Thu
Aug 6 2009 6:38pm

Comfort Fiction: Because Sometimes You Need a Frakking Hug

Sometimes life goes beyond mere suckage. People you care about die; you lose your career job in this economy at the age of 50; a long-time marriage or partnership broke into jagged pieces exactly one year ago and someone is playing “your song” over the radio. Whatever the reason, the bottom has dropped out of your world. You are lost at sea, and dry land is nowhere to be seen.

And sometimes you feel so lost that you forget that there is a temporary passage through this storm (or, you know, this category-five hurricane, if your life is pretty much storm to storm).

So! Comfort fiction.1

Not just comfort reading, although that’s one of the more popular manifestations. Personally speaking, there are times when I need to pull out the full artillery and currently I’m going through one of them. For once I thought I’d tally up the odd little array of things I find reassuring. Which is... sometimes not necessarily the type of stuff people usually think of as “comforting.”

Oh, there are definitely things I read or watch that have obvious comfort cake attributes. Take, for instance, Nero Wolfe. Not very SF/Fy, I know, but Archie is a wonderfully sly narrator, the brownstone is a sturdy fort with six-star cookery and beer on tap, and even the worst incursions—like the strafing of the orchid rooms on the top floor, most memorably—will be overcome, because Nero Wolfe is not a man, he’s a force of nature.

Going to SF/F: the early Harry Potter books are also an easy one for me, because he escapes his abusers into a magical world that nevertheless still has challenges, because it would far less fulfilling if it didn’t. Terry Pratchett’s a favorite, at least with most of his Night Watch books; you have the humor along with the intelligent plotting and characterization.2

Of late, and Hugos-relevant, Zoe’s Tale also gets my boat floating again, or at least bobbing along with more water outside than in. This is partly because she is actually a competent female protagonist, partly because she has a sane family that reacts well and in unique ways to quite unusual stresses, and mostly because her ersatz alien bodyguards Hickory and Dickory are highly efficient killing machines.

Yes, okay, the sugar coating starts falling off at this point. In fact, some of my friends don’t understand why I enjoy the following as “comfort”:

  • Coraline, read by Neil Gaiman. For some reason people get freaked out about the Other Mother. I truly do not get this, but then, my parents were never going to win Parenting of the Year awards. I haven’t seen the movie.

  • “Noël” from The West Wing. People seem to think that portrayals of PTSD are bad for those of us with PTSD. I don’t know; it makes me feel better because it’s done so well here. Bad PTSD portrayals, which are far more common, do make me feel worse.

  • “Severed Dreams” from Babylon 5. Probably has something to do with rebellion from the equivalent of supposedly caring parents (B5’s version of Starfleet), coupled with Delenn’s awesome badassness.

Why so violent, some of this? For various reasons, a background of twisted violence brought on by rather one-sided aggressors that is dispelled after much fighting, whether by psychologists or Minbari war cruisers, is pretty much my cup of tea and plate of biscuits by the fire.

It’s different for others, of course. And I’m pretty sure many people also have seemingly “distressing” selections tucked away in their for-a-rainy-day shelves and iPods.

What’s your plate of cookies and milk? Or, as the case may be, merrily burning Cylon raiders?

1 Not to be confused with hurt/comfort fiction, although that can be perfectly valid comfort fiction.
2 Though not the actual book titled Nightwatch. It’s the most stressful out of almost all of his books to read, even on re-reads, when you know what’s going to happen. Which is actually what the plot is built upon.


Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction, fantasy and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis, and is going through a rough patch.

31 comments
James A. Owen
1. James A. Owen
DC Comics from around 1981 to 1987, with the prime period of 82-84 the best stuff for really lousy days.

West Wing is my favorite work background noise.

TV comfort food would probably be Highlander. A few heads get lopped off, and I'm all about the cheerful again.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
Sherlock Holmes, both the stories and the films (Granada versions preferred).

Wind in the WIllows...one of the best books I've ever read.

Not the recent films, but the older tv version of Narnia. BBC, I think.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Anything by Dr. Seuss

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Karen Lofstrom
3. DPZora
China Mountain Zhang. The Phoenix trilogy (Sword duels! Exploding spaceships!). Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Charlotte Yonge's late 19th century family chronicle, The Pillars of the House (the finest in racist, sexist, classist, imperialist fiction ... but enthralling in a soap opera way).
Torie Atkinson
4. Torie
Tintin or Asterix never fail to lift my spirits. Alice in Wonderland. I also like animation when I'm down: Futurama, sometimes Home Movies.
Meagan Brorman
5. nutmeag
Good list. I generally turn toward Robin McKinley (usually The Blue Sword), Susan Cooper, or Neil Gaiman for comfort. Watching Buffy kick vamp ass or Neil Patrick Harris being crazy-awesome (How I Met Your Mother) are also quite lovely on a bad day.
James A. Owen
6. Noren
Sorry to hear things you're having problems.Hope things improve for you soon.Tk care.
Brendon Roberts
7. saunterasmas
My milk and cookies?

