Matt Gemmell

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A collection of personal essays, with exclusive content and author's notes.

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Staying Afraid

10 min read

It was still half an hour before midnight, but the road was already deserted - which was perfectly normal for a Sunday night on the outskirts of a small, coastal fishing town in the north east of Scotland. The year was probably 1989, but I can no longer be entirely sure. I had more pressing concerns than the date. I was ten years old, I was alone, I was on a BMX bike, and I was cycling for my life.

I could hear the few loose coins in my jeans jingling madly as I pumped the pedals, but the sound was distant and unimportant. I vaguely hoped that I wouldn’t lose the other contents of my pockets - a small paper notepad, a cheap blue half-length biro, and an asthma inhaler - but I could live with it if I did.

I could see a pool of light a few hundred yards away, at the junction where this road met two others; one led to another equally-small coastal town across the river, less than ten minutes away, and the other stretched south, eventually reaching the city of Aberdeen some forty-five miles distant. It was this latter road that I was heading for.

The thing chasing me felt closer now. It had hit the road only seconds after I’d clambered back over the iron railings of the graveyard (I still had scraps of peeling green paint, and some blood, on my palms), then dropped the seven feet or so to the ground, pulled my bike up so quickly that one tyre became momentarily airborne, and began pedalling. The gates had been locked, but that didn’t seem to have been a problem for whatever-it-was, and even without looking back, I knew that it was coming after me. I knew it with the same simple clarity that I knew this bike ride was the rest of my life.

I shouldn’t have gone to the graveyard, of course. I most certainly shouldn’t have climbed over the railings when I’d seen that it was sensibly locked up for the night. At the very least, I shouldn’t have gone alone. But I was a boy, and so I did all of those things. I found myself standing, pen and paper in hand, at the grave of a man I had never known, scribbling down his name. I was going to be a writer of horror stories, and there was surely no better place to obtain character-names than in a graveyard by night. A week or so later, it would occur to me - with sudden, blinding insight - that I could simply have used the phone book in a call box. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes, and if anyone had heard me, they would have thought that the laughter sounded strange.

I can still remember the name I had just copied down when I saw the thing out of the corner of my eye. I still remember, even though it’s been more than twenty years since that night, because I still have the pad of paper. I’d tell you what the name was, but I think it’s best not to. There’s no such thing as bad luck, of course, but then there’s also no such thing as a creature that’s as big as a panther, that moves almost silently through the night, and that can slip right through an iron gate whose railings are only a couple of inches apart. Nor is there anything that can move like a ten-year-old kid on a bike with a monster chasing him, and that’s like the wind.

Your senses are very sharp indeed when you’re standing alone in a graveyard at night, and so I easily saw the thing flit between two gravestones even though I was four rows away, and not looking in that direction. I spun around, instinctively cramming the paper and pen into my pockets to free my hands, and searched for movement. I could taste the bitter metal of panic in my throat. Several seconds passed, then I saw it again, whipping between another two headstones, impossibly fast. Huge. So black it was like a hole in the night. Circling around, to cut me off from the gate. It was trying to be stealthy, but it had been spotted now. I was running before I had time for another thought - and it followed.

With the graveyard now far behind me, the road began to slope slightly upwards towards the junction as I urged the bike onward. I barely noticed. The bike had no adjustable gears, and already I felt like I was pedalling faster than the tyres could turn. In the beat between two breaths, I heard the rapid, scuttling click of claws on tarmac not far behind me.

I blew through the junction without slowing, hauling the handlebars left into the turn. The rear tyre skidded outwards but held its grip, and I shot up the wrong side of the road. There were no traffic signals, and no vehicles; only a solitary lamp-post to light the intersection. I left it behind immediately.

I knew that if I turned my head at that moment, I’d be able to see the thing as it came around the corner. I knew it would be sleek, and terrible, and black as oil despite the light. I also knew that seeing it properly would change me, almost certainly forever. I didn’t look around.

Half a mile further down, I wrenched the handlebars again and barrelled into the campsite where our family’s residential caravan was berthed. I was going far too fast for the deep gravel, but once again the bike somehow stayed upright, as if it knew what would happen if it fell. I could see the lights of our caravan up ahead, and the indistinct shape of my mother’s car parked up beside it. Inside, she and my grandmother would be chatting, and probably sending my younger brother off to bed.

