Madness, by whatever definition, isn’t something I’ve known much about except from its outer edges. Depression doesn’t count, I think, on its own. OCD (Obessessive/Compulsive Disorder) may come close, and in the case of a family member it had some bizarre manifestations, but medication helped considerably. Dementia I saw all too closely, although my mother at least always knew who we were.
As a writer, though, madness is tempting as a subject for fiction. I haven’t gone that route, as far as I can remember, possibly because anything I write that seems like it could concern madness turns out to be fantasy, so that what would seem like madness in the “real” world is reality in that fantasy world. I’ve been tempted a time or two to insert a twist at the end of a story revealing that the point-of-view character is, in fact, mad, and has been imagining it all, but that’s an outworn trope, and in any case I wouldn’t do that to my characters.
But I’ve just had the crazy thought that readers entirely captivated by a fictional world could be, in a sense, temporarily mad. Willing suspension of disbelief might be a very distant cousin of unwitting separation from reality, but a cousin nonetheless. Right? No? Okay, I guess that's just my own dubious hold on reality speaking. Still, there have been cases where people (usually adolescents) already unbalanced for one reason or another have become so intensely immersed in fiction that they act out dangerous and destructive scenarios, although their inspirations tend to come from social media or movies or “indie” rock bands rather than the written word.
Fantasy fiction comes in various forms. Writers of stories set in fantasy worlds need to build those worlds to be convincing within the context of the story as a whole, and those who can do that—Tolkien, for example—make magic seem real and inevitable. Fiction set in our recognizably real world has to approach things differently. The Harry Potter stories are set in a world-within-a-world, coexisting with reality, while the thousands of stories featuring vampires or werewolves can rely on their fans’ super-willing suspension of disbelief. Some do more than others to consider the way their characters may think they’re going mad when they first encounter the supernatural elements.
I’ve touched on that last element several times in minor ways. Level-headed, common-sense Emmaline, for instance, in my ghost story “Spirit Horse Ranch,” doesn’t want to tell her partner about having her hair yanked by invisible fingers down in her root cellar, even though she’s having trouble convincing herself that it was only a rat. (Apologies for repeating something I’ve shared before, but only a little of this was in that excerpt.)
From “Spirit Horse Ranch”
Sigri’d noticed something, though. “You okay, babe?” She stroked the loose tangle of hair Emmaline had forgotten to tidy. Fear came surging back.
With her arms around Sigri’s lean body and her head nestled against a firm shoulder, Emmaline managed to say, “Sure I’m okay. How’d it go in Bozeman?”
“Not too bad.” Sigri tried to get a look at Emmaline’s face.
Emmaline burrowed a little closer, then tilted her head back for a kiss. Chinook, firmly trained not to interrupt such proceedings, lay down with her head between her paws, and then, impatient, went to nose around the edges of the trapdoor.
Emmaline became vaguely aware of the rattle of some small object being pushed around the floor behind her. Sigri, looking past her shoulder, broke the clinch. “What’s that dratted dog got? Chicken bone?”
“Not from my kitchen…” Emmaline stopped. Chinook was offering her prize to Sigri. Held tenderly, in jaws trained to pick up eggs without breaking them, was a four-inch sticklike object. Not, they both knew, a stick. Bone, but not chicken bone. Chickens don’t have fingers.
Sigri knelt. “Good girl,” she said, ruffling the dog’s ears. She took the bone and inspected it. “Not fresh, at least. Old. Real old, I’d say, but not prehistoric. Where’d you get that?” She looked up. “Where’s she been?”
Emmaline managed to yank a chair out from the table and slump into it. “Just here, in the house, or right beside me outdoors. And…down in the root cellar. I was putting up some more shelves.”
Sigri’s long body straightened. She hauled out a chair, straddled it backwards, and surveyed Emmaline keenly. “Down in the dugout? Guess you must have been hammering up some storm to get yourself so bedraggled.”
“Well, I was,” Emmaline said, steadying herself with pure stubbornness. “I built a good strong set of shelves. And maybe shook a little dirt lose from the wall, but I swear there wasn’t any crack big enough for…for a rat.”
“What’s a rat got to do with it?”
“Nothing!” Emmaline fastened her hair back tight with the rubber band from the bundle of mail. A couple of magazines unfurled to show covers she wouldn’t have wanted the local postmistress to see, which, along with the occasional specialty mail order delivery, was why they kept a post office box in the university town of Bozeman.
