Night Demons by
(87 Stories)

Prompted By Sleepy Time

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Originally written in the ‘90s. I’ll leave it to readers to guess whether my sleepy time experience has changed in the intervening years.

The demons barge into my brain at three a.m., check for messages, make coffee.

The demons barge into my brain at three a.m., check for messages, make coffee. They peel back my eyelids to peer at my dreams. “Bor-ring!” says the competitive friend demon as he flips through the infomercials. “When are you going to get high-def satellite?” The travel demon shakes me. “Wake up!” he calls in my ear. “It’s time to decide what to pack for your trip.” “Get lost!” I say. I look at him groggily. He is short and bearded, like a troll. They all look like trolls, even the women.

I turn over. “Yeah, go away,” says the perfectionist boss demon, always helpful. “You had him last night. Remember his presentation tomorrow?” Piss off!” I say. “I’ve prepared it.” “Sure,” coos the boss demon, “but you haven’t worried about it enough.” I turn over again but the doctor demon is on that side, solicitous, asking about the lump on my elbow. “Probably benign,” she says, “but let’s take a biopsy.”

I reach for my book and reading light. Under the covers, I escape to another man’s mid-life crisis. After a chapter I close my eyes. “Hi there,” says the IRS audit demon. Behind her the others are raucous. They sing Hava Nagila and dance in a circle, a pixie hora, except for the disgruntled employee demon who frowns at his desk, writing a four-page email full of ANGRY CAPITALIZED PHRASES. I push back the covers, put on my slippers, walk to the study. “Ignore us if you like,” says the aging parent demon. “We’ll wait.”

I sort through mail, read the newspaper, write a birthday card. The demons drink beer, eat chips, play pinochle. The irate sister-in-law demon wants to rehash the last argument. I put a relaxation tape in the Walkman. “Focus on your breathing,” says the calm, measured voice. “Inhale, exhale. In your mind, you see yourself as relaxed.” Am I relaxed? The demons, playing ping-pong, clatter distantly from the next room.

By five-thirty the sky is gray. The demons aren’t fond of daylight. They overflow the trash with pizza boxes and beer bottles and parade out the door, going bowling. “G’night,” says the stock market demon as I settle back into bed. He knows the alarm is set for seven. “See you tomorrow.” “Maybe not,” I smile as I slip into sleep.” I’m going to write a story about you.”

“Great idea!” exclaims the editor demon. “I’ll bring my red pencil.”

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Yep John, when one is a writer, everything is fodder – we even dream in plots and characters!

  2. PS
    John, remembering the late, great author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, years ago I had the great fortune of hearing him give the keynote address at a librarians conference.

    As a child, he told us , he was haunted by demons when he heard about the Holocaust and family who had perished.

  3. Marian says:

    Super creative, John, I’m glad you posted this story, even though it’s “old.” Seems very relevant, and I’ll wager the demons haven’t changed much. I’ll add my OCD demon, who taunts me about leaving the gas stove on, so I’m “forced” to trundle down the stairs at 2 AM to find everything is OK.

  4. Susan Bennet says:

    Hilarious and brilliant, John.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I love the featured image. Sendak was a favorite to read to my kids. Great, creative piece of writing. Hoping now that life is a bit slower, some of those demons have departed.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Laurie; I appreciate the good thoughts. Yes, some have departed (although aging has brought a few new ones). And I think I’ve improved my coping mechanisms. It took me a long time to realize that, even though they live in my brain, the demons are not me, are not necessarily right, and I don’t always have to listen to them. But they’re so damn good at making their voices heard!

  6. Suzy says:

    John, you had me with your featured image. Where the Wild Things Are is one of my favorite books, and I even have a t-shirt of it. I love your description of all the demons who interfere(d) with your sleepy time. Such a great story! I’m going to guess that your experience has NOT changed much in the intervening years. Maybe the boss demon is gone, or the disgruntled employee, but the others are probably still around.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks so much, Suzy. Good guess. As I told Laurie, the demons are still around, but there are fewer and my coping mechanisms are better. I think as I get older, there’s less to give a shit about. YMMV.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    This reflection made me smile—I hadn’t personalized the recurrent thoughts that populate the nighttime ruminations that keep me up, but I recognized them for sure. Naming them and turning them into Sendak monsters is perfect. Just add in a few even more hopeless existential ones for completeness.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Let the wild rumpus begin, indeed, John! Talk about inner demons! As you and others have noted, the demons have changed (only one aging parent remains; contract work, so the boss may be less demanding; but I bet your own aging demon is louder). I hope you are better at quieting all of them. This is a wonderfully inventive way to describe your sleep struggles. I hope things are calmer, all these years later.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    It seems like it’s demons all the way down!

  10. John Shutkin says:

    Great story about your demons, John. I immediately resonated to it from my own sleepless nights with my own demons. But, beyond that, I now envision all of these “conversations” in my head being captured in a transcript, which I can then re-torture myself with by reviewing the next, sleep-deprived morning.

    This double torture does not exactly thrill me to contemplate, but I can’t blame you for it. Rather, you have perfectly described the sort of demons that reside within me some nights so I, too, know what I’m up against. So maybe I’ll write a story about them, too, and try to chase them away.

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