“When I was nine years old I fell ill of typhoid fever, & lay for weeks at the point of death. . . . During my convalescence, my one prayer was to be allowed to read, & among the books given me was one of the detestable “children’s books” which poison the youthful mind when they do not hopelessly weaken it. . . . To an unimaginative child the tale would no doubt have been harmless; but it was a “robber story,” & with my intense Celtic sense of the super-natural, tales of robbers & ghosts were perilous reading. This one brought on a serious relapse, & again my life was in danger; & when I came to myself, it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors. I had been naturally a fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say—& even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, & threatening; I was conscious of it wherever I went by day, & at night it made sleep impossible, unless a light & a nurse-maid were in the room. But, whatever it was, it was most formidable & pressing when I was returning from my daily walk (which I always took with a maid or governess, or with my father). During the last few yards, & while I waited on the door-step for the door to be opened, I could feel it behind me, upon me; & if there was any delay in the opening of the door I was seized by a choking agony of terror. It did not matter who was with me, for no one could protect me; but, oh, the rapture of relief if my companion had a latch-key & we could get in at once, before it caught me!This species of hallucination lasted seven or eight years, & I was a “young lady” with long skirts & my hair up before my heart ceased to beat with fear if I had to stand for half a minute on a door-step!”
(From a collection of Edith Wharton’s autobiographical writings in Cahill 1994: 11)
Who among us hasn’t experienced that feeling of fright…can I get from the car and inside the house before “it” gets me? I’ve been there.