This week, author Lilith Saintcrow shares her love for a book that came along at just the right time to send shock waves through her understanding of who she was, and alter the trajectory of the woman she would come to be.
Fear is the mind-killer.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
I have to confess I’ve never read beyond the first book in the Dune series.
I attempted Dune: Messiah and just didn’t get anywhere. I did, however, read Dune at exactly the right time in my young life. I was too young to notice most of the glaring holes, and the style—if one can call it that—didn’t matter to me. I also could have cared less about Paul Atreides.
No, I wanted to be a Bene Gesserit.
I’ve reread Dune a few times since then, and I remain amused by how Herbert created strong female characters probably without meaning to. He wasn’t as odd about women as dear old Heinlein, but it was obvious he was mystified by them and had written Dune for the boys. Still, something in Jessica, in Alia, in the Reverend Mother who administered the gom jabbar to the young Kwisatz Haderach, fascinated me. And when I read the Litany Against Fear, I was gone.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
It was one of the few times in my reading life when time, space, and the world fell away, and the author was standing beside me, whispering in my ear. The sense of connection was overwhelming. Because I knew exactly what he was talking about.
I knew fear. Growing up, fear was a daily companion. From a young age I knew the shapes fear could take, from subtle anxiety to the soul-crushing hugeness that robs one of identity. I can remember exactly the first time I read the Litany, where I was curled up in my closet with the flashlight, the rasp of carpet against my bare thighs, the sticky closeness and the precise shade of yellow from the flashlight clasped in my sweating hand. I can remember the smell, I can taste the sourness of adrenaline and hear the chaos that had enveloped my house, the chaos I was in retreat from.
I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
These were not just words on a page. This was someone speaking to me directly, through some beneficent sorcery. This was utter fucking magic. This was a map I had never known existed. The idea that the agonizing fear was somehow separate from me, that I could control my response—pain, Reverend Mother Gohiam sniffs; Humans can override any nerve in the body—was intoxicating. Wonderful. It was a key to a trapdoor, an idea so powerful it could fire my own personal revolution.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
From that moment, I had a secret weapon. I recited the Litany as I huddled in bed at night. I muttered it at school when I faced another day of bullies and performance anxiety. I shut the shivering core of myself away in a steel box and recited inwardly when the strap hit or the screaming started. I kept some shreds of dignity even in the deepest darkness, because I had my mental fingers cupped around these words, a glowing spark to light me back to myself. To the young human being who had some iota of worth left, even if it was only in endurance, even in the face of those who hoped to rob me of it.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Sometimes I imagine Frank Herbert sitting at his typewriter, oblivious. He has no idea of the line he is throwing into darkness. He has no idea I even exist—and indeed, when Dune was published, I wasn’t yet born and would not be so for over a decade. And yet the words he typed, the words that pass under an editor’s gaze, drafted several times, copyedited and proofed and sent out, are messages in a bottle made of paper and ink, drifting through time until they reach a castaway. Those words have a power Mr. Herbert probably never dreamt of. If he would have given into a writer’s natural fear, perhaps he wouldn’t have written, and if he hadn’t…well, I would have been deprived of a weapon and a refuge.
I prefer not to think about that.
Instead, I like to be grateful, and to acknowledge that this is perhaps why the ancient Egyptions viewed the acts of reading and writing as universe-shaking acts of sorcery. How much more magical speculative fiction is, with its only boundary as the infinity of human imagination, is a subject for another day.
Only I will remain.
I can still recite the Litany, word for word. It is true. When the fear goes, I look, and I remain. I survived. I’ve faced everything the world can throw at me.
It’s good for a writer to respect the magic of words. I don’t think anything I’ve ever written will be a life-raft for a desperate soul. I write because I must, and for no other reason.
Still, there’s always that chance. The chance is enough to keep writing, keep striving, and to face the fear. To let it pass over and through. When it’s done, I promise you: only you will remain. I can promise this because I know, and I know because someone faced his own fear long enough to write it down and tell me so. I hope my gratitude can find him, wherever his soul wanders.
Thank you, Mr. Herbert.”
Lilith Saintcrow is a Vancouver, WA writer of paranormal romance, urban fantasy.
Just this week, Lilith released Reckoning, the fifth and final book in the Strange Angels series. Now available at Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, BooksAMillion, Powell’s, the Book Depository, and Amazon.