I scanned quickly through the book and found the line that stuck with me through the years since I’d read it last, “Once his brain has playfully engendered the mysterious stranger, that stranger exists, really exists. He will not vanish from the Petersburg prospects as long as the senator with such thoughts exists, because thought exists too.” Reading this line gave me a great comfort—of course the creature I imagined is real, because it exists in my thoughts, my thoughts that are continuous and berating.
It gave me great pleasure to see the source of my fears in writing (and from a 20th Century Russian, no less!) but it seemed only half of my problem was solved. A cursory glance on the previous page of the book showed me both halves of my problem stated elegantly: “This shadow arose by chance in the consciousness of Senator Ableukhov and acquired its ephemeral being there. But the consciousness of Apollon Apollonovich is a shadowy consciousness because he too is the possessor of an ephemeral being and the fruit of the author’s fantasy: unnecessary, idle cerebral play.” First, let me explain the critical idea of cerebral play, and then I will elucidate the rest of the quote.
Cerebral play. In the introduction to their translation of the novel, Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad define cerebral play as, “that sudden, unexpected explosion of mental forces which bursts out into the world and creates new realities entirely beyond the understanding and control of the individual.” Is this not exactly the definition of my creature? Remember how it happened: I was washing my dinner plate when, from nowhere, my mind created this being that began to haunt me. In an attempt to control that initial burst of cerebral play, I created a more detailed scenario, but in reality, that “creation” was just more cerebral play sending my mind down an ever-expanding tunnel of despair.
This brings me to the rest of the quote, specifically the idea of the “ephemeral being” and the impact that has. A creation has power, particularly a creation that is the result of cerebral play. I have no real say over when and where the creature appears to me, clutching onto my brain and spreading fear throughout my being. But imagine another character. This character is a blank slate, but once he is created, once he becomes a thought, he becomes an ephemeral being. What, then, stops this character, this ephemeral being from having his own thoughts? Nothing. With the guidance of the author, the ephemeral being can think of his own creature. Since the thoughts of that ephemeral being “exist,” he is then stricken by his own cerebral play. What this really amounts to is the author attempting to control his own cerebral play by forcing it onto characters who can certainly be controlled. That is, until the character experiences cerebral play themselves. The cerebral play of the author is amplified by that of his ephemeral beings, leading to (in this instance) fear of an even greater magnitude. With that in mind, I feel it is appropriate to share the “scenario” I created the first night while I lay paralyzed in my bed.
There was a young man, a writer, washing some dishes before bed. He discovered a writing contest while searching online through calls for submissions. This particular contest had a “horror story” theme. Although he didn’t have much experience with the horror genre, the writer was interested in exploring new possibilities. His first idea came from a story he’d heard earlier in the week of a mysterious creature. This creature was sort of a local legend: it was very pale, almost white, with a tall, thin head and long thin fingers. It crept into people’s bedrooms late at night, silently bobbing through the darkness. Although the tradition of legends such as these would dictate the grisly murder of someone or another, this creature had a different modus operandi. The victims of this pale creature awoke to a long thin head bobbing up and down; it’s long white fingers stroking their feet. It was hard to say whether the victims were awakened by the touch of the fingers or the whispery “Ahhh” noise the creature made while it stroked their feet.
Of course, the only part of that story actually told to the writer, were the physical characteristics of the creature. All the other details were embellishments made by the writer while he finished cleaning his dinner dishes. To his great surprise, the story struck a certain cord in him, leaving his normally even temperament very shaken. As he prepared for bed, his usual routine was held under the long fingered grip of the pale, whispering, creature.
Where he normally turned on a fan to block out any noise, he considered what danger that could provide. However, “white noise” tends to sound like a multitude of noises all at once. Clicks and gurgles and groans all hide in the constant drone of a fan. But if the fan is off, he thought, I’ll be able to hear every single creak in the night. The only thing worse than the occasional fright of a noise is the never-ending pressure of silence. The pressure only broken by a noise that means certain doom. The fan stays on.
Then there is the bedroom door. Normally, the writer leaves the bedroom door open in order to keep constant airflow into the bedroom. But that open door is also a yawning mouth into the absolute black-night of the house. What if he sees something bobbing in the dark? What if a thin shape moves silently from the kitchen to the doorway, becoming more and more clear as it cleaves the nighttime air? So the door is closed. But then, he thought, we are back to the pressure of silence, the pressure of the unknown that is either broken by something monstrous, or is never broken at all, creating even greater pressure. What if the door swings open in the night? The door stays open.