Fear leers at us through the cracked lens of time; a thousand different forms threaten to reach through, clawing at our stomachs, crushing our throats, spearing our hearts with electric jolts. The present is not the problem, you understand. In the here-and-now we need only face what is and respond accordingly, but our minds… our minds are haunted by the twin shades of memory and imagination—dragged back into an unfixable past night after night, or kept awake, sweating in the kiln of catastrophised futures.
Forgive the hyperbole. I make my bread and butter editing Horror, so I’m prone to invoking its imagery. People outside of the genre seem surprised when its admirers and creators show tender sensibilities or reveal themselves to have been the victims of horror (instead of the ‘sick perpetrators’ they’re often portrayed as), but really it makes perfect sense. Like actors, authors draw upon deep personal experience to express emotional truths. Think about it. What is Horror but the evocation of helplessness? And who better to communicate that feeling than those who have been in its grip?
I shan’t drop the bucket too deeply into my well of trauma *today, but there were very few people I felt safe to be around as a child. I was in a near-constant state of anxiety, playing possum to cruel school cats in the vain hope of being left alone. Sleep brought little refuge in those days; my dreams were forever filled with jeering faces and searing humiliations. And waking mind? That was more focused on survival than schoolwork; bemoaning my desperate lot one moment, reliving failed confrontations (or rehearsing for those anticipated) the next. I was caught in the perpetual paralysis of misery, trapped in a life I loathed.
Frank Herbert called Fear ‘the mind-killer’ and surely no truer word was written. I simply could not conceive of any way to change my situation; all I could do was flee through the doors of fiction. There is a word ascribed to people unwilling or unable to confront their fears: cowardice. I recognise it when I look back through that cracked lens, but I do not like the pejorative. It is a crude word, dismissive, denying the potential for growth and change. We none of us can help how we feel in the moment – the adrenaline overwhelming our bodies – but fiction led me to a truism: everyone feels fear, even heroes. What we do with it, how we respond to those danger signals, that’s what matters. Hiding solves nothing long term, it just delays the inevitable. Better to stand your ground, face your fears, and damn the consequences.
I actually tried it in class one day, when a blameless lad next to me was being harrassed. I was just so sick of it by then –the pettiness, the endless unfettered cruelty of my peers, and I remember snapping, telling the bully to stop. To leave him alone. His attention shifted. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He leaned in close. ‘You wanna fight after school?’ I found myself standing up, nostrils flared. ‘Why wait?’ I asked, the world around us whitening. Make no mistake, I would have been absolutely battered in a fight – I knew it – but in the moment I couldn’t care less. ‘Right here, right now,’ I snarled. The teacher must have known what was happening, he was mere feet away, but he made no move to intervene. And then… it was as though I’d passed some kind of test. The bully stepped back, patted me on the shoulder and smiled broadly. ‘You’re alright, you.’ And then he strolled back to his desk.
I’d called his bluff and got lucky – he never bothered us again – but I’d been stupid. Things could have gone very differently, escalated, turned bloody. It happens. I felt incredible, though. I’d spat in the eye of fear and came away unscathed. It wasn’t the end of my tunnel, but I saw a chink of light at the end. Later on, I learned a much better lesson: self possession. Secondary school was done, but I still ran into those people who’d tormented me; saw the light of glee kindle as they recognised me at the pub or down the shops. I don’t know how I came to the solution, but I resolved to put on a mask of ignorance, act as if I just didn’t recognise them. That blankness, that feigned indifference to their grins demonstrated that they owned no part of my mind—and snap! My little fiction came true. The nightmares lessened as I entered adulthood, and then petered out entirely. It was a healing process begun by those cathartic non-confrontations, aided by the new vistas and opportunities of college and university, and soothed away with the love and faith of the girl who’d be my wife.
So much for the past. I still had to learn what seemed to come so naturally to most people: how to seize control of my life, become my own protagonist, write my own narrative. That strange passivity which marked me out as a victim from the off wasn’t gone yet. I didn’t have a fecking clue what I was supposed to do as a grown-up, and the old mid-life crisis came crashing in about a decade early. I had stability but not fulfilment, and that made the future frightening. Was this it? And if it was, how long before my wife realised what a nothing I was? Anxiety bit deep. How do you solve problems that only exists because you imagined them? Ten thousand disasters totter on the edge of existence, but it doesn’t mean they’ll happen.
It’s taken tribes to get me through my fears for the future, and I’m not out of the woods yet. I’m a pretty solitary guy at heart but the connections I form are strong. I value them. I’ve talked elsewhere about the impact Geek Syndicate had on me, shining the light as to what was possible with a bit of enthusiasm. Their example and their warm welcome got me trying new things creatively, and then Phil Sloman started gently tugging me towards the horror community and editing. My two tribes. My ***fulfilment. Each has inspired and encouraged me, allowed me to explore my own paths and given me the grace of their trust. That bred self-confidence, self-reliance, ambition, determination, and inner peace.
A last thought:
Fear is not the enemy in and of itself. It’s an evolutionary trait; it exists to serve a purpose – pushing us into action when our survival is at stake. There are times when that’s not an option though, and at that point we need to find a way to redirect those energies. I remain terrified of the nutjobs with nuclear codes, the climate crisis, long covid—and I have zero control over any of them. My fears peer at me from the future, prophesying doom, but it hasn’t happened yet. The lens is imperfect, set it aside. Take precautions, sure, but try to focus on the things you can affect in the here and now: your life, your family, your friends. Death will come to us all in its own way and in its own time. It always has and always will.
Until then, we’ve got some living to do.
* I don’t need a pity party, and I don’t want to bore anyone.
** With every imaginable coulda, woulda, shoulda.
*** In terms of what I actually do. There are whole other layers of fulfilment that come from sharing a life with my beloved Clover and raising our wonderful daughter.
For an upbeat look at how I found my tribes, pop back to read Geek Families (Finding Me part 3).
Some of my residual anger and feelings of helplessness bled into my latest Flash Fiction offering. Read Shush here.
For a surprisingly comforting way to contemplate that which we cannot control, I recommend an app called We Croak.