Childhood Fears by J. Ashley Smith
Through the looking glass: a child inside the mirror world
I grew up in the eighties, in an Edwardian townhouse in Cambridge that may or may not have been haunted. I had two great fears growing up: that the world would end in a terrible fiery holocaust, followed by an even more terrible nuclear winter; and that my dead brother wasn’t dead at all, but trapped in some obscure limbo from which he was always trying to reach me, here, in this world.
I never knew Ben, except in my imagination. I would have been five when my parents left me at the house of their then childless friends, the Hathiramanis, to go to hospital for the birth. For the previous six or seven months the expectation had been building: I was to have a baby brother. But when my father returned from the hospital, my mother wasn’t with him. Neither was there a baby.
My memories of this time are necessarily suspect. I remember seeing him alive in a hospital room with my mother, but have no idea if this really happened. He did live for some short time after the birth, perhaps as much as two days. But his heart was defective and there was nothing that could be done to extend his time with us. I do remember with a dreamlike lucidity his funeral, that tiny white coffin being carried from the church. So small, it was somehow obscene—a perversion of the natural order. I pretend that I remember disrupting the ceremony to say loudly, “Is this going to go on forever?” But it is not my memory, just an imprint from stories other people have told me.
This small event, the death of Ben, detonated in my childhood with the force of an atom bomb. It was a silent explosion, the damage contained within my family, but with fallout that would linger for years after—still lingers, I suppose, in ways I’m blind to or have grown accustomed to. I was too young at the time to realise the impact it had—would have—on me and my state of mind. And it was not until I was a parent myself that I would have any idea of the devastation my parents must have experienced. But a clear line had been drawn, with ‘before’ on one side and ‘after’ on the other. Whatever future my destiny had been pointing me towards was now skewed. It was as though I had been knocked into another universe, an inverted mirror world filled with shadows, in which death was everywhere.
This all happened at the very beginning of the eighties, when the long shadow of nuclear war seemed to hang over everyone. I began to dream frequently of the end of the world, of an Earth scorched to dust by conflict, and myself disembodied, flying at speed over endless desert speckled with the graves of every last human being. In waking life, there were more funerals—grandparents and other elderly relatives, deaths both untimely and expected. I remember hiding at a wake for my granny’s husband, up in a cypress tree by the fence in their garden, the garage roof below me, hot and mottled with lichen. There were other funerals—a blur of others as I recall it, though perhaps that too is a failure of memory. At the time it seemed as though all we did was go to funerals.
I don’t know if I found horror, or if it found me. For children growing up in those days, there was no bridging material between books for kids or adults. There was no Harry Potter, no Katniss Everdeen. The standard progression was from Roald Dahl to Stephen King—and this was certainly true for me. By ten or eleven, I was devouring King, Herbert, Straub, and any number of the schlockier authors of the “let’s pick an animal at random and make it eat people having sex” variety. Though I wasn’t particularly lonely at that age—I had friends, including one or two close ones—I had always felt somewhat isolated by my experience. Death—its intimacy, its indifference—wasn’t something anyone talked about at school, not in a way I could relate to, anyway. Finding horror fiction was like coming home. No matter how overblown (and often, frankly unrealistic) it might have been, it portrayed a world that made sense to me—it reflected back to me that mirror world, so unlike the safe, middle-class milieu that I grew up in. It spoke directly to those shadows that had clung to me since Ben’s death.
I’ve written elsewhere about the first stories I wrote, gory, gruesome vignettes I scribbled by torchlight in the dank foundations beneath our house. I’ve written, too, about reading King down there—King, who wrote so often about boys with dead brothers—and hearing something drag itself towards me in the darkness, how I fled that underground crawlspace and never, ever went back. What I’ve never mentioned is what I believed at the time: that whatever it was I heard, dragging itself towards me over the gritty earth, was Ben himself.
There had been other ‘incidents’, minor events I was too frightened to reveal to my parents—fearing they would think me insane, or worse, that by saying them aloud they would become real. Sounds in the silence of night, of unknown feet climbing the stairs to my room, or creaking up—but not down—the aluminium ladder to our attic. Shadows moving beyond the curtain of my second-storey window, the sense of someone there, crouching, waiting. The pervasive feeling throughout the empty house of not being quite alone.
From the deep distance of adulthood, these all seem so easy to explain: a child’s imagination run riot, fuelled by the incomprehensibility of loss and a steady diet of age-inappropriate stories of horror and the supernatural. And certainly it’s true that horror fiction—especially that of Stephen King—gave shape to those amorphous and intangible fears, gave them a language of images through which to express themselves. At the time, though, the terror those experiences induced was heart-stoppingly real, as was my conviction that Ben was still with us—some ghostly undead Ben, who improbably did not remain a baby but aged as I aged, grew up alongside me, just out of reach. On the other side of that mirror between the worlds.
Writing this now, reflecting on that time and the impact it had on my later life, I can see so clearly all the seeds of my adult pre-occupations and the stories that came to express them. They’re all there, my literary fixations: the ambiguity of the supernatural; family grief and family madness; the sense of powerlessness of children in the face of vast, inexpressible terrors; the endless, inconsolable, unrequitable longing. Perhaps, through these obsessions, I’m still searching for a way out of that mirror world. Perhaps I am writing my way out from under the implacable shadow of death.
The Measure of Sorrow by J. Ashley-Smith
Shirley Jackson Award-winning author J. Ashley-Smith’ s first collection, The Measure of Sorrow, draws together ten new and previously acclaimed stories of dark speculative fiction. In these pages a black reef holds the secret to an interminable coastal limbo; a father struggles to relate to his estranged children in a post-bushfire wilderness; an artist records her last days in conversation with her unborn child; a brother and sister are abandoned to the manifestations of their uncle’ s insanity; a suburban neighbourhood succumbs to an indescribable malaise; teenage ravers fall in with an eldritch crowd; a sensitive New Age guy commits a terminal act of passive-aggression; a plane crash opens the door to the Garden of Eden; the new boy in the village falls victim to a fatal ruse; and a husband’s unexpressed grief is embodied in the shadows of a crumbling country barn. Intelligent and emotionally complex, the stories in The Measure of Sorrow elude easy classification, lifting the veil on the wonder and horror of a world just out of true.
J. Ashley Smith
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian author of dark fiction and co-host of the Let The Cat In podcast. His first book, The Attic Tragedy, won the Shirley Jackson Award. Other stories have won Ditmar, Australian Shadows, and Aurealis awards. He lives with his wife and two sons beneath an ominous mountain in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can find him at spooktapes.net, performing amazing experiments in electronic communication with the dead. His debut collection, The Measure of Sorrow, is out now from Meerkat Press.
Author site: https://www.spooktapes.net/