f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Fiction’s Dark Side—Daring to Stare Into the Abyss

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Fiction’s Dark Side—Daring to Stare Into the Abyss

Christianity’s never had a real affinity for ole Freddy Nietzsche, though most of us haven’t spent much time with his writings. 19th-Century German philosopher and one of the godfather’s of existentialism, he said things like “God is dead” and generally didn’t truck much with the notion of there being any meaning to our lives. Dude was smart, though, and you have to give him credit for the following quote:

He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Cue creepy music.

The point and practice of this aphorism is not lost on Christians, though we are loathe to give its speaker due. In fact, evangelical American Christians are in many ways the corporeal embodiment of this warning. We do not write swear words in our fiction, lest we swear ourselves. We do not own up to the hardships of life, lest those hardships come down on us. We do not stare sin in the face, lest we sin.

(Actually, this is not quite a fair criticism. Good Christians don’t do these things lest others see us and emulate us. Always looking out so we don’t become a stumbling block.)

Anyway, my point, if any, is that there’s some merit in staring into the abyss. There’s merit in calling things by their true name, rather than pretending they don’t exist. There’s merit in eschewing the improbable happy endings on occasion. In fact, I look forward to the first big name writer who tries it.

It needs to be a big time writer or it needs to be a small name writer willing to commit professional suicide because there’s not much place for a trip down the downward spiral in this market. Readers would never stand for it, no matter how artistically important, no matter how morally correct. It’s a wee bit sad in a way.

Thankfully, others out there have taken their swings. They’ve stared into the abyss for us and the works they proffer forward are harrowing.

Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan is one of the finest modern examples. It’s a devastating portrayal of how the dominoes of one immoral choice can snowball.

Stephen King’s teleplay for Storm of the Century is a second, intriguing, but less successful example.

What’s more typical is something closer to Inspector Javert’s storyline in Hugo’s Les Miserables or a few of the subplots in the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls from Richard Russo. In these books, as in countless others, small bits of story offer us all the tragedy and abyss-glimpsing we need. This is something we can do in CBA. This is something that will help the outside world take us more seriously. After all, when we pretend that tragedy doesn’t exist (or that it’s only temporary, a bit of pain before heaven) we play the part of the fool. For many, bleakness, emptiness, solitude, hopelessness, etc are tangible parts of their life. Simply ignoring such things or providing simple ways out…that’s condescension on our part. It’s callousness and comes from hearts devoid of empathy.

Difficult as it is to say, we need more darkness in CBA Fiction. If we dare.