Visions of Solanaceae – Horror story.

Here’s a bonus blog for you. Definitely my last of 2013. A horror story inspired by my own experiences and spooky Christmas dramas.

Not really done scary before, so it’s a bit of a try-out. I hope you enjoy it – in a scary kind of way. (Let me know if you do!)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!



Visions of Solanaceae

By Garry Abbott

I dream of waking nightmares, for in the waking world the roads lead somewhere. There are rules. It is solid. Not so in the nightmare lived behind closed eye lids. Walls are shadows that change around you, the roads are roundabouts with no exits. Even the air can take terrible form.

How do you explain to others that your life is in peril, when that peril exists only inside of yourself and they cannot see?

‘They are just nightmares’ says the doctor. ‘Intense maybe, but still nothing more than bad dreams. Do you wake from them?’

I wake from them often, I tell him, usually to a strangled utterance as the spectre fades, burned for a moment in my retina against this or that texture: a wardrobe, a dressing gown, a bookcase. The logic of breath fills my lungs and I gasp into physics, the texture returning to inanimate safety but the nightmare waiting for me in that other place.

‘So you don’t want to go back to sleep after such an episode?’

The doctor starts tapping into his green and black screen before I even answer.

‘The biggest danger for you Mr Wilkes, is sleep loss. It is likely you are sleeping light and may be experiencing sleep apnoea – problems with your breathing – that your mind is interpreting as nightmares in order to wake you up. It is not unusual for people to stop breathing all together with this condition and wake gasping for air.’

He prescribes me sleeping tablets and a spray to help me breathe easy. A two pronged attack. One will keep the air flowing, the other will keep me from waking and, therefore, remembering my dreams throughout the night: good or bad.

That night I sit motionless on the sofa, trying to sense the artificial drowsiness as the light from the mute television highlights edges in the room. I sniff and a remnant of the bitter concoction trapped in my sinuses runs down the back of my throat. I feel tubes rather than trickles of air being pulled into me. I rest my eyes to encourage the drugs. Not here, I think – I must make it to bed. But it is too late. The faint sounds of heavy traffic on a distant road grow loud. I fancy I can tell the size and speed of each engine as they push air all the way to my ears, to my focussed mind. But they become quiet again, and for a moment I think the traffic is dying down, or I am moving farther away. Yes, that’s it. I am moving away, through a tunnel.

I wake sometime later to the flashing colours of some confusing programme on the set. Red and yellow stars flicker and contorted faces pop up on the screen. I heave myself up and stumble across the room. I run my fingers around the smooth edges of the television until I feel a click and the invasive images cease. Now the streetlights and the moon compete for illumination. They must have always been here, hidden beneath. My eyes adjust enough to pick a path to the door. My head is as heavy as it has ever been and I stand insecurely between the two worlds as if one long blink could send me back and crashing to unconsciousness. Paintings and photographs suspended on walls tip and sway under my groping hands as I guide myself through narrow eyelids to the hallway and then crawl ape-like up the stairs, through the open door of my bedroom, and slide head-first under the covers. I have made it, and I allow my eyes to close. Briefly I fear the moment to sleep has passed before my head seems to fall through the pillow and I feel it no more.

Later I again wake from black timelessness and my feet are heavy as if the drowsiness has crawled down my body to my very toes. I try to lift them but they do not respond. My eyes are still closed and I hope to shake off this waking interruption quickly so I can return to the void, but the lack of sensation concerns me. I fancy I may have crept under a pile of heavy clothes and cut off my circulation. I can’t remember if my bed was made or my bedroom tidy when I came up here. I resolve to push away whatever it is and let the blood return. I try to bend forwards, I cannot. Maybe something has fallen on me? I try to reach up with my arms but find that only my fingers twitch. With reluctant urgency my eyes open. I see nothing at all, my senses for the moment ignoring the dim light I know must be there. I focus hard on the space above my torso. In my peripheral vision the moonlight begins to paint faint blue diamonds through curtains and across walls, but above me remains dark, and then the dark moves.

There is an absent mass atop me. It is not so much a form, though a rough protuberance from the dark shroud resembles that of a head with no neck. The weight is now crushing my chest and working its way over my body to my mouth, which struggles to open or summon air. The heavy shadow is inches away from my face, though somehow its presence is wrapped all around and pierces through me. I try to scream for help with my little remaining strength of body and will. At first nothing happens, my voice is trapped and strangled, then gradually it fades in. Although I feel the vibration from my throat, I hear my voice from another place, growing to a shrieking cacophony. I close my eyes and jolt forwards.

I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The loud shriek I could hear had presumably been mine, but I find myself only incomprehensibly muttering as my senses return. The room is still lit by the television that shows images of hillsides. Besides me, on the coffee table, the discarded packaging of the sleeping tablets lay next to a drained glass of water. The spray is there also, but upon inspection I find it still sealed. I never used it; the tablets were stronger than I had accounted for and my intended actions must have formed my dreams as I unexpectedly slipped away.