John Wyndham and the Doctor Who New Adventures.

Oh and David Sedaris.
James A. Owen
8. mityorkie
For comfort I'd tend to go to well-read novels that go down easy:
Anne McCaffrey (The Rowan, Crystal Singer, Dragonsong)
R.A. Salvatore (Dark Elf Trilogy)

The protagonist is really obvious, they're trying to be protagonistic, and eventually good things happen to them.
Kage Baker
9. kagebaker
For movies: The Wrong Box, obsessively, inexplicably. Black humor, Victorian setting, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Michael Caine, Peter Sellers...what's not to love?

TV: Third Rock From the Sun reruns, in the largest doses possible. I laugh like an idiot and my pain goes away.

Gaming: The whole Monkey Island series from Lucasarts and (now) Telltale Games. The recent revival has enabled me to ignore a personal catastrophe.

Books: Anything new by Pratchett, though I prefer his Witches of Lancre.
James A. Owen
10. WandaWolfe
The Liaden books and stories, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

The Vorksigan books and the Sharing Knife books, by Lois McMaster Bujold.

The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey.

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley.

Any of those can suck me into another world and yes, comfort. All of those are filled with very human characters who transcend their humanity when necessary, and who make me laugh and cry and sigh with pleasure when I close the book.
Wen Wen Yang
11. muteddragon
Fables by Bill Willingham, comic series, but I'll take anything fairy tale inspired. I'll take my happy endings where I can get them.
Stephen W
12. Xelgaex
Anime. Anything really, but something I've seen before that makes me feel nostalgic is always nice. Adult Swim's line up is good for this a lot, with shows like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell.
Soon Lee
13. SoonLee
"To Say Nothing of the Dog" -- Connie Willis. It harks back to a gentler time, and is full of wit and humour. An eclectic yet perfect blend of SF, mystery, comedy of manners and romance.

"A Civil Campaign" -- Lois McMaster Bujold. The culmination of the Miles saga. There are further stories, but this one is the pinnacle, a confluence of all that has gone on previously.

"Snow Crash" -- Neal Stephenson. Has hands-down the best opening chapter. What's not to love about a katana-wielding pizza-delivering hacker? To say nothing of YT and SmartWheels(TM).

"Good Omens" -- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman. "The Omen" meets "Famous Five". Pity there won't be any more Pratchett/Gaiman collaborations.

"Crow Road" -- Iain Banks. A Scottish coming of age story that stretches across generations. Contains one of my favourite opening sentences: "It was the day my grandmother exploded".

"Down Under" -- Bill Bryson. A travel book wherein Bryson in his inimitable way, captures Australia & Australians in words.
Brendon Roberts
14. saunterasmas
Good choices SoonLee. Most of those are favourite first reads that could become potential comfy rereads. (I really do need to get around to reading some Bujold though!).
James A. Owen
15. Karlo G
Books: Gaiman/Pratchett's Good Omens, Brust's Vlad Taltos books, Foucault's Pendulum, Halprin's Winter's Tale

Comics: Jodorowsky's Incal, Asterix, Alan Ford, Simonson's Thor

Movies: Big Trouble in Little China, Top Secret, Like Water for Chocolate, Baraka, Captains Courageous, Connery-era James Bond
Marissa Lingen
16. Mris
Bujold, Sayers, and Galaxy Quest.
Samantha Brandt
17. Talia
The Arrow of the Queen trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. (obviously....). Not elegant writing but something about it is so good.

Firefly.
Leigh Butler
18. leighdb
Agreed with SoonLee about A Civil Campaign. That book just makes me happy. All the Vorkosigan books are great comfort reading, really (except Mirror Dance), but ACC is a delight every time.

Actually I agree with all of SoonLee's choices, except for the last two, which I haven't read and now suspect I ought to.

Also, the Elenium and Tamuli books by David Eddings. Wonderfully trashy fantasy.

For movies: Singin' in the Rain, which has to be one of the most purely *joyous* films I've ever seen. Seriously, it is the ultimate anti-depressant. I defy anyone to watch the "Moses Supposes" number and not at LEAST crack a smile.

TV: A good deal of Adult Swim's lineup is great for bad days. I especially enjoy the hilariously over-the-topness of Bleach. ("And now, I will explain to you in excruciating detail how this completely badass move I am about to make, in fifteen minutes or so, will totally kill you SO VERY DED!")
Bill Siegel
19. ubxs113
I like to drink a Mocha, or scotch. Then I put on Radiohead's Kid A and I open up The Eye Of The World.

