Have you ever felt afraid, and not known exactly why you were afraid? The rational part of you will tell you there’s nothing to be afraid of, but the terror still lurks around the corner, in the shadows of your mind. That terror is the terror of nightmare, when the rational mind is asleep or off duty.

You’ve probably felt moments like that, in nightmares if not in waking life. Yet did you ever talk about it with anyone? Did you write it down in your diary? Did you put it into your novel or a poem?

I’m simplifying a novel – rewriting it for Japanese students of English – and there’s a scene in which a young woman becomes terrified without quite knowing the reason, and she flees the house and runs to a friend’s, even though it is very late in the evening, and even though that friend is living with his mother.

In fact, there is a very real danger to the girl, but she is not fully aware of it, or of its nature. It has to do with her uncle and the kind of life she lives with him: a life which, we learn gradually, is becoming moulded more and more by an uncle who seems to have very little real respect or sympathy for his niece, or for people generally, although he always sounds sympathetic, and talks grandly of universal brotherhood. It becomes clear to the reader that Uncle is smothering the girl, keeping her like a caged bird. Not only that, but the way he does it is by subtly laughing at the girl’s ideas and ambitions and hopes. When she says she wants to go to college, he laughs and says, “God made the elephant for toil and the mosquito for flitting about and it’s not advisable to experiment with the laws of nature, however, if you want to try it, my dear child….” He uses a similar approach when she talks of getting married.

Her fiancé has a sense that this is not healthy, and remonstrates with the girl, but she will hear not hear a bad word spoken about her Uncle. She handles his fan mail, you see, and she reads the letters of gratitude from readers for all the things he’s done. The girl thinks uncle is kind and understanding, but from the hints she drops, the reader (and her fiancé) sense that he’s not really kind at all.

So when the scene with the rustling paper happens, the reader can understand the cause of her horror: it’s her Uncle’s stifling, stifling the life out of her, mocking her own desires until she abandons them as puerile. 

While working late one night on research for her uncle, she suddenly realizes how quiet the house is, except for a slight rustling of all the papers around her. She sees her uncle’s shadow on the wall of the adjacent room, and suddenly gets spooked: she feels the paper is going to smother her. She screams as a vague terror overcomes her – she’s at last sensing that she is in danger and needs to get out, although she still does not understand where the danger comes from or what its nature is. She runs away to her fiancé’s house.

As I was re-writing this chapter, I imagined the author writing in a room late at night, surrounded by papers and books, rather like the girl in her story, and suddenly feeling spooked by a nameless fear: perhaps she felt she would never complete the book, that writing it was a waste of time, that she had no real talent and the book would be panned, assuming it ever made it to publication. Or perhaps she had a nightmare of a similar kind. Anyway, she turned that event, that fear, into gold, into art.

How many little things that happen to us every day that we could turn into art, into gold, if only we were aware enough and not so quick to listen to our rational mind as it says (rather like Uncle), “Oh, that’s silly! There’s nothing there, really. Nothing to be afraid of at all! Forget it. It was a trick of the light. Your hearing’s going.”

When I was a kid, my brother and a friend and I borrowed a tent and camped out in the grounds of a large house that was going to be ours but was still being renovated. Before going to bed, we explored the grounds and walked around the house. We returned to our camp and got into our sleeping bags. It was warm so we kept the font flaps of the tent open. We could see the house. And suddenly we noticed a small window was open. That window completely spooked us! It hadn’t been open before, surely! We would have noticed it. There must be someone in the house. Or in the grounds! Watching us, right now.

How about you? Have you ever been spooked? And did you turn it into art, or make use of it in some way, later in life?

Here’s the scene (simplified by yours truly):

“No, of course not,” he laughed, sitting down on the floor by her side and putting his arm around her. “But what is it? You know I’d marry you tonight if you wanted me to. But what happened?”

“Nothing. I’m all right now. You’ll think I’m crazy. I just suddenly had the feeling that I’d never marry you, that something terrible was happening to me and I had to escape from it.”

“What was happening to you?”

“I don’t know. Nothing! I was working on my research notes. There were no calls, no visitors. And then suddenly tonight, I had that feeling. It was like a nightmare. A horror you can’t describe. The feeling that I was in great danger, that something was closing in on me and that I would never escape it and it was too late.”

“Escape what?”

“I don’t know exactly. Everything. My whole life. Like quicksand. Smooth and natural. You don’t notice anything unusual. You walk on it easily. And when you’ve noticed the danger, it’s too late. I felt that I would never marry you, that I had to run, now, now or never. Haven’t you ever had a feeling like that?”

“Yes,” he whispered.

“You don’t think I’m crazy?”

“No, Katie. But what started this?”

“It seems so silly now. I was sitting in my room. I had many papers and books on the table that I hardly had room to write, and every time I made a note, my elbow would push something off the table. There were piles of books and papers all around me, and the papers made a rustling sound. Maybe because I had the door open and there was a draft. Uncle was working, too,in the living room. I  had been working for hours. I didn’t even know what time it was. And then suddenly it got me. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the silence. I couldn’t hear anything, except the paper rustling so softly, like someone being choked to death. Then I looked around and I couldn’t see Uncle in the living room, but I saw his shadow on the wall, a huge shadow, and it didn’t move and it was so huge!”

She shuddered. It did not seem silly any more. She whispered:

“That shadow wouldn’t move, but all the paper was rustling. I thought the paper was moving, it was rising slowly off the floor and it was going to come to my throat and I was going to drown. That’s when I screamed. And, Peter, he didn’t hear. The shadow didn’t move! Then I seized my hat and coat and I ran. I think he said, ‘Catherine! What time is it? Where are you going?’ But I didn’t look back and I didn’t answer. I was afraid of him. That’s all. Peter, I can’t understand it but I’m afraid. Not now, here with you, but I’m afraid.”