Last week, I wrote about generous editors and clichéd plot lines. I mentioned a story that I’d written and then promptly retired after I saw a description of the story in a list of unwanted plotlines. I can’t find that exact list – I think it was one of the several shape changer or werewolf markets I’ve looked at. I’m not going to send it anywhere, so I decided to post it here instead. (This is not the story that was rejected last week – there’s still hope for that one.)
I enjoyed writing Julia’s Dream because it uses two voices and let me playing with senses. I don’t think I did that last part particularly well but I learned something in the process. The thing I enjoyed most, however, is that I could use a dream I had as a teenager. I’m not going to tell you which scene is from my sleeping head but you can probably guess. The scene stands out. It has detail. It was one of those really odd dreams where I woke up happy but aware that the dream I just woke up from should have been a nightmare, not a joyous romp. But that’s what it was. Joyous. Fun. Happy-making.
So, here goes. Written about two years ago, and officially retired since last year because it’s been written again and again and again. I also saw it in an online comic, Sherbet Lock, and really enjoyed the story. There’s still mileage in the idea, but I’m not going to pursue it further.
The night is warm and dark. The forest is dense with life, not just the pack running with me, but other life too. There are birds in the trees, mice hiding in hollows as we run past. There’s a foxes den with a bitch and four, no five, cubs under that tree. But we’re after bigger game than foxes. Killing them is not worth our while.
Ahead we can hear the crashing of our prey as it flees. It’s a buck, a big strong animal. I look forward to taking it down. We’re getting so much closer. I can almost taste the blood in my mouth and I growl, low, in expectation. All other life is still, holding its breath, as we chase our quarry.
I love the hunt.
Julia has always had problems sleeping. After years of lying awake at night she has found a kind of peace in routine. Her going to bed routine starts two hours before she wants to be asleep and is the same every night. The sameness helps her calm down, go into sleep mode. After a warm bath she has cup of extra-strong chamomile tea on a seat in the living room, or, if Kevin is watching television, in the bed room. She’s learnt that she can’t read or watch television, do cross words or sudoko. She has to avoid all of the things that people seem to think are relaxing but that sets her synapses firing. She needs to close down her brain, bit by bit, until she can get into bed, put on her mask and count her bones until she slips under.
Everything has to be just so. The bedroom must be completely dark and silent. The duvet has to be warm but not hot, the room should be on the cool side but not so cold she can’t let her feet hang over the side of the bed. She can’t abide having her feet tangled in bed clothes. She doesn’t take sleeping pills. Herbal ones don’t work and pharmaceutical ones take her dream away.
Most nights Kevin slips into bed after her, pulls her tight and kisses her shoulder. It makes Julia feel safe and loved. And then he falls asleep with a contented little grunt and a twitch and she’s wide awake again. Wide awake and trapped under the protection of his warm, heavy arm.
Sometimes Kevin opening the bedroom door is enough to wake her but she always pretends she’s still asleep. That’s part of the routine too. If she acknowledges that she’s awake she will be. All night.
Timing is important. It works best if Julia is asleep properly when Kevin comes to bed, or when they go to bed at the same time. Then she sinks, slowly, into dreamland. When she wakes up before she’s started dreaming, when her brain is still looking for a reason to go over the day, she cannot fall asleep again.
Some nights she gives up. There’s no point in worrying about not sleeping, it just makes it worse. After listening to Kevin’s breathing in the dark for a few hours, she gets up. There’s always something to do. Marking is good, it makes her fall asleep with her head on her desk, but if she doesn’t have marking there’s always ironing or a long, long walk. The park is pretty at night. She feels at home in the dark and the fog.
Julia sometimes wonders why she bothers with her elaborate routine, why she doesn’t just give up and let sleep come or go as it wants, but then she remembers. Julia wants to sleep because she wants to dream.
We’re still running, still following the heady scent. There are two animals running ahead of us now. I am so close that I can feel the air move where they have been. The scent of their fear is delicious and it makes me feel so alive. But the forest is changing. The trees are growing sparse, square, tall. The leaves and moss that cover the ground morphs into black asphalt. We still run. The scents change too, as the forest turns into a city. The smells of mould and mushrooms are replaced by stone and fossil fuels. The prey separate and the pack splits in two.
The sound of the man’s feet slapping the pavement and his panicked breathing is easy to hear despite the noise of the city. The lights above us hum and there’s traffic but too far away to matter. As we run past closed doors I hear snatches of music and arguments from open windows. The man ahead of me is too winded to call for help. My feet beat the pavement with a lighter sound than those of the man running ahead of me. My breathing is less ragged than his. I sound excited, hungry, keen, where he sounds close to accept that I will catch him. Another female is running next to me. I can smell her excitement and it matches mine. We laugh and lengthen our strides just a little. I can almost touch him.
The first time Julia dreamt that she was a wolf she was five years old. It was just a glimpse of a dream, really, a panting, running sensation of joy and power. It was such a strong feeling, that she has never forgotten it. Instead she has dedicated her nights to having that dream again, and again, for longer and with more detail.
The dream changes. The wolf she is in the dream has grown up, just as she has, and learnt where she fits in. She has a mate, in the dream too, and he runs with her. Sometimes they change from wolves to humans. That does not affect the hunt: they continue running, following the scent and getting closer and closer to their prey.
Julia and her pack never catch their prey.
They’ve caught small things, mice, rabbits and foxes, but they don’t count. Things you can bring down on your own are for cubs, for children. Only the large animals she hunts with the pack count.
She wakes up, a jaw’s length from felling a deer, two steps from grabbing a woman they’re chasing. While the hunt goes on she is perfectly happy. Everything is just as it should be. Her joy would reach a crescendo in the kill. Then, just before her moment of glory, she wakes up.
