Germany in the near future: When supernatural beings come out of the closet and reveal themselves as having lived among humanity all along, the country quickly adjusts to the new reality after some initial uproar. Romances between humans and supernaturals soon become common, such as the relationship between Lina, a human single mother, and Albrecht, a nightmare demon.
But Albrecht’s and Lina’s love is threatened when they leave Berlin for Lina’s home village in rural North Germany. For it turns out that the village is suffused with an ancient magic, a warding spell specifically designed to keep nightmares out.
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- Albrecht, the Nightmare is a short story of 5800 words. This story is a digital premiere and has never been published previously.
- The seeds for this story were laid when I read about nightmares or “alps”, a variation on the incubus and succubus legends, in a book on local folklore as a kid. In that book, I also read that the crossed horse head gables that were so ubiquitous in North Germany had initially been intended as a deterrent against nightmares. At the time, I though that was pretty cool and was actually sad that I didn’t live in a house with crossed horse head gables because I certainly didn’t want any demons sitting on my chest, while I slept.
- Years later, while driving past one of the many houses with crossed horse head gables in the North German Lowlands, I explained to a friend that those ubiquitous horse heads were actually a bit of ancient witchcraft and suddenly found myself wondering, “What if it really works?” And then the idea of a paranormal romance in which a nightmare is kept from visiting his girlfriend by the gable horses on her parents’ house occurred to me.
- The many variations of the incubus/succubus legend are likely attempts to explain the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, which can be quite scary for anyone who’s ever experienced it. Sleep paralysis is probably also the explanation for many alien abduction accounts BTW.
- Like incubi and succubi, nightmares also have sex with their victims during their sleep. However, nightmares also have a couple of additional quirks such as a preference for human breast milk and the tendency to tangle the hair of their sleeping victims, braiding it into so-called elf-locks. Occasionally, nightmares have also been known to replace a baby’s clean diaper with a soiled one. All of these quirks made it into the story.
- In spite of their preference for breast milk, nightmares are equal opportunity demons, attacking men, women, children and even farm animals. Horses are popular victims with the nightmares borrowing them and riding them to exhaustion in the middle of the night. Cows are popular victims as well with nightmares milking them dry, so it’s not just human breast milk they like.
- A main feature of the traditional Low German farmhouse is that it combines human dwellings and stables under one roof. Hence, having a method of keeping out demonic critters that attack both humans and farm animals certainly makes sense. The practical purpose of these gable ornaments is that they protect the thatched roofs against storms, which are very common in Northern Europe. There are various variations of these gable ornaments such as poles, crosses, swans, dragons and snakes. But horse heads are by far the most common one.
- As for why horse heads rather than any other possible ornament, there are many theories about this. The prevailing theory is that the popularity of horses and horse heads as ornaments and heraldic emblems goes back either to the pre-Christian era and Odin’s horse Sleipnir or to the early Christian era and the Saxon chieftain Widukind, whose black horse miraculously turned white upon his conversion to Christianity according to legend. But whatever the reason, horses or at least their heads are ubiquitous in the old Saxon lands. Horses and their heads show up in the coats of arms of the German states Lower Saxony and North Rhine Westphalia, the Dutch province Twente and the English county of Kent. They can also be found in the coats of arms of many towns and cities throughout North Germany and in the logos of all sorts of businesses from banks (the Raiffeisen bank group, which is active throughout northern and central Europe, uses a crossed horse head gable as its logo) via gas stations to agricultural supplies.
- Lina’s hometown Altenmarhorst is a real village in North West Germany. I drove past the village many times, while I worked at the University of Vechta (which is implied to be the small rural university where Lina transfers after her adventures in Berlin, though I don’t explicitly name it). I chose Altenmarhorst mainly because its name contains the word “mar”, which suggests a connection to nightmares (though I have no idea of the true etymology of the name). Nowadays, the village of Altenmarhorst is part of the neighbouring town of Twistringen, which actually does have a McDonald’s and whose coat of arms coincidentally includes the ubiquitous Lower Saxon horse. Albrecht’s and Lina’s meeting with Councillor Müller-Wölkenkamp is implied to take place in Twistringen’s modern townhall (which happens to emblazoned with the town’s coat of arms), though I never explicitly name the town because I do not want to implicate actual politicians of any wrongdoing. And indeed, Councillor Müller-Wölkenkamp is entirely fictional, though representative of many bureaucrats throughout Germany.
- Albrecht’s friend Lambert Sprengepiel is a real historical person, a cavalry officer in the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War. Sprengepiel hailed from the town of Vechta, some twenty kilometres from Altenmarhorst. During the Thirty Years War, there was heavy fighting in the Vechta/Twistringen region. In their skirmishes with the Swedish Army, Sprengepiel and his men engaged in guerilla tactics and tended to disappear seemingly into thin air after their attacks. Hence, it was believed that Sprengepiel had made a deal with the devil himself and was using black magic. According to legend, Sprengepiel was cursed to roam the region around Vechta in the form of a black hellhound with glowing eyes. He terrorised the area until some brave monks banished him into the moors. A statue of Sprengepiel in hellhound form stands in Vechta, while the city museum has some mementos of his life. I first came across the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel, while working at the University of Vechta, and was immediately fascinated by the story. I always wanted to use Sprengepiel as the hero of a fantasy novel and I may still do so. I also decided to use him as a supporting character in Albrecht, the Nightmare. Since I suddenly found myself writing a story about supernatural beings in modern times set in Sprengepiel’s old stomping grounds, including a genuine local figure of legend only seemed natural.
- The Catholic Imperial forces of the real Lambert Sprengepiel eventually prevailed in the Thirty Years War and managed to retake the Twistringen/Vechta/Cloppenburg region from the Lutheran Swedes. The effects are still notable today, for the towns of Twistringen, Vechta and Cloppenburg form a Catholic enclave inside largely Protestant North West Germany. Roadside shrines and crucifixes like those which tend to bother vampires in the story are common in this largely Catholic area. A few examples may be seen in this post. Indeed, you can immediately tell at which point you have crossed over into this Catholic enclave by when you pass the first roadside shrine.
- The former German secretary of finance who turns out to have been a werewolf all along is a reference to Theo Waigel, German secretary of finance from 1989 to 1998. Waigel has a rather pronounced unibrow and unibrows were traditionally considered a sign of lycantropy.
- The unfortunately named anti-supernatural protest group PEADO is a reference to the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant group PEGIDA and their protest marches in Dresden. The anti-werewolf hate crime mentioned takes place in the East German city of Hoyerswerda, site of several Neonazi hate crimes, including two political murders, in the 1990s.
- There are also references to Günther Jauch, host of a political talkshow, Lindenstraße, a soap opera known for tackling controversial themes ripped from the headlines, and the inexplicably popular reality show I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of here!
- The cover is a painting entitled “Nightmare” by Swiss-English artist and Johann Heinrich Füssli a.k.a. Henry Fuseli. Füssli painted several variations of the “Nightmare” theme in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Elements occurring in all of Füssli’s nightmare paintings are the impish nightmare, the blonde and buxom victim and a horse freaking out in the background.