HOLISTIC HORRORS: PANEL REPORT: SENSE AND SENSITIVITY & ESSAY: PORTRAYALS OF DEMENTIA IN HORROR
Written by Lee Murray
(Trigger Warning: Articles in this column discuss mental health/illness)
In this column, I’m pleased to offer a report of the inspirational virtual panel on sensitive treatments of mental illness in horror, a discussion moderated by HWA Wellness co-chair Dave Jeffery and including an expert panel of speakers, which was published in June 2023 at our annual StokerCon convention. Also in this column is a short personal essay incorporating my takeaways from that panel discussion as they relate to three short stories on the subject of dementia and caregiving: Dave Jeffery’s “Once” which is published in its entirety at the end of this column with kind permission of the author; Lisa Morton’s “In the Garden” which appears in Alessandro Manzetti’s The Beauty of Death Vol 1 (Independent Legions); and my own short story “Nightshift” which appears in An Unholy Thirst (Pavanne Press, edited by Cliff Biggers & Charles Rutledge) and also in translation (by Nicola Lombardi) in Weird Book Italy’s 2023 anthology Midnight (edited by Luigi Boccia and Nicola Lombardi).
SENSE AND SENSITIVITY:
MODERN APPROACHES TO MENTAL HEALTH IN HORROR.
Stokercon Virtual Panel Report
Moderated by Dave Jeffery with Ramsey Campbell, L.E. Daniels, Dan Rabarts, and Senah Saferight Lloyd. Panel report by Lee Murray.
In a discussion which was organic, engaging, and also informative, this panel discussed what the term “sensitivity” means in horror literature when addressing character, plot, and themes which involve mental illness, and what some common-sense approaches to writing about this complex subject might look like.
HWA Wellness Committee co-chair, author Dave Jeffery, who has a thirty-year history in mental health advocacy in the UK’s National Health Service, opened the session, reminding attendees that the topic might be triggering for some, and that the discussion would be guided by the tenets of the HWA Mental Health Initiative Charter, which could be found in the StokerCon souvenir handbook and also on the HWA website. Readers of this report can find it here: https://horror.org/mental-health-initiative-charter/
Introducing themselves, the panellists noted their interest in the topic with Ramsey Campbell citing his 1979 novel The Face That Must Die (expanded and re-released in 1982), which he based on childhood observations of his mother’s (undiagnosed) schizophrenia, while L.E Daniels mentioned a university background in psychology which led her to write Serpent’s Wake: A Tale For The Bitten, an HWA Notable Work which seeks to explore the inner child of a traumatised adult. Relatively new to horror, Senah Saferight Lloyd joined the panel both as a writer of short fiction and a licenced mental health counsellor, while Dan Rabarts, the author of short story “Riptide”, an Australian Shadows Award winner and HWA Notable Work, said his contribution to the panel was as a novelist and short fiction writer with real-world experience in mental health/illness both personally and in the workplace.
The first question posed by Jeffery focused on defining sensitivity in the context of mental health and horror. Panellists offered a number of definitions. Terms like authenticity, respect, and understanding were used. Campbell noted that, in his view, sensitivity comes from authentic portrayals revealed through the inner thoughts and perspectives of the character, including how they process aspects of their mental illness. Saferight Lloyd made the point that people with serious mental illness are more likely to be harmed themselves than to do something violent to others. She said sensitivity involves understanding the experience of the mentally ill. Daniels concurred, suggesting that sensitivity is not shallow, but informed. Rabarts proposed that mental health/illness falls on a spectrum, and since our start point on that spectrum may be different, we need to be aware that we may not face the same things. Everyone agreed that characters with mental illness should not simply be objectified as the monster. Jeffery concluded the question discussion with the assertion that we should acknowledge the person, rather than define people by their illness.
