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a writer's life Autobiographical Blowing my own trumpet Horror Prose

What You Look For

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895. The Munch Museum.

My short story What You Look For has just been published in Horla.

The story is loosely based on a house I shared as a student in Leamington Spa — with what I hope is a horrific twist. I did once see what I think of as a ghost, which appeared as I describe in this story, although the figure I saw was a woman.

After I finished this story I realise what I may have written was really an allegory for the onset of the panic attacks which started in my early twenties. I experienced debilitating attacks for at least ten years. I had what I thought of as ‘seasons in Hell’, where for stretches of two or three months I might experience as many as five or six attacks in a day.

In my early thirties I finally got help from a systemic therapist in Richmond, Surrey. She had a crumbling spine, and was in agony and spent the sessions lying on her couch. I felt a bit sheepish. She had a real problem. I was just a panicky mess. However, and somewhat miraculously, she fixed me in one session.

‘What makes it stop?’ she asked.

In all the years of attacks on planes, tubes, walking down the road, in the comfort of my own rooms, I had never asked myself this question. I was an expert at what started the terrible plunge into panic, but not on what ended it.

By focusing on what I felt like at the end of a panic attack, I was able to fast forward through the attack, and reach the end unscathed. While I have had the occasional moment of panic since that first consultation, it has never dominated my life again.

I went once more to her, and she told me never to come back again. She died a few months later. To my shame I can’t remember her name, but she gave me the single best piece of advice I was ever given.

I hope you enjoy the story.

The beginning of terror

Having an imagination is useful in the work I do. By an imagination I mean the part of the mind that allows me, and everyone else, to form ideas, images and concepts about things that are not right there under my nose.

The imagination is morally neutral. As well as the enigmatic Mona Lisa, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci was also able to imagine methods of slaughtering people more efficiently, with prototype tanks and machine guns.

Like everyone else, my imagination has its dark side: the hypochondria, the panicky daydreams in tube trains and planes and so on. In fact I am not completely in control of my imagination. But then a tamed imagination is no imagination at all. This means that, like many, my imagination has caused me to suffer.

Creative people, however, must consciously encourage their imaginations in a way that an accountant or surveyor may need not do. This half baked notion of exploring my imagination justified my decision to take LSD when I was a student. The truth is I took LSD only once – in what proved to be a strong dose – but the experience has resonated ever since.

The trip felt like an excursion into another world. I drew fish on white paper and watched them swim around the page. I went into a pub in Leamington Spa, which seemed completely Tolkienesque with its weird stuffed stags heads. I walked through the park at night, seemingly able to sense leaf buds vibrating with growth. Music became a wondrous new dimension and, in a friend’s bedroom, I felt I could enter his poster of Van Gough’s café terrace, step away from its golden light, and gaze up at the powdery stars.

But then my imagination turned on me. At one point I felt my mouth become full of blood, my teeth seemed to loosen and drop out, and I was trapped for what seemed like hours of an escalating hellish panic of the imagination.

At the time I was reading the Rilke’s magnificent Duino Elegies, in the translation by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (and still my favourite version). A line from the The First Elegy is translated as:

                                   For beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. 

This line was on repeat in my head as the undeniably beautiful LSD experience became a terrifying ordeal. These 13 hours opened a Pandora’s box in my imagination, and I would never be the same again. It expanded what I was able to imagine, but afterwards I believe it contributed to the panic attacks I experienced for over a decade.

Naturally, I have thought about this experience. The attraction of LSD is that it crosses the border between what is subjectively inside you, and the outside world. So that a pub can seem as if it were an Inn from The Lord of the Rings, which I had read many times. The barrier between what was subjectively inside me, and the outside world was ruptured by the drug. And this is exactly what happens during a panic attack.

Panic can be triggered by many things. For me a fear of being trapped can become attached to being stuck in a tube train tunnel. The barrier between my imagination, and the mundane reality of a train being slightly delayed in a tunnel is broken. My imagination then leaks into the carriage, and everything has the potential to become quite scary.

While not trying to generalise from my own neurotic tendencies, I do think creative people have to guard their borders. By all means plunge into the imagination, play with it and set it tasks, but beware it is a two way street. It can have its designs on you too.

L’Ange du Foyer by Max Ernst