Beneath its weight man pauses in his will
And crouches at the dark-robed phantom’s feet :
The Fall of the Angels, To The Deity, John Polidori, 1821
My eyes struggled towards the lazy light from my half-open window. I rolled on the bed delirious, my eyes stared at the wooden floor. I just managed to incline my head to hear the warble of a bird, then see its passage pass my open window. I couldn’t move my eyes, let alone my my body. I lay on the floor, pinned, struggling to make things distinct, trying to break free of what can only be called, the worst overdose in history.
Pivoting my eyes slightly leftwards I perceived a shadowy figure. Two qualifications must be made: I thought I saw this figure, but I didn’t necessarily see Him. I say the figure was shadowy, but it did not offset the rays of any sun. It shimmered as if trying to maintain its substance, as if all its energies were concentrated in maintaining its existence…and in making mine very uncomfortable.
But this had been the purpose of my experiment. To make contact with the shadowy figure that intermittently haunted the end of my bed. I attempted to raise my hand to trace the sign of the ward that would push the demon back. But my arm was frozen stiffer than any limb of the dead. In front of me, the shadowy presence leant in closer.
Smokey tendrils emanated from its sides like torn angel wings. It slowly raised its arm. I was further pinned, my body a log . A gust ruffled the leaves of Milton’s Paradise Lost which I had been skimming through last night before I slept. I’ve never read it all the way through and probably never will. I barely finish anything I start.
I couldn’t tell you what parts of Paradise Lost I’d read and what I hadn’t. After reading the first two hundred lines I ceased to read it in order. It was my Bible, my den of false prophecy, of fantasy that had become a resource for my life’s mythology.
The white lace curtains flapped briefly. The shadowy figure drew closer but became no more distinct. Its arm merged to a hand which merged to a finger, pointing accusingly.
I managed to crane my neck. In ten seconds I put all my effort into moving my body an inch. The wind blew a sheet of paper off the desk. It was my final page of revisions for Ximenes, dated 23rd August, 1821. Which was yesterday.
As the page scurried beyond my gaze in an unfelt breeze, I felt the blood drain from my hand. It fell limp beside the bed! I had no time to come to my senses, if I had any left.
Out of the corner of my eye, a tendril of the dark figure extended towards me. It leaned inwards, its form bellowing. The tendril wrapped around my heart. An unimaginable wave of fear left no part of my body unfelt. It shrunk intensely around my heart and stabbed my upper back, causing me to arch involuntarily.
Dear reader, even at this darkest hour of my miserable existence, held in the vice of a supernatural entity, I was still able to reason that it may not be an entity at all. It might be my sick conscience, reprimanding me for falling prey to my chief vice: opium.
No. Gambling was my chief vice. Opium was my blanket and my bed. Gambling threatened to take even these away.
But the only vice I should be worrying about now was the grip upon my heart and the tendril worming its way down my spine.
I surprised myself with my capacity for reason. This was a particularly unpleasant episode of sleep paralysis. My sluggish mind remembered the escape. Wiggle thy little toe.
It didn’t work. The more I fought against it, the more the Presence enveloped me.
I thought back to all the techniques of self-arousal that I had researched while writing my doctoral dissertation on, of all things, sleep walking. The little toe. Surrender. A sacred object. I could form clear conceptions of none of these.
I couldn’t remember any sacred talismans I was particularly fond of. The earring I picked up off the ground?
Maybe a surprise show of strength was what was needed. Catching It unawares with the full force of desperation.
But it would not leave. The entrapment had lasted five minutes now. At least. I’d heard of cases longer than half an hour, nay an hour! This was only meant to last three minutes. I had doubly checked the concoction, making extra sure the tincture of opium, belladonna and brandy was prepared according to the recipe of the ancients.
Instead I found myself struggling, the evil entity would not leave despite my occult entreaties. The wind gusted. More papers flew to the floor. Except for one that flew to my bed: Fuseli’s Nightmare. Seeing it at this hour only amplified my terror … As you can imagine …
I stopped fighting. Surrendering did not stop the infusion of darkness. I could no longer see the figure’s outline. It had morphed into swirling eddies and black wisps. My ears rang multiple tones as if I was seeing streaks of light translated into sound.