When asked where the issues are in relation to the portrayal of mental health and illness in the horror genre, the panellists offered a number of barriers, including stigma, stereotyping, and inaccurate public perception due to misinformation about mental illness perpetuated in the media and online. Rabarts warned that there is a difference between exploration and exploitation, and without sensitivity it is too easy for writers to step into exploitation. Daniels suggested that it is important to retain the historical context of a story and that we should not shy away from showing things as they were, including using the language of the day, but she also pointed out that, when written with sensitivity, horror can inspire optimism. Saferight Lloyd, speaking again from her professional experience, said that inaccurate misinformed public perception can impact people with lived experience of a mental illness, and called for realistic portrayals which consider the person as a whole. Campbell agreed, saying, “the worst way to treat anything in fiction is to base it on other fiction.” Jeffery recommended seeking out evidence-based information from peer-reviewed journals where you have some assurance that there is validity to the lived experience. He also agreed that horror writers need to move away from the damaging association of mental illness and violence.
When asked how genre writers can address these issues when developing characters, plot, and associated themes, the panellists suggested avoiding labels and leaning heavily on techniques such as imagery and metaphor. Both Rabarts’ “Riptide” and Daniels’ Serpent’s Wake were cited as examples of sensitive texts which draw heavily on metaphor. Other suggestions for avoiding the pitfalls included use of symbol, motif, and allegory. Daniels suggested looking for common ground, using poetry to address the contours of symptoms, and creating unexpected characters who defy their limitations. Campbell recommended scrutinising the psychological/supernatural experience of the character and finding their internal language. He said a helpful example text is 1960 title I Hear Voices by Paul Ableman, a first-person narrative which gets into the head of a character who suffers schizophrenia, a book which was considered unpublishable in its day, solely because its central character has a mental illness. He later gave the examples of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat”, where Poe gives insight into mental illness by getting into the head of his character, and a 1930s book called Crook Frightfulness by A. Victim (a pseudonym), an autobiographical account about paranoia and the delusion that someone was being stalked. Lloyd said that there are a lot of good resources online where writers can read about the lived experience of people with mental illness in order to create accurate and responsible portrayals.
Jeffery then surprised the panellists with a question about the public perception of mental illness through history, and how that might have changed, to which Campbell said that traditionally people with mental illness were shut away. He gave the example of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and the woman in the attic (the character of Bertha Mason). Campbell noted a tendency even in his childhood for people to use euphemisms and avoid people with mental illness – as if it might be catching. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (also a first-person narrative), was raised as another example of effective use of internal thought and metaphor to reveal a person’s mental state. Rabarts posed a question about psychopathy, noting the shared traits of focus and drive exhibited by ancient kings and emperors waging wars to expand borders, modern CEOs exploiting workers to create profit, as well as leaders vying for political power and personal gain. Saferight Lloyd said that certain terms are thrown around casually in general discourse – terms like OCD, narcissistic, and psychopath – but they don’t have the same meaning in a professional context. All the panellists agreed that writers have a responsibility not to contribute to harmful stereotypes and tropes.
When faced with the barriers and complexities of the topic, what motivates the panellists to keep writing about mental health/illness? Campbell said as an observer of mental illness in his early life, the topic gives him scope to explore, through supernatural and other means, and he has yet to mine all the ideas available. Saferight Lloyd claimed that she was using the adage “write what you know”, drawing on her personal and professional experience to create stories. Daniels said good writing is about transformation both in the writer and the reader, and responses to her work, from readers who identified with her stories and her characters, have inspired her. Rabarts claimed that those us who have an ability to express ourselves have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot. He says it is possible that, as writers, we can shape something that someone else might need, and show them that the (metaphorical) bear, or the demons, can indeed be beaten.
Overall, it was an entertaining and lively panel discussion, expertly curated by Jeffery, offering vital insight into this important topic. The session closed with a reminder about the HWA Mental Health Initiative activities and resources, including Notable Works which launched in March 2023, an ongoing programme to develop a list of member reviews of exemplar texts which handle mental health/illness with understanding, compassion, and sensitivity.