I became aware that I’d have to slow down rapidly in order to get off the bike, up the two stone steps, and into the caravan, but I was loath to squeeze the brakes. The thing was even closer now, and its sound had changed. The wind had picked up, but I swore I could both hear and faintly feel a buffeting coming from only metres behind, and slightly above. It had taken flight. This was no time for brakes.

I stepped over the bike frame, putting all my weight on a single pedal, and as I came level with the edge of the caravan, I stepped off. I stumbled forward, half-fell, but kept going. The bike rolled away into a row of trees, and I was up the steps and inside the door in less than a second. I slammed it shut behind me, and I felt a blast of air shake the whole structure.

“Don’t slam the door!” my mother admonished from the living-room area at the other end of the caravan, and I only nodded automatically, not trusting my voice. I took out my inhaler, put the nozzle in my mouth, and pressed the actuator. My mother looked at me for a long moment, then told me (in a quieter voice) that I shouldn’t ride my bike so fast.

I was still awake in my top bunk when my grandmother came into the room about an hour later. The big caravan had a double bedroom for my mother, and two other bedrooms each with a pair of bunk-beds. My 7-year-old brother commandeered one room for himself and his assorted toys, and I had the other - the lower bunk of which was used by my grandmother when she accompanied us on holiday.

She got into her bunk quietly, and turned out the light with the pull-cord. I was considering saying goodnight when a scratching noise came from the roof, only a couple of feet above my head. I let out a cry.

“It’s just a seagull, lad,” came the comforting voice of my grandmother beneath me, and I wanted to tell her that no it wasn’t, no it most certainly wasn’t a seagull, but of course I didn’t. I was indoors, I was exhausted, and I wanted nothing more than to believe her. I’d never seen or heard a seagull on the roof before, and I never did again after that night, but I chose to believe it nonetheless.

As if startled by her voice, the scratching sound abruptly stopped. I thought I would lie awake for hours, but I was asleep before ten minutes had passed. That’s another peculiar thing about the young (and the old). Sleep comes when you’d think it would be impossible.

I stayed away from the road to that graveyard for the rest of the holiday, and I didn’t linger outside for long after dark. We returned to the same campsite for a few years afterwards, but eventually the place lost its appeal for now-teenaged boys, and we headed for warmer climes instead during our Summer holidays. In the blink of an eye, I was thirty years old, and I hadn’t seen that little out-of-the-way town in more than fifteen years.


As an adult, I know that the thing in the graveyard was a trick of light and shadow; perhaps foliage in the wind. I know that I was pursued only by my own imagination, and that I was damned lucky not to fall off the bike and break my leg, or worse.

I know that the scratching on the roof, directly above my head, was surely a seagull - the one and only seagull ever to do that whilst I was there. I know those things. Of course I do. There aren’t any things in graveyards, or anywhere else.

But our lives aren’t free of terrors; not at all. We’re actually surrounded by them. Almost everything is scary, and we’re all bravely and blindly struggling on, whistling nervously and hoping it’ll be morning soon. We have no other choice.

The terrors of real life usually don’t have claws; we don’t tend to see any tigers in the underbrush anymore. Our terrors have a far more mundane appearance. Sometimes they look like doctors, saying “I’m afraid it’s bad news”. Sometimes they’re a letter from the bank, or a sudden, crushing pain across the chest. Sometimes they’re a sympathetic-looking police officer at your door, or a screech of brakes followed by a sickening thud, or maybe the most terrifying thing of all: a telephone ringing in the middle of the night.

Those things are lurking out there for some people. The biggest, nastiest one (with fangs and claws and those insane but horribly intelligent eyes) is waiting for each and every one of us: it’s called mortality. Some part of me knew, even on that same night, that it was death I was really afraid of. I barely had time to realise it before I dropped off to sleep, lulled by the comforting sound of my grandmother’s breathing (she, of course, now rests in another graveyard, and I miss her often - if she could read this, she would no doubt remark that she’s now in the bottom bunk permanently, and then she’d laugh her ever-mischievous laugh).

So, no, we have no choice but to be scared. The thing is, terrors like cancer or bankruptcy or loneliness can’t be outrun. You can’t get on your bike and fly down a dark road, adrenalin spiking, desperately hoping to leave them behind. They’re on the bike with you, riding on the saddle while you stand on the pedals, with their claws holding firmly to your jacket, and their smile is more like a silent scream. Fear is our co-pilot, and always will be.