“Then why’d you mention it? Come on, Em, tell me what’s been going on.”
Emmaline drew a deep breath, let it out, and tried again. “I don’t know. Maybe one of those flashback things like they write about. But I was feeling so happy right then, safe, my preserves and vegetables all set for winter…and when I felt somebody behind me I figured it was you.” She reached out a hand. In an instant Sigri’s fingers were warm and firm on hers.
“But it wasn’t you,” Emmaline went on. “Somebody…something…yanked hard on my hair, pulled my head right back, just like that old bastard used to do. I yelled and swung the hammer and jerked around, and…nobody was there. Just Chinook, scrambling down the stairs growling fit to scare a bear from its den.”
Sigri looked a shade paler under her tan, but her voice held steady. “Good for her!” She stood to pull Emmaline into another hug. “So what’s this about the rats?”
“Nothing, really. She just went poking and whining at the rough spot in the wall, and wouldn’t come upstairs until I started to close the trapdoor. So I thought of rats, and wondered if one could have jumped on me.”
“Do you still reckon that was it?” Sigri was so close her breath warmed Emmaline’s cheek. Emmaline wished she could never be any farther away, although warming other bits of her anatomy would be just fine.
“I…well, I don’t believe in ghosts any more than you do, so…” she stopped, feeling a slight tensing of Sigri’s body. “But…you don’t, do you?”
“Don’t I? Can’t say as I recall ever discussing that particular subject.” Sigri didn’t seem about to say any more.
Emmaline made a lame attempt at humor. “Well, generally you’re so level-headed snow could build up a foot deep and not slide off if I didn’t tip you over from time to time.”
I’ve also had a character deciding not to worry about whether she’s going crazy when she sees the gargoyle outside her window come alive, because what’s sanity ever done for her? And there are others who had to believe what they saw and heard even if it might mean they were crazy. I’ve been struggling most, though, with a very reality-oriented setting and characters, when one of them becomes what might pass for a superhero. How do they accept this? How do others? It’s a hard balance to keep, and I may not be managing it. I’m in the midst of a severe editing phase. I’m sure I won’t come close to immersing readers deeply in the story, but it may yet have some entertainment value. In any case, here’s an excerpt where they first try to come to terms with what’s happened. More apologies if I’ve posted this before, too.
From Shadow Hand
There was a hint of movement outside. Now Cleo could see, clearly, the man pausing just beyond them under an overhang that jutted out like the prow of a ship.
He began to turn. Ash’s hand didn’t move, just tensed even more, and a tremor shook the overhang. She raised a finger, and a clod fell. Another twitch of her finger, and a bigger clod fell from the overhang into the wadi, then another, and another. With a loud crack the whole formation began to capsize, stones and dirt pelting down, almost hiding the man. He yelled and struggled, lurched as though he’d been shoved from behind, and managed to stumble away before the full brunt of the landslide hit. When the noise and dust subsided he could be heard some distance downstream scrambling up the side of the wadi.
When silence returned it seemed louder than the turmoil just past. What had just happened? What had Ash done? And how?
Ash kept on staring down at the object in her hand. Cleo had no idea what to say, so she said nothing. Eventually the men who had been searching the ruins could be heard on the path back to the road, but it was a while before they revved their engines and roared away. Cleo knew all too well what they’d probably been doing in the meantime to her jeep.
At last, desperate to move her aching joints and feel more air and space around her, she lifted the end of her rifle and began to knock bits of dirt and pebbles out of the small opening in front of them. Ash looked up, and all at once great gaps appeared, as though some giant hand was punching through that wall.
Ash lurched forward and scrambled out on all fours, dropping the pistol along the way while favoring the hand still holding the hidden object. Cleo tumbled out behind her. They sat a few feet apart in the dry streambed, gulping fresh air, dazed, but not so much that Cleo wasn’t on the alert for any sign that someone had stayed behind.
“Cleo,” Ash said at last. She hesitated. “Sergeant Brown.”
This was serious. Cleo waited. Usually when Ash shifted into full Lieutenant mode her clear gray eyes took on a steely glint, but not now. This time her eyes begged for reassurance.
“Sergeant Brown, what…what did you just see?”
“I saw you save our sorry asses, Ma’am. I don’t claim to understand what happened, how things moved the way they did, but I saw it.”
“So if I’m hallucinating, so are you.”
