else a Boston Bruins hockey game. As I hit double digits in age, the nightmares began to dissipate, until they were no more. My fears of going to bed were replaced by a different kind of haunting; what to do when you lie in darkness and your brain will not surcease its activity.

I number among those people who think there is little in life that is harder, nor that we seek to avoid with greater, almost pathological insistence, than being alone with one’s thoughts; just as there may be no better measurement of self-awareness and self-acceptance.

In our current age, we may chart our general unwellness by just how far one has to go to find someone who can so much as wait for a train without needing to stare at their phone, which apparently now causes horns to grow in the back of your head, under your skin, as devilishly delicious a metaphor you could hope for if are Old Scratch with a new plan for inducing global mind control.

Those thoughts that would otherwise transpire, which we suppress in adulthood, first starting coming to you as a kid at night. They comprise your initial rush of emotions and epiphanies — and questions — that you will have to deal with — it’s the beginning of a theme — as you mature and, hopefully, evolve. Provided we can face them.

I was prone to outsized bouts of imagination — good for a developing writer, less good for not feeling tired in the morning — and the ceaseless inventing of games during the day, but at night, a one-man-band of anxiety in my room, the door cracked ever-so-slightly, so that its cedar edge made for a kind of unofficial border between today and tomorrow with the blanched apricot-glow of the hallway, I found that I could not evade an accounting of my choices from my afternoon. Had I done right by this friend, should I have tried harder on my math test, could you really circumvent the ways of a bully with a well-placed nose bopping, was my sister as irksome as I believed, or was I at fault, a bad guy of an older brother rather an imp of one?

Queries and answers became my internal nighttime point-counterpoint format leading up to sleep, for many years. Creed, that ruiner of peaceful nighttime fabrics, had gone away, perhaps to do some slumber traveling and haunt the dreams of others — I always figured him a much-in-demand actor on the terror circuit — and though I was no lounger, no fan of the “long lie-in,” I pretty much became ordinary in the sleep department — until my father died.

He was 53 and I was 25. I had a girlfriend at the time, and she’d wake up to find me standing by the window, after my dad was gone, my forehead pressed against the glass, staring at a streetlight or a passing rat, driven from bed by fear. My father had died with my mother and I holding his hands, after several days of being unconscious, spitting up blood. The ER was like something out of a haunted castle. Breathing machines made the noises of wheezy specters. You look at contraptions and you have no clue what they are, like they are on loan from a Poe-induced fever dream, with the concomitant sensation that when you learn what service they provide you’ll not be met with a happy piece of knowledge.

This was the modern-day spook house, where it felt impossible to ever be at your ease. And yet, because of the grim realities of multi-day stays and how they can become final visits, people visiting — a term hard to accept in this context — and who will go home again, often sleep at the ICU. There are family-sized slumber parties without the party part, chairs pushed together to make ad hoc beds. People doze, for I have seen them, even if I was not a hospital sleeper myself.

You can be visiting a friend of a friend of a friend, someone with no connection to you, and if you are in the ICU, it seems impossible to not feel like you are touring a gallery of your own mortality. That a house of birth was also a house of death hit my brain as less ironic and more instructive in the lesson that each could be the other, depending upon how one looked at it, and existence, which is conceivably malleable, from plane to plane, dimension to dimension, world to world, is a succession of being pulled from dark to light and back to dark again and on to light once more; walk a path, hit a quick cave, come out the back of the cave, right on to another path, and so forth. Intent, energy, purpose, one’s place in a schema, redistributed and rejiggered. Probably upon multiple planes, dimensions, worlds, simultaneously.

Which suggests that you can be dead while you’re alive and that death isn’t necessarily something we — those who have death personally happen to them — are ever aware of. You might be alive right here — “Hi, let’s shake hands, nice to meet you” — and you might not be alive, as we think of it, somewhere else, at the same time. It’s not like at the end of a hockey game, the final buzzer sounds, everyone knows to go home. You’d have to figure these things are far more complicated than anything a human might conclude — let alone sufficiently obvious that we all agree upon them — so it’s probably not “alive this second, dead this second, buried the next, let’s have a baby, ah, life again.”

