Spring 2021

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The Incubus

By Angus Smith

A woman fast asleep with devil on stomach: Iconographic Collections
© A woman fast asleep with devil on stomach: Iconographic Collections

One night a goblin told me I was going to die. Unusually for me, I awoke on my back, immersed in blue light. My mind had woken up before my body, so all I could do was stare past my open door into the hallway, at the bureau with the vase of irises on top. A shadow flickered by the bureau and leapt into my bedroom.

The weight of a small person bore down on my chest. My throat constricted and I could no longer see. I heard a low voice whispering inside my head.

‘Give me a hundred more…’

The words tailed away in hoarse laughter, then the pressure lifted and I was alone, sweated to my bed in exhaustion. Like a demonic drill sergeant, the intruder had imparted a message: Give me a hundred more. Obviously, I had one hundred days to live. 

* * *

The incubus, malevolent night spirit, preys on sleeping humans. Really he’s a lucid vision, whose victims are unaware they’re still dreaming. He exists only in the uncertain intersection of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucination. In folklore he takes on a multitude of forms: from goblin to fallen angel, sometimes an ape. Norse mythology tells of Svartálfar the black elf, who will squat on a sleeping person’s chest and whisper obscenities into their ear. 

My experience was a piddling footnote to the lore of the incubus. Still, the goblin had spoken to me, and I’d seen its shadow. I couldn’t shake the vision of my death, as though it were a credible prophecy. I was already well versed in horror, painting myself with Manic Panic Goth White and buying shoes from Sinister Boutique. How long had I anticipated death?

* * *

I spent my morose adolescence courting terror. At Auckland Normal Intermediate, Sarah was my misanthropic companion. She was an artist and I was a writer. We created characters with names like Madame Necrophilia, and performed interpretative dances to ‘She Wolf’ by Shakira. We were obsessed with werewolves and vampires, but Twilight was too mainstream for us. I liked my vampires pagan, such as the baobhan sith of Highlands tradition, who scratched her victims and feasted upon the open wounds. Such monstrosities seemed banal when our teachers would actually kill meddlesome students. I knew this because we discovered graves behind the rugby field. My Spanish teacher bore the menacing name Señora Lobo, but she was a Shakira fan too. Most evil among us were the phys ed instructors. They bore a grudge ever since Sarah refused to jump over the bar on Athletics Day. They kept something awful in the old sports shed, always locked, but we didn’t know what. Maybe it was just the high jump equipment. 

Before I encountered the incubus, Sarah became Pip. He took the name from Philip Valentine, the protagonist of a BDSM erotica called Stockholm Syndrome. Pip studies costume design, waits tables at Riverhead Tavern and cuts his boyfriend with switchblades. As my goth-in-arms since childhood, I thought he would understand. I wrote up my ordeal and waited with the phone for Pip’s reply. Before I acted, someone else needed to link my nightmare to my imminent death. 

Pip said, ‘I think you wear too much black.’

* * *

The Sunday after my hallucination, I took my overstimulated brain out into town with my university friends. It was Auckland Anniversary Day, and there was a free concert on the Captain Cook Wharf: Lisa Crawley and the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, with fireworks. Aucklanders are notorious for turning up when they don’t have to pay for anything, so free events are always a logistical nightmare. We squatted on the concrete right below the stage. Behind us, thousands of people lounged on garden chairs and inflatable rings, allowing their kids and dogs to run amuck.

The hordes applauded Lisa Crawley when she began her version of the Crowded House song ‘Four Seasons in One Day.’ In perfect timing, rain began to pelt the crowd. I whipped my tartan rug over our heads. The fireworks display was under threat. But it was just a temporary bad spell, and the sky soon cleared. The orchestra took their bows, and everyone lolled around waiting for the fireworks. Scorning the queues for the food trucks, some of us cut across the crowd to patronise the notorious Britomart McDonald’s. 