Titles mentioned in the course of the discussion:
- Face that Must Die by Ramsey Campbell
- Serpent’s Wake: A Tale for the Bitten by L.E. Daniels
- “Riptide” by Dan Rabarts, in Suspended in Dusk II, edited by Simon Dewar
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- I Hear Voices by Paul Ableman
- Crook Frightfulness by A. Victim
PORTRAYALS OF DEMENTIA IN HORROR
By Lee Murray
Not long after the Sense and Sensitivity Panel was recorded for StokerCon 2023, my HWA Wellness co-chair, Dave Jeffery, sent me a draft story called “Once” which tells of a couple dealing with one partner’s dementia. Jeffery asked if I would mind giving it a sensitivity read. Aware that my dad had suffered with dementia for many years – looked after first by family, and later in a local care facility before passing away in 2020 during New Zealand’s pandemic lockdown – Jeffery was keen for any insights which might help him polish his story (printed in full below). I dived in, keeping the takeaways of the panel top of mind.
The plot of “Once” is simple enough: a woman awakes in the night to find her husband, a dementia sufferer, tapping at the window, and as she crosses the room to coax him back to the present, to a semblance of cognition, and to the warmth of their bed, she reminisces on their past. It’s a tale perfused with loss and longing. And as I was reading, it occurred to me how many of the panellists’ recommendations Jeffery had employed in his work. For example, Lauren Elise Daniels suggested using poetry to address the contours of symptoms – the suggestion poetry in itself – and Jeffery’s use of poetic structure is clear here, with his story arranged in sections like a poem’s stanzas, with each recurring memory of the wife punctuated with the poignant refrain: Things were so different once. The prose is also poetic and lyrical, drawing on sharp imagery like the wearied resilience of “weathered hearts”, the sour bitterness of “curdled cream”, and slow understanding like “wading through molasses”.
Jeffery has also used the inner thoughts of the protagonist to good effect as Ramsey Campbell recommends, telling the entire story – with the exception of the final line – in the mind of the carer-wife. And this particular aspect struck me as authentic, perhaps the result of Jeffery’s decades of experience in mental health advocacy in the UK’s NHS, because when a family member has dementia, we learn not to ask, “Do you remember?” This isn’t something we tend to say aloud since it only serves to upset sufferers because, of course, they don’t remember – including where they put things. Jeffery’s character puts the tea caddy in the fridge while my dad stowed his glasses in the clothes dyer, both certain they belonged there – another jolt of authenticity which proves to me Jeffery is “writing what he knows” as Senah Saferight Lloyd suggests. Finally, Jeffery uses the window, and its reflection, both as symbol of the separation between the couple, and also as a metaphor since the pane serves as the conduit between realms, creating a momentary resolution, a fleeting instant that, for those of us who have experienced it, is heartbreakingly real.
Sadly, when it comes to dementia and related mental illness, we rarely see accounts written by sufferers except perhaps in the early stages after their diagnosis, since the degenerative nature of the illness and its impact on the cognitive and physical wellbeing of an individual makes it impossible for sufferers to share their lived experience. My own father became aphasic in later years, for example, and our communication was achieved in other ways, through hugs, and grumbles, and sometimes tears. So while we might never truly know how a sufferer might feel in those advanced stages, Jeffery’s poignant and evocative tale from the point of view of a dementia sufferer’s partner offers some insight, and perhaps some understanding into the fear and isolation behind the veil, and that desperate need for connection that we all crave. In the panel, Saferight Lloyd asserted that sensitivity involves understanding the experience of the mentally ill, while Dan Rabarts said writers have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot, and I feel both of those goals have been achieved here in “Once”. “This is why we must fight the fear these moments bring; we must endure and keep each other safe,” writes Jeffery.
