By Dan Stankivitz
“…‘It’ sneaks up behind your back. Sometimes it even precedes your appearance in a room. You feel horribly uneasy. In your back grows the sensation that a gang of things invisible has shoved its way in through your back, as through a door…”
-Andrei Bely, Petersburg
There are a few things to consider when reading this story. First, nothing that I write is real or true. The creature that appears is fake—there is no particular legend (or experience) it is based on—everything comes from my mind. Second, in the very instant the particulars of this creature came to me, as soon as I gave it a world to live in, it became real. It is wholly and completely real, and I haven’t been able to sleep since I invented it.
Of course, none of this makes sense to you, dear reader—I say that what I’m writing isn’t real, then go on to say (in the same paragraph, no less) that it is in fact real and that I’m scared. The fact is I haven’t really slept in days. I’ll fall asleep periodically throughout the night, but I wake up sweating, with a gasp in my throat minutes later. Perhaps if I explain how everything began, you’ll understand my anguish.
It started one night before bed when I invented a “scenario.” I call it a scenario because of the way it revealed itself to me; not in any clear progression, but in a desperate haze of black images, frightfully chasing one another in my mind. The first image appeared to me most innocuously as I washed my dinner plate. Out of the dark emerged a creature, pale and thin. It had long white fingers that seemed to be stroking something and a tall thin head to match that bobbed in and out of the darkness. As soon as those long fingers entered into my imagination, they grabbed onto my brain firmly and put my entire being into a state of despair.
I began to relax after a few tense minutes and found myself drifting into sleep when the creature bobbed through the darkness and once again gripped me with a surreal terror. Of course, I knew the creature wasn’t real, having created the thing only hours before, but the thought of its horrible fingers and long head struck me with a real horror I’d never before experienced.
In an attempt to combat the evil touch of the pale creature, I began to create more images to accompany that initial image—I began to create my “scenario.” I thought (rationalized, really) that if I could control the horrible image in my mind, it would lose its grip over me. After all, the most frightening aspect of anything, whether it’s a monster in a movie or the first day of a new job, is the aspect of the unknown.
Either the initial image of the creature was too intense, or my ability to take a firm hold of my creations is non-existent, because after fleshing out more details, the creature seemed even more real and my terror increased. I began to run the scenario through my mind over and over, my heart racing faster and faster, I found myself on the verge of tears by the time dawn began to break. With its all-soothing light, the rising sun erased the horrible images that had infested my mind the entire night. I was exhausted, but almost elated for some reason. I almost felt as if I had won a prize. But for what?
I carefully made my way out of bed and immediately saw the culprit of the midnight crash: a bucket I’d precariously placed on a stack of books had fallen over—most likely from the vibrations of the furnace—and banged against the kitchen table. As my fears began to shed one by one, I laughed at myself for my actions during the night. I was far too old to be acting like a child afraid of the dark, and the tipped over bucket was evidence of the logic behind all spooky noises that occur during the night.
Nonetheless, later that evening after the sun was set, I began to find myself leering cautiously into the unlit rooms of my house. Every corner of darkness seemed full of something, even if that something was my own fear. I positively knew that the creature didn’t exist. It popped into my mind from nowhere. There was no reason to assume the long fingered creature would ever be a true physical being, but its image continued to haunt me.
That night went much the same as the previous night. I awoke (for no particular reason) and the long fingers of the creature were burning brightly in my mind. As before, I thought of my scenario, adding more details to try and control the horrible thoughts that bombarded me, leading to my bed sheets being drenched with a fevered sweat. All night my mind went back and forth, between a state of almost relaxation, to a heightened sense of terror, sending me to the brink of madness. But once again, the sweet morning sunlight brought about my salvation.
This same cycle continued for the next two nights, I am writing now on the eve of the fifth night with a sense of hope. I had a revelation of sorts today stemming from an unusual source. Earlier this morning I spent a great deal of time thinking about the idea of existence, when something really exists. There was some larger idea tickling in my brain about existence and reality that I couldn’t quite place—then it came to me in a flash. I remembered a novel I’d read where the narrator clearly states that once a character is created, it truly exists, because it exists in thought. As long as that thought exists, the character is real. After a quick browse of my shelves, I found the book: Petersburg, written by 20th Century Russian author Andrei Bely.
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.
The young writer found himself in an extremely agitated state, lying in his bed, curled next to his bedside lamp writing feverishly into a small notebook. This is the type of man who, if he were to be executed, would write in his notebook up until he was swinging from a noose. He is what is sometimes known as a “posthumous writer.”
After finishing his firsthand account of terror and certain doom, the young writer felt a certain sense of relief, as if his scribbled words carried some sort of venom out of him onto the page. He was able to relax, turn off the bedside lamp and fall into an easy sleep. After what seemed like no time at all, the writer awoke when a tremendous noise erupted in the kitchen. Paralyzed with fear, the man hardly dared to open his eyes, but found himself unable to look away from the blackness of the kitchen framed by the bedroom doorway. He could do nothing but stare, while his body began to convulse from fright. His heart rate raced higher and higher until he was sure he was going to die. In a situation like this, the writer (in an ideal situation) would have liked to pull out his little notebook and make an account of the experience. But he found himself unable to move. All he could think about were the long thin fingers of the mysterious creature.
In spite of his body-clenching fear, the writer drifted off into another fitful sleep. He woke occasionally with a start and told himself that the crash he’d heard was a result of the poor job of stacking the dishes in the cupboard. He’d finally fallen into a deep sleep where a pleasant dream about having a picnic with a lovely girl who wore a blue dress when he woke to a different noise. He thought at first, that it must be the fan behaving strangely, but when he opened his eyes, the writer saw long, thin fingers stroking his feet while a long, white head whispered, “Ahhh.”
My intent in sharing the “scenario” with you is certainly not a malicious one. By sharing this story, I hope to take the power away that cerebral play can have on myself, and you, reader. In the same way Petersburg helped me to understand the workings of my own mind, I hope that my story can bring some comfort to you—I know the thought of others reading of my experience brings comfort to me.
Before anyone else’s eyes see this story, however, I have only my mind to contend with. So tonight, as I lie in bed with the lights off, I will try to keep another quote from Petersburg in my mind: “Alexander Ivonovich promised himself ahead of time that he would not be frightened. Anything that might happen was only cerebral play.”
Dan Stankivitz lives with his incredible wife in Logan, Utah. He studies Forestry at Utah State University and fixes bicycles.