It all started on one of those Sundays. One of those typical Sundays you can only spend in one of two ways: If you’re with someone, you just stay in bed. Listening to the raindrops play snare drum on your skylight, while her heart beats the bass. Bom-bom, bom-bom, bom-bom, a melancholy love song filling the blank space in your head, until the tall trees in the not so far distance swallow the last gulps of day, drooling tangerine light all over the sky
If you’re alone, you finally force yourself to get up, at 2:46 in the afternoon, to the nagging sound of the merciless Beethoven-whichever-symphony ringtone of your aunt Heidi’s house phone.
You crawl out of bed, take an aimless swing at the little man with the big sledgehammer in your head, and stumble over an open can of cold raviolis.
You continue towards the bathroom, leaving red footprints on your aunt Heidi’s favorite carpet.
You realize that the nasty taste of half-digested Beck’s beer only gets nastier when it’s exposed to toothpaste.
You vomit that realization into the bathroom sink, drag yourself into the living room, and stare at the unnaturally big and unnaturally red telephone screaming at you from the coffee table.
You finally pick up the big red receiver. It’s cold and heavy.
“Hey Ben! You wiz us again?”
You immediately regret everything.
“Just wondering… How’s your handy, dude?” That’s when you start screaming: It’s called a cell, you idiot! Or a mobile! Or just a phone! But only inside your head.
You listen to the caller recount the story of you dropping your “handy” into the nightclub urinal, as if you hadn’t been there to witness it first-hand. You start wondering – silently – why Germans can’t just use proper English terms for things or find a handy German translation, instead of inventing their own “English” words. “Showmaster,” for example, instead of “TV Host”. “Public Viewing” to name a live event (usually soccer) that is publicly watched on big screens. Or “Open Air” to describe an event that is happening outside. And then, very German: Combining those words, so an “Openairpublicviewing” would be a live event publicly watched on a big screen outside. Zose crazy Germans…
“It vas crazy! And so funny. Especially, ven you tried to get it back out vis your naked hands…”
You can feel the sledgehammer-man swinging back for his final blow.
“Mann, say something!”
You breathe deeply, suppress the urge to smash the red phone against the white wall, and remain silent.
“Ben? You okay?” This is a different voice now. Less obnoxious. More worried. “I think we found it, dude.”
You rub your eyes. Your mouth is as dry as the desert, and your teeth feel like you just ate one.
“Do you see it?”
Stale daylight shines on the little note your aunt Heidi left, criticizing “your obnoxious behavior when you finally made it home at 6 AM THIS MORNING!!!” But still letting you know that she “left you some Käsespätzle in the fridge, in case your head needs a head-start.”
God had a big day when he made German aunts!
“It’s huge, man! And honestly… I don’t like it.”
What is he talking about?
“What are you fucking talking about?” You hear the words echoing from the thick stone walls of your mind. But they don’t reach the light. Your real-world-voice remains silent.
“Wait!” Now it’s the first voice again. “Zat’s it? You fucking kidding me?”
You look around. Tangerine light sloshes through the tilted blinds, painting surreal shadows on the ruined carpet. Your eyes focus on the big red telephone in front of you. It starts to flicker. A loose wire in the circuit of reality.
Something is wrong, you think.
“Something is wrong with the phone,” you say.
“Ben? Can you hear me?” The voice sounds tinny now, and more distant. As if your aunt Heidi’s living room is driving through a tunnel.
“Something is wrong with the phone!” You scream into the big red receiver, as if the volume of your voice would actually make a difference.
“So…ing … wrong…,” the tiny voice answers.
“I’ll call you back!” you shout, and slam the big red receiver onto the big red phone fork.
Then, your world turns black.
“Wh… th… f…ck… …s …ppe…g?”
You scream, but your voice is breaking up.
Then, all there is, is static.
