BY MATTHEW OLZMANN
Let’s say you’re renting a New Hampshire cabin
and while walking home, the New Hampshire dark
descends on you. It’s the type of dark
where you can’t see your hands in front of your face.
In front of your face, the flashlight. In the beam
of the flashlight: mostly trees. Pine tree pine tree
pine tree pine tree pine tree maple oak paw print—
A paw print? One pressed into snow. Then another.
You’re pressing through that snow to get home.
Fearful. The tracks lead toward your destination
then disappear. Disappear? Things don’t disappear.
You sweep the flashlight’s beam in every direction.
Behind you: the path you’ve traveled.
Above you: branches. What disappears? Ghosts?
Phantoms? Vampires? Definitely vampires.
The spirits that reside in Bram Stoker’s skull.
In a place like this, it’s not hard to imagine
you’ve landed in Bram Stoker’s gothic imagination.
A moonless night and you’re standing in the fog,
feeling all Victorian, just waiting to die. It was a dreary
childhood for Mr. Stoker. When illness
rendered him bedridden, his mother
comforted him with make-believe stories of monsters
and very real stories of cholera outbreaks.
How the dead couldn’t be counted. Vomiting blood.
Being buried alive. God’s wrath and vengeance.
Bedtime stories. Excellent parenting. No wonder
he grew up so well-adjusted. He grew up
to manage a theater in London called The Lyceum.
The Lyceum produced several of Shakespeare’s plays.
All the world’s a stage, that bard once said.
Not sure if it’s actually a stage, but it’s definitely
artifice. A crafted vision. A performance
designed to convince you that perception is reality.
Perception: in the next play, Hamlet is talking to a ghost.
Reality: we’re in a theater and the chairs are uncomfortable.
Then Stoker wrote Dracula, a classic horror story.
Or a story about how love endures after death.
Or the greatest tale of xenophobia ever told.
Fear of the outsider. How an old man from Transylvania
will debase the blood of an entire empire. Ravage
the innocent, spread disease, etcetera.
Bram Stoker would have been an excellent American.
Perception: we’re in the woods of New Hampshire.
Reality: we are everywhere, all the time.
This is the story of fear and its ageless performance.
Once, you were afraid of the Gods that threw
lightning bolts from the mountaintops.
Later, you found those mountaintops to be empty,
vacant, no Gods for miles in any direction.
But that didn’t stop you. You found a way
to be afraid of the printing press, birthmarks,
trains and books that weren’t the Bible.
You were terrified of television, the hips
of Elvis, the vaccine for polio, the vaccine
for smallpox, the vaccine for measles,
radio waves, electric guitars, women riding on bicycles,
the vaccine for mumps, the vaccine for tetanus,
solar eclipses or lunar eclipses or both. Tonight,
it’s a paw print, smaller than your palm.
Everyone but you knows that the one
who made these tracks is a nervous marvel.
Spooked easily, it avoids humans. When startled,
it stays in its den—a hollowed log, a shallow cave—
for days without food. Look at the wilderness
you keep building for yourself. You, the theater,
convinced of its own grandeur.
The stage is empty; the audience gone home.
Nothing around you but a wide field of snow.
Best Nightmare Machine
BY MATTHEW OLZMANN
Whenever I got too many peaceful nights of sleep,
whenever the vise grip of anxiety failed to apply
the proper pressure to my skull,
I could type Image of a brown recluse spider bite
or How much of Antarctica has already melted?
into the search engine, and that network
of teeth would take care of the rest.
Whenever the season was too bright,
whenever my table too bountiful,
I could count on my trusty nightmare machine
to produce a door in the sky or earth, and release
one hairless wolf, starving and strange,
to hunt me down, tear off one of my arms,
and whisper something like, Your leader
is a stable genius, and immediately, my nerves
would light up with catastrophe and sulfur.
It doesn’t work like that anymore.
Technology has evolved.
The sophistication of my dread has evolved.
Today, the best nightmare machines understand
the fundamental necessity of delight,
the importance of good fortune.
They now try to make you to cherish, at least a little,
the world, before introducing its demise.
Now they send photographs of only my favorite days.
You and I walking through the rain in Vancouver.
You and I listening to that folk singer at Salvador Deli in Hamtramck.
You and I at Avalon Bakery with only three dollars
and a blueberry muffin to share. Only now
does my life end a little when I hear the outcry
of a car slamming its breaks. When you go in
for a routine checkup, only now,
do I pace the living room until you return.
This is the best nightmare machine’s most delicate victory:
allowing me to revel in every moment together,
every sip of this mulled cider, every bite of this pear,
the dishes stacked precariously in the sink—
I’ll get to those tomorrow, I promise. But even those,
I savor. They remind me of previous joys.
How they pile up:
their awkward leaning, their threat to fall.