THIS ALL HAPPENED SOME time ago, so I apologize in advance if I'm a little hazy on the details. I was a very different person back then, so it's difficult to dredge it all up again like this.
Looking back, I was probably depressed in some way. On the face of it, everything seemed to be going fine in my life: I had a beautiful wife, a great job, and a young baby daughter. Everybody always told me I was so lucky. But I wasn't really happy - deep down within myself there was always this nagging sense that something wasn't right, that my life was just happening around me while I cruised through it on autopilot. It was like I was on rails and just going through the motions every day, doing what was expected of me, and never really being myself.
Of course, it's hard when you've got a young child. All of a sudden you never get a moment to yourself, and your life isn't your own. Don't get me wrong, I loved her with all my heart, but sometimes, in my darkest moments, I would wonder what my life might have been if I'd made different choices. I'd even think about just running away, although I knew I'd never actually do it. It was just a notion I entertained every now and again.
I'd reached that stage in life where all your friends are settling down and having kids, and it feels like you have to book time weeks in advance just to meet for a couple of drinks or something. Like I said, I had a good job, but I was just beginning to realize that it was going to probably be my career for the rest of my working life, and if I really wanted to get the most out of it I'd have to stop marking time and start making a concerted effort, even though my heart really wasn't in it.
So I suppose I was looking for some kind of refuge, a space in my life that was mine and mine alone, where I didn't have to pretend and there was no-one relying on me. I guess I found a pretty strange way to do it, though: I took up lucid dreaming.
I'd always been fascinated by dreams, ever since I was a kid. My dreams were always incredibly vivid and seemed a lot more coherent than most people's - they seemed to have more substance to them, more reality. Maybe more than my actual life had at the time. I can still remember my first lucid dream. I wish I could properly describe what it felt like, that sudden realization that everything around me was an illusion, and an illusion that was totally under my control. It was literally like becoming a God.
After that first time, I began using every spare moment I had to read up on the subject. Methods and techniques for achieving lucid dreams, other people's accounts of their own adventures in their subconscious mind - I devoured everything I could find, and quickly became an expert. I built entire kingdoms for myself in my sleep, and would retreat there every night, finding there the freedom and excitement that didn't exist in my waking world.
I was the architect of my own imagination, and travelled through the farthest reaches of space and the deepest fathoms of the ocean with equal ease. I led armies, fought epic battles against fearsome monsters and founded nations which hailed me as their king. I began living solely for the hours of darkness, for the moment when my head hit my pillow and I could leave my humdrum life behind and enter an existence that felt more truly my own. I didn't mind my job anymore, I was getting on better with my wife, and my daughter was once again the apple of my eye. Things were good. Or so it seemed.
Slowly, though, an intruder began to impinge upon my perfect little world. At first I sensed him more than saw him - a figure always on the edges of things, a presence that disturbed and intrigued me in equal measure. After a while I began to get glimpses of him. I'd see him for a second through a dirty window pane, or speeding past in a car, only for a moment, but he was always staring directly at me, and always grinning a leering, maniacal grin.
He was a tall, gangly man always dressed in white, with wild eyes full of dark intent and a shock of black hair that made his pale, high-cheekboned face even more intense. He unsettled me deeply. Whenever I encountered him he ruined whatever fantasy I was playing out, yet I could never approach him or confront him directly - despite my unlimited powers in the world of dreams, he always slipped away from me, and this fact alone ruined each dream he appeared in. He became a constant reminder of the unreality of my dreaming world, and made me aware of the fact that all this was just make-believe, just so much meaningless idle fancy.
And then I began encountering the White Room. I'd be in the middle of a fantastic dream, running through a door in an ancient medieval castle or diving through an airlock in a city-sized spacecraft, when suddenly I'd find myself plunging into a completely white, featureless room with no doors, no windows and no exit back to where I'd been.
And he'd be there. The gangly man. Grinning at me with his twisted, unnatural grin, fixing me fast with his crazed, evil eyes.
He didn't speak at first. He'd just watch me as I pounded on the walls and explored every inch of the room looking for some means of escape. All my powers were gone - usually I would have just blasted my way out with the power of my mind, or created a trapdoor that would have got me out of there, but somehow no matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do. There was just me, and him. Standing there in the White Room for what seemed like hours at a time, until eventually morning would come round and I'd wake up, pale and shaking and bathed in a sheen of cold, clammy sweat.
This went on for months. Now, as soon as I fell asleep I was there, in the White Room, and I stayed there all night. I began to dread sleep as much as I had once loved it. I scoured through all the books and articles I had collected on lucid dreaming to see if anyone else had experienced something similar, but couldn't find anything. It seemed I was totally alone. Just me and the gangly man, night after night, until I was afraid even to look at him.
Eventually, he began to talk to me. He'd wait until I'd given up in my dream and curled into a ball on the floor, then he'd slowly approach, crouch over me and begin to whisper in my ear in a low, calm voice. A slow, even whisper without tone or inflection. A whisper that would crawl into my ear like a snake and take up residence in my brain no matter how hard I tried to shut it out.
I won't repeat the things he said. They were truly unspeakable. Terrible, evil things: what he was going to do to my wife, to my infant child. The agonies he would put them through, every tiny detail of the tortures he would inflict on them. All in that same careful, measured whisper, that same quiet tone that betrayed no emotion whatsoever. Hour after hour of this from the moment I fell asleep until the moment I woke up.