Left up front with Michaela, I seized the opportunity to inform her of my impending death. We’d met in an English lecture, but I’d stood out to her on the bus weeks earlier because my hair was coloured Purple Haze. Cue for the face-melting chords of doomed Jimi Hendrix. Both our mothers immigrated from Scotland in the late ‘60s: hers by boat, mine by plane. In her ‘60s dresses Michaela was an earnest believer in art, and the Power of Soul (“anything is possible”). A goblin said I would die, I told her. 

Poor Michaela. She delivered the equivocal line, ‘Whatever happens, living a meaningful life is a good idea.’ 

The promised fireworks exploded too low over the crowd. Ash dropped on our upturned faces. Riding home on the purple 274 bus, I was parched and could taste gunpowder residue. I withered while the driver attempted to give directions to a couple of German tourists. They were seeking Mount Eden, but couldn’t say whether they wanted the village or the mountain. There’s no well in that rustic village —just a Storm Liquor. But last New Years’ I’d seen a wizard up on the mountain, imbibing spirits from a green bottle. Nodding off beneath his beard. Death was just like falling asleep, people said. Dying didn’t frighten me so much as what I should do with the ninety-something days I had left.

* * *

What was a meaningful life? I didn’t know, so I shaved my head. For two years I had abused my hair follicles with Directions, Manic Panic and Crazy Color. My signature hue was Apple Green, prompting an old man on the bus to say I was the spitting image of Jack Nicholson in that Batman film. Lately I had preferred the black box dyes from Countdown. When you go black you never go back, unless you shear off the whole mop and start over again.

Once bald, I wore less black and gave away my possessions. During this monastic time I sacrificed velvet coats, costume jewellery, smartphones and all the Sinister Boutique stuff. The SPCA op shop was inundated with my former things and, unemployed, I soon joined the shop as a volunteer. It felt good, perhaps even meaningful. I spent no time in pursuit of personal profit, since I was soon to die.

Anything valuable I sold, however. Even the living dead are not completely selfless. I listed my gothic platform boots on Trade Me, and a woman called Nic was the successful bidder. She showed up at my house wearing a dog collar and vinyl trousers. When I handed over the boots she looked me up and down; I wore black tights and a camo jacket from the op shop. Fortunately, the size 11 Demonias would be cherished after my death. 

* * *

I began to read. With one hundred days to live, there’s no time for laziness. Books were the quickest way to feed my imagination, and I didn’t need to buy plane tickets. 

That’s when I saw the incubus for a second time, in an art history book. The Nightmare by Henri Fuseli caused a stir when exhibited at the Royal Gallery of London in 1781. The painting imagined sleep paralysis in gothic fashion, a hideous bald goblin straddling the sleeper amid deep shadows and crimson curtains. 

Once I discovered the incubus, a chain reaction of symbols occurred. In the op shop I was stacking CDs and almost dropped them, when I saw Fuseli’s goblin glaring at me from the shelf. His painting was reproduced on the cover of a deluxe CD titled Opera Favourites: The Power of Darkness. I read the accompanying booklet on the bus home, which detailed the equally dark backstories of the compositions. Apparently, Offenbach had a premonition he would die before his Tales of Hoffman could be staged. Sure enough, he perished four months prior to the premiere, with the sheet music in his lap. 

At home I burned the disc to computer and listened through headphones to my first romantic opera, Weber’s Der Freischütz. It took me far too long to get from vampires to romanticism, but there I was. One piece from the opera, the rousing Huntsmen’s Chorus, gave me a feeling of déjà vu. I believed I’d heard it before, punctuating the film J’irai comme un cheval fou, directed by Fernando Arrabal. The title derives from a proverb, suggesting that man will continually blunder through life like a wild horse. It was translated into English as I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse, which doesn’t quite capture it. A scene that stuck in my mind was a man in lingerie giving birth to a human skull. Madame Necrophilia, born again.