Take Care.
Kelly McCullough
20. KellyMcCullough
Tim Powers, Barry Hughart, Martha Wells' Element of Fire and Death of the Necromancer, Gaiman's Stardust and Graveyard Book, H. Beam Piper's Space Viking, Andre Norton's Beastmaster and Lord of Thunder, McKillip's Riddle Master of Hed trilogy, Zelazney's Amber and Changeling.
Dru O'Higgins
21. bellman
Nero Wolfe, definitely. Plus the Parker novels by Richard Stark, Dortmunder by Westlake.

The Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.

You're stepping on my cloak and dagger by Roger Hall. Life in the OSS, it's one of the funniest books ever.

National Velvet (the book).

The Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse.

The Travis McGee books by MacDonald.

Moving to genre:

Bridge of Birds by Hughart.

Archer's goon by Diana Wynne Jones.

the Hitchhiker's books and the Dirk Gently books by Adams.

the Green Knowe series by Lucy M Boston.

Pratchett. Don't forget the Johnny Maxwell books.

the first Majipoor trilogy by Silverberg.

Movies and tv:
Buckaroo Banzai, Flash Gordon, Clash of the Titans, Fawlty towers, Princess Bride, Buffy and Angel, Time Bandits, Robotech.

Feel Better soon.
(edited to correct spelling of Wodehouse)
James A. Owen
22. Yehuda
Most of the Discworld, especially Small Gods & Night Watch.

Emerald Eyes By Daniel Keys Moran.

The Silmarillion.

So You Want to be a Wizard, the "Door" series and most of her Star Trek books - by Diane Duane.

Tigana, Fionavar and most other books by Guy Gavriel Kay.

TV-Yes, Minister & Yes, Prime Minister
Herb Schaltegger
23. LameLefty
Books: Heinlein juvies; Asimov's robots; early Stephen King
Movies: Apollo 13, Galaxy Quest, Sean Connery-era Bond flicks; Ghostbusters
Other: my guitars and ukuleles
James A. Owen
24. OtterB
Bujold, Chalion by preference but could be anything
Martha Wells, most anything, but Wheel of the Infinite or City of Bones for comfort
Lee & Miller, the Liaden books
Norton's Beastmaster books, a good choice, I wouldn't have thought of them but they work.
Pratchett in some moods but not in others (my moods, not his).
And, not yet mentioned here, the J. D. Robb "In Death" books
Luis Milan
26. LuisMilan
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (the radio series all the way to the Quintessential Phase)

The Lord of the Rings (book or movies)

Most of Isaac Asimov's science fiction novels.
James A. Owen
27. GarretB
Definitley Neil Gaiman's fantasy like Stardust, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, The Wolves In The Walls, and a couple of his short stories, like Chivlary, and October In the Chair.

Diana Wynne Jones "Chrestomanci" series, particularly the first one and The Pinhoe Egg.

At the crunch time at the end of the previous school year I have found picture books extremely good therapy, like Maurice Sendak's work, particularly In the Night Kitchen and Where The Wild Things Are. Also, The Quilt Maker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau; The Winter Child by Terri Windling and Wendy Froud; The Voyage of the Basset by James C. Christensen.

A lot of the classics: Alice's Adventures In Wonderland; The Tom Bombadil chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring; The Mister Tumnus Chapter of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe; Mary Poppins; Winnie-The-Pooh.

Other: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, I just love books about people who love books; Hogfather by Terry Pratchett; So You Want To Be A Wizard by Diane Duane; Lirael by Garth Nix, I find the library that Lirael works to be so magical and inviting; Redwall by Brian Jacques; A Wrinkle In Time by Madelin L'Engle; The Blue Girl by Charles DeLint.
James A. Owen
28. Lsana
I tend to go to Agatha Christie for comfort, especially the Miss Marple books. When I want a metaphorical hug, "Aunt Jane" is usually giving them.

Anime tends to be my "I can't sleep" comfort fiction. It's usually weird enough that it knocks my mind out of whatever rut it was in so that I can stop worrying and finally get some rest.
James A. Owen
29. Snowkestrel
I go for an obscure book from the late 80's called The Long Run, by Daniel Keyes Moran. Light cyberpunk, book two of a trilogy where you don't even need to have read book 1 (Emerald Eyes), and a main character who is so cool, that if you don't want to BE him, you probably wouldn't pass the Turing test.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
30. glasserc
There's "boo hoo, I want to mope" stuff, which for me is generally music (World of Science, Fearsome Sparrow). Then there's "this is unceasingly awesome" stuff, which picks me up. There's only a short list of those: a set of videos called Sockbaby, a book called Why's Poignant Guide to Ruby.

Ethan
James A. Owen
31. dwndrgn
Ahh...yes...comfort fiction. I read a lot of this stuff - more so recently. With layoffs and foreclosures and endless job searches and repos being the norm for my family these days - I head for the feel good or funny stuff. Spider Robinson's Calahan Chronicles always make me smile and feel better about humanity. Pratchett's Discworld with laugh out loud capabilities is always a mood-improver and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is great to whisk you off to an adventure. My constant friends ;-)

And Hugs to Arachne - may your days improve immensely.

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