To be sure of my senses I switch on the light and a familiar clarity resumes. I snap open the lid of the spray and treat myself before switching off the television with the remote. I remember at this point that there is no ‘off’ switch to be found on the unit itself. No matter how devious dreams can be there are always clues to be found. I carve myself a route of light to bed, being sure to switch on the next before the last is terminated. In this way I come to the top of the stairs and reach in through my bedroom door to flick the switch as my other hand rests on the landing light, ready to make the exchange. I press them simultaneously and something pops and fizzles. All lights go out.

The trip switches are in the basement. I don’t want to go down there. I am just a step away from sleep. I step into the dark bedroom.

It takes my eyes sometime to adjust, but adjust they do, and I marvel at how well rendered my dream of this place was before. The same tone of moonlight makes the same triangles on the same walls. The same shadows draw divisions. The bed is not made properly, and it even seems that under the sheets, the discarded clothes that I had suspected trapped me before are actually there. I reach under to extract them but my hand freezes as it meets the cold touch of a human foot. Someone is asleep in my bed.

I am suddenly and uncontrollably flooded with rage at this intruder in my real world. Without thought I crouch upon the shape under my duvet, pressing my legs against its legs and my hands around the wrists so that it cannot move. The person below the covers stirs and tries to fight the pressure. I move my knees up to its chest and I feel the ridges of ribs through the sheets. It gurgles pathetically in its throat and twitches below me. I catch the glint of a reddened eye through a slowly opening lid: the wretch is terrified. Somehow I feel I can take away its breath without the need to smother. I inhale deeply, the stimulated and widened arches of my nasal passages taking in vast swathes of air, of life, away from the room and the creature below me. All the thing can do is exhale desperately and I am there to draw the terror out, to never let it ever breathe again.

I am there, and I am here. I lean down and look closely into the diminishing eyes. They are mine. The last of the air shrieks out from my crushed self and I jolt forwards into nothing.

When I awake I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The room is lit by the glow of the mute television which shows images of nightshades. I hear noises from upstairs.



The rise and demise of the boxed set?

This may not seem like a very important or cerebral blog, writing about the ‘telly’. But how shows get funded and distributed, and how that impacts our culture, probably is. Also, as a writer, I need to think about these kind of things. So here goes.

I recently signed up to the popular online TV and Film service Netflix, and it’s got me thinking about the way in which we consume entertainment and how this has changed over the years.

The thought struck me while I sat and watched another few episodes of Channel 4’s excellent ‘Peep Show’ and I realised that I was but a few episodes off having watched the whole available seven series in a matter of a few weeks.

‘Peep Show’ is one of those shows that I missed the first few series, dabbled in the middle, lost interest because I didn’t know the back-story, and vowed to “watch one day” if I could get my hands on a box-set from someone. It didn’t quite fit into the “I must watch this show so I will buy the box set” category, so for many years it seems, I just let it be a thing on the telly that I didn’t watch.

But then, at the start of this summer, I got reeled into a free-trial of Netflix and started perusing the available titles in this new digital treasure-trove of viewing pleasure, and what did I find? The first 7 series of Peep Show, all there, all waiting to be watched. No more ogling shiny boxes (actual boxes) in HMV while heading straight for the 3 for £10 DVD section (or even VHS, back when), the box set had come to me and unwrapped itself neatly into my TV screen alongside hundreds of others without the need for mass shelf storage solutions.

The good thing about watching a series in this way online is no adverts and no limits on viewing, meaning that in the time you may have watched a three hour film, you can basically watch a whole series of a show and not feel bad. Even better, you can watch the first episodes of a show you’ve never heard of or never considered before and not feel like you’ve wasted any money, which in the box-set days (actual boxes), really wasn’t an option for most of us. I doubt many people just wandered into HMV, picked up something they’d never heard of and spent a fair sum of money on buying the collected series, ‘just in case’ it was decent.

There may be some unfortunate side-effects. For several mornings following my Peep Show sessions, I have been haunted by the self-loathing voice of David Mitchell as I go about my day, floating in the back of my mind just like his inner voice-over that characterises the show.

“Shreddies again” he seems to say as I stare at my breakfast bowl “I bet Stalin didn’t start his day with Shreddies. I bet he told everybody else to start their day with Shreddies when secretly he was at the sugar-coated Frosties. Communism is many things, but when it comes to breakfast cereal, I think we can all agree it just doesn’t work…”

Eventually David (aka Mark Corrigan) floats away and my own internal dialogue returns. The funny thing is I never get Robert Webb’s voice (as Jez) reverberating around my psyche, encouraging me to shirk my responsibilities and shag everything that moves. I guess that makes me more ‘Mark’ then ‘Jez’, which is probably oh so true.

