Wishing I Were Wolf Bait
I used to dream of bloodthirsty wolves. I used to dream of apocalyptic warfare and loved ones with sloughing faces, who were either ripped from my arms or liquefied in my embrace. I used to dream of severed hands and broken teeth and corpses draped in antique lace, whose bones sounded like forest fires as they clambered and howled for my blood.
I think they dreamed of me too.
The dark was different when we were together, hazier, paler, like we were meeting in misty moorlands instead of my messy bedroom. As if entranced by this melding of worlds, I would open my eyes, sit up in bed, and see them as clearly as the words on this screen. There was never a tussle, never an attack. Just staring. Silent warnings and soft curses. I don’t know how long we dreamt of each other, but come morning it felt like I hadn’t slept a wink. Throughout my youth and well into adulthood, these waking dreams disrupted my sleep and caused bouts of insomnia that lasted days. And unfortunately, consuming horror fiction made matters worse.
Following my first viewing of Del Toro’s The Orphanage, Tomás, a young character who wears a burlap sack mask to hide his deformed face, entered my room. He stood beside my bed, his tiny fingers curling the burlap up his chin, threatening to show me the deformities the movie didn’t. Blinking hard, pinching my arm, and burying myself in covers didn’t help. It only brought us closer.
And then, a strange magic occurred. A phrase came into my mind, which I then repeated for reasons I can’t explain. I could still see Tomás with my eyes closed and blankets over my head, the burlap revealing new horrors by the second, but this phrase made him stop. It made him release the mask and back away. The phrase and its strange magic made him disappear.
The words I repeated that night were: “Danny Marble and the Application for Non-Scary Things.” It made no sense, but there was an undeniable power in it. The next day I began writing a book of the same name about a child with waking nightmares, and though it’s now out of print, I still regard it as one of my best stories.
I’ve written quite a lot thanks to nightmares, including one of my bestselling books, “Rabbits in the Garden,” but inspiration isn’t exactly a fair trade-off for insomnia. So, in attempt reduce the frequency of my nightmares, I stepped away from reading and watching horror. And unfortunately, it worked.
Creating horror didn’t affect me, but I noticed a drastic drop-off in nightmares when I reduced my intake. I didn’t hide it the change either. When I did panels at conventions, an inky cohort inevitably brought up how I, a horror writer, didn’t read or watch horror anymore, and we all had a good laugh at the contradiction.
As much as I missed my creepy inspirado, movies especially, I liked sleeping through the night more. My once frequent nightmares morphed into adventures. There were still scary elements, but with my cat Tyler as my trusty sidekick, there was nothing we couldn’t handle. We rode the avalanching debris of collapsing buildings. We slept in the trees of enchanted forests. And when we had to flee from danger, I picked him up and ran, pushing through crowds and leaping over downed power lines until my arms ached. Sometimes they even hurt the next morning. But over three years, throughout countless complex worlds I explored with Tyler, I didn’t experience one waking nightmare. I didn’t dream of wolves, and they didn’t dream of me.
My hands started shaking after Tyler died. For over a year, I watched him shrink from a squishy 20lbs beast to a 2lbs sack of bones, ignorant to how his sickness was also shrinking me. Not being able to afford the tests to identify the cancer, let alone remove it, hit me hard. Because I chose an artist’s life—a poor life—it felt like I’d condemned him to suffer. My best friend. My soul mate. My boy.
Surprisingly, Tyler’s physicality was the only thing that changed over the months. His personality remained the same: affectionate, dickish, and always at my side. Tiny as he became, he was still Tyler.
Until he wasn’t.
I knew it would be hard to let go, but I had no idea how it would irrevocably alter my life. After we said goodbye to our little man, I threw myself back into work. I’d been in the middle of writing a novel and decided to continue. In hindsight, it was a terrible idea, as I’m rewriting all of that horrible prose almost four years later. But at the time it seemed the only way I could cope.