Some people might argue that Jeffery’s story doesn’t qualify as horror. Yes, there’s a pervasive unease, a shadowy, almost gothic disquiet, but is it true horror? For me, and for many families whose loved ones suffer from dementia, there is nothing like the terror of watching your person disappear by degrees, and since horror is affective – its effectiveness determined by how it makes us feel – Jeffery’s story embodies a real-life horror for this reader. I read the story a few days later to my mother, and she agreed. In fact, we both had a little cry and then we talked at length about Dad, sharing memories and anecdotes in the same way as Jeffery’s protagonist turns over memories in her mind. With three years distance, for us the grief is still cavernous, but there is progress too, a hope that we might one day remember him as he was and without a tinge of pain, which proves Daniels’ point that when written with sensitivity, horror can inspire optimism.
Another story which has its roots in dementia care is Lisa Morton’s chilling short story “In the Garden” (The Beauty of Death Vol 1, Independent Legions). Although Morton doesn’t specifically mention dementia in her story, the six-time Bram Stoker Awards-winner has been refreshingly open about her personal struggle to provide care for her beloved mother, now sadly deceased, even when her mother’s dementia caused her to treat Morton with indifference and, at times, cruelty. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. A 2021 study showed that agitation, aggressiveness, restlessness, and emotional distress occurred in about 30% of sufferers across all types of dementia, with the highest prevalence of nearly 50% seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (Carrarini, Russo, Dono et al.). Jeffery clearly understands this: “I move towards you like you’re some kind of explosive device set to detonate at the slightest vibration,” he writes in “Once”. Perhaps these uncharacteristic behaviours are what prompted Morton to focus on the trauma, and horror, experienced by those who step up to provide long-term care for a family member, often at an unfathomable personal cost. Certainly, the authenticity and honesty of Morton’s account makes “In the Garden” a compelling if confronting read. How did she achieve this? Using the techniques of close internal thought – or the internal language of the character, as Ramsey Campbell might describe it – as well as employing gardening as a metaphor for care, Morton artfully reveals the exhaustion, guilt, and helplessness felt by caregivers, and especially the daily struggle to eke out even the smallest respite from the interminable cycle of tending for their loved ones. In the story, the garden is also degenerating, a fact captured in brutal imagery as Morton’s protagonist, Adrienne, discovers several caterpillar larvae in her precious garden, “her private place, the world that she’d made that was hers alone” now taken over by a “colony of sickly coloured, burrowing little monsters, waiting to drain the life from whatever she planted”. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to read it, suffice to say its resolution is shudderingly dark and also shockingly satisfying. It spoke to me. I recall crying when I first read it because, on occasion, I had experienced the same dark thoughts as Morton’s protagonist. I knew that dreadful burden of unrequited care. Perhaps all caregivers do at some time or another, particularly when the care is prolonged and when any support may be fragile and scarce. I wonder if this was Morton’s motivation for the story, to exorcise those demons onto the page, to speak them out loud so as to quieten them for a while. Whatever her reasons, it was a comfort to recognise myself in her story and not feel so alone.
While my own story, “Nightshift”, doesn’t have the poetic beauty of Jeffery’s “Once” nor the understated brutality of Morton’s “In the Garden”, I also tackled the subject matter through metaphor. I wanted to show the insidiousness of dementia, the way it creeps up on the unsuspecting, unfurls its tongue, and slurps away their memories. For this, I chose a vampire masquerading as a nurse aide in an aged care home, the setting based on the home where my dad spent his final six years. My vampire works nights, the perfect set up for a creature who sups on the nightmares of the elderly, sinking her probiscis into their grey matter to drain their synapses of their residual fear. It’s an addictive and revitalising hit for my protagonist, but the attacks cause her elderly victims to decline sharply afterwards. “Eighty-three was a good innings, so Wilkins’s decline shouldn’t raise any alarms,” I wrote in the story, a comment plucked from my lived experience. After all, dementia doesn’t get anyone’s pulse racing. It isn’t sexy; just something that happens to old people. Of course, as the story’s author I was able to give that vampire her just desserts, a satisfying vengeance for the precious memories she stole from my dad. Sometimes, we need to push back at the horror, bring down those demons, as Rabarts said. Take that, you nasty vampire!
