Fiction and Fear

In all meaningful fiction, there exists an element of fear. It may lurk more or less in the background, more hidden in some stories than in others, but it’s there.

This seems to hold true even outside the genres you’d expect to incorporate fear—horror, thrillers, weird fiction. The dynamic of fear is also hard at work in romance, general, and literary fiction. Even the most contemporary, everyday realist narrative makes profound use of fear in running its train from departure to destination. So it’s not just the Stephen Kings and HP Lovecrafts of the world, but the Raymond Carvers, the Cormac McCarthys, the Jane Austens who give fear a key role in their storytelling.

It can take innumerable forms, ranging from the new kid’s anxiety about how his unmet classmates will perceive him, to whether that bear outside will actually break down the door and do what it sounds like it wants to. But one type of fear that crops up often—in life as in literature—is that of losing a loved one. Perhaps the most intense version of this is the fear of losing a child.

Three very different stories—all incorporating this particular fear—by three very different authors, illustrate the idea well: that fear in fiction isn’t just for goosebumps; it nearly always plays a vital role in what actually gives meaningful stories the gravity they posses.

The first example, and perhaps least expected, is Jane Austen’s Emma. On the one hand, it’s a fun tale of a young person’s semi-embarrassing emotional maturation. A cute love story. On the other hand, there’s this unexpected ingredient in the novel infusing it with a certain gravitas, making it more than a simple romantic-comedic romp—simultaneously revealing the complex origins of young Emma’s arrogance—fear.

IMAGE - Emma (BBC)

While a sense of one particular character’s fear laces the novel itself, a recent BBC production very wisely brought this dynamic even more to the surface. At the outset, we learn that Emma’s mother has died long ago. So long ago, Emma hardly has “more than an indistinct remembrance.” When her mother dies, Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, is so distraught, and clings so tightly to dear Emma and her sister—out of an intense fear of losing them too—that it plays a fundamental part in shaping her character. His cosseting cultivates an environment such that when the story opens, Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,” being, as the narrator puts it, “the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father.”

The ultimate refinement of her character—smoothing out the imperfections produced by Mr. Woodhouse’s coddling—turns out to be the central arc of the story. Thus, her father’s fear, itself, is the spring of the entire narrative. But it’s more than just a catalyst for the action. It actually lends the story a greater sense of human gravity than if Emma had come by her self-centeredness some other way. After all, it’s hard to blame the poor man.

Michael Gambon, as Emma’s father, does a wonderful job of it in the BBC series—playing the “valetudinarian” of Austen’s novel. At one point, deep into the story, Emma is mostly grown and about to take a small trip away from home. As her departure nears, and Mr. Woodhouse’s anxiety peaks, he suddenly realizes how the acute fear of losing his children has dominated the course of his life—and that of his family’s. “I’m a foolish man,” he says in a rare moment of lucidity. “Aren’t I.” Grimacing, he explains: “You cannot know what it is to fear, until you have a child.”

Emma’s reply is interesting: “I would not trade a million exciting expeditions for that love.” It seems odd, at first glance, that she so freely associates fear with love. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Cormac McCarthy is admittedly no stranger to using fear in fiction—with such gruesome tomes to his name as No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian. The interesting thing about his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, however, is that the most poignant sense of fear in the book—perhaps in McCarthy’s entire corpus—is borne out of the intense, devoted, if imperfect love between a father and son trying to survive a nuclear holocaust. All they have in the world is each other. The bond between them is so elemental it’s almost hard to decide which, really, is the protagonist. Love—fundamentally, the valuing of another above oneself—has made it so they both, together, are the protagonist. They’re like a single organism. Without this dynamic, the book would have been one huge step closer to just another post-apocalyptic horror show. And, ironically, that horror show would have been a lot less frightening.

IMAGE - Cormac McCarthy (The Road)

Michael Chabon, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, stresses this in his 2007 review of the book:

The Road is . . . a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears . . . It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which [it] extends the metaphor of a father’s guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son [by dying] to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader.

As Chabon points out, though their world is a malign, insufferably dark place, where gangs of survivors roam in search of human prey, what makes the book more than just a sci-fi horror novel is the relationship at its center—the intense bond for which “love” almost doesn’t seem a strong enough word. The intense fear of losing it, of that gutting separation.

