I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

Deepest FearsBoth Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.

It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.

For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.

Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.

Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.

We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).

One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.

Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.

It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.

These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.

What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Spy.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice LaPlante, Ellery Queen, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, Mike Befeler, Paddy Richardson, S.J. Watson, Sarah Ward, Stephen King, Wendy James, William McIlvanney

34 responses to “I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

  1. Jean-Paul Deshayes

    An excellent post as usual. I just don’t know how you can write so many posts at such a rate, and they are all so interesting! Coincidentally, this post arrived as I was reading Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill (which you mention in your post). A truly gripping tale, very skilfully constructed and that keeps you wanting to read on and on until you find out who did it and why and how . I would recommend it highly!

    • Thank you, Jean-Paul, for the kind words. And I agree with you completely about In Bitter Chill. Folks, if you haven’t read it yet, I heartily recommend it. And I’m looking forward to reading A Deadly Thaw, the next in the series, later this year.

      • Jean-Paul Deshayes

        Thank you Margot. Sarah Ward very kindly sent me a signed copy of In Bitter Chill when I mentioned to her that I’d read first-class reviews of her book and of A Deadly Thaw, adding that, as a translator, I’d be very interested in her novels. I feel confident they’d make a very good read in French too !

  2. Heartafire

    A most interesting text Margot. In answer to the question I personally don’t feel it is cathartic but stirs up fear in oneself that they may fall victim to a situation that had not even entered their Mind especially in the more modern novels that are all too real. I exempt such older works ie; Gaslight. Still this stirring of fear and excitement is the core of why we read mystery And most other books. They often terrify us but we are able to read enjoy the adrenaline rush and hopefully move on to the next no harm done. Thank you again for the thoughtful article.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Heartafire. You actually bring up a fascinating point – and another important reason that we read crime fiction. Or, as you point out, any fiction, really. The adrenaline rush of experimenting with fear with, as you say, no harm done. It is a rush, and I’m sure it fuels lots of people’s reading.

  3. In truth, I don’t think I do read crime fiction as a form of catharsis. I read it for entertainment primarily, which is probably why I struggle with so much of the modern stuff which concentrates heavily on pretty bleak subjects. Of course, I’m generalising wildly here, but I really prefer the victim to be a nasty piece of work or a relative unknown – it’s the detection side I’m interested in rather than the suffering of the victim or his/her family. And I want my detective to be functional, competent and, above all, likeable. That’s not to say I never enjoy these darker stories, but when I do, it’s usually more for the reason Heartafire mentioned – for an adrenalin rush, like riding a roller-coaster, and in that sort of book frankly I want the person in jeopardy to survive. In fact, if a book approaches subjects that are too close to my own fears or to things that have happened in my own life – say, dealing with people with dementia or terminal illnesses – then I give them a wide berth.

    • I don’t suppose you’re alone, FictionFan. Crime fiction that’s too close to home really can be too uncomfortable for the enjoyment that a lot of readers want. Everybody’s got their own definition, too, of what ‘counts’ as too bleak, or too sad. And I know you’re not alone when it comes to wanting the focus on the plot – on the mystery itself. I think for a lot of readers, that helps to keep a story ‘on course.’

  4. Tim

    Indeed, it is better to read about murders that spend time committing them. Moreover, we read the genre in order to reassure ourselves that chaos can be mitigated and order restored; death is the chaos, and bringing the killers to justice restores order. Oh how much we wish real life would work that way.
    I once heard an explanation about catharsis and Greek tragedy. Think of it this way: the audiences at the end of one of those plays could think or even say aloud, “Damn! I’m glad that s**t did happen to me!” That, indeed, is catharsis!

    • It certainly is, Tim! And some of those Greek tragedies make some crime fiction look positively upbeat. You make an interesting point, too, about the natural, human urge to impose order on chaos. I think that’s another important reason for which people do enjoy certain kinds of crime fiction. They get to see order restored.

  5. Margot: I side with FictionFan on reading for entertainment not catharsis. I like escaping into a different world. I enjoy books with a theme that will lead the reader to think but am not looking for personal revelation in crime fiction.

    • Thanks for your input, Bill. I’m really finding it interesting to learn from you and the other people kind enough to comment. To hear from you folks that you don’t really read to face your own inner self is really informative.

  6. I am with Fiction Fan and Bill, I read for entertainment and not catharsis. I have been reading some darker, bleak books lately, but I like less dark themes as a rule.