Ramsey Campbell made the point in the panel that as an observer of mental illness from a young age, he has found there is so much scope to explore mental illness through horror, and I cannot agree more – just look at these three very different stories touching on dementia and care. However, approaching the work with sensitivity is vital if we are to avoid damaging tropes that stigmatise and isolate. If you’re looking to write a story which includes characters, plots, or themes of mental illness, suggestions made in the StokerCon Sense and Sensitivity panel discussion above offer an excellent point of departure.
Cararini C., Russo M., Dono F., et al. (2021). Agitation and Dementia: Prevention and Treatment Strategies in Acute and Chronic Conditions Front. Neurol, Sec. Dementia and Neurodegenerative Diseases Volume 12 https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2021.644317
A Short Story by
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” – C.S. Lewis
You are there again, standing by the window, gazing out upon the garden, seeing something I cannot, like a secret, carefully and expertly kept. As clockwork, this routine; a late-night affair where confusion seems to be the only available suitor. Or the only one with whom you feel at home.
The cottage is cool, the bedsheets a warm memory; the hearth of the fireplace is as dark as these current times, ever waiting for some spark to tend the kindling, and bring back the faded light of hope to my weathered heart. Watching you—the sentinel frozen in a private vigil—puts distance in this cramped space; just as we are empty as the void, and as vast as the cosmos.
Things were so different, once. Do you remember those days in Worcester, the river walks where the air was heady with the scent of summer; the surge and rush of river Severn water as it traversed the weir? Holding hands, stolen kisses under gloomy bridges, smiles bright, eyes only for each other in those lazy yet lengthy moments. We made promises then, the kind that cement relationships, the kind that transcend love and carnal desire. The kind that well and truly last. Romance was our comfort, but all too quickly the blanket became a shroud, the world opaque, trapping us within a grim reality, where someone could stand before you, yet you remain so lost.
A scuff and shuffle of mule slippers over the pile, the rug a wedding present from your mother. Now it is aged and she, quite dead. I watched you mourn her, my arm wrapped about yours, and the sky a dull iron, our hearts just as heavy. Was this where it all began, I wonder, this infernal distance? Is this what keeps you here on this earth, near yet so far away from my love, from what it used to mean; and the way it used to solve so many of your ills? Like you with your mother on that grey and sullen day, I also grieve, but for you, for the person you were before these moments of private counsel where I am nothing more than a mere observer.
I am bitter, sour to the point of curdled cream. Sometimes it eats through what little solace I find, until the forlorn stink of dread and hopelessness threatens to suffocate. In the clutch of ragged breath, I have watched our tiny world turn, while I grip the breakfast bar, or dressing table, so I may remain steadfast and upright. So, I may present this resolute persona. Spinning rooms stir up memories.
Things were so different, once. Do you remember our date at the ice rink in Tamworth? You said I looked like Bambi on ice, and I said you talked in clichés. You laughed, that infectious guffaw, and said “touché!” Later that day, we had dinner at Portobello, and you told me you loved me more than tortellini before putting on your meaningful face and saying with all earnestness that I was your world, and you’d never leave. Neither of us knew how hollow such a promise was to become; a sentiment and a curse fused as love.
Love. In this netherworld you now inhabit, is love the same? Can it be the same? Do you look at me with those empty eyes and feel anything at all? It seems that you are searching for something. Perhaps it is a place I cannot possibly know, or there is something beckoning, the way a party magician beguiles a child with cards and glitter. I cannot possibly know, of course. I am as much in the dark as the kindling in the grate. Yes, you are here, and yet you are not, standing on a threshold between worlds: yours, and mine.