But in that ICU, my dad was about to be only one thing to me, and then he became that thing, so far as twenty-five-year-old me was concerned, and my eyes had watched the transformation; part of it — where his soul went, I did not witness that, except insofar as I felt that part of him was in me. Sleeping is part of that blackness, that cave portion of an extended journey. It does not play out within a field of light. Sleep is an exordium for death. As we think we understand death, traditionally speaking.

The nightmares that began to wallop my slumbering self, every night, made Creed look like a benign, back-in-the-day babysitter, who just happened to catch you naked right quick as you changed into your PJs after forgetting to close the door. Each evening in my dreams, and on to morning, I’d watch my dad die again, no matter where I went in my dreams. Like if the dream version of me, Dream Colin as I called him, found himself on Mars, with a monkey for a sidekick, he was still going to see that blood and that death. It followed my sleep self around. I couldn’t sleep in silence. I needed the television on, and what’s more, I needed programs that were familiar to me, with no loud explosions, people who liked each other hanging out, making jokes, comforting each other when required.

This meant a lot of episodes of The Golden Girls. I’d awake to find Sophia ripping — but lovingly, I guess — Rose for saying something dumb, and fall back asleep with Blanche having come home from her latest date with Mel Bushman (though I still can’t believe they gave her chief hook-up partner the name Bushman) to dish with the girls and one Colin, who ideally would be passed out again at this point.

Eventually, the images receded back into some recess in me, and maybe we all have a wing of our beings that houses our trauma files, and time abets in the burying of those files such that we don’t see them much anymore, we just know they remain within the repository. I kicked along for a while, and then there was my divorce, where the nightmares were so total I became scared of my bed. I had a wife, we had just gotten a house, there had never been a squeak of “maybe this thing you do isn’t so great,” and then she was gone, vanished in the night. No explanation. A cadre of lawyers setting upon me. No money in my bank account. House being taken. She was having an affair. I wouldn’t learn that for years, and it’s not germane to any of this, so I leave it back in some dry gulch of Nightmare Town for now. But what is pertinent is that my life, such as I thought I had erected it, came tumbling down. Have you ever seen those videos of old baseball stadiums being imploded? It was like that. Life became not something with a new wrinkle, but a tsunami of wrinkles, a sea of creases, of striations, of scarred surfaces, being launched at my personage, as I became embroiled in a perpetual state of drowning, choking on wave-borne detritus crammed down my gob, a kind of rape via force-feeding. “This will be your trauma now, and this, and this is, and this, now eat it up, eat it up, eat it up.”

What I became, too, was a haunted man. Van Gogh was a big Christmas fan, which is odd because the season was one filled with much pain for him. His own family wouldn’t welcome him back for the holiday after a certain point. He became a haunted man, a wanderer, someone who walked twenty miles at a stretch, and a regular reader, at Christmastime, of another, less famous Dickens Christmas story — as he had quite a few beyond the ubiquitous Carol — called “The Haunted Man.” This fit the bill for Van Gogh, being a tale of a fellow who no longer has a beginning and ending to his terrors, no clear demarcation point.

I understood the resonance. I got what it meant to be haunted. I was walking 20 miles a day myself, trying to drive the nightmares out of my head, desperate to countervail what had become my new reality: the terror dreams of the night had turned into what each and every day was like. There is a small mercy in some of our worst dreams when we realize that it’s a dream. Or, if we are not totally sure that it’s a dream, we think there’s a reasonable chance. Our dream selves apperceive this. It’s that line of thinking that progresses along a construct of “Maybe? Maybe? Yes? Probably?”

We awake. We are spared getting crunched in the monster’s jaws, we find out that our firstborn did not really die, we can resume thinking that our husband still loves us. I stopped having those moments upon waking. What is more, as I lived my days — or died my days, as we were discussing before — I would internally query myself on when I might awake. The thinking ran exactly as it had in nightmares, where things get so bad that you logically conclude that they couldn’t actually be that bad, surely this cannot be your reality, what your life will be, what it became. It’s time for the dark joke to come to a close. Some cruel and creative dream imp has had their fun, and jokes don’t work so great when they linger on too long.