    • You’re certainly not alone, Tracy, as you can tell. And what’s interesting is the number of bleak, dark books out there, considering how many people agree with you.

  7. Kathy D.

    I read for diversion and entertainment, also for a good story and character development. I don’t read to face demons and there are topics I shy away from. However, occasionally I go outside my comfort zone and take a chance on a book after reading about it.
    Fiona Barton’s The Widow is one such book, generating conversation all over cyberspace and differences of opinion — a good thing. It’s a tough read and brings up all kinds of thoughts, like how can a woman live with a spouse whom she suspects of a horrible crime. How much denial does this take?
    Then, in the real world, this happens, too. Why? It provokes a lot of thought.
    After once reading a book that was very descriptive of crimes against women with the tell-tale italic paragraphs from the mind of the psychopath. I didn’t take out the garbage for three nights — and it’s right next to my apartment. So, I avoid those books. I don’t want to know about psychopaths and how they think nor do I want to read about brutality and gore.
    I want to enjoy books, the investigation, the clues, thinking, suspects, intellectual puzzles, etc.

    • There are certainly books that take readers outside of their comfort zones, Kathy. And they can be really excellent books, too. So I know what you mean about occasionally taking a chance on one of them. But I think a lot of readers agree with you that they read to enjoy the plot, the characters and so on, rather than to deal with very dark themes and topics.

  8. Great post Margot. I don’t read crime for catharsis, but for entertainment. I enjoy the detection side of things, the puzzling out and the structural side of crime.

    • Thank you, Cathy746Books. You have a lot of company, too, when it comes to your preference. Quite a lot of people do read for entertainment, rather than for catharsis.

  9. What an excellent topic, Margot, food for thought. Re: the fear of madness, and the mention of Gaslight- I am interested that the verb ‘to gaslight’ is entering the language, meaning exactly to frighten someone into that belief. Language from the crime genre – now there’s a topic for a blogpost for a crime fan who is also an academic in the language field…hint hint.

    • Thank you, Moira. And you have an intriguing point about ‘to gaslight.’ Fascinating how language evolves that way. Hmm…..I’m definitely going to have to think about that. I know there are other examples. Thank you for the ‘food for thought.’

  10. I definitely find reading cathartic. And as a writer, yes. Writing helps exorcise the demons and shine a light on our deepest fears. That’s why I love flash fiction so much. It’s a great medium to spill your emotions into the story without having to write an entire novel to…for lack of a better word, heal.

    • You’ve got a point, Sue. That’s one way in which flash fiction can help the writer release. The nice thing about it, too, is that the writer can do that without changing the pattern of, say, a novel in progress.

  11. Excellent post, indeed, Margot. I find writing (anything) more cathartic than reading unless I’m reading spiritual-philosophy. I find that transformational. That kind of writing stays with me long after I have put away the book. Otherwise, I read to be entertained, as noted by some of my fellow-commentators.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Prashant. when I was planning this post, I hadn’t really thought about the impact of genre, or purpose, of a book. But I can certainly see how that would matter. People do have different reactions to genres and sub-genres, so it makes sense that some kinds of books might inspire catharsis, and some not. And I’m interested, too, that you find writing more cathartic than reading. They are different processes, so it makes sense that people would respond differently to them.

  12. I used to teach the Stephen King essay about dealing with it fears appropriately. Students did NOT get it. He says that we have to work out the scary stuff by reading or watching movies because otherwise we will do scary things ourselves (and this the reason kids left alone too long will surely set something ablaze). I love how he calls it feeding the gators so they don’t come out of the sewer.

    • I didn’t know you’d taught that essay, GtL. I like the way he describes it (feeding the ‘gators), too. There’s something immediate and powerful about that.

  13. Col

    Great post Margot, Laidlaw was an excellent book. Time to read some more from McIlvanney.

  14. Kathy D.

    And Stephen King has said that a reason to have a wife at home is to keep away the monsters.

  15. Nice post, Margot. On this topic, I found Megan Abbott’s article on why women read crime fiction very compelling. I think I probably read crime fiction to be scared safely, though I’m a reader who likes to be enlightened as well as entertained. As for writing crime fiction, I can’t afford to hire a contract killer, so… 😉

    • 😆 I like that answer, Angela! And thanks for sharing that article from Megan Abbott. Folks, do check it out; it’s interesting. You make an interesting point about wanting to be enlightened. I think that’s an important aspect when I read crime fiction, too. I like to learn things as I read. But at the same time, I do want to enjoy the story. I am a particular reader – pity the poor crime writers…

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