Things were so different, once. Do you remember little Dotty? She was meant to be a celebration, testament to our life together. But no life in the end; in the stifling heat of a maternity suite, she was unmoved, tiny, and still, slick with blood and meconium; a frantic suction machine orchestrated her passing. In her loss we found strength, the means to heal. We found such a thing in each other, building walls of a castle keep that kept everyone else at bay. In that time, we shared the pain of loss, and deemed it an experience not worthy of repeating. A way to accept what the doctors had already told us in that small stuffy room, where the only response was the hum of a desk fan and our weeping, put on mute.
Fingers on the glass, a tiny tattoo; the rhythm of the lost. The pane is clear, unlike my thoughts as I move towards you like you’re some kind of explosive device set to detonate at the slightest vibration.
Things were so different, once. Do you remember when we could not wait to spend hours in each other’s bed? Talking and exploring, getting to know each other’s mind and body, savouring every second, like we somehow knew time would one day betray us. Sometimes back then, we kept our peace; words devolved to deeds and touch. Now, when we need them the most, words fail us. They make their escape and roam free, yet they never quite connect, not the way they used to, not the way they should. They are the petrified prehistoric remains; they are the silent screams of those drowning in their own shallow lives.
So, too, was the onset of our woe subtle and insidious. That time I found you putting the tea caddy in the fridge, and for a moment you thought that’s where it truly lived. Then that ‘tut, tut, tut’ as reality dawned, part mirth but darkened by quick irritation, and fear.
Things were so different, once. Do you remember the days after the nights before, thick heads and bacon rolls, resuscitation by caffeine and ketchup? You were telling me things more than once, even back then; so, in this maybe things are the same. But it is the only thing, and I have no one to blame but the cruelties of life. Maybe, if had a little faith in a god or the medics, it might distract me from this, the day-to-day, and these cool nights when I am pulled from sleep as you tap that damned window. Is there any point to it, any point in this, the same day playing on repeat? If only I could break into that brave new world you are desperate to find. Perhaps that tapping on the pane is a staccato message to the beyond, and one night when I shuffle from our bed, and come to this window, you will be gone and only that tapping will remain. The thought brings a shudder, the cold touch of fear does its work, and I pause, no longer keen to place a gentle hand upon your forearm and guide you back to bed.
I spurn my reticence; ashamed that for a moment I am afraid of you, of what you have become, a mere shadow of the person you were, a ghost lost and alone. Is this not an example of why I must persevere; muster the resolve—mental and physical—to ensure you know that I am with you, always?
Things were so different, once. Do you remember those first crisp winters in our small apartment in Bromsgrove, drinking hot chocolate from big red mugs, marshmallows bobbing against our lips; blankets about our shoulders, the cold turning our breath to steam? We had nothing but each other, and that pitiful place that we could barely heat, yet somehow it felt as though we had it all. Our parents thought we were reckless when we took on that run-down place. More so when we refused their offers of help. But we met the world and its ills head-on, determined, and independent from all but each other. They claimed that they understood in the end, but you said, “I don’t think they do.” You always thought they had a look of people who felt they had somehow failed in their duty as parents. Maybe they meant it in a way that implied a sense of pride. You said that any pride belonged to us, and us alone; and that made us omnipotent.
Not that way now, it seems. Instead, we are fragile entities, like the finest crystal in the palms of inept and quivering hands. But strength may come from places we never knew existed within ourselves. Words of wisdom you wielded as weapons against a frightening world of tests and treatments and clinically perfumed corridors. Our love was the armour, and oh how it bore the brunt of burden and ardour. This is why we must fight the fear these moments bring; we must endure and keep each other safe.
I continue, onwards, my hand reaching for your arm, ready to help you reconnect with the world, our world that we have built from nothing but respect and dedication and loss and hope. And as I reach, so too do I look upon the pane against which you tap, tap, tap.
Then I see her in the glass.