Raymond Carver’s painfully beautiful story, “A Small, Good Thing”—possibly my favorite short story of all time—demonstrates nearly the same effect in a much quieter but almost more potent form.

IMAGE - Raymond Carver

As with Austen’s and McCarthy’s stories, the force that trumps all others in “A Small, Good Thing” is the fear of losing a child. In this case, despite turning out almost more horrifically than McCarthy’s brutal novel, the story somehow ends on a more profoundly joyous note than even Austen’s benignly optimistic one.

Again, the key counterweight ingredient to fear is at play. At the end of this story, a new grasp of simple, unadulterated love—love that transcends in its nature even the love two parents had for their son while he lived—is the elixir Carver swirls into his characters’ natures to transform them.

After several agonizing days by a small boy’s hospital bed—following a hit and run—his parents tragically lose him. Neither can function. They are numb. But readers begin to realize that in some very real way, their relationship—with each other, with their son, with the rest of the world—was fairly numb even before the accident.

By the last line of the story, however, they are profoundly different people.

After their son’s death, the building animosity between them and a baker comes to a head. He’s a rude, socially awkward man who’s harassed them for days by phone—between their hospital visits—about a cake order they’ve left at his shop. Infuriated, they drive to the shop in the middle of the night. He’s there. They bang on the door. The wife threatens to kill him. Then she bursts into tears and spits their tragic news at him. But something happens. The baker’s unexpected response—and theirs, in turn, to him—shows three people who have all suddenly seen each other as broken human beings in need of other broken human beings. This new, sudden empathy changes everything.

Fear, on all their parts, suddenly makes way for something else. The husband and wife truly see this man, his pain, for the first time. They try to comfort him. And this baker actually sees the struggle of this husband and wife, truly, for the first time—the buried hurts they’ve harbored even before this event. The baker clears a table, makes them sit, and gives them bread. “Eating,” he says, “is a small, good thing in a time like this.” The husband and wife have allowed themselves to break down for the first, real time since their son went to the hospital. And sitting at the baker’s late-night table, “they ate . . . They listened . . . They nodded when he began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt . . . They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread . . . They talked on into the early morning . . . and they did not think of leaving.”

What? I thought, after first reading this. Bread? That’s how this achingly protracted tale of grief and loss and awkwardness ends?

But after seeing it one day, suddenly, from this angle of fear moving into something else, I literally cannot read this story now—especially the end—without tearing up. When you really dig to the bottom of it, the somehow magical, almost earth-shaking power of that very small, otherwise dull ending is possible only because of the intense fear and uncertainty leading up to it. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says. And I almost tremble.

It sounds, in fact, like something Sam might say to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings—that quintessential example of injecting a heavy dose of fear to produce an exuberant ending. Consider the hobbit’s words near the end of The Two Towers—Peter Jackson’s film version paraphrases the novel nicely on this point. And as you read, think of what Carver’s story, particularly, would have been like without fear:

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.

That is a perfect description of how fear works in even “happy” stories, to yield a far more meaningful result than you get with stories that lack it.

More meaningful? Really?

I think so.

It seems that at least one reason the best fiction tends to incorporate fear is because it’s an integral element of our story, the human story. Christians believe in the Happy Ending, in Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” applied to the story of human history: the sudden, happy turn in a previously dark, seemingly hopeless tale. This is not a “deus ex machina” kind of turn—some arbitrary flip of the switch that’s really just the storyteller cheating—but a turn that the beginning itself, and the whole story leading up to the end, has been making way for.

I submit that the reason all people, all cultures are deeply moved by this arrangement—crushing fear giving way to joy, by some self-sacrificing effort of love, something totally unexpected—is because that’s the arrangement we find ourselves in.

The Christian story—encapsulated in Christ’s own story, his own dark suffering, his death and burial, the seemingly unarguable defeat, the shattering of every hope and dream his people had been assured would come true, followed by that miraculous turn, foretold in shadowy form again and again, prepared for since the very inception of the story, that eucatastrophic turn in the Master’s resurrection—is played out on the entire stage of history. Suffering, followed by glory. Death, followed by Life. Tears of anguish followed by laughter.

The reason all humans respond to this kind of story, the reason the profound reality of fear preceding the most meaningful outcomes resonates with us, is because this is the story of our universe.


Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University, the University of Houston-Downtown, and for Writers in the Schools. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.