Lit Counts: How to Comfort the Disturbed

By Alexander Lumans

“The great gray beast of February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter.” So begins Clive Barker’s 1992 novel, The Thief of Always: A Fable, and so began the first book that truly, truly comforted me by disturbing me. I have never read a more frightening description of the month of February; simply typing out those opening lines dumped a bucket of chills down my back. And it only gets worse from there.

The Thief of Always is about a 10-year-old boy named Harvey Swick who, in an effort to escape the bored doldrums of February, comes across a strange house in his neighborhood called Holiday House. This house experiences all four seasons in a day (i.e., every morning is Christmas morning and every evening is Halloween). But it soon becomes clear that this is too good to be true—for every day that passes at Holiday House, a year passes in the real world. Moreover, between a lake full of ethereal fish, glowing-eyed demons that serve the house’s master, and a harrowing lightning storm, you would think The Thief of Always to be shelved under “Horror.” But you’d be wrong; Barker’s book is a fable for children (it’s intended for adults too).


My mother read this book to me when I was about eight years old. I don’t know who chose the book, or whose idea it was to read it. Out loud. At night. Right before bed. A recipe for never sleeping again if I ever heard of one. To this day that book remains a collection of some of the most dangerously sublime images I’ve come across in fiction. Every night afterward, I’d have nightmares. I don’t blame my mother for this. If anything, I should be thanking her profusely. Those nightmares were my first lessons in what it means to craft a powerful, undeniable vision. I can still recall the first time Harvey looks down into the lake behind Holiday House. He sees all the ghostly fish under the gray water’s surface—soon to discover that the fish are the souls of trapped children! Now, as a writer myself, this desire to construct the sublimely disturbing is one of my daily goals.

There is an old chestnut that says “Art” (or, according to one of David Foster Wallace’s teachers, “good fiction”) should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I could not agree more. In my case, it did both. At a time in my life when I was going through several tough periods, this fable provided the strangest comfort. This is not to say that I identified with Harvey or that I used his experiences as an educational framework by which to view my own trials in a more understanding light. Moreover, the book didn’t teach me the lessons of “Too much of a good thing is actually bad” or “Don’t go into a stranger’s house that’s surrounded by a giant wall of mist.”

Rather, it was as if I needed to live out an immersive fantasy through Barker’s storytelling in order to better appreciate the extent and depth of my own imagination—I even dare say that it’s the book that first turned me into a reader. Concurrently, it also showed me the raw force that fear really conjures in a person’s mind; as HP Lovecraft notes, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The Thief of Always opened that doorway to unknown for me. And the only way it could do that was by scaring the hell out of me. In many ways, I’m forever as a writer trying to get back to that snakebrain level of horror—for me and for the reader—because I believe it’s the oddly recursive palliative to a world that presents us with its own unique horrors on a daily basis. If time is the thief of always, then fear is the thief of now, and we cannot afford to turn away from the abyss staring back at us with its glowing red eyes.

This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Lighthouse instructor Alexander Lumans was the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. He spent part of Summer 2015 in the Arctic as a fellow on The Arctic Circle Residency.