So far, so good. The quality seems reasonably high in the stories I've read so far. But one of them has really stood out for me. It's called '23:45 Morden (via Bank)' by Rebecca Levene and it chilled me to the bone.
First of all, it's a very clever story, and an exceptionally realistic evocation of life in London for a young single person with a boring job, too, which is a plus. Adam, a 20-something Londoner, misses his last Tube home one Sunday night, but is surprised to see another one, empty, pull in just a minute later. His instinct tells him, once on board, that all is not quite right, but it does get him home where he falls relieved into bed. And the next day, what seems like just a particularly rotten Monday morning turns into a truly nightmarish week. Everyone Adam encounters - his colleagues, his friends, his elderly neighbour and even, most chillingly, his own family - is inexplicably, sadistically malevolent, first in subtle ways, then with increasing cruelty. Adam realises that he can reverse this shift, if only he takes another mysterious unscheduled Tube back into his 'old' life - but only then does he discover that just as there are vindictive, bullying versions of his friends and family in a parallel London, there is also an equally vindictive, bullying version of Adam... who has made the most of his week in the real Adam's ordinary life, and for which the real Adam will pay the consequences.
Now, this plot is brilliantly and terrifyingly executed by Levene, who lets the horror build up slowly, subtly. At first, Adam's Monday seems simply like 'one of those days' - he's late, his train is overcrowded, his boss is in a bad mood. But the sense of everything being just not quite right gradually escalates in a way that I found deeply and genuinely unsettling, and which left me feeling uncomfortably disturbed. All very clever stuff - but I should point out that it probably affected me in particular because I am, and have always been, plagued with nightmares in which almost exactly the same thing happens.
I don't, of course, mean the plotline with the Tube and so on. I mean the waking up and finding that everyone you know, everything that is normally nice - or at least ordinary - is wrong. And not any old kind of wrong (although that would be unsettling enough). Wrong in awful, vicious, malevolent, bullying, inexplicable ways. I have nightmares where I'll go to meet my best friends, great girls I've known since I was 12, and they will bully me. They'll ignore me when I speak, huddle together and giggle about me. I'll catch them spitting in my food. They'll deliberately knock drinks over me, and when we go out, they'll run away when I have to visit the Ladies'. Similarly, I have dreams where my whole family will gang up on me, even my parents, and accuse me of things which do not even make logical sense, and my mother will be serving a family meal but won't let me have any, and even the dogs (who are dead in real life, but always appear in these dreams) won't come near me and my family will claim it's because I stink or something, even though actually, it's my parents' house, my old family home, that is inexplicably filthy and squalid and rotten. And I'll get terribly upset, and I'll say to my boyfriend, "How can you let them do this?" and he'll just shrug and laugh at me.
At that point I usually wake up in tears.
So, this story had a real resonance for me. In real life, my friends, family and my boyfriend - especially my boyfriend - could not be kinder, nicer, gentler, more caring people, and they would die rather than treat anyone in that way. And yet I must have this odd, deep-seated fear that they will change, and that the only people in life I can truly rely on and trust will suddenly turn on me. When I wake up, I feel so terrified and desolate that the feeling itself scares me almost as much as the dream.
I'm now wondering whether reading the story will make these dreams better (catharsis?) or worse (preying on my fears).
Of course, I have a lot of nightmares. At least two or three full-on nightmares a week, including 'night terrors' which make me jump out of bed screaming at imagined horrors which I am convinced at the time that I have actually seen in the bedroom (usually spiders or CCTV cameras spying on me; occasionally people standing in the corner - clowns, a hangman, a plague victim and once, memorably, Death). And added to that, many, many dreams which are unsettling, uncomfortable, disturbing, uneasy. It bothers me. Of course, sometimes I do have dreams that are pleasant, or funny, or absurd. But they're rare. They're outnumbered, perhaps 10 to 1, by the bad ones.
Among my recurring dreams are:
- Getting very badly lost. Very, very badly lost. Typically, I'll turn a corner and realise that I am very close to a landmark, usually something tall and looming and industrial (I'm scared of looking up at heights in the same way that many people are scared of looking down from them) that should be many, many miles away.
- Being late for something very important and constantly realising, every time I'm supposed to leave the house, that I am wearing odd shoes, have no money, have filthy hair, smell weird, or any number of other weird things that prevent me from getting out.
- Trying desperately to make an emergency phone call only to find that the buttons on my phone won't work, and then I press them harder, and they'll register twice, and then I'll press 'call' only to find the 'call' and 'end call' buttons have been switched.
- Driving a car, terribly badly, and finding that I can hardly reach the pedals with my feet to brake (no, I can't drive in real life; yes, I am rather short).
- Suddenly realising that I have been horribly disfigured all my life but have never really noticed before.
- Sometimes, the above disfigurement will be hair all over my face, and I suddenly realise that it's not acceptable for a girl, and that I must have been a laughing stock for decades.
- Suddenly realising that I'm naked at work.
- Trying to run away from an unspeakable horror of some sort, only to find that the only way I can do it is to run on my hands and feet like a crab.
- Having to escape a Tube accident by squeezing through a tiny tunnel at a strange angle without being able to see the way out and with other people crammed behind and before me, in pitch darkness.
- Being trapped in a strange suburban house with a violent murderer and being unable to escape despite numerous efforts.
- Nuclear holocaust (yes, I am a child of the Cold War). In great detail, too. Radiation sickness, the lot.
- Nazi holocaust. Usually, my family and I are refugees who singularly fail to escape the Nazis.
- Trying to rescue one of my pets (none of whom are still alive in real life) from terrible danger or cruelty.
- Spy cameras in my bedroom.
- People spying through the window when I open the curtains.
- Being possessed by demons.
- Desperately trying to escape from somewhere with my family and dogs, but one of the dogs breaks free and we can't get her back.
- My dogs accidentally wandering into some sort of shoot or hunt and getting killed.
- Exotic animals and birds roaming my back garden, prompting a strange feeling of terrible, terrible unease.
- Having to climb up or down an incredibly high, difficult ladder in or out of a lighthouse on a weird, bleak headland.
- Getting very angry with someone, losing my temper and then realising I've beaten them to death. I generally do this by grabbing their hair and smashing their head repeatedly on to a table.
- Having a terrible wound that is full of bugs and maggots.
- Other people chasing me with the intention of making me watch them vomit.
- A strange woman with yellow, rubbery skin that smells rotten and she has ginger hair but also ginger eyes, and green, pointed teeth and clutching fingers, breaking into my house to kill me and/or my boyfriend. The woman lives in a hollow tree. Her purpose is to snatch me away and carry me back there where it stinks of urine and where she will torture me to death. Sometimes she murders my boyfriend in front of me.
- My boyfriend getting horribly beaten up on the way home by violent thugs who also humiliate him very badly in horrible ways.
- Dumping my boyfriend for an awful, violent ex, even though he is devastated and in tears and I know full well I am doing the wrong thing but don't know how to reverse it.