Some mornings the disappointments makes her cry. It is not a good start to the day. She hates coming in to school with swollen eyes. Despite the dream’s hangover she wants to dream it again. Every night, she takes her bath, drinks her tea, counts her bones, in the hope that she’ll be running with the pack and that this night, they will bring down their prey.
I’m in a changing room, covered in blood and feeling great. The other female is covered in blood too. We’re trying to wipe some of the gore off, giggling like school girls whenever our eyes met. I know that in the sports hall, on the other side of the wall, is a mess of blood and body parts. We caught him and tore him to pieces. I can’t quite remember what shape I was in when we finally got him but I remember enjoying the kill more than anything I’ve ever done. I’m still enjoying it. At the end of the greatest hunt of my life, I feel so strong, so full of light. The man’s screams were flirtatious, the tearing and splattering was joyous. Blood smells so sweet compared to the other muck in a human’s body. The man’s flesh was even better than his blood. He tasted so good and I smell of him now. I’m covered in him and I love the feeling. I want to do it all again. I smile at my friend and we burst out laughing. Then we’re running again. Someone is coming and we’re laughing fit to burst at what they will find.
Julia doesn’t wake up in her usual panic but slowly, comfortably. She feels rested and happy. The bed is just warm enough and the sheets feel soft against her skin. What little light she can see around the edges of her mask suggests that it is early morning but not too early. She stretches slowly, enjoying the feeling. She wants to wake Kevin, to maybe cuddle for a while before starting the day. She stretches out her hand to touch him but finds something cold and wet. She takes her mask off to see what is wrong.
Kevin isn’t there. Instead there is mess. A bloody, gristly mess. Kevin’s side of the bed is covered in oxidising blood and lumps of meat. The mess spills over onto the floor, towards the window, covering the rug and sticking to the walls and curtains. There is so much blood. Julia’s side of the bed is clean except for where her bloody hand has rested on the white linen. For a second she just sits there, staring at the mess that was her boyfriend. Then she puts her hand out and touches the blood again. She brings her wet fingers to her lips.
She recognises the taste of him. He tastes of joy.
2 comments on “Julia’s Dream – a lesson in clichés”
Hey, I liked your piece.
You linked to my comic up there and when I saw the quote attached in the pingback email, I was a little confused and concerned you were trying to accuse me of plagiarizing you, but upon reading the whole post, I see that wasn’t precisely your intention… that said, this must be kind of like seeing your outfit on ‘What Not to Wear’ feels like.
(Also tiny amendment; that Sherbet comic is five pages, not one page, they’re just squashed together by my terrible WordPress.)
Sure, we definitely cover the same ground here but the similarities seem to end with the ‘werewolf eats lover’ premise. Our approaches are both very different and I personally think those big differences between how we dealt with these things when they came up in our respective works shows just how much life there is left in these old ideas and why they still endure.
You take a more linear approach to the plot, starting at the beginning and working through to the end from the POV of the Werewolf herself, whereas I started at the end and then worked through to the middle via the interpretation of a Sherlock Holmes style interpreter. Yours was also a more serious, cerebral narrative shooting for psychological horror, whereas I attempted to splice the detective genre with light horror and humour to create a joke that relied on the general understanding of those tropes in order for the audience to get why it was funny.
My personal view of cliches and tropes such as these is that they shouldn’t necessarily be avoided, so long as they’re acknowledged. A prime example of this is a movie I only got around to watching yesterday – Cabin in the Woods. It starts off looking like the most cliched thing ever, but the further you get into it, the more you start to realize that there are reasons for the cliches and you’re not watching a cliched horror movie, you’re watching a movie ABOUT cliched horror movies.
There are also things like Harry Potter that embrace countless cliches in fantasy and horror and are wildly popular for it. It’s worth noting that J.K. Rowling once received a lot of the same kinds of rejection letters that you did and the only reason a Publisher even gave her a chance in the first place was because some guy’s kid daughter read the manuscript and loved it.
I’m not saying that you can’t learn a valuable lesson from listening to a publisher, but that lesson tends to be a lesson on what that specific publisher will or won’t publish. Not everyone is looking for the same thing though, and a story like Julia’s Dream could easily find a home somewhere else.
Anyway, whatever you thought of it, I do appreciate you taking the time to read my work. All the best with your own writing!
Thank you for your comment and encouraging words! I really enjoyed your story too and I’ve read Sherbet’s other adventures on Colliderscope. I think you mesh humour, horror and the detective genre really well and I like the artwork. The black-and-white reminds me of the horror comics I read as a kid but have a pleasing adult flavour. I’ve updated the post to avoid giving anyone the idea that I didn’t like it. I truly do! It is only my outfit I want to put back in the wardrobe.
I don’t think Julia’s Dream adds anything interesting to the existing batch of stories of this particular type, which is why I’ve retired it. There’s also a kind of relief in retiring a story: now I don’t have to fiddle with it anymore, trying to make it work. It’s gone, done, and I can move on to something new. I have another story that’s a cliché too, the one that was so nicely rejected, but that will continue to circulate, after a tweak or two. I still believe in that one. In fact, I really like it. Eventually, someone will take it, cliché or not. As you say, some ideas endure. (A friend of mine suggested that Julia’s Dream would perhaps not seem clichéd if it was sent to a non-sci-fi/fantasy market. The thought had never crossed my mind. I wrote it thinking horror and never looked beyond that.)
You make a very good point about a publisher’s comments reflecting their particular tastes and needs. It’s all too easy to generalize from one comment. As I continue sending things out and writing new stories, I’ll hopefully get more feedback and get better at knowing what to take on and what to shake off.
Thank you again for taking the time to comment. I’ll keep an eye on the Sherbet Lock blog and look forward to seeing more of her.
All the best!