50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Fear

“My nerves often get the better of me: it is especially on Sundays that I feel rotten. The atmosphere is so oppressive, and sleepy and as heavy as lead. You don’t hear a single bird singing outside, and a deadly close silence hangs everywhere, catching hold of me as if it will drag me down deep into an underworld.

At such times Daddy, Mummy, and Margot leave me cold. I wander from one room to another, downstairs and up again, feeling like a songbird whose wings have been clipped and who is hurling himself in utter darkness against the bars of his cage. ‘Go outside, laugh, and take a breath of fresh air,’ a voice cries within me, but I don’t even feel a response any more, I go and lie on the divan and sleep, to make the time pass more quickly, and the stillness and the terrible fear, because there is no way of killing them.”

—from The Diary of Anne Frank on Friday, 29 Oct. 1943

“Doctor Nolan led me through a door into a fresh, blue-skied air.

All the heat and fear purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.

. . .

How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

—from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Missing From the List: The Crucible

Good morning, class.

I remember reading The Crucible in 10th grade. It didn’t change my life, but it felt important—it crossed my mind that in a younger grade or an easier class, this kind of story wouldn’t have been allowed. Before this, the hardest thing I’d ever read was Romeo and Juliet, which may seem difficult to a high school student but is simple in retrospect. I was finally getting to the thought-provoking stuff with The Crucible. I was being trusted with something more challenging.

For all the reasons I like it, I have one major criticism: it’s about as subtle as cannon fire. In Arthur Miller’s defense, The Crucible was a direct response to the McCarthyism Era of the 1950s, where the slightest associations with communism could result in unfair trials and defamation—subtlety didn’t abound. The overwhelming panic of the time inspired Miller’s portrayal of the Salem witch trials, where a similar series of baseless claims led to the torture and death of innocent lives. Miller wanted to show America that panic can do irreparable harm to society, especially when we give in to it.

John Proctor, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible (1996)

For students not in-the-know: the story mostly follows John Proctor, a man in a struggling marriage who despises hypocrisy, and Abigail Williams, who’s had an affair with John and becomes the spark that starts the witch trials. Abigail is clever: she uses the Puritan leadership’s fear of Satan and witchcraft to manipulate life in Salem, and encourages other girls to do the same. Abigail wants to get rid of John’s wife so that she can have him for herself, and her lies fool most of the town into thinking the Devil has his eyes fixed on Salem.

My favorite scene of the play is at the end of Act 3—after a poorly placed lie in the courtroom, an opportunity opens up for Abigail to give the performance of a lifetime. She pretends to see a bird, the shape-shifted form of a the little girl Mary (who betrayed Abigail by trying to come clean about everything). The bird Abigail “sees” begins to attack her and the girls on her side. The presiding judge eats up every word and every gesture, eventually convinced that they are under the thrall of Mary’s witchcraft. John tries to make the judge see reason, and Mary and the girls turn their attention on him, claiming that he is allied with the Devil. John gives up completely—he shouts that God is dead and that he and the judge will burn together in the end. It’s one of the tensest moments in literature I’ve ever read.

As far as characters go, Abigail is pretty simple—she wants John and finds a way to get him, with consequences she couldn’t have imagined. John’s arc is more interesting. He torments himself for betraying his wife, and both Abigail’s antics and the town’s response to them are eating away at his faith. John struggles to understand if he’s good or not; was his lust a mistake of immorality, or was it indicative of an evil he can’t help but succumb to? John’s doubt in himself makes it easier to trust him, in spite of his flaws, and that doubt is nowhere to be found in Abigail—her lack of doubt makes her determination terrifying.

Playwright Arthur Miller

But the real difference between Abigail and John—and the extremes they represent—is the ability to confess falsely. Abigail’s sway over the town came from a confession people wanted to hear, and she gave it gladly. Her lies from that point grow and explode on the town. John’s resistance against these lies make him one of the only sane people left in Salem. Even his own true confession about the affair with Abigail falls flat against her lies—in Salem, lies seem to speak more truth than the truth does.

Everyone else in the story exists between these extremes—they are willing to lie, or believe lies, for their own sake. Sometimes, they’re sympathetic—anyone will confess if there’s enough pressure, which makes John that much more of a hero. In other cases, when a character is lying for their own gain, destroying the town as they go, it’s easy to wonder whether or not Satan did have a hold on Salem.

Historical accuracy is worth noting—Miller made some deliberate changes, the most significant being Abigail’s age raised to make her a more malevolent antagonist. He also removed a lot of extra people (for example, there were more girls and judges in the scene I described), if for no other reason than to make it more feasible on stage. Miller takes some liberties, but they’re in the name of his message—again, not subtle—that panic has the ability to destroy society, if we let it. I don’t know of another story that portrays panic so well, without it being a pale imitation of this, which is why The Crucible should have made the list.