Cleo could get away with a lot when it came to most folks, but she could never lie to the Lieutenant. To Ash. “We’re not hallucinating. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I know plenty of things for sure without understanding them. Objects moved, and from what I saw, you seemed to make them move. What did it feel like to you?”
“It was…strange. Things happened because I thought about them, but it wasn’t just me. It was this.” She opened her right hand at last and showed what she’d been holding; what, Cleo was pretty sure, had fallen on her in the cave and drawn blood. “It was Her.”
Not stone, at least not any kind Cleo’d ever seen. Ivory, maybe, yellowed by age. Whatever it was made of, the carved figure was clearly, extravagantly female, four or five inches high, with three pairs of full breasts springing from her torso. Probably some kind of ancient goddess. She wore a sort of high crown that must once have been even higher but had been broken off. Her legs were obscured by a wrap or skirt incised with unidentifiable designs. Her face had lost part of its nose, but was otherwise intact, with a regal look about the chin and the direct gaze. Her arms, too, were mostly missing, although you could see where they’d been, and there was enough left of one of them to form a sharp point where it had broken—a point stained with recently shed blood.
Ash’s blood. All that mattered to Cleo right then, besides the unlikely fact that they were still alive, was Ash. The Lieutenant was…shaken. Not scared, not confused, not angry, exactly, but struggling with something made up of all of those, and more.
“She’s stuck right in my mind,” Ash blurted out at last. “Trying to control me. She may have saved us, but I want her out. I get all the orders I can stand from my commanding officers.”
Defiance! Cleo nearly shook with relief. Ash was going to be all right.
“Toss her to me, Ash. See how you feel then.”
She held out her hand, then tried to duck when the figurine shot up and hurtled toward her head, stopping with a sudden jerk just before it hit. Ash’s face was taut with strain. A fierce heat flowing from the hovering figure felt as though it would sear Cleo’s skin, but all at once the goddess, or whatever she was, vanished. A few pebbles could be heard dropping inside the cave. Maybe she’d burrowed back into it.
Cleo’s whirling mind took refuge in crude humor. “Guess I’m not this particular Desert Queen’s type. Just as well. She wants somebody like one of those Hindu Kali statues, with a bunch of extra arms and hands to do justice to all her extra boobs.”
“What she wanted,” Ash said, standing somewhat stiffly, “was to hurl herself right through your head. I struggled to stop her, and I won. Now she’s gone. I made her go away. It’s over.”
Cleo got to her feet with an effort. It seemed like they’d been scrunched up in that cave in fear for their lives an hour or more. “So it was only your ass she intended to save, and mine was just collateral non-damage? I can live with that.”
“If you’re lucky,” Ash said. “She may be bound to this place, not to the fortress over there—that’s only about 1300 years old—but to something much older. Astarte, Ishtar, Ashtoreth—many names for more or less the same goddess. Maybe some temple was here thousands of years ago that left no trace—except for Her.”
“A real Desert Queen, then? But ‘Ashtoreth?’ Really?”
“Don’t go there! It’s just a coincidence. Besides, in this area her name would most likely be Ishtar.” Ash’s irritation was an improvement on worrying about possible hallucinations. “A hundred years ago the clerks at Ellis Island didn’t bother with figuring out how to spell immigrants’ names. My great-grandfather’s name became ‘Ashton’ instead of ‘Athanasiou.’ Greek. A whole different crew of goddesses.” Her expression warned Cleo not to mention her first name, Athena. “Anyway, enough of that. She’s gone now. End of story.”
“Sure.” Cleo watched Ash bend down for the pistol she’d dropped, now half-buried in gravel. The gun rose to meet Ash’s hand. “If you say so.”
“It’ll wear off,” Ash muttered, still looking down.
Cleo groped for words. What must it feel like, some impossible, unnatural power being thrust into you without your consent? Something that couldn’t be explained by experience, or training, or instinct? For that matter, was Cleo herself suffering from shellshock, to be willing to believe in a stone goddess controlling her commander? Right now it didn’t matter. She found some words. “Whether it wears off or not, you’re still you.” She reached for Ash’s hand, a hand that met hers in an entirely natural grip.
“We’re still us,” Ash said.
Ah well. Sometimes I think this business of writing a novel when all my instincts are for short stories is driving me mad, but there are several other candidates for that honor, mostly to do with family health situations and my own responsibilities. I’m hanging on.