The Characters of Steel Fear, Part 3
John David Mann
Parts 1 and 2 of this seven-part series on the characters of the military thriller Steel Fear introduced you to the story’s antihero, Chief Finn, and his unlikely crime-solving partner, Lt. Monica Hallsey. They were also the first two characters we fleshed out in our minds before writing the story. The very next decision we made—and it was a big one—was about a very different kind of character: the monster.
There’s something strange about the reviews people have been giving Steel Fear. Quite a few say something like these three:
“Steel Fear comes in hot and never slows down. Exciting, action-packed, and twisty from stem to stern.” — Brad Thor
“An edge-of-your-seat thriller … like speeding down a slalom course, once you get going, there’s no stopping.” — Steve Berry
“A five-star scorcher from the first page to last.” — Robert Crais
Of course, it’s awesome to have crime-fiction superstars like these guys say such great things about our first fiction outing. But there’s also something weirdly fascinating about these reviews: they all give you the sense that Steel Fear is packed with action from cover to cover.
What’s so weirdly fascinating about that? Just this: It’s not really true.
Yes, action occurs. There are fights. (A few.) There are murders, most of them offscreen. There are a few chases. But mostly not. In fact, that was one of the biggest challenges in writing the book. The story takes place on an aircraft carrier. Alcohol is prohibited. Discipline is as tight as a military discipline gets. There are no barroom brawls, no street fights, no letting off steam on the weekends. There’s honestly not a lot of action.
Yet it seems like there is. How does that work?
In a word: suspense. While there may not be a lot of action happening, the promise of it simmers just over the horizon, threatening like thunderclouds. That’s how suspense works: by creating anticipation. Sometimes the anticipation of the thing is more intense than the thing itself. This is why Stephen King says, when given a choice, he will always opt to create terror over horror.
For Brandon and me, as we approached the task of writing a full-length carrier-based thriller, that was Job One: figuring out how to create an atmosphere of terror—and sustaining it for 400 pages.
The Monster Under the Bed
For most of the story, we don’t know who the killer is. All we really know is that some unknown malevolent force is taking the lives of the crew, one by one.
In other words, a monster. I don’t mind a “bad man” kind of monster. I mean an actual monster. It’s the kind that hides under your bed. In your closet. In the darkest recesses of your imagination.
This is mostly where that unknown malevolent force lives in much of the story: in what people are imagining and dreading.
For example, here is Finn’s concept of death itself, formed by an early trauma that for much of the book remains as unknown as the killer’s identity:
“’ Death and I are old friends,’ he’d heard teammates boast, but he knew that was a lie. Death didn’t have friends, only acquaintances. Death was still a mystery, even to Finn.
The prospect of dying did not especially disturb him, though. He’d spent his life knocking at death’s back door. For as long as he could remember, Finn had always pictured death as a creature with a massive head and no arms or legs. Like a great wriggling invertebrate shark. Why? He had no idea. Maybe one day he’d find out. Maybe soon.
Because death had come to call and wasn’t leaving yet, Finn could feel it stalking the ship.”-Steel Fear
At points, the monster/death becomes personified as a shark. We hint at it a few times early on, for example, by describing Jittery Abe’s, the ship’s Starbucks station, like this:
“The place didn’t open till 0630, but a swarm of some three dozen sailors had already flocked to the scent like sharks to blood.”
Or this, a description of what it’s like to land a F/A-18 at midnight in a storm:
“Like setting a bucking bronco down on a postage stamp floating in a shark-infested pool … at night.”
Soon the shark solidifies a little bit, graduating from figure of speech to unconfirmed report:
“There was a rumor making the rounds that a large shark had followed them out of the Gulf. That there was talk of the ship being under some kind of curse.… Eagleberg was starting to wonder if there wasn’t some truth to that goddamn rumor about that goddamn ghost shark.” -Steel Fear
And then it becomes more than a rumor when two characters, Finn and another guy, come face to face with an actual shark. (Finn survives the encounter just fine. The other guy, not so much.)
At a point of extreme stress, the monster of death even takes the shape of a tadpole, something as tiny and harmless as a pollywog morphing to an agent of visceral terror.