The woman’s face has vacant eyes, lips moving soundlessly, and I am at once confused, unsure that such a thing should be there instead of you. Those eyes are distracted beyond knowing. So, this is why you insist on tapping the glass. You are trying to gain her attention, to break through her trance, so she can explain how she can be there, and what it is she wants with us. I look to you, seeking confirmation on my theory. You are no longer there, but the tapping on the glass continues, and I frown.
Things were so different, once. Do you remember that time when you went away –some work thing or other, a conference in Cape Town – you had never been so far from home. We both felt the distance, the yearning to be back together. The term ‘soulmates’ was made for us; those two weeks proved the belief was not mere whimsy. You told me that you stood atop Table Mountain, watched the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet off Cape Point, the mass of light and dark green stitched from shore to horizon with a writhing thread of foam. Yet such a monumental moment was dulled in that we could not share it together. All I could think about is you, pining for me, and how I needed to embrace you, hold you close so you never felt that way again. The thought of that embrace brings with it warm waves of contentment, and I succumb to the riptide.
The woman in the window momentarily frowns, then a smile plays upon her lips, as though she is able to read my thoughts. Somehow it feels right that she should know, that she should want to do such a thing.
A hand rests lightly upon my arm, accompanied by a resigned and patient sigh. Why am I not afraid? Why does this make sense on one level and not on another? The woman in the glass reflects my dilemma with a puzzled expression of her own. Turning my head, I forego her bewilderment, my gaze on the hand placed upon my sleeve, then to the wrist and the forearm, stopping when I see a face etched with sadness and there are tears, glistening in the dimmed wall lights, and they traverse cheeks as pale as alabaster.
Is that you? How can you be there when you were just here; tapping the window, trying to get the attention of the woman in the glass? Is that why the tap, tap, tap is no longer on the air? Is such an action no longer needed because she has finally revealed her secrets and you somehow understand the whys and wherefore of who she is?
Despite your tears, there is a warm, albeit watery, smile. My emotions coalesce, and the confusion mounts. I am at once afraid and calmed, frustrated and content, and I tell you that I don’t understand what is happening.
The smile garners strength and the hand upon my arm gives a gentle squeeze, showing that I am understood. Words now, earnest and inviting, as you steer me away from the window, that place of baffling reflection, back into the lounge. I listen intently as once confounded languages now form in my mind, and I try to make them relevant. The conversion from bemusement to understanding is like wading through molasses. But it is worth it. Oh, yes. Comprehension finally comes after much fumbling and tumbling. My heart lifts, as do the corners of my mouth.
The hand on my arm now lifts and delicately sweeps strands of hair from my brow before placing a gentle palm upon my cheek. And there you are, eyes looking into mine, as though you are back at that window, seeking out the woman in the glass. And when your words come again, this time there is no struggle to make sense of them. And they are soft and sad yet forever hopeful.
“Things were so different, once. Do you remember?”
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor, essayist, poet, and screenwriter from Aotearoa-New Zealand. A USA Today Bestselling author, Shirley Jackson- and four-time Bram Stoker Awards® winner, she is an NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow, and winner of the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize. leemurray.info
Dave Jeffery is the author of 18 novels, two collections, and numerous short stories. His Necropolis Rising series and yeti adventure Frostbite have both featured on the Amazon #1 bestseller list. His YA work features critically acclaimed Beatrice Beecham supernatural mystery series. His screenwriting credits include award winning short films Ascension and Derelict. Before retiring to write full-time, Jeffery worked in the NHS for 35 years specialising in the field of mental health nursing and risk management. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Mental Health Studies and a Master of Science Degree in Health Studies. His novel Finding Jericho is an amalgamation of his experiences of working with service users who have experienced stigma and social exclusion due to their mental illness. As a novel, Finding Jericho (Demain Publishing) has featured on both the BBC Health and Independent Schools Entrance Examination Board’s ‘Recommended Reading’ lists