When the world flips on again, your aunt Heidi’s living room is gone. The walls and windows surrounding you are gone. And the little man with the big sledgehammer inside your head is gone, as well. The only thing that’s not gone is the red telephone in front of you, hovering in the middle of nothing. Ringing.
You pick it up.
“Hallo, Junge.” Hello, boy.
“Who is this?”
“Du weißt, wer hier ist.“ You know who this is.
“No. No, I don’t!”
Doch! One of those wonderful words the German language has formed to break every foreigners mind.
Doch! Meaning Yes,but as a direct comeback to No. A verbal counterpunch crunching your face like a sledgehammer.
No, I don’t want to answer this phone call.
Doch! You fucking have to.
No, I don’t want to listen to you anymore!
Doch! You fucking will.
You slam the big red receiver on the big red phone fork again. But when you lift up your hand, it just lifts up with it. As if it was glued to your hand. As if it actually was your hand. Doch, motherfucker!
“Du hast mich gesucht,” the voice from your telephone hand whispers. “Und jetzt hast du mich gefunden.”
You came looking for me. And now you found me.
For my family
Because you take me by the hand
when it’s getting dark in the woods.
Even when I was a little boy, I already knew that Nerweng was a peculiar place. The kind of peculiarity that feels light at first, like your favorite pants slowly wearing out on the knees and crotch. Until, one day, they finally rip open, leaving you butt-naked right in the middle of the church square.
In Nerweng’s case, however, this light but persistent thinning is mainly attributed to its location. At least that’s what I think; and I am pretty certain that most of my fellow Nerwengers would agree if you asked them. Unless, of course, they’re just too busy holding up their ripping pants.
Nerweng resides right in the middle of Germany’s biggest industrial center. The so-called Ruhrgebiet, or Ruhrpott, or just Pott, if you are actually from here. This region, named after the river Ruhr that wriggles through it like a coal seam through a rock, is basically known for three things: mines, steel mills, and pollution.
“Don’t hang your clothes out to dry,” people used to say, “or you’ll have to wash them again.” Those people, however, were usually visitors from other, more picturesque places in Germany. Bavarians, with their Alps and their castles, or Black Foresters with their cuckoo clocks and wannabe-witchy-villages. They came, they bleated bullshit in their hideous Hicksville accents, and then they left again.
But others stayed. Pitmen from Poland, steelworkers from Italy, and mechanics from Turkey first found work in the mills and mines, and then a new home right next to them. Rapidly melting steel, and slowly melting culture. And the Pott itself somehow melted, as well. Dozens of individual towns and cities, home to over five million people, flowed together and alloyed into one of the biggest conurbations of Europe.
Except for Nerweng. Nerweng never melted or alloyed, Nerweng never even felt the flame heating up the pot. It almost seemed as if my placid little hometown was coated with something so strong it could withstand the heat of a blast furnace, and the current of molten steel. And, as oddly as this may sound, I think that this coating was produced by the woods that surround us. Woods that would have turned all the Bavarians and Black Forester’s into jealous green goblins, if they had actually stayed long enough to even catch a glimpse.
When I left my parent’s house and took a few steps down the road, I was surrounded by nothing but shrubs and trees, heard nothing but the wind rustling in the leaves, and smelled nothing but pure, clean air. But the woods isolated us from more than just the blast furnaces and smoldering chimneys. They also kept out the stink of the real world. When I was born in 1918, the First World War had just ripped a gigantic hole into the soul of the continent. When I turned 4, communists and right-wingers still openly shot each other in the streets. When I turned 12, the whole world was suffering from the biggest economic depression in history. And when I turned 15, my fellow Germans had just elected a somewhat charismatic Austrian with an incredibly hideous mustache to be their chancellor.
But don’t worry. The story I am about to tell you has nothing to do with all the Nazi and war stories you’re used to hearing about Germany. Partly, because it takes place in the year 1932, still almost a year before Hitler’s takeover. But more importantly, because it takes place in Nerweng. A placid little town so isolated – coated – from the rest of the world that the claws of history have hardly ever scratched us.