I’m just finishing up The Count of Monte Cristo, so that’s on the agenda for next class. I’m realizing that the protagonist, Edmond Dantès, is heroic for the exact opposite reason as John Proctor—Dantès’ conviction makes him a force to be reckoned with against those who ruined his life. He has no doubt that his aims are governed by God, and that he is a divine tool in God’s works. Just goes to show you how widely stories can vary.

Prof. Jeffrey

Lord of the Flies

Welcome back, class. It’s time to weep for the end of innocence.

A while back, I wrote about The Shining by Stephen King, claiming that it should be on the 50-books list as a representative of the horror genre, because horror didn’t feature much on the list. After reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I realize that I spoke too soon . . . Lord of the Flies is one of the spookiest, goriest, most uncomfortable novels I’ve read in a long time, and that’s clearly one of the reasons it made the list.

It’s a basic concept of a story: a group of boys is involved in a plane crash on a deserted island, and there are no grown-ups to lead them. They start out well enough, organizing themselves, electing a leader, establishing a hunting team—but a childish tension erodes it all. To top it off, they start to imagine a beast somewhere on the island, that it may be hunting them and planning to kill them all. Their fear and resentment against each other soon become hatred, anger, revenge, and eventually murder.

Ralph, the boy elected as “chief,” is somewhat charismatic, and older than most of the boys there—in the boys’ eyes, this makes him an excellent leader. Jack, the boy almost elected, is similar to Ralph at first, but he ultimately resents not being elected; he divides the group between those who voted for him and Ralph, and releases his inner savage when things don’t go his way. Then there’s Piggy: an overweight asthmatic boy who wears glasses, and who is never once taken seriously, even though he is clearly the smartest of the group. Between these three characters, this group of boys is transformed into a group of dangerous killers.

Author William Golding

If these characters weren’t children, the story would still work remarkably well. They disagree about the best methods of survival, hesitate to abandon rules, and eventually succumb to their more primal instincts. Part of Golding’s message is that the human race functions like this, on a larger scale . . . that within even the most composed and humane individuals lies a beast, waiting to lash out at the opportune moment. If a group of fully grown adults were trapped on this island, the societal breakdown might have taken longer, but it would have happened all the same (i.e., the TV show Lost).

But the simple fact that these are children makes all the difference. As Jack slips slowly into vengeance and savagery, it’s easy to hate and fear him, until you get the gentle reminder that he’s no older than 12. But he is wrapped up in the same horror as the rest of them—within him lies the beast within all of humanity, and his power over the others causes it to lash out ravenously.

There is one other boy who deserves mentioning: Simon, the quiet boy younger than Jack, Ralph, and Piggy, serving as a kind of bridge between the “biguns” and the “littluns.” He’s smart—not in the same way as Piggy, who is rational and critical, but in a more creative and reflective way. Simon doesn’t say or do much, but he is the only boy on the island who sees and understands who (or what) the Lord of the Flies really is.

After Jack’s hunting party slays a pig, they victoriously stake the pig’s head on a sharpened stick and post it in the ground. As they leave, Simon is enamored by it and stays behind, staring at the pig’s gory smile and hearing nothing but the cloud of flies attacking the bloody corpse. And then the scene becomes a mirage, or maybe a nightmare, as the pig’s head—the Lord of the Flies—begins to speak to Simon, naming himself the beast the children are all afraid of. The Lord of the Flies is the Devil itself.

Simon is the only boy who realizes that the beast they are all so afraid of is harmless, because it lies within—the only one who learns the message Golding is writing. The Lord of the Flies is a part of all of us, and all it needs is a push to escape the confines of something as simple as society.

In continuing the theme of savagery, I’m following up Lord of the Flies with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’m surprised that the list features 1984 and Brave New World together, both heavily influential dystopian novels. I look forward to discussing the differences between them.

Until then, enjoy your week. And keep an eye out for your inner Lord of the Flies.

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘Are there ghosts, Piggy? Or beasts?’

‘Course there aren’t.’

‘Why not?’

”Cos things wouldn’t make sense. Houses an’ streets, an’ TV—they wouldn’t work.’

. . .

‘But s’pose they don’t make sense? Not here, on this island? Supposing things are watching us and waiting?'”

—from Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The War of the Worlds

Hello again, class.

The War of the Worlds already had a lot going for it when I picked it up—I love a good story about aliens. For all of the novel’s pitfalls, it makes up for it by being one of the earliest science fiction novels ever written, inspiring sci-fi for years to come.

The narrator details the horror of aliens attacking Earth—the Heat-Rays, the giant tripods, the freakish shapes of the creatures themselves, the death, the chaos, the destruction of towns and homes . . . it’s all portrayed as graphically as a Victorian-Era novel can be. The narrator spends most of his time trying to get back to his wife, who may be dead already, and his journey shows him the diversity of both the Martians’ attacks and the chaotic human response.

