by Julie Carpenter
I have a vivid dream life that sometimes crosses over into my writing. Of course, many times, dreams die with the light, cracking into dust and scattering. Poof! I’m no longer running in place through a field of skulls while zombies fling lime Jell-O bombs at my head or sweating through an interview with FBI agents in the guise of talking dogs, or whatever was happening in those immediately forgotten visions. Vanished nightmares disappear into a miasma of never-was. Just as well.
But sometimes I have dreams that follow me into the waking world, hanging on in the light, refusing to dissipate, some lucid as the full moon behind inky tree branches, some hiding around corners and only jumping at me when triggered by an object, a word, or a scent. Those detailed dreams I sometimes put into words and stories. Dreams seem safer pinned in ink to a page. Is this cruel? I can’t tell but I reserve the right to defend myself.
Perhaps, I think – and this makes me feel better - they want to be reborn here in some form. Perhaps this world is thicker and more dependable. I don’t know if that’s true either, but it lets me off the hook. Putting dreams to paper is midwifery, giving birth to something that already exists, not imprisoning them in two dimensions. So, I comfort myself at any rate. Let someone else read them and give them a home.
Of course, often the dreams wriggle themselves into new forms when I try to conjure them in ink. The apricot nightmare-snakes that sang to me of the apocalypse were slippery on paper. In the dream, they told me how to find the rainbow bridge - that I could not reach in time. In Alma and the Snake, a single apricot serpent with copper color eyes appeared - and her motives were more suspect than her night-mare cousins.
Then there was my journey on a dream-train, chugging through tunnels of falling red rocks, leaving Hell as it crumbled. When I took the trip again in writing, it turned out the tracks ran through a complex world filled with characters - demons and people I’ve grown to love and write about at length. It first became a short story, Last Train Out of Hell, and has now grown into a novel. Once that dream hit the page it stretched out and made itself at home.
I have yet to write about some of my dreams: women appearing in balls of light to send out last messages to loved ones as they are being tortured to death hundreds of miles away; my long night riding a broom on a quest for the witches’ guild (dream-me found riding a broom all night makes for a sore posterior, unsurprisingly); ghost children throwing books and tantrums while Vesti La Giubba plays in the background. Turned out the ghost children wanted me to find their graves so they could tell me their sad story. After we cleared the air, and we all lived happily ever after in the haunted house. Perhaps some version of dream-me is sitting in the library of that very house with a cat, a book, and a cup of tea while the ghost children playfully chase one another around the shelves and through the heavy silk curtains.
Some dreams taunt me with the promise of brilliant stories; perhaps the dream world is mocking me for my attempts to pin it to a page. In one promising nightmare, I was both writing and living in a thrilling narrative that ended with a dying man looking at me and saying, “But we wanted the monster.” Good lord, I want to write that story, but I woke up with only the fragment.
There are nightmares that followed me out of the dark that I can still barely think about, much less assign some permanent form. Nightmares of loss and death. Dreams of falling. Sitting in the back seat of a car that starts rolling backwards down a mountain. Lying frozen while a tall man in a hat moves towards me with murder in his glowing eyes. In one of my most haunting nightmares, I looked down at my phone and realized it had turned to concrete and I had no way of contacting the waking world anymore, that I was trapped in the shadow world forever.
Maybe I would be better off if I wrestled these dreams on the page - fought it out with them writer to nightmare. But since I'm not assured of the outcome, I leave them to the night.
Some tales my brain tells me at night are almost too good to be true - the technicolor mountain range that leads to the high hills of heaven, where the dreamer must follow a thin, rocky path into the sunset. On another occasion, I dreamed I died in battle then lay face up in a stream, clear water running over me, soothing me into the deepest sense of rest, sleeping or waking, I’ve ever had. I don’t know that I could do those dreams justice.
I also have a darker world to draw from. I have had throughout my lifetime, a bad habit of passing out. This is remarkably inconvenient by the way - for me and the people around me. It's not a habit you want to form. When I faint, I go to a place that feels very much like the dream world except more sinister, further removed from this reality. In the dream world, I sometimes understand that I’m dreaming. REM visions are a world within a world. Entering a sleeping dream is descending a steep staircase through a rock with a pool at the bottom. Dive in, dream, swim back to the opening and return to the waking world. A sleeper has a vague notion of both worlds.
I find that the unconscious world runs parallel to this one with no easy return. In an instant, I’ve fallen through a tunnel into a universe I can’t leave on my own. Not that there isn’t occasionally fodder for stories. I once found a circle of gnome-like creatures chasing each other and fighting– they appear in The Thin Hungry Man. Mostly these dreams are more mundane and useless. When I passed out in a hospital, I found myself in a parallel hospital, talking to medical staff in green scrubs who didn’t know me or why I was there as I sadly tried to explain my plight. Most of these experiences are of dull secondary universes where I don’t belong - I hope. Returning from unconscious land seems more precarious, more random, less likely, than waking from a dream.
Like many people during COVID, I had very vivid and unsettling dreams. I hope my sleeping brain settles down because I think I have plenty of material to write about already. In spring, the dreams ease up and fade into the flowers, grass, and warmth. The longer days tend to prevent my dreams from spending so much time at my side.
But now it’s dark time. The curtain between the moonlit world of sleep and the daylight seems thinner in the winter when night presses in, consciousness seems more fragile, and the dreams have somewhere to hide. Still, stories need to be gathered while there’s time and winter is harvest time for nightmares around here. So I will scoop up nightmares and let them slither through my fingers onto the page.
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel titled The Last Train Out of Hell.