What gives you nightmares?
I won’t go into the scientific causes of nightmares, from anxiety to trauma to burritos eaten too late at night. Instead, I want to talk about the power of nightmares (and dreams in general) for those of us who don’t suffer from them in excess.
Our minds are essentially using the occasion of REM-stage sleep to be authors, writing stories that really affect us while we’re dreaming and, if we remember them after waking, for long afterwards. They’re an attempt to deal with our fears and anxieties. To exorcise our demons.
As an author, I look at my writing as conscious dreaming. I’m in control—sort of—but my subconscious mind gives me the content.
I write in both the crime and horror/paranormal genres. My crime fiction is set in the real world, but I still like to enrich it with the fears and anxieties found in my nightmares. In my Florida noir novel Pariah, the main theme is based on our primal fear of rejection—of suddenly being hated and ostracized by the people you know for unfair reasons, for something you did not do.
My horror/paranormal fiction is where the power of nightmares truly comes into play. Since I was a kid, werewolves scared the crap out of me. But I didn’t want to compete with all the great books that have werewolves. So, for The Teratologist, I came up with the cral, a species that has some werewolf, wendigo, and other ingredients mixed in. They can shapeshift at will. And they haunt my dreams.
I’m fascinated most of all by the hallucinatory, surrealist aspects of dreams and nightmares. I mimic this in a chapter of The Teratologist set in the Underworld.
Ever have an ordinary, realistic dream turn into a nightmare? Sometimes you can sense your dream is about to go south. As it starts getting really scary, you somehow know you’re trapped in the dream and you try to bail out and wake up.
Or, if this happens while reading, you can just close your book or e-reader and breathe a sigh of relief. But the nightmare, whether your dreamed it or read it, has a lingering effect on you.
As does good fiction.