I revisited the film via a low-quality Internet stream of dubious legality. Emerging onscreen was Fuseli’s incubus, crouching next to the opening credits while an aria played. How many times had I encountered the incubus without knowing it? The dialogue was dubbed in French, with Spanish subtitles. I speak neither language; the teachings of Señora Lobo were supplanted long ago. But the soundtrack was clear enough, and at no point did I hear Weber’s chorus. Instead, I discovered it was the Wehrmacht marching song ‘Erika.’ It just goes to show how the mind can play tricks.   

* * *

My Scottish heritage inspired research into taibhsearachd, or second sight. A seer of the Highlands will soon die when their reflection is seen to pull on a shroud and disappear from the mirror. I never experienced this omen, or any others. I hadn’t glimpsed the ghosts of my future funeral procession. There are no black ravens in Auckland. There was Great-Aunt Christina, however, of the Howick Historical Society. She visited and held court from the old roll arm sofa, both too large for the tiny ‘70s apartment my family rent. She brought fish and chips, and a blue manila folder containing all our gory history: black and white photographs, hand-inked family trees, screeds of secrets. Grandma Gold would curse my father as a ‘wee deil.’ As a boy, he graffitied the inside of the bureau that now stands in our hallway. A cabinet of shadows, where the incubus initially sprang from. But really the family was full of Quakers, reverends and librarians, even a mayor of Woodside. No vampires. Scotland had failed me.

* * *

Walking down the hall at home, I was pressed on both sides by thousands of books, a forest of troubling thoughts. From one shelf a pop of crimson tempted me. A narrow red box with split seams, a Swiss version of the Marseilles Tarot from the ‘70s. Dad had picked it up from the garage sale of artist Rex Le Grice, at his ramshackle home on the foothills of Mount Eden. At 60 years young, Rex Le Grice had married a 30-year-old travel agent. After he developed type 2 diabetes, they sold his boat and left for India on a spiritual quest. He sheepishly pressed the pack of cards into Dad’s hand. 

‘I should probably give them to you,’ he said. ‘Not sell.’

The cards constituted a language beyond currency, intricately detailed, tiny paintings which seemed straight out of a garish medieval comic strip. The twenty-two major cards form an interconnected whole, a singular unit like the human mind or the universe, with its own internal structures and patterns. By reading that language, I could put my own mind in order.

For exercise I would go on power walks; frequently I ended up on the top of Mount Eden. Before striking the footpath, I would read the Tarot on my bed, already wearing my sports shorts and walking shoes. I shuffled the majors and spread them across my duvet, then I closed my eyes to focus on a question. By the time I reached the summit, my answer would crystallise. I drew three cards at random and flipped them face-up: past, present, and future. A deeper reading might only look at the present, but rewrite the path that led me there. No predestination. If the cards are no longer useful, I can discard and draw again. 

* * *

The hundredth day arrived. I drew the tenth major card, L’a Rove De Fortvne. Perched on top of the wheel of fortune was an incubus, squinting directly at me. Give me more, the drill sergeant seemed to tease. Another hundred. I headed up the mountain, weaving through the tourists, none of whom were German. People were drawn to the summit, making the journey on foot alone or in groups. On top, everyone congregated on the concrete under the trig-station steeple. I abandoned the crowd and sat on a bench overlooking the Waitematā Harbour.

Everything below seemed improbably close. Auckland Normal Intermediate was a conglomeration of white box classrooms, square green fields and the blue rectangle of the swimming pool. Beneath pōhutukawa trees I glimpsed the sports shed that might hold something awful. I tried to pick out Coatesville, where Pip now lived on a farm, but the North Shore was just a blur. I sat there for a long time, the wheel of fortune turning in my mind.

 

*

About Angus Smith

Angus Smith lives in Sandringham and has a BA from the University of Auckland. His book of poems Auckland Alibis is available online. angussmith.gumroad.com