Don’t get me wrong—The War of the Worlds is a little dated. It’s well over a hundred years old, and sounds too much like Charles Dickens describing aliens and battle, which is jarring. Parts of the novel stumble over themselves, like when the narrator tells the story of what happened to his brother. Any modern writer wouldn’t bother explaining why two people are telling the story, but that’s too complicated for H. G. Wells’ audience—Wells’ is very careful in making his narrator explain the leap in the story.

And, of course, the science is more than outdated . . . it’s plain wrong. Your science lesson for today: no Martians like the ones described live on Mars. The science is beyond fringe, and the theory of intelligent life on any planet in our solar system is just shy of impossible. It’s an interesting thought, but we all know the idea of aliens on Mars is closer to fantasy than sci-fi.

Movie Poster for The War of the Worlds (1953)

That doesn’t make The War of the Worlds bad . . . just dated. One of the strongest scenes, occurring over several chapters, involves the narrator trapped in a house with a panic-stricken man who keeps talking about the end of the world. He’s too loud, threatening to give away their position, and the narrator fights him to keep him quiet. The narrator kills him in the process. Wells isn’t just adding to the drama, here; this character’s loss of rational thought is a natural human response, and so is his murder by the narrator’s hands.

Wells is providing a pure account of the story, and letting the scientific, ethical, and horrific implications speak for themselves within each reader—leaving us only with a well-told story. All the best sci-fi/fantasy stories do this; they give us the story purely, and let us debate over scientific and moral hypotheticals. These are the kinds of stories that stand the test of time.

Author H. G. Wells

Like any good sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds speaks through metaphors—aliens in stories are never just aliens. For Wells, a British man at the height of the British empire, the aliens are a distant unconquered people, with the power to vanquish Britsh forces. Wells is showing us that Britain’s treatment of smaller kingdoms and weaker people will come back to haunt them. The Martians treat humans as mercilessly as the British treated, for example, people of African nations.

It is a little too “white man’s burden;” the fear of the Martians can feel a little like fear of the “other-ness” of minority groups and foreign people. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s worth noting how dated a philosophy it is. Even so, it seems to be a message of mercy, which is always good to read.

Next up, I’m jumping forward to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—dropping the science fiction for a little more 1950s American grit. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m always surprised by a good book—I’ll let you know what I find.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Shining

Good morning, class.

The 50-books list doesn’t provide a lot in the realm of horror. Sure, there’s Frankenstein and Hamlet, which both at least count, and even my current book The War of the Worlds portrays the horror element of classic sci-fi. But still, I don’t see much that’s horror, first and foremost.

There could be a good reason for that . . . horror is usually low quality; cheap thrills, shallow characters, bad storytelling. But there are exceptions to the genre, and Stephen King proves that with The Shining—so much so that it deserves a place on the list of books you should read before you die.

The story: a small, struggling family watches over the Overlook Hotel through the winter, as supernatural forces try to tear them apart. The father’s alcoholism leaves him vulnerable to the violent spirits in the hotel, and he becomes monstrously abusive. His wife tries to protect their little boy, who just happens to have the ability to communicate with the spirits around them—an ability called shining.

It’s a bad situation . . . and bad becomes worse. They are trapped by the snowstorm in a maze of a building that is crawling with fear, paranoia, rage, and evil. Of course, with Stephen King as the writer, tension smothers every page.

King’s novels are not high literature, in my opinion . . . but this is more compliment than complaint. Of the handful that I’ve read, his novels don’t have that air of pretentiousness found in most English-class pieces of literature. He is an entertainer, and he performs really well with tools like horror and suspense.

Author Stephen King

He’s said that his ideas are situational; the what-ifs inspire the story. “What if . . . a family is trapped in a haunted hotel?” Everything stems from that. So his characters are like pawns in a chess game, and we wait to find out who wins, who is sacrificed, and who makes a narrow escape. One of the reasons King’s stories are so well-received is because his approach is both the key to successful suspense and the essence of storytelling: the question “what happens next?”

If there’s any reason The Shining shouldn’t be on the list, it’s because horror isn’t for everyone. I might agree, if it wasn’t an amazing novel. The Shining handles fear in a way that is important to experience—fear of people who we think love us; fear of people who are under something else’s control; fear of large and imposing forces, and conquering that fear not through blindness or ignorance, but through courage and accepting fear.

Because The Shining handles fear better than any other book I’ve ever read.

It is important to mention that the abusive father character is spending most of his time trying to write a novel, and meanwhile Stephen King has suffered from alcohol abuse. So King isn’t approaching these characters by glorifying a real social problem. In fact, he’s pouring out his soul. That might be the one common denominator between all great works of literature. Food for thought.

See you next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

“Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear! It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief.”

—from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.  Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary.  A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.  And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.  Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies.”

–from 1984 by George Orwell