Ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a sound you can’t identify?
You lie still, wanting to hear it again, wondering if it was your imagination, hoping it isn’t anything you don’t want to encounter.
Years ago, while serving as the interim city manager of San Juan Capistrano, I was allowed to live in one of the town’s historic houses. My home was in Sonoma, about six hundred miles away, so I agreed to stay in the Swanner House, a two-story Craftsman a few miles from downtown, situated in an old orange grove.
The house had been vacant for years, but still had minimal furniture. I brought in linens and kitchenware, firmly closed the door to the upstairs bedrooms and the downstairs basement, and lived on the ground floor.
For six months.
I was away during the day, but when I came home at night the eerie atmosphere of the house was overwhelming. No ghosts were associated with the place, but at night the building creaked and moaned and many a night I slept with my cellphone under my pillow, thinking I should also have a knife there. You know, just in case.
Fear is odd. It not only creates a visceral response, but your mind conjures up all kinds of images. When I showered I was sure the villain of Psycho would burst through the door. When coyotes howled in the orange grove, I thought of old werewolf movies. If a tree branch had ever thrashed against the house I probably would have called 911.
“Things that go bump in the night” is a line from an old Scottish poem. The line starts, “From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!” The author had the right idea. It’s those unknowns that are just as frightening as the knowns.
I think the most frightening unknown sound I ever heard was Santa Fe Railway workers laying sections of track in the middle of the night, about a block from a house I once owned. The piercing scream of metal against metal is a sound your ears do not want to hear because it’s unusual, it’s nothing you can immediately identify, and your first thought is the demons of hell have been unleashed. It’s similar to a freight train suddenly putting on the breaks and screeching for a couple of blocks.
That’s the only time my terrified sixteen-year-old daughter ran into our bedroom, pushed me into the middle of the bed, and climbed in with us.
In Sauvignon Blanc to Sigh For, the novel I published on this day last year (aha, you knew there was a connection), I open the book with a cliché. The hero, knowing his best friend was upstairs sleeping, throws pebbles against her window to wake her up. He’s lost his phone and knows she won’t hear him if he knocks on the door.
Her thoughts did not immediately go to old movie scenes. She’s made of sterner stuff. She gets out of bed, sidles up to the window and peers down below. No knife under the pillow for Sarah.
She’s a planner, a logical, organized, unruffled soul. City managers are supposed to be like that, too.
Maybe it’s a good thing I became a novelist.