When you reach that point, such that your daymares, as I call them, pull violent rank on your nightmares, so that you are begging to awake as you are awake, and still too frightened to go to sleep, you might not be with us too much longer, unless something drastically changes for you, or, that failing, you find a way to harness these dark forces. You need to find a way to get a bridle upon them. You need to find a way to get your boots in stirrups hanging from their flanks. You need to learn to do something I call Riding the Mare.

Do you ever wonder where the term “nightmare” itself comes from? Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting, The Nightmare, is nicely — which is to say, disturbingly — illustrative of the folkloric concept of a bad night of sleep. A woman in white — her sheer cerements giving her a human-ghost aspect, as if she has been sartorially prepped for the beyond — has all but melted atop a fainting couch. She flows, she eddies, her limbs drip over all sides. Her head lolls over the pillow portion, the top of her cranium just above the floor, her lips parted.

We have the sense that even though she is unconscious, her breathe is stentorian, raspy, coming at a price, which is why she is breathing through her mouth. Of course, she has a certain problem: atop her chest is a part simian-looking, part-demonic looking, visitor of terror, an incubus, who also possesses a smug, satiated look upon its face. This entity, this nether-being, has clearly just done something to this woman.

The creature is called a Mare, and what a Mare does is arrive while you sleep, hop atop your chest, and ride you, as it were, beating your sides, boxing your head, thumping your kidneys. This is the source of your nightmare, this nocturnal riding. And clearly, by the look of Fuseli’s Mare, these beings liked to get their money’s worth. If the Mare component were not already high enough, Fuseli also provides the head of an actual horse — a mare — as a kind of visual pun, in the middle ground, with no apparent body, though we can’t say for certain if said head is floating there, as the rest of the central portion of the painting is devoured by darkness, another pun, this time on the devouring rapacity of the nightmare itself.

Even light is consumed by the bad dream. But the horse has the expression of a naughty little voyeur upon its face, one that is about to release its ejaculate, and it clearly has been enjoying what the Mare had just done. The Mare itself looks out of the painting and at the viewer — right through the viewer — as if to say, “You want to go next? Hmmm. Open your mouth and close your eyes.”

William Sloane, a Princeton academic with exactly two novels in him and one short story, wrote a masterpiece of nightmare fiction with 1937’s To Walk the Night. In this novel is a character, who is meant to be wise, a doctor who has lost his son, theoretically to suicide, but not really suicide. This father remarks to his surviving, adopted son, as they try to parse the postmortem truth, that the only unforgivable sin is weakness.

It’s all but formally stenciling the invitations to send in the brickbats here in this first quarter of the 21st-century to dare to express that anyone is weak, let alone we should not expiate them for that, but I’m in this camp. That does not mean that I think only weak people kill themselves. It’s complicated. And it’s not that I think adultery is a mere whoops-a-daisy transgression, or lying, or ghosting, and in terms of the evils people do to each other, betrayal is hard to beat (as Dante clearly understood). But these fall under the auspices of weakness for me. Only the very weakest of people can betray us at the deepest of levels.

Not being weak doesn’t mean you prevail, you get through your torment. It means you try, it means you fight with more you, if you will, than you knew you had. That’s why we grow in the process of that fight. That’s why if you’ve been through challenges of that sort, that impose those demands upon your core and the core’s core of your full being, you’re likely touched with forms of awareness and self-awareness that others, without these travails, might not possess.

Note the role of near-death sickness in 19th-century literature; see how much smarter the people who manage to pull through become after? That’s a metaphor, a Cartesian dialogue in fiction form between body and soul, the struggle adumbrated in external terms, because certain things were just not discussed between the covers of books and in short stories at the time, save with some artists who would not be held back — Balzac, Van Gogh in his letters, Zola, Flaubert, Poe.

But back to those portions of our selves we do not know we have. That which seems insuperable, based upon the enormity of the struggle and what we know of ourselves, can become superable, on account of what we discover in ourselves. The fight for that discovery, which requires faith and courage, is the definition, in my estimation, of true strength. It is everything weakness is not. There is something of the divine in it, the post-human, which makes being a human a more human endeavor, paradoxically. We can transcend. Mr. Frog and Mrs. Fox cannot.