A blinding pop, a deafening flash .. my neck swung in three unrhythmical motions.
Silence. As pure as an endless day. Then my body bounced on the bed like a rag doll, building up momentum until I was flung across the room. My head hit the floral emblem on the desk corner.
I heaved myself slowly to my feet, fumbling for a pencil to record the duration of the paralysis, the contortions of the body. As my blurry vision cleared I noticed the beaker I had left on the chair by my bed was full. Completely full. How is this? Did I not drink the potion?
My heart hit my throat as I turned my eyes from the beaker to the bed. A hand dangled loosely, twitching, grasping the floor. It was my hand! And I was lying upon the bed! Out of my mouth fled ooze. I hadn’t woken up.
I had not expected this. The concoction only required a drop of Prussic acid to take me to death’s door. Sleep paralysis was always going to be an expected side-effect. The opium, among other things, was to induce … But this intense? Before I had time to process this mentally or physically…
Knock knock knock.
It was the house servant.
My body was still in convulsions although I was not inside it.
“Mr Polidori.” Knock knock. The servant’s head peeped around the door. Her eyes widened when she looked at the bed. She shook her head, her shoulders slumped. She clicked her tongue. Not the expected behaviour from a woman witnessing a man in convulsions.
Her head slipped back into the hall followed by the sound of feet running up the stairs. Then down the stairs and into the street.
The servant returned soon after with a man. I had stopped convulsing. The surgical procedures he applied to me were similar to those I had learnt in medical school. A metal tongue was stuck in my mouth but no reflex action encouraged my stomach to disgorge its contents.
Another medical man arrived with a square suitcase. Yet he had no need of the contents. He walked straight over to me, placed his hands on my stomach and began pumping up and down as if he was drawing water from a well.
The two surgeons retired upstairs to discuss the recent events with my landlord and the other lodger, Mr Deagostini.
There was another knock, a quiet knock.
“I know you’re inside.”
I was still beside the desk, frozen with terror at the thought I would never reclaim my body.
Knock knock. “Mr Polidori, you must pay up this time.”
“What on earth is that racket?”
It was my landlord. Thank God.
“Mr John Polidori has interest on a debt which must be settled immediately.” A paper rustled. Knock knock.
“John Polidori. He is currently ill disposed. You’ll have to come back another day.” He cleared his throat.
“This must be settled now.”
I tried to speak. Nothing came forth. Not even air.
The brass handle shook as the door was roughly opened. Two figures rushed in. The first I knew.
My landlord Mr R– of 38 Great Pulteney Street. He was followed by a dishevelled man with a ratty brown overcoat and a pointed nose that led him to compulsively sniff in the presence of anything new.
But this did not seem new to him.
“Mr Polidori! Wake up.” Mr R– prodded the side of my ‘double’, prostrate on the bed. “You see now, he is indisposed.”
I was as pale as a ghost. “I am here!” I thought the words out loud. My lips moved as if pronouncing them. But no familiar voice ushered forth.
The ratman stared at me awhile in disbelief – not at me, but at the version of me on the bed. Before turning to the real me.
“Yes I am here!” I heard nothing but my own thoughts, if that can sufficiently describe the sensation of being inexplicably mute.
“You see,” said Mr R–, “how ill-disposed he is?”
The ratman approached. He paused before me and the desk. His eyes darted back to the bed, around the room, at the window, on the floor. His head twitched. “Is he…dead?” He scurried towards the bed.
Mr R– nodded gravely.
The ratman’s eyes widened before resuming their configuration on his narrow face. He sniffed some more, returned to the desk. He shuffled my papers, heedlessly putting out of order the additions to my sacred poem, the Fall of the Angels. His boney hand pulled at the only draw beneath the desk. The handle came loose as expected.
“What are you doing?” Mr R– marched over.
“Whatever this is,” his hand swept the room, close to Mr R–’s face, “I am no part of it. I am only here to collect interest on a debt.”
“May I have your name,” said the landlord.
“There is no need.” He looked at me. “The debt is paid. Good day.” The ratman snuck out half closing the door on his slippery coat.