I finished the novel and began a large flash fiction project soon after. A few weeks later, I noticed the trembling in my hands. I wrote it off as a symptom of grief, of which I had many, but as my mourning progressed and other symptoms receded, the shaking intensified. Even when my hands weren’t physically trembling, it sure as hell felt like they were. It came in waves, much like grief itself, feeling like insects hatching in my fingertips, skittering down my arms, and converging in my chest like a nest of restless beetles.
I hid it for months, which I’m certain made it worse. There were times it struck me while I was writing and I had to stop because I felt like my skin was going to shake right off my bones. One day while writing in a bar, the feeling hit me with such overwhelming agony I threw my pen as far as I could. After apologizing and retrieving it, I texted my husband and finally told him what was going on.
I also started speaking about it on the podcast I co-hosted with Jack Wallen. I decided it was probably best if I took a break from writing since it was obviously causing so much stress. But after spending the last decade with a pen almost constantly in hand, not writing was just as agonizing. So I occupied my hands with things that didn’t stress me out as much. I drew. I played handheld games like Professor Layton and Bejeweled.
But with no improvement, I had no choice but to drag my uninsured ass to a doctor. That’s when I began worrying about what else besides grief was causing the shakes. Maybe all the bouts of tendinitis I’d gotten from pipetting had taken a permanent toll. Or maybe it was something deeper; the fact that my father has cancer certainly heightened those fears.
But friends (and Google searches) kept bringing up the same question: Could this be as simple as anxiety and panic attacks?
No, because anxiety isn’t simple. Nor are panic attacks, clinical depression, or any other invisible illness, especially when you don’t have insurance. But I finally forced myself into a doctor’s office, where it became clear within minutes that I’d been experiencing severe anxiety and depression since Tyler’s death–and likely before. The doctor was kind enough to give me a discount and Zoloft for my depression and Xanax for panic attacks. Over three years later, I’m jazzed to report that my hands only shake when I have panic attacks, and even then, I’m able to cope with medication, yoga, and breathing techniques.
Depression and anxiety are as much a part of me as mourning Tyler. And they’ll be there forever, on the edge of my mind. But over time I’m learning to use them as stepping stones rather than brick walls.
If you Google Zoloft dreams, you’ll find posts from dozens of people who say the drug increases the vividness of their dreams, often to the point of nightmares. It’s not true in my case, but there has been a significant change since I started the drug.
I’m gorging myself on a healthy diet of horror again. In the four years since Tyler’s death, I’ve consumed more horror than I did in the decade preceding it, and I haven’t had one waking nightmare. I haven’t had much I’d even consider a “scary dream.”
But I also haven’t found a story in a dream in ages. I haven’t woken with monsters in my mind and inspiration in my guts, or had to rifle through my bedside table for a paper and pen before the idea vanished. Now my bad dreams consist of packing and unpacking everything I own, in new houses, in hotel rooms, always in a hurry. And then there are dreams of auditoriums full of friends and family telling me I’m a shitty person, that I’m untrustworthy and useless and undeserving of their love.
And you know what? I miss my monsters. They stole sleep from me, but they gave me inspiration. They made me cry out of fear, but they didn’t make me feel worthless. Perhaps it’s best that they’re gone, tucked away with childish things, but I can’t help wondering if there’s a magic I’m now missing. Would I have found more phrases like “Danny Marble and the Application for Non-Scary Things?” Would I have unlocked more doors, discovered more worlds, if I hadn’t interrupted the horror flow all those years ago?
I might never know the answer, but one thing is clear: it’s a fair trade-off now. I can ingest horror fiction and sleep through the night. I can use all manner of terrifying sources for inspiration and know that my hands won’t shake when I write. I can support my horror-writing friends again and find magic in their phrases instead.
Now that the sun has set and I’ve taken my pill, I’m off to watch Hold the Dark on Netflix. Here’s hoping it’s a beautiful nightmare.
Jessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her Post Mortem Press bestseller, Rabbits in the Garden, and her YA series, The Darla Decker Diaries. More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found on her website.
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Whether you’re in the mood for a Chicago-style deep dish of darkness, or prefer a New York wide slice of thin-crusted carnage, or if you just have a hankering for the cheap, cheesy charms of cardboard-crusted, delivered-to-your-door devilry; we have just the slice for you.
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