“He was suddenly, ferociously gripped by a grotesque sensation, of a billion wriggling tadpoles surging up from his gut into his throat and racing to explode out the top of his head—”-Steel Fear
Belly of the Beast
Still, images of sharks and pollywogs and other strange fears and personifications of death are sideshows, compared with the central agent of terror: the ship itself.
One of the earliest decisions Brandon and I made was that “the USS Abraham freaking Lincoln,” as Monica describes it on page 2, had to become a character in the story. But what kind of character? Benevolent … or the other kind? Well, the most salient features of the ship are its hugeness. How powerful it is. How—to most readers—alien and unfamiliar. These traits all rolled together add up to one word: monster.
So the ship itself becomes a kind of stand-in for that malevolent force. This is why, even before you meet the story’s hero, you first encounter the belly of the beast:
“[Monica] opened the stateroom door, ducked her head, and began threading her way through the labyrinth. The nighttime safety lights provided her just enough illumination to see her way, their faint red glow giving the painted steel passageways an even more claustrophobic feel than usual. A lattice of wires, exposed pipes, and conduit brushed by overhead, like strands of web in a giant spider’s lair.
Eerie, how quiet it got in here at night.”-Steel Fear
Gradually, the ship shifts and changes, becoming steadily more threatening. When we follow the jet pilot Kristine as she attempts to land her F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck in the middle of the night:
“Up in the empty blackness 1,200 feet over their heads, Kris came around to port, describing a gigantic U-turn in the sky, then circled the boat and began her reapproach. The boat heaved, bobbing up and down in forty-foot swells now, the enormous brass propellers visible for a few seconds at a time, the monster baring its teeth.”-Steel Fear
In a way, Steel Fear is all about what happens when human beings are sealed off in tight, enclosed spaces (the word “steel” occurs more than fifty times), and the ship slowly dials up that claustrophobic sense as the novel progresses:
“There the ship sat, moored some twelve hundred meters from the dock. As far as its population was concerned, it might as well have been twelve hundred miles. For the next two days, the Lincoln’s convoy of helos buzzed back and forth, replenishing its supplies, and the ship’s six thousand inhabitants walked through their chores and routines, subdued and claustrophobic, within shooting distance of the shore but unable to go ashore. The ship had become a floating prison.”-Steel Fear
And later, as a pilot named Bennett ends up alone at night on the flight deck, wrapping up in the midst of a thick encroaching fog:
“Bennett checked the chocks on his Greyhound one more time, then began crossing the deck to the catwalk. The fog seemed to muffle the sounds of his footsteps.
After he’d gone about ten yards, he stopped, craning to listen into the murk. Heard nothing but his own ragged breathing. He walked another eight or ten yards, then stopped again. Now there was no mistaking it. Footsteps. Not his.
A bubble of panic rose up and burst open, and he broke into a run, bolting the last ten meters to the edge and scrambling down the short ladder to the catwalk, his unseen pursuer’s footsteps practically in his ears. Miscounting the steps, he lost his footing and toppled headlong. Slammed against the catwalk railing. Felt his collarbone snap. He let out a scream—”-Steel Fear
And then the grip tightens, as the next suspense-filled week drags on “like Marley’s chain”:
“The AC system failed, was fixed, failed again. Humidity hung in the air like wet woolen blankets, itchy and pestilential. An outbreak of foodborne bacterial illness swept the ship, sending sailors by the hundreds through sickbay and back to their racks. Work hours were stretched, nerves frayed. Scuffles and fights broke out, with several violent assaults. All at once, the brig’s gen pop was busy.
Back in Fremantle Harbour, the ship had reminded Finn of a floating prison. Now it felt more like a floating death row, everyone on board wondering when and where the killer would strike next.”-Steel Fear
The beast itself starts to feel almost as if it is a conscious instrument of the killer’s design, an accomplice in his crimes. Finally, as the suspense reaches a fever pitch in the final climactic sequence, the ship’s entire lighting system breaks down, plunging the scene into darkness.
The ship has become a full-fledged agent of terror, an embodiment of that unknown malevolent force. The ship is steel fear.
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Purchase STEEL FEAR as a gift and John or Brandon will send a short personalized cameo-style video to your gift recipient if purchased before December 18th. Just send us a screenshot of your purchase on the SOFREP contact page here, include the gift recipient’s name, and a good email for us to send out your custom video.
John David Mann is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.