But don’t get me wrong. We didn’t need those claws to be hurt back then. In Nerweng, we had learned to start bleeding on our own.
“Autsch! Zat fucking hurt!” Karl stumbles away from the black berry bushes he just walked into, leaving a crescent mark on his arm, before he takes another hit from his spliff.
“Zat’s it?” He exhales audibly, watching the smoke float out of his lungs and slowly dissolve in the cool afternoon air. Sometimes he wishes his German lisp would also disappear, just like that. “Zat’s what we’ve been searching for sis whole time? Running srough zeese woods for almost two goddamn hours? Scheiße, Mann!” He coughs and throws his spliff on the wet soil, crushing it with his foot. “Zis sing,” he points into the woods, “is a shithole. A burnt shithole, in fact, and zat makes it even worse. And do you smell zat? It even smells like a fucking shitho…”
“Your mouth is a shithole, and I would be incredibly grateful if you could just shut it.” The sharpness of Nathan’s voice actually cuts Karl off, something that usually takes at least two more spliffs to accomplish.
“We found it, didn’t we?” Nathan asks, turning his head from the enormous structure in front of them back to his American friend Ben.
But Ben doesn’t answer. He keeps staring at the house looming behind the fallow field, framed by tall, leafless trees. It’s huge, and must have been even bigger before it had burst into flames, so long ago that the mold on its black skeleton had already started molding itself. The old book in Ben’s icy hands doesn’t mention a fire, but apart from that, the house exactly matches the descriptions sunken into its yellowed pages. It certainly is some kind of a forester’s lodge, but with its gigantic roof and all the little turrets and gables growing out of it, it actually reminds Ben of an old German castle. Broad columns carry the oversized canopy and wide steps lead up to the massive entrance. Gigantic antlers adorn the space above its two-winged door, almost too big for any species currently living on this planet. The old black trees surrounding the property – like petrified guardians, protecting the palace of their queen – look like they have all taken a step away from the house, either in awe or in fear. Who would blame them? Even in its burned and somewhat neglected condition, the house still looks menacing. And while it might seem like a miracle that its massive roof doesn’t collapse when the wind gushes over it, one could almost imagine that the rooms inside are still inhabitable.
Just like his friend Karl, Ben also recognizes a weird smell in the air. He smells it as clearly as Leyla’s perfume whenever they had shared his bed on one of those typical Sundays – that drunk him had foolishly turned into a thing of the past. But it isn’t perfume. It’s something different. Something strange. An unknown scent that inundates his senses, along with the weird tickle creeping all over his mind and nesting in his heart, like a squatter taking over an empty home. It’s a feeling of overwhelming fascination, making it impossible for him to stop staring at the mysterious lodge in the middle of the woods, and impossible to walk in any other direction than forward.
“Just come a little bit closer, boy,” I said, startled by the weakness of my own voice. “I don’t want to scream.”
And apparently, the boy didn’t want me to scream, either. He scooted closer.
“Where was I? Something… something about… bleeding?”
“Bleeding…,” the boy repeated. “Yes, Herr Daringhoff. You said that history didn’t need to scratch you if you lived here. Because in Nerweng you had learned to start bleeding on your own.”
“Right. Of course. So… let’s allow this image to thicken for a second, shall we? Just as blood thickens when it finds the edge of a wound and starts trickling out onto your skin. You got it?”
“Yes, Herr Daringhoff. I mean… I guess so…” He nodded, but not very enthusiastically.
“Good. Very good. Now… let’s try to remember why the hell I am actually telling you all of this…” I went silent, and felt how the boy was trying to figure out what to say. And so did I. But – as I do more and more lately – I continued without it.
“The mind’s a funny thing, you know. When you’re young, it’s like a cave. It’s dark and scary, and most of all it’s very exciting. But when you get older, you start installing lights everywhere, put shelfs in, cupboards, maybe even a couch and a TV. And before even you know it, the cave you once loved, has turned into… a basement.
