Looking into the Abyss
Do you ever have those moments when the rug seems to have been whipped from under your feet? It was writing about one such moment in last week’s book review that made me reflect on others that I have experienced.
That moment when the mask slips, the sparkling façade crumbles to disclose the devastation behind, is of course the stock-in-trade of horror movies: the ghastly realisation that the killer is actually phoning from the upstairs extension, the close-up on the clue – a button, a cigarette case – that reveals that the saviour on the way to the rescue is in fact the slasher.
I had a very vivid such moment in a dream when I was a child. I was running along the dusty backstreets of an exotic city, perhaps Samarkand, having fallen foul of the Grand Vizier (as you do – I must have had a fervid imagination then; I wonder where it’s gone.) and being pursued by his men. I spotted a little junk shop and dived into it. There was no one around, but I could hear the shopkeeper moving in the basement below. I called out to him, asking if I could take refuge in his shop. A kindly voice assured me that I was welcome to do so, and I heard his footsteps starting to come up the spiral staircase. As his head appeared, my stomach lurched. You’ve guessed. It was the Grand Vizier himself.
The moment when Regan’s possession by the devil becomes apparent is an abrupt jolt into the abyss. Try as I might, I can’t watch The Exorcist. I gather it’s considered rather tame now, but to me it seemed like staring into unsuspected depths of malice and horror, and that was despite watching two thirds of it through the cracks between my fingers.
But such moments can occur in altogether more mundane circumstances. Many years ago I worked in a publishing company, sharing an office with three other people. We got to know one another very well and each of us enjoyed being surrounded by such congenial company. One of our little group, Helen,* had a rather troublesome relationship with a neighbour. She was devoted to him, but Gerald was a blustering, boorish kind of man who simply wanted to be able to drop round to her house at any time of day or night to drink her Scotch, and seemed to delight in belittling her. When another woman in our office announced her pregnancy, there was great rejoicing, but shortly afterwards Helen asked her ‘Is it Gerald’s?’ Rationally, she knew perfectly well that these two had never even met, but in that brief question she lifted the lid on a level of obsession and paranoia that we had not for an instant suspected. It was a deeply disturbing moment, and it altered our perception of her forever.
Wherever this jolt may come from, there is no mistaking those moments when things you took for granted suddenly shift, and you are left looking into the abyss.
∗ Not real names, of course.