I’m not a big fan of horror stories or of the horror genre. My thinking is that the world is a frightening and horrible enough place without adding to it. Master authors like Dickens, with his masterpiece short story ‘The Signalman’ or Thomas Hardy and his chilling Wessex tale ‘The Withered Arm’ turn the genre into a joy to read because of their mastery of storytelling, but the horrific for its own sake? Not for me.
Having said that, though, I haven’t yet encountered a story either good or bad capable of producing that primal fear which some occasions in real life have managed to do. I recall a few instances from my university days in Australia, and one in particular.
I remember one day discovering that my best friend during those days, a fellow student whom we’ll call James, had been meeting with a real life witch. We lived in a hall of residence, a modern building, tailor-made for student life in the style of the late 1960s, with rows and rows of small rooms and narrow, bricky corridors (this is important later), cold, utilitarian stair wells and not a great deal of aesthetics. One day he excitedly told me all about the witch - she was a fellow student, an older woman (what used to be called a ‘mature student’) who also lived in the residential hall. But unlike her fellow students, she practised white magic - she was an expert, he claimed, in the supernatural, but used her powers for ‘Good’.
At the time, I was studying English Literature, History and Philosophy. The Philosophy Department had been heavily infiltrated by Marxists, and I was slowly coming to believe in dialectical materialism, with the quiet proviso that God had to be in there somehow. I was only young. It seemed to me, then, that meeting a white witch, while undoubtedly fascinating, was probably philosophically unsound. James related some of her stories to me, while pointing her out in the dining hall, into which she floated (metaphorically not literally) as we spoke - a tall, dark-haired woman with a faintly Indian look.
James told me that she had had a room in the hall on the ground floor, near one of the entry doors, but had had to move to a room upstairs some weeks ago after another student, finding the entry door locked after hours, had snuck in through her window and screamed on seeing her lying in bed with light shining from her open eyes. Also, James went on to say, allegedly at the same time each day, as this witch sat in the room trying to read, a phantom woman with a child in a pram would enter the room through one wall, march obliviously across it, and exit through the other wall. Such things wouldn’t occur upstairs, this witch lady reasoned, and I could see the logic.
Anyway, as things transpired, within a few weeks a few of us got to meet her too. Let’s call her Helene. We gathered one evening in her upstairs room, a small space ten feet by six, occupied largely by a single bed, a desk with a chair, and a beanbag. There we were, Helene, myself, James and I think one other friend, nervous but willing to be told wondrous things, and maybe see some sights as well.
Helene spoke of many things, some quite ordinary, others mildly entertaining, as the evening went on. We drank tea, and my friend wondered if Helene could make tea cups float. She may well have been able to, but refused to do so on that particular occasion. As it grew later, though, the conversation turned to more interesting matters: we heard about the struggle in the world between Light and Dark and how, around the turn of the millennium (we were sitting in the late 1970s), there was to be a great war which would make all other wars seem like holidays by comparison. After humanity was almost wiped out, we heard, the different races would survive and grow closer, merging eventually into one tan-coloured species living at peace with itself. There was some uncertainty about the exact timing, but one thing was for sure: the human race had a bumpy road ahead.
Many other fascinating things were discussed that night, most of which I have forgotten. But one thing I will never forget. As we discussed war and human conflict and the possible ending of all things, we all heard something scrape down the wall of the room, in the passageway outside. We noted it, but paid it no further attention, so engrossed we were in this uniquely intriguing conversation we were having. Eventually, the tea ran out and the clock ticked around to about 4:00 am. Even our young bodies and minds grew tired, and we decided that we had better get back to our rooms and try to get some sleep.
Opening the door, Helene ushered us out, wishing us good night, or what was left of it, and we stepped out into the narrow corridor.
Lying in that corridor, with fresh mud on its base, was a street sign emblazoned with the words ‘Bumpy Road Ahead’. We looked at each other; we looked at Helene; we looked again and again at the muddy street sign. Given the dimensions of the corridor, it was a very difficult piece to have manoeuvred into the position it was in; the stairwells were cramped, the passageways tight. We remembered the scraping down the wall that we had heard earlier - but there had been no other sound, no giggling of mischievous students, no banging or clashing of metal against brick. Other than that scrape, this thing had appeared in the corridor as though it had… well, simply appeared.
Helene smiled. To our many hurried questions, she merely smiled some more, and wished us good night.
It wasn’t exactly terror that I felt, as I made my way back to my room in those cold early hours of morning: terror is an emotion similar to shock, when something totally inexplicable and sudden occurs and fills us with fear. This street sign had materialised in the context of the conversation we had been having - in a way, we could have expected it, if we at all believed in supernatural agencies. What I felt as I reached the sanctuary of my room was not quite terror then, but more a sense of dark wonder: what kind of world was I living in? Something beyond the scope of dialectical materialism, for certain.
Later that day, having slept, James and I went to see if the sign was still there. It had gone, of course. Had it been carried away by the caretakers in mundane fashion? Or had it in fact never been there at all?
Those bumpy roads didn’t quite materialise, not in the way we imagined them back then, anyway. But something had materialised. And life was never quite the same again.