That’s why we need a substitute; a surrogate thing-from-the-graveyard. Something we can deal with directly, and that we can escape. Maybe something with claws, and wings, that can move impossibly fast. For me, that’s what spooky stories are about - what’s dismissively called “horror fiction”, and more properly (in my opinion) called supernatural literature. Ghosts and werewolves and that old house on the hill where bad things happened. The dreams of Cthulhu as he waits beneath the waves. That beautiful old red and white ‘58 Plymouth Fury that you seem so drawn to. Even Freddy and Jason, if you like.

Those terrors are easier to bear, because we can do something about them. We can see the story through, and even if there’s no happy ending, there at least is an ending. We manage to scramble up the steps and slam the caravan door behind us, just in the nick of time, cringing at a shriek of inhuman frustration that only we can hear. Anything that can run can be outrun, and anything that can fly can be outflown.

It’s practice, really. We’re practising for when the other horrors show up; the ones that respond to neither garlic nor gunshot. Maybe it’ll help, when the time comes. Or maybe we’re just staving off thinking about it.

That’s why I don’t really understand people who say they read horror because they like to be scared (or say they don’t read horror because they don’t like to be scared). We’re already scared. All of us. And we’re always going to be. Horror lets you choose what to be scared of.


I did go back to the little town; only once. It wasn’t too long ago, and this time I took my wife. I rediscovered a bit of my childhood, through the eyes of an adult. We even stayed in the same campsite, though it had recently been completely renovated and bore no resemblance to the place I’d known all through my youth. Even the old buildings were gone, and the swings I’d spent hundreds of lazy Summer days on.

One afternoon, I was standing outside the caravan we were staying in, leaning against my car, looking out across the fields. I took out my iPhone and on a whim, pulled up the satellite view in the Maps app. The overhead imagery obviously hadn’t been updated in a few years, and showed me standing in the long-gone campsite that no longer existed, complete with the ghosts of caravans and the people who used to own them. I could easily see the big, light-green residential van I had scrambled into that night twenty years before, slamming the door hard enough to startle my mother. The pulsing blue GPS location dot had no idea that it was a bridge from the present to the past, and I couldn’t decide whether I was feeling wistful or uneasy.

The following day we went for a walk, my wife and I, and before long I found myself turning down that old road. The graveyard is still there, naturally. It was broad daylight, the gates were unlocked and open, and the grass on the verge was freshly cut. There was no-one there, but the sun was shining and the sky was clear. It looked almost inviting, as much as a graveyard ever can be.

Welcome back, it said. Seems like I saw you just yesterday.

We didn’t go in. We walked past - on the same side of the road, even - and continued into town. As we drew away from the iron gates, I remarked to my wife what a beautiful day it was, and said that I thought we could expect good weather for the rest of our stay. She agreed.

And did my voice sound perhaps a little too loud for the sleepy country road? Were my comments about the weather a trifle inane, and delivered with too much enthusiasm? Did my pace increase - ever so slightly - until we had turned the next corner, and the town came into view?

Oh yes. Of course. Because I’m not crazy, and only a crazy person wouldn’t be at least a little bit afraid. It’s not fun, exactly, but it is healthy. Fear - the proper kind, that you know so well as a child, then somehow forget - is pretty much the healthiest thing there is. People should make an effort to reacquaint themselves with it.

The thing from the graveyard is always coming, you see. It’s always just behind you, and gaining. The precise form it takes differs from person to person, and from one situation to another (that’s a big part of what makes it so terrifying) - but you’ll know it when you see it, even if it’s only out of the corner of your eye.

It catches all of us eventually. We know that, but we spend our lives pretending it’s not true. The thing doesn’t care. It can wait, for as long as you like. Then one night, when everything is going just fine, you’re wakened by a sound. It’s a lot like a telephone ringing, but we know what it really is. A scratch-scratch-scratch on the roof, and a shadow in the dark.

When that day comes, I like to think that I’ll know what to do - because I’ve practised how it’ll feel. I’ve practised being scared, and even scaring myself. When you’ve practised something enough, it becomes instinct, and then you know what to do automatically.

As a matter of fact, I already know what I’ll do, and here’s some friendly advice: you might want to think about doing the same. It’s so simple that even a child can do it: I’ll get on my BMX.

And I’ll pedal like hell.