Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Fear

By Neil Gaiman

Fear

I pulled perhaps an inch of this worm—pink and gray, streaked, like something infected—out of the hole in my foot, and then felt it stop. I could feel it, inside my flesh, making itself rigid, unpullable. I was not scared by this. It was obviously just something that happened to people, like when the neighbor's cat, Misty, had worms. (5.12)

How is he not scared by this? Out of all the weird things that happen in this story, him not being afraid of pulling a strange worm out of his own foot is the least conceivable to us.

It was a warm spring day, and sunny, and I climbed up a rope ladder to the lowest branch of the big beech tree, sat on it, and read my book. I was not scared of anything, when I read my book: I was far away, in ancient Egypt, learning about Hathor […] (6.13)

Ah, the power of distraction. It's hard to be scared of something when your mind is somewhere else entirely. Plus, reading about Hathor must've been particularly reassuring.

I was starving. I wondered whether the sandwiches were dangerous or not. I did not know. I was scared that I would eat one and it would turn into worms in my stomach, and that they would wriggle through me, colonizing my body, until they pushed out of my skin. (6.44)

Oh so now he's scared of worms in his body… Still, the kid has a point about being afraid of anything Ursula Monkton puts in front of him. He's pretty sure that she is the worm that he pulled from his foot, and as a parasite, her culinary skills must be highly questionable.

I became terrified of him when he was angry. His face (angular and usually affable) would grow red, and he would shout, shout so loudly and furiously that it would, literally, paralyze me. I would not be able to think. (7.17)

Out of all the supernatural shenanigans he gets into, it's interesting that the thing that terrifies him the most is an angry dad. Maybe it's born out of the fear of disappointing him, or maybe just the threat of implied violence is enough to halt him in his tracks, but it's remarkable what kind of power being a parent confers.

I was horrified, but it was initially the horror of something happening against the established order of things. I was fully dressed. That was wrong. I had my sandals on. That was wrong. The bathwater was cold, so cold and so wrong. That was what I thought, initially, as he pushed me into the water, and then he pushed further, pushing my head and shoulders beneath the chilly water, and the horror changed its nature. I thought, I'm going to die. (7.69)

Ever see your teacher in the grocery store, and become inexplicably shy? Ever have to go into your school during the summer and have it feel completely foreign and strange? It's because you're going against the established order of things, and you can just innately sense how weird it is. Wearing sandals in the bathtub would feel oh so wrong—and having your father then try to drown you would definitely qualify as horrifying.

"I'm not afraid of you," I told her. I was afraid of her, more afraid than I had ever been of anything. (8.15)

This is such a common phenomenon that it's a popular horror movie trope. How many times have we heard a hero/heroine tell the evil-whatever that they're not afraid of them, when they're really wetting their pants in terror? Why is that such a common response? Does lying about it make the fear go away?

As I ran, I thought of my father, his arms around the housekeeper-who-wasn't, kissing her neck, and then I saw his face through the chilly bathwater as he held me under, and now I was no longer scared by what had happened in the bathroom; now I was scared by what it meant that my father was kissing the neck of Ursula Monkton, that his hands had lifted her midi skirt above her waist. (8.48)

Sometimes when a bunch of awful things happen at once you can only fear one thing at a time. So once the boy is out of immediate danger, he's finally able to process the fact that his father could be possessed by Ursula Monkton, and he might be in really big trouble.

"Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters." (10.44)

This is yet another quote that we just love. Fear can be quite the motivator—and understanding that sometimes monsters are just acting out of response to their own fears can make them a little less scary. Pitiable, even. And then, once you understand why they're doing what they're doing, they're not so terrifying after all.

I was not scared, though, and I could not have told you why I was not scared. I trusted Lettie, just as I had trusted her when we had gone in search of the flapping thing beneath the orange sky. I believed in her, and that meant I would come to no harm while I was with her. I knew it in the way I knew that grass was green, that roses had sharp, woody thorns, and that breakfast cereal was sweet. (10.76)

Having that sense of security—that nothing bad can happen while you're with someone you trust implicitly—is something that you typically grow out of. As a very young child you think that you're practically invincible so long as your mom or dad are around, but as you grow older you learn that sometimes even your parents can't protect you from some evils.

So it's interesting to see that having Lettie around acts as a similar kind of security blanket for the boy. After all, this whole thing started when she took him to go find the flea in the first place…

I have never been as frightened as I was in that grass circle with the dead tree in the center, on that afternoon. No birds sang, no insects hummed or buzzed. Nothing changed. I heard the rustle of the leaves and the sigh of the grass as the wind passed over it, but Lettie Hempstock was not there, and I heard no voices in the breeze. There was nothing to scare me but shadows, and the shadows were not even properly visible when I looked at them directly. (12.2)

Ugh, being afraid of shadows is the absolute worst. It's like when you watch a really scary movie, and then you have to go to bed and turn the lights out—the things that you imagine while laying there in the dark are ten times scarier than the images you might've seen on television. So even though you know nothing is in your room, your mind continues to produce terrifying scenarios, and you lay there as the paranoia mounts until you give up and sleep with the dang lights on.