I want to tell you about “The Dream Woman,” an 1855 horror story by the English novelist Wilkie Collins, but first I need to tell you about something that happened to my friend's cousin's friend's girlfriend:
A teenage girl who worked at the mall in town was closing her store for the night. She cashed out her register, set the alarm for the evening and walked into the parking lot, which was empty except for her car.
She was unlocking her car door when she was approached by an old woman wearing a floral print dress and a fancy hat. The old woman, who was clearly upset, told her that she had missed the last bus leaving from the mall and she was afraid to walk home. Could she get a ride? Her house was in a rural area outside of town, but it wasn’t too far of a drive. She promised to give the girl gas money.
The girl took her up on the offer, but started getting a strange feeling about the old woman as they drove away from town. Without saying a word the girl quickly pulled into a gas station parking lot and ran to a payphone. She called the police.
The police arrived to find the girl's passenger door hanging open. There was no trace of the old woman anywhere near the gas station. When they asked the girl why she called she told them that, as the car passed under a streetlight, she saw that the “old woman” had hairy knuckles, a thick, tattooed forearm and that she was reaching into her shopping bag for a meat cleaver.
Tell your friends about this story because this madman hasn't been caught or even identified by the authorities. He could still be dressed as an old woman. He could still be hunting for potential victims in malls across the country. Who can tell?
Urban legends like this one scare me more than most horror stories because they sell a plausible worldview of ambiguity and cosmic indifference. They tell me that at any moment the city I live in could cough up a faceless killer like the one mentioned above. This person is a murderous cipher. His past is unknown. He can't be explained or exterminated. He is void. His whole being is a set of grisly motives armed with a sharp object.
Urban legend pyschos are rarely caught by the police. If the protagonist is lucky enough to escape them, the killers sink back beneath the murk of urban life, lost to the authorities and our quaint ideas of justice. The audience to an urban legend is denied a positive resolution. These stories suspend the audience in unresolved horror, compelling them to place themselves in the roles of potential victims. One of these killers could be watching you from across the street as you read this. There's no sure way to protect yourself. You must be on your guard. Forever.
“The Dream Woman,” specifically a shorter edit of the story available in ghost story collections like Edward Gorey's The Haunted Looking Glass, resonates with the same kind of horror found in modern urban legends. A doctor visiting a remote inn in the country wants to put his horse up for the night, but he finds the inn's ostler sleeping in the stable. Sleep, however, isn't really an accurate way to describe what the ostler is going through: He's soaked in sweat, screaming as though he's afraid for his life, pleading with someone in his dream to leave him alone.
As the ostler's night terrors continue in the background, the innkeeper tells the doctor how he came to be that way. Many years ago the ostler had a horrible dream, or vision, or visitation; it's hard to say for sure.
About a year after the nightmare the ostler meets a distraught woman on the streets of his home town. Collins presents this woman as someone who is dark and attractive, but he bleaches out most of her troubled past, telling us there's no need to go into detail about it. You've already read dozens of stories like hers in the saddest kinds of news reports.
This woman could be anyone.
This woman is no one.
The ostler marries this woman against the wishes of his longsuffering mother. As for what happens next, I'll only say there's a reason why urban legends warn you not to adopt pets you find while vacationing in foreign countries.
Longer edits of “The Dream Woman” focus more on the story's fate and occult aspects. But although Collins turns these versions into perfect circles of iron block determinism he sacrifices much of the ambiguity that I feel is so important in horror. Fate, even if it moves toward a nightmarish end, is still a plan and plans imply safety. The length of these versions also give Collins more time to dwell on his outdated attitudes toward women and that's best avoided.
Try to have a fun Halloween this year. Collins wants you to know that the city you live in is murky and deep. You're being hunted by monsters. Check every piece of candy for razors. Never start your car at night without looking in the back seat first.
Bill Rodgers lives in Santa Fe. He writes weird horror-comedy on Twitter as @SleepawayChamp.