:: Article

Talk of Circadian Rhythm

By Max Dunbar.


Something of the Night, Ian Marchant, Simon and Schuster 2011

I’m the screen, the blinding light
I’m the screen, I work at night

– REM, ‘Daysleeper’

The protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Map and the Territory, takes a break from the Parisian commercial art world to fly to the remote rural Ireland home of… the author Michel Houellebecq, who has given himself a supporting cameo in the story. To the book’s lead, the artist Jed Martin, Houellebecq is a depressive and dishevelled figure, whose house is a tip of empty wine bottles and spilled rich food. The novelist’s one remaining ambition is sleep. ‘What I prefer now is the end of December; night falls at four o’clock. Then I can put on my pajamas, take some sleeping pills and go to bed with a bottle of wine and a book. That’s how I’ve been living for years.’

There does come a point where you stop looking forward to the light and start looking forward to the dark. I, also, become happier when the clocks went back; during the Christmas holidays, I’d be active in the bright crystalline mornings and then crash in the afternoon, loving the early dusk, before the night ahead. Now, a move to some Scandanavian place, where you get like twenty hours of darkness a day, seems like a good career plan.
Night, of course, fascinates us. Most children go through a phase of being afraid of the dark — and it’s odd that the darkness of the bedroom is so different to the darkness of outside, and that you can be scared of one and relaxed in the other. Night is when the best things happen, conception and laughter and roaming through cities, and it’s also when the worst happens, suicides, murders and a life-altering mistake behind the wheel: the bad, hesitant phone calls (‘Is this [Title] [Last Name]? I’m terribly sorry, but I have to tell you that your -‘) always seem to come at night. Men and women who work nights aren’t always well paid but seem to carry more weight and experience than their dayclock counterparts.

Something of the Night is Ian Marchant‘s history of nighttime. Marchant is a very typical baby-boomer, a jobbing writer, comedian, musician and general real-ale twat, with a history of mediocre philandery, and conventional in his radicalism. His front story and linking device is one night of drunk and stoned dialogue with an Irish friend. Ever written down, or recorded, what you’ve said when you’re stoned, and then played it back? Hilarious, wasn’t it? But Marchant loves his stand-up. There’s maybe four or five pages somewhere about going for a piss in the middle of the night, and — didn’t Ben Elton do that routine? — it gets somewhat wearying and tedious.

Get past this, though, and Marchant can be interesting, witty, informative and even moving. The book is a long meander through the English dark. Marchant interviews night garage attendants, shiftworkers on classical linen looms, and vigilants at asteroid lookout points. He goes clubbing with his daughters, and is bemused at the lines of ‘meow-meow’ they chop up beforehand (to be fair, the new drug scene makes anyone over twenty-seven feel old; I mean, horse tranquilliser? Mephedrone? Laughing gas, for fuck’s sake?) At the club Marchant does exactly the right thing, which is to buy a round of drinks, and then leave.

He also revisits his past. I was struck by the chapter on the death of Marchant’s father, and also by the death of his wife, after which Marchant was hit by a series of night terrors — he would wake up, terrified, convinced he was about to die, and by morning the sheets would be soaked in sweat as if he had pissed himself in his sleep. The raw night fear is supposed to be something of childhood, that elemental abstract terror, and when that’s gone you just lay awake thinking of money, and goals, and being found out. But sometimes the traumas and sorrows of adulthood make us children again, and not in a good way.

‘As a highly specialised and overdeveloped social creature,’ Marchant says, ‘I cannot be sustained under anything other than artificial light.’ Before electric light, people simply went to bed when the sun went down and got up at dawn. During that part of the year when the nights were longer, it was the habit to rise for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, and Marchant says that wealthy bedrooms of the fifteenth century had an aumbry — ‘an early kind of mini-bar, to hold food and drink in order to stave off night starvation.’

Our most enduring religious festival, of course, comes from a fear of the night. Pre-moderns lived in a kind of seasonal-affective terror at the turn of the year, and had to come up with rituals and belief systems to get through. Marchant, as much as he irritates me, is a man who has been to many forgotten places of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland: he has gone on long rambles over fields and fens and mountains, and he understands what it is to be alone with the night sky in the middle of nowhere.

‘Before the widespread use of artificial light,’ Marchant explains, ‘the sky would have been seen as portentous, because people could see the comets and meteorites and strange conjunctions of planets much better than we can.’ It could be said that the entire history of human civilisation has been an attempt to conquer the dark and the dangers it brings — risk of falling into rivers or down potholes, of being attacked by wolves or bears, or becoming lost in forests, lots of practical dangers, to say nothing of intangible ones.

And now we’ve made it: ‘you can stand pretty much anywhere in Britain, and see a yellow glow in the sky.’ I actually quite like the glow of light pollution — not quite yellow, but a pink-orange congealment or corona. The night still holds. I think a night spent sober and alone always seems like a night wasted.

In the essay ‘Why I’m Not Afraid of the Dark,’ the conservative journalist P J O’Rourke looked back on his childhood, a time of poverty and humiliation. ‘My father had died when I was nine, and my mother, a kindly but not very sensible woman, had remarried to a drunken oaf. He was a pestering, bullying sort of man whose favorite subject of derision was my fondness for books.’ O’Rourke developed a crippling fear of the dark, which lasted into his teens. One night, after escaping a scene of domestic carnage (‘my stepfather was bellowing threats and the dog was barking and the television was blaring in the background of it all — a scene I still envision whenever I hear the phrase “hell on earth”‘) the young O’Rourke wandered the empty streets and sat in a park and tried to think rationally about his fear, and why the darkness scared him so much:

I decided darkness must symbolize something more general for me. Evil, I decided. That’s why I imagined monsters in the dark. Monsters are evil because they do evil things, which is what makes them monstrous. But I recognized that as circular reasoning. No, I had to consider what evil really was. Evil was harm and destruction. Murdering people, that was evil, or burning their houses down. These were the sorts of things evil forces might do, the kind of forces that darkness symbolized for me. Such forces might rage into a home like my own and murder one of my sisters or both of my sisters or even my mother and tear the house to pieces, breaking it into little bits and then blowing the ruins to smithereens with nitroglycerin and setting fire to what was left, and then take my stepfather and break both his arms and slice off his feet and poke his eyes out with red-hot staves, disembowel him, skin him alive. And then they’d attack the rest of the neighborhood and the police force and the school and burn and bomb and steal and break everything in that part of Ohio, from the filthy oil refineries on the east side of town all the way to the moldy, boring cottage we rented every summer at the lake. And who knew what such evil forces might do after that? I didn’t. But I sat on the swing set considering suggestions for a very long time. And I have never been afraid of the dark since.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 6th, 2012.