It sickened me: sickened my very soul. And it was all the worse because I knew this was part of my dream - on some level it was me thinking those awful, horrible things. His voice was my voice, and his whisper was really mine. It was like a cancer inside my head, eating away at me from the inside out like a worm in an apple. I could no longer look my wife in the eye, and I took no joy in seeing my daughter even though I loved her more than ever. Always the echoes of that terrible whisper would come back to me, and I would hear his voice silently in my ear throughout my entire waking life.
By this time I was at my wit's end. I felt like a hollow shell of a man poised on the brink of insanity. I decided to take sleeping pills before bed, hoping to enter a deep and dreamless sleep with no sign of the gangly man and no more of his horrific whispering.
My plan backfired. I awoke unexpectedly in the middle of the night, my eyes blinking open and my mind instantly alert and totally awake. I sighed inwardly, lay there for a moment, and then decided to get myself a glass of water.
Except I couldn't move. In reading about lucid dreaming, I'd heard of sleep paralysis before, but never experienced it. The reality was far worse than I'd ever imagined. I was trapped in my body, lying on my back and staring up at the ceiling, unable to move so much as a muscle no matter how hard I tried. I felt both strangely disconnected from my body because I was no longer in control of it, and utterly rooted to it in a way I never had before. I could feel every inch of my skin, each fibre of the bedclothes tangled around me, yet even if a spider were to slowly crawl across my eyeball there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it.
I was terrified. Sleep - even if it meant another visit to the dreaded White Room - would have been infinitely preferable to this. I don't know how long I lay there, my mind whirling like a maelstrom while my body remained as immobile as stone. I was a prisoner in my own skin, as helpless and vulnerable as my own newborn baby. Eventually, slowly and deliberately, a shape loomed out of the darkness into my vision, creeping inexorably into my line of sight, a familiar shape: a shock of jet black hair framing a deathly white face, eyes wide and lurid mouth grinning…
The next thing I knew I woke up screaming, lashing out with my arms and legs and yelling at the top of my lungs. It took me a few moments to come back to myself and realize that I could move freely again, but by that time the damage had been done. My wife was standing by the side of the bed, clutching the bedclothes around her with a look of utter terror on her face. An ugly red welt was spreading across her cheek, and her eye was already swelling and closing up. She looked desperately scared and vulnerable. All I wanted to do to was hold her in my arms and protect her, but she flinched and backed away as I moved towards her.
I hadn't meant to do it, but I'd caught her hard across the side of the face with my hand as I'd woken up. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to hurt her, but within an hour or so a black, brooding bruise had formed across her face and her eye was swollen shut. I felt more scared and guilty than ever.
We both took the day off work and talked about what had happened. She'd noticed that I'd been growing more distant over the last few months, but she'd put it down to the stress of the new baby. I wanted to tell her the truth, but how could I? Mentioning the White Room and the gangly man would just make me sound like a lunatic, and I couldn't repeat to her any of the things that were whispered to me in my dreams.
I persuaded her that I'd just had a bad reaction to the sleeping pills, that I'd been having a hard time at work recently and hadn't been getting enough rest. We spent the rest of the day just watching movies and playing with the kid - it was good to take a bit of a break and just do nothing for a change - but that night she insisted that I sleep in the spare room. I assured her I wasn't going to take the sleeping meds again, but she was obviously still wary of me, and, given the angry-looking bruise on her cheek, I couldn't say I blamed her.
That night as I lay there, alone in that empty, darkened room waiting for sleep to come, I thought through the events of the previous night. It must have been just a dream. Had to be. The alternative was just too outlandish to contemplate. I put it down to the sleeping pills. The gangly man had been on my mind, so when the sleep paralysis caused by the pills kicked in, it's natural that if I was going to hallucinate, it would be him that I'd see. There was nothing more to it than that.
At least that's what I told myself.
I don't know when I finally drifted off to sleep. Part of me was dreading it, but I was mentally and physically exhausted, so it was inevitable that I'd eventually succumb.
My eyes flicked open again what felt like only seconds later, but I knew I must have been asleep for some time. I was almost expecting to see the stark, empty walls of the White Room around me, but instead the spare room was filled with the bleary half-light of an early morning, in the hours before dawn, before the day has properly begun.
Once again I was completely wide awake, as if a switch had suddenly been flipped in my brain. But this time my eyes roamed round the room seemingly at random, taking in every detail. To my huge relief, there was no sign of the gangly man anywhere.
I tried to get up, but to my dismay I found that I couldn't. I willed myself to move, but nothing happened. The fear rose inside me again, the fear of being rooted to the spot for hours and hours once more.
Then my hand moved.
I felt it slide up from under the covers, then slowly push them back. Only it wasn't me that was moving it. I tried to stop it, tried with every fibre of my being to put my hand back down, or force it out to the side - anything but let it continue what it was doing against my will.
But there was nothing I could do to influence it. Despite the fact I had directed the full force of my will against it, my muscles were not even tense - the hand moved easily, smoothly, and completely out of my control.
I sat up. Again, I played no part in the movement. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. My legs swung over the side of the bed onto the floor. If I had been a prisoner in my body before, now I was simply a passenger. I stood up. I felt my mouth twist into a grin, a wide, demonic grin that felt like it would split my face in two. I felt my tongue touch my teeth, the roof of my mouth, my lips - I could hear myself whispering, whispering in a low, hushed monotone. I recognized the voice immediately.
Despite the blind panic within me, I could do nothing as I walked calmly and quietly out of the room and down the hall, towards where my wife and daughter lay innocently sleeping.