We transcend less and less, as we default to numbing in our “click me, click me” century. Binge this, tweet that, lie about this part of our lives over here on this media platform, self-medicate; get out of the practice of growing character until the muscles required for its upkeep become flaccid, not even little hillocks of legit emotional musculature. Enable others to do the same, so that they don’t hold us accountable in the descent, the pulling back, the full-scale numbing, while we, as big old Boston cream donuts stuffed with an assortment of goos, roll down the slide.

Slides are one thing in our world right now, a big one. Stairs are something very different. It’s always stairs to heaven, as an indicator of our pilgrim’s progress, be it in Byzantine iconography, Powell and Pressburger films, or Led Zeppelin epics. That’s not a religious thing — that’s a metaphor. We have to work to be strong. We have to work to overcome nightmares, whatever form they may take for us.

It was at this time after my divorce that I became an entirely different writer, with a new mistress, of sorts. I started writing while I was asleep, as if being under the Mare, ridden, as it were, fostered new creativity inside of me, or forced me to convert her negative energies into positive ones lest I be destroyed. And, frankly, lest I kill myself, which I have avoided to date. You can’t have your nights be clotted with nightmares, your days full-on daymares, with no respite. I was not becoming unbattered, let us say, but this battering had utility. The pain did not go down, hope did not necessarily increase. But the size and quality of a body of work did. I was not yet a corpse, and I was growing a unique corpus.

I’d go to bed, having on some form of sound — old-time radio broadcasts of Sherlock Holmes programs, reruns of Cheers — and as I slept, entire stories would come to me. They’d arrive partially formed, fully formed; if the former, I’d work on them while asleep, existing on this liminal plane between life and death, a lacuna level of creativity I’d never ventured to previously. I’d awake, with every last comma intact, sit at the desk, within two minutes of opening my eyes, formally typing out stories that ran in fancy magazines that people put too much stock in based on their names, but the “biggies” regardless, works that formed the basis of books. I wasn’t refreshed. I was exhausted. Something in me was putting up a battle, not just against the nightmares, the Mare, the ghost of Creed if he still kicked around somewhere in my brain; rather, the battle was also for a previously unknown, untapped portion of myself, my ability.

I thought, wait, okay, maybe someday you’ll have a life again, you’ll have the life you want. This is a hell right now. Maybe we’ll get out of it. And if we do, if we’re happy, think how much happier we can be with this new aspect of ability mastered. I pondered the possibilities. There could conceivably never be a time in my existence when I was not creating.

Every waking moment was already given over to that. Ever since I was a kid, I heard the world as narrative, saw it that way, considered how everything I perceived — a film I saw, a friend’s stray remark about their kids, a rock I tripped over on a jog — could factor, nor not factor, or might come around to factor, in my work, that energy of creation that constantly surged through me, was me. The nightmares were unbidden. I didn’t court them. Didn’t have spoonfuls of onion dip with Lay’s potato chips and wine minutes before sleep to facilitate their ingress into my REM cycles. But they were there and, what’s more — they seemed to have a point, allowing that this coitus between me and this creature was morphing, becoming less about me being pinioned to my back, and more, like we were each on our respective sides.

What form did the nightmares take? All forms. Some baffled and yet lashed with potency, with serpents in pursuit in strange locales, the faces of the people I had known, loved, and lost seated in half-circles watching. Other times they featured me with the woman who made me start to feel, as if by some miracle, that everything I went through with my wife, with the period after my wife, was worth it since I got to share a life with this person, a better person, a truly good person — only I hadn’t met her yet. Those nightmares always had this shadowland disclaimer written into them, this understanding between me and the nightmare mage that I would be seeing a life I assiduously desired, not one I ever would have. That was where the real terror kick struck. It was like perverse nightmare life-voyeur porn, where you watch your own hopes die. The dream world, like our dreams themselves — those aspirations and aims, wants and wishes — is predicated upon hope. Nightmares can be, too; you have that twinge, a life surge, a blast of light, near the end of them, when you think that soon you will awake, and now you can resume goodness, or goodness can start. But I knew, even in the dream, when the dream ended, it wasn’t going to be like that. Not yet, anyway.

I became the collector of a lot of left-handed compliments. My productivity was stages past fecund before these late-night creation sessions kicked in, which meant I was the receiver of lots of half-hearted compliments about my “energy,” as though I were merely an eager beaver who worked hard, and if you wished to work hard, you could generate 20,000 words a week, too.