The last thing I remember is walking down the wobbly staircase, clutching onto the handrail that was probably just as unreliable as the whole ramshackle of a building. When you are as old as I am, the last thing you want to do is fall. When I finally reached the bottom, my heart was pounding, both from exhaustion and from fear. When was the last time I actually went down here? I didn’t remember. Surprise!
I tried the light switch on the left side of the staircase. It didn’t work. Wait. Yes, it did. A small yellow light went on, at the very end of a long corridor full of dust and spider webs, and part of me was pretty scared of what I might find in those old cardboard boxes stacked up all the way to its ceiling. But another part was eager, and almost excited. And when I opened the first box – the one that had “Summer of 1932, Part I” written on it in rickety letters – that other part took over. I could suddenly smell the grass and the trees, and I could hear voices and laughter, familiar, somehow, and contagious. There was nothing I wanted more than to climb head first into that cardboard box, and close its lid behind me. But I couldn’t do that, not yet, at least. Because that wasn’t where this story was supposed to start. This story started with a whole other box, one that was still half empty. The last box I would ever store down here, right before I would finally burn that whole damn place to the ground. So, let’s go ahead and open that box. The box that contains the beginning of this particular story. Which is pretty close to the end, at least for me.”
“Endlich hast du mich gefunden,” the voice whispers. You finally found me.
Only it’s not a voice, not a real one, at least. It’s more like a tickle. The tickle of a million granddaddy long-legs crawling through the cave of his mind, startled by the beam of a flashlight.
God, he hates spiders! Those disgusting little creatures, with their spindly legs and their bizarrely shaped bodies, insidiously hiding in their sticky webs. And they bite!
“I don’t bite,” says the voice that isn’t a voice. “Houses don’t bite. It’s anatomically impossible.”
And that might be true. But there are quite a few things Ben had considered impossible, just a little while ago. Millions of little spiders living in his mind, for example. And talking houses.
Ben takes a deep breath. Deep breaths usually help, don’t they? They are something like a magic wand for everyday people. You feel like screaming at the asshole who just cut in line right in front of you? Take a deep breath! You just broke up with the girl you love more than anything, because drunk you thought he couldn’t handle the fact that there will soon be an ocean, a continent, and nine time zones between you? Take a deep breath! You got lost inside a gargantuan dark cave? With nothing but a flashlight that attracts millions of disgusting little spiders? And you feel like the only way out might be admitting that you’ve actually lost your mind? Just take a fucking deep breath!
“Alles wird gut,” the voice that isn’t a voice whispers. “Komm einfach noch ein bisschen näher, Junge.“
It’s all going to be okay. Just come a little bit closer, boy.
Albtraumfänger (nightmare catcher) is a 100,000-word horror mystery. It takes the thrills of IT, the plot twists of Gone Girl, the mysteries of Dark, the magic of Inkheart, and the atmosphere of Stranger Things and unites them into a unique story that will leave readers both enchanted and terrified.
Three narrators, two in 1932 and one in the present, tell a story set in a dark, unfamiliar neck of the German woods of the Grimm fairy tales. One of them is desperate for help, while the other two are playing a twisted mind game with both the protagonists and the reader.
On his 101st birthday Willibald Daringhoff’s world is knocked off its rusty axis. The chronically bored and cynical German hasn’t even finished his low-calorie elderly home breakfast, when American exchange student Ben storms into his stuffy room. The teenager confronts him with a mysterious lodge in the woods. A lodge that somehow figures out its visitor’s dearest wishes, and makes them come true. A dangerous place that should not exist anymore, because Willibald destroyed it more than 80 years ago. But the more Ben starts to rely on the old man’s help, the more he gets tangled up in a sticky web of lies – spun by an unlikely evil, patiently waiting in the dark.