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.
– FRANCIS BACON
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 Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But the book you’re now reading is different from Kushner’s in many respects. For one thing, his excellent volume (though prompted, as was mine, by a personal tragedy) is a wide-ranging discussion of crises of faith that he encountered among troubled members of his synagogue.
For another, his book is totally factual.
However, Fireflies devotes itself exclusively to one family’s tragedy, and though almost completely factual, it does have elements of fiction. Not the fireflies, the dove, and the other mystical experiences I will describe. I assure you they did happen. Still, because I wanted to make a statement about grief, about faith and the afterlife, I imposed a frame of fiction onto fact. In an epilogue, I’ll explain where fact and fiction diverge. I’ll also explain my reasons for blending the two, and my conclusion will, I hope, be spiritually rewarding.
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
– WILLIAM BLAKE
Songs of Innocence,
“On Another’s Sorrow”