For those of you who have never watched Peep Show, I can assure you all that stuff I just said, that actually makes sense.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the way we consume TV and Film now. Before the days of Netflix and other such services, I just wouldn’t have taken a punt on the £50 it would cost to buy the box-set, and so, I would still be ignorant of what has become one of Channel 4’s longest running comedy shows (as a writer who dabbles in sit-com, I can actually scratch the Peep Show marathon up to ‘research’, which makes me feel slightly better about it).

It’s even got to the point where Netflix itself has funded and released the latest series of the brilliant ‘arrested development’ (admittedly, the latest series was not as brilliant as those before, but I still enjoyed it). So can we imagine a world where all TV is now released in one big batch load of episodes, ready to be watched whenever and however we want, with no advert breaks, and no need to trawl through the hundreds of channels whose schedules, quite often, do not suit yours?

I think it is quite easy to see a future where we consume our entertainment solely in this way, and all funding is made from direct subscription to the service. But then, what if one service has something that the other doesn’t? I’m going to presume this already happens between the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm. What if, for example, one or the other acquires the whole ‘Lost’ collection on an exclusive deal, and we end up with a Virgin vs. Sky situation where you have to choose your side or go all out mental, signing up for everything? It would be the TV equivalent to owning an X-Box, a Playstation and a Wii, just so that you never miss a new game release.

Presumably this would embody the frenzied competition culture that we live in. Whoever gets the best titles gets the most subscribers, but never enough so that one ‘wins’ over the other, or we end up in a monopoly situation. So actually, by encouraging consumer choice in these matters, and presuming that very few of us would go around signing up for every service, it is actually going to limit our viewing choices. This may push more of us into internet piracy, simply downloading our series for free because we aren’t willing to spend yet more money on unlocking access to a database somewhere…

It’s a tricky question, and one that I’m sure the BBC and private networks are pondering. The broadcast channels must remain relevant and offer the kind of quality that keeps us switching on alongside the instant-fix of streaming services, otherwise, how can they continue to survive? At a thought, only news and sport seems to be the kind of thing that most people wouldn’t be prepared to ‘watch again’ at a later date, but I certainly wouldn’t pay my licence fee for one channel constantly rotating between news and sport (though sometimes it feels like that anyway).

My concern is for good drama and ‘event’ TV. Just like the gamers who will rush out and buy the brand new shiny title on the day of release for a whacking great £40, rather than wait a month or two for it to come down in price, TV consumers, I think, will continue to watch exclusives on the normal broadcast channels, if they are good enough, exclusive enough, and worth the money. Just like movies going from cinemas to pay-per-view to DVD, and eventually to broadcast, TV series will have to get into a staggered pattern of release that we all understand and can look forward to.

Broadcast TV perhaps needs to become a kind of ‘cinema’ in your front-room, showing the latest episodes of new content, knowing that one day the whole lot will end up eventually on a streaming service, but basking in the time frame they have to absorb the revenue for exclusivity, afforded to them because they funded the production. But then – and this is where it gets tricky – do we only want sure-fire popular hits to be funded because of this arrangement? Maybe something like ‘country-file’ isn’t a big hitter with the younger generations, and I expect it is a no-no on the box-set front, but would we want to deny the target demographic their entertainment, just because it can’t be branded as an exclusive and cutting edge drama/comedy/action etc…?

One thing I’m sure of, the physical big shiny box-set (actual boxes) in the window display of HMV must be on its way out. I know there are a few peeps who still like to actually physically own the DVD/Blue Ray etc… But this isn’t vinyl records we are talking about where the media itself is worth the experience of owning for its subtle nuances. If you’re internet is fast enough to stream HD TV down the wires, is there really any need to start constructing walls of Box-Sets in your living room that contain exactly the same copy as online but are prone to physical damage?

So online box-sets in the form of streaming services, fed into by the broadcast media (who will have to try harder than ever to remain relevant and hopefully as a result produce some really good entertainment) seems to be the model we are heading towards. But I don’t know if it is working. When I do sit down at the end of a day and flick through the usual channels, more often than not, I am heading straight for series-linked recordings or switching straight over to Netflix to watch something I actually want to watch, rather than waiting for some scheduler to be broadcasting something I like at the exact time I have sat down. But for some reason, I still like the idea that they are there and occasionally, something makes me turn to them still, but less and less so.

Conclusions? No, not really. But soon, I think, they will be made by us without even realising it and we will look back at this multi-option viewing period of history and laugh, or cry, into our google glasses, as we walk around each day to a constant stream of braking bad, the wire and the soprano’s beamed directly into our memory banks from a USB stick in our ear.