Under the Lid

So Simon Ounsley enjoys intriguing encounters with something rustling and transcendent on the edge of consciousness? Reading his description in Lip 5 took me back more than twenty years....

For me it didn't rustle; it buzzed and sang, in a smoky cloud that clung around my head. It was hot and clammy and hard to breathe. And a sourceless, informative voice would bring the horror to its peak by pronouncing what was in that brief context the most hateful word in the language: "miasma".

Then, as you were expecting, I would wake up the rest of the way and wonder what had brought that on. Mild anoxia, no doubt, in a suffocating tangle of bedclothes; that might account for the strong feeling that the buzzing nausea wasn't an ordinary dream but a different and nastier state of consciousness, or unconsciousness.

Much later I tentatively traced one component of this recurring nightmare to a merry incident from when I'd had a go at fishing. You can easily reproduce this trauma for yourself. Have your bait-box filled with lush, plump, tenderly reared maggots, forget about it for a few days too long, and then whip off the lid without previous consideration of what maggots turn into....

I never worked out what I had against the word "miasma", which to this day strikes me as inexplicably sinister.

If I'd been religious, perhaps I would have put it all down to a close encounter with seepages from hell. But religion had been the year before. Now I was scientific, and eager to ascribe the hellish experience to a hold-up in oxygen supplies to the brain.

The encyclopaedia contained little relevant information, but my already copious stacks of crime fiction had several suggestions about the borderlands of consciousness... such as the interesting results to be obtained from pressing your thumbs rather hard into a friend's carotid arteries. Perhaps fortunately for my friends, I'd also recently been impressed by an account of how famous scientist J.B.S. Haldane had conducted all sorts of hazardous experiments on himself.

My teenage contemporaries, I suppose, locked themselves in the bathroom for altogether more seminally pleasurable reasons. I instinctively felt that a hefty clip on the ear would reward any attempt to explain to my mother that I wished privacy to squeeze my carotids. It was difficult enough to find the bloody things.

Eventually, standing in front of the mirror, fingers sunk into my neck, I saw myself fading behind the uncertain shapes of dark continents. It was both like and unlike the nightmare, with a roaring and throbbing instead of that evil remembered buzz, and with a waning feeling of being in control. I fell over a couple of times, and gave myself vile headaches, but never heard the much-feared word "miasma" or had that night-time feeling of

When the green field comes off like a lid
Revealing what was much better hid –

It was certainly a cheap, albeit bruising and criminally stupid, route to Altered Consciousness. There was a morbid attraction in being able to do sweeping things to one's mental capabilities with the push of two fingertips. After a while and maybe even as a result of the "controlled experiments", the involuntary nightmare encounters died away, and my interest shifted to safer hobbies like messing with step-up transformers to generate multi-kilovolt electric arcs.

Reading Simon Ounsley pointed up the unfairness of it all. When other people stray over the edge the lucky sods seem to encounter fun things like God and eternity and the quantum field, any of which I would actually be mildly interested in meeting (despite uncertainty as to how one should open the conversation). "Artificial" attempts aside, all I ever got was a dose of buzzing existential nausea straight out of a bad horror story. I've been suspicious of transcendence ever since. "There are lids which Man was not meant to open...."

* Auden. Yes, of course you knew – this note is for the ill-read, OK?