Hayward, Steven: Don’t Be Afraid
As mentioned earlier in this extended review, the meta-discussion that occurs in Steven Hayward’s novel Don’t Be Afraid is one about the continuity of life, the possibility of life after death, and the ways in which we humans have chosen to confront this most perplexing, yet essential question of existence. In considering possible allusions, then, it is not surprising to find threads connecting this story to ancient tales of grief and loss , of death, the underworld, and the possibility of a return to the living world.
Many cultures have constructed mythologies which consider existence beyond death in a shadowy underworld and the stories which have evolved deal (often with archetypal similarities) with the idea of the cyclic nature of life, and the questions of death and rebirth. Often, the entrance to this underworld is a secret, or hidden portal, or opens mysteriously when the protagonist approaches, and a common detail in the stories is the prohibition about eating or drinking anything while there. The story of Demeter and Persephone comes immediately to mind, although there are many others. In this myth, Demeter, a grief stricken mother pursues her daughter, who has entered the underworld realm of the god Hades through a portal which magically opened in the earth. Hades, infatuated with the beautiful Persephone, tricks her into forfeiting her return to the living world, by offering her pomegranate seeds to eat. Persephone accepts the offer of food and is doomed to spend a portion of each year underground.
In Don’t Be Afraid, this connection to archetypal ideas about the underworld become apparent when Mike and Jim, while working in the basement of the library, discover a hidden trap door entrance to a long forgotten bomb shelter, under an old green carpet. As Jim describes it, they were already leading “a shadowy, subterranean existence in the basement,” where Jim would work on repairing film and his brother would talk about such suitably subterranean things as “ the mysteries of the unknown, (…) ghosts and ESP and aliens and robots(…) if you could come back from the dead, if you could know the future…” The discovery of the secret entrance to even deeper realms, which could only be reached by peeling back the layer of green carpet (placing it securely below the vegetative realm) confirms the mythological allusion, and Mike insists on opening the trap door even though his younger brother implores him not to. Later, Mike steals his mother’s library key and has it copied so that the brothers can sneak into the secret shelter at night, “hiding out in the bowels of the earth, like two moles…” Inevitably, it seems, Mike finds some old, rusty tins labelled “water,” in the shelter and insists on drinking the contents. Although he bullies/shames his younger brother into tasting the tin’s contents as well, Jim, significantly, immediately vomits and thus narrowly avoids violating the prohibition about eating or drinking in the underworld. At this point it is clear that Mike’s time on earth is limited.
Another clear mythological reference links Jim’s father (the forensic engineer) who, on an allegorical level, represents humanism and science, to Sisyphus, the ancient Greek king, condemned for eternity to Hades, and assigned the endless task of rolling a huge boulder up a steep incline, a boulder which, inevitably rolled back down just as it neared the top. This link is made directly, in Jim’s description of his father, as someone who had “evolved for the sole purpose of pushing something heavy up a hill,” quoted in part I of this review, and can be glossed as a comment or warning to those who would seek to infringe on the province of the gods by presuming to explain the ineffable. Read another way, it comments on the impossibility of understanding or explaining all of the infinite possibilities of life. The reference, as well, points to the famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, which concerns itself precisely with the difficulty of seeking meaning in a humanistic universe, and the insufficiency of science, alone, to define life.
Literary Allusions: Hart Crane
Hart Crane emerges in the story as the robot hero of scifi writer, and Cleveland Heights hometown hero, Devhan Starway’s novels. However, as Hayward himself makes clear, there was a real Hart Crane. The real Hart Crane was a 20th century American poet, most famous for his poem “The Bridge.” His work sought to provide an artistic response and perhaps alternative to modern existential despair, and as such, reverberates, again, with the predominant themes in Don’t Be Afraid. Crane’s efforts, it seems, were not ultimately successful, as he committed suicide in 1932.
Further Resources: James Franco’s biopic of Hart Crane available here