Fireflies - David Morrell
THE RETURN OF
THE ANCIENT MARINER
A well-known novelist friend (I see him seldom but think of him fondly) once began a famous book with one of the most arresting passages I’ve ever encountered. The novel was Ghost Story, its author Peter Straub.
And this is how he started.
What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?
I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me … the most dreadful thing. …
I’ve borrowed Peter’s words because they so perfectly express what I’m feeling. The worst thing I’ve ever done? I’ll leave that troubling question for a different book.
But the worst thing that ever happened to me? The most dreadful thing? I can tell you that with absolute certainty. Indeed, with terrible compulsion, I find myself driven to describe that ordeal. My effort isn’t voluntary. It comes in torturous rushes. Distraught, I remind myself of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, in a frenzy stopping friends and strangers to tell of my woe, as if by describing it often enough, I can numb myself and blunt the words—and in so doing heal myself of the cause behind the words.
The effort’s impossible, I suspect. Certainly, it didn’t work for the Ancient Mariner. After killing a bird of good omen and enduring a consequent nightmarish sea voyage, he managed to return to shore.
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
Left him free? Well, apparently not, for Coleridge adds a marginal note that “ever and anon throughout his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land.”
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
I’m no more free than the Ancient Mariner. To be sure, I haven’t killed a bird of good omen, though I recently saw a metaphoric version of such a bird die—and three days later I saw a literal bird, very much alive, that seemed to be a reincarnation of the departed soul of the first. A cryptic reference? You bet. Necessarily so, and soon to be explained. A mystical experience; and along with terror, sorrow, agony, guilt, compassion, God, and redemption, it’s very much a part of my tale. For like the Ancient Mariner, my heart surely burns to tell you—once and for all, to be done with my tale, to exorcise my demons, to gain and preserve my faith.
Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.
Fear. For almost twenty years as a fiction writer, I’ve focused on terror as my main subject. I’ve always believed, as Sartre in Nausea, that real life is so fundamentally boring that we need adventure fiction to help soothe our ennui, to take us out of the doldrums of actuality. The paradox, of course, is that if we ever truly experienced a “thriller,” we would find it so terrifying we would wish with all the power of our being to be returned to the safe but depressing boredom of reality.
T. S. Eliot puts it this way in “Sweeney Agonistes”:
“I’ll carry you off
To a cannibal isle …
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows …
Nothing at all but three things.”
“Birth, and copulation, and death.”
“I’d be bored.”
Bored? I don’t think so. Not me any longer. For I have seen real life at its starkest. I’ve learned that copulation and birth have an unavoidable consequence: death. Despite what I used to think (and what Sartre thought), I know this much—that real life, whatever else it might be, isn’t boring.
Because recently I was overwhelmed by a massive dose of my subject matter. I came face-to-face with terror, and now I have trouble writing thrillers. Having encountered death, I find that to write about it using the conventions of a thriller makes me feel I’m holding back, leaving out death’s grisly secret. And yet to include that secret would be to negate the distracting purpose of a thriller.
So to tell my tale I’ve compromised. Most of what you’re about to read is fact. I still can’t believe it happened, but God have mercy, it did, and I feel an obligation to tell it. Since others have suffered as I and my family have, perhaps from our experience and the lessons we strained to learn, others will learn and find solace. In the aftermath of the loss we endured, we took great comfort in