Good luck with that, as they say. I realized that this is something people told me because it made them feel better about themselves, but it made me feel worse, angry. The more ability you have, the more you create. Your concern — well, one of them — is that you will run out of time on this earth to do all of the work you have in you to do, not that you will run out of the art, the ideas, the innovations. Industry types redoubled the pandering, calling me the “hardest working man in publishing,” a phrase I came to loathe. No amount of effort is going to help you do what I was doing without a much larger helping of something else, but what the Mare helped me realize was that I had other levels I could go to in terms of my own productivity, in terms of mastering what my mind could do on the inside of me, to trip up the strictures of time on the outside.

But this did not matter. The work did. The stories I composed, the books I composed, were no different than those I’d create at the desk, or that would come to me while on my 20 mile walks, save that they were different in their birthing. If someone looked at ten stories of mine, and half were written while I was passed out, that person wouldn’t be able to tell what was the eyes open stuff, the eyes closed stuff.

I wasn’t writing about the nightmares per se, though it was not uncommon for me to dream out a story, like I was being made to watch a film and it was my job next to do its novelization. I wrote, I wrote more than ever, I stockpiled, I built entire careers’ worth of material in six-month blocks. I kept writing, and the writing I did during the day got easier, faster. I felt like art incarnate. The transmitter of art. From an ether that hung around my head, nimbus-style, through my mind, out my fingertips. Did that give me immediate control anywhere in my life? No, not at all. Save in that it set me up for control, where I might need it, later on, when I had overcome obstacles in my career, when I’d want to just be able to turn and pull some gem out of the sack. Then another. And another. A negation of peace in my life, led to a surge of self, a discovery of what I was more than anything; a human as constant embarkation to art.

John Clare, poet of nature, so poor that he had to write upon the back of bark sometimes, ventured away from verse about badgers and birds’ nests as his life became entangled in daymares, focusing instead upon the weald of the human condition — or its fallow field — in a brace of poems unlike any he had written before. In 1848, the narrator of one of these works informs us that he lives “with shadows tost”—in the nightmare kingdom.

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys
But the vast ship wreck of my life’s esteems;
And even the dearest — that I loved the best —
Are strange — nay, stranger than the rest.

“Waking dreams,” without “sense of life or joys.” He’s describing the daymare existence, of course. He’s duking it out with the Mare. She’s taken his nights, now she comes for his days. But he battles. “I am!” he asserts. Not I am wealthy, I am six feet tall, I am trying, I am going to see my doctor tomorrow. The diminution is more, paradoxically, in the same fashion as a human can be more than a human and that is the most human component of being human; thus, it is infinitely more. A two-word declarative sentence as an eternal coup against the temptations of weakness, the descent, the slide. The narrator wants to “sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept.” He also realizes there are matters of far greater importance.

In time, I felt a kinship with the Mare. She might as well have said, “That’s it, you get it now. You ride me.” The daymares did not lessen, but often I pass evenings with ordinary dreams or no dreams, which does not preclude me from writing while I sleep. I don’t need the Mare anymore for that. What I do know is that if I ever get to the place in life that I seek, the Mare would have bestowed a great gift upon me and deserve her credit. She would have been an intermediary who opened up a unique form of congress between my mind and untapped portions of my artistic self, my truest self, which I was accessing, of course, in other ways, but not so far as I might have — without her, and my refusal to give in to her. When I returned to my previous ways of creating and composing, they were different, sharper, brighter, more real, more instantaneous.

So, you ride. You find the way to position, elevate, mount. A universal truth, with an infinite amount of specific, targeted — to you, to me, to all — offshoots. You may not get there. You may get there. In dreams, one must trust. Maybe that is why they can haunt us so, and why they can mean so much. •

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Colin Fleming’s latest book is Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, and his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports run in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. He has three books coming out in 2021: an entry in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a story collection with Dzanc called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope; and a volume looking at 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film from Auteur; with a novel called Musings With Franklin: A Novel Told in Conversation That You Can Drink To to follow. His op-eds appear in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website colinfleminglit.com, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit

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