When Claustrophobia Isn’t Fear of Santa

Claustrophobic fiction! Books of that sort are usually quite intense as we sympathize with physically or mentally “confined” characters, wonder if things will improve for them, and think of what we might do if we found ourselves in a similar situation.

I just read Belgian author Georges Simenon’s Across the Street, and it sure was claustrophobic. The poignant novel features a lonely, depressed woman named Dominique who — because of low self-esteem, a problematic upbringing, a years-ago romance that ended tragically, and current economic difficulty — withdraws into an existence where she mostly stays in her Paris apartment and eavesdrops not only on the couple who rent a room from her but on a dysfunctional family living across the street.

Another recently read book — No Plan B, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee and Andrew Child — is partly set in a jail. Prisons and prison cells are of course claustrophobic places, as we also see in such novels as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Colleen McCullough’s Morgan’s Run, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Henri Charriere’s Papillon. It’s certainly cathartic when, in some cases, protagonists escape or reach the end of their prison terms.

Obviously, ships can be claustrophobic, too. A half-dozen Herman Melville novels come to mind, including lesser-known ones such as Redburn and White-Jacket. Plus Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, among many others. Most horribly claustrophobic is the hold of a slave ship, as in the early section of Alex Haley’s Roots.

There are also novels in which small casts of characters are isolated near bodies of water. Some of them include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Getting back to Jack Reacher novels, one of the most claustrophobic scenes in the 27-book series is when the huge Reacher (6’5″/250 pounds) has little room to maneuver while battling a bad guy in a cramped South Dakota underground bunker. That climactic moment is in 61 Hours.

Speaking of limited hours, a novel can feel claustrophobic when it covers a small amount of time — as with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway focusing on a single day.

And if a disability or catastrophic injury limit how much a person can move, things get pretty claustrophobic for that person. Think of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

In the short story realm, it doesn’t get much more “enclosed” than the settings of such Edgar Allan Poe tales as “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Fiction you’ve read that fits this theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s leaders not always practicing what they preach — is here.

156 thoughts on “When Claustrophobia Isn’t Fear of Santa

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and her subsequent The Testaments) drew me so far in, I felt I was right there, actually living the entire experience. As a woman, I could only too well imagine the plausibility of such a scenario (women once again losing their voices, their financial independence and their identities; becoming (REbecoming???) little more than voiceless chattel. Both books chilled me to the bone and made me feel utterly trapped.

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  2. Claustrophobia turned inward leaves one but little room anywhere.

    “Night and Chaos” (1963), by Henry de Montherlant, is an atmospheric novel about a Spanish anarchist emigre in Paris after twenty years away from the home country— to which, in order to secure an inheritance, he returns. There’s a hallucinatory and awful bullfight near the book’s end that should take the romance out of that blood sport for most readers with heart, and much political musing throughout. “Night and Chaos” is mainly occupied with the thoughts and doings of its main character, a proud and unbending and vaguely ridiculous sort, out of step and time wherever he goes– an updated out-of-date Quixote.

    Celestino Marcilla has precious few associates– his lawyer, his banker and Ruiz, a man with whom he argues politics to a standoff and a daughter, Pascualita, of marrying age. Though he has lived in his Parisian neighborhood for many years, he walks only as far as one avenue in one direction, as far as another in the next, and so on, seldom going anywhere from which he cannot return on foot. He is a habitue of one cafe, and though it is nearby, has never set foot in another, because, although it is a leftish worker’s hangout, Celestino’s myopic political interests do not extend so far as to include the French, having exclusive interest in the Spanish left, such as he can observe them from Paris, miles and decades away.

    He writes unsolicited articles for some of the newspapers, but most he keeps to himself, for fear of recrimination and trouble with the French authorities whom he suspects are mindful of his anarchist past– a past which remains palpably present to Marcilla, most often by way of his own circular and insular thought processes. He sees events and even the few people around him exclusively through his esoteric,outdated and practically irrelevant political lense, until he begins to consider his mortality, and prepares a room in which he can die with dignity and a nurse in attendance.

    Then, unexpectedly, his sister dies in Madrid, and, though fearing reprisal, even imprisonment, by Franco’s government, he travels to the old country by train, his daughter beside him, from whence he will never return.

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  3. As a movie buff, I feel I can report with confidence that George Romero’s movie, “Night of the Living Dead”, has a claustrophobic feel, since for most if its length the focus is on a frightened few people inside a hastily boarded-up house trying to keep slow-walking zombies that surround the house from every side, and in vast numbers, from eating them alive.

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  4. Hi Dave, I popped back in because I never finished and posted my comment for you. I read two books by Stevie Turner, a very talented Indie author, which had very claustrophobic feels to them. Once was A House Without Windows about a woman who is kidnapped and kept locked up in her kidnappers basement for years. The second was A Rather Unusual Romance which was about two people who undergo cancer treatment which requires large doses of radiation. They are confined to cells in the hospital for the duration of their treatments with no contact with anyone except the themselves.

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    • Thank you, Esther! Two great/interesting examples, though I haven’t read “The Scapegoat” or “The Prisoner of Zenda.” I’ve read other Daphne du Maurier novels, though, and she was masterful at creating claustrophobic feelings.

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  5. Henry Farrell’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and also Whatever Happened To Aunt Charlotte. His series of books are full of reclusive characters, mostly limited by either mental or physical health issues. Surprised there aren’t more writers churning these out due to the pandemic. Re: ships, I have to add space ships. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles contain several stories about being isolated and/or stranded. Yet, scifi deals with these dynamics quite a bit. Scifi reminds us we are limited by other constructs as well such as religion, ethnicity, belief systems, indeed, our very existence (human, robot or alien)– Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey, Andy Weir’s The Martian, etc.

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    • Thank you, Anonymous! Great mentions of Henry Farrell, and spaceships — all well said! Being in outer space can indeed be VERY claustrophobic. And the protagonist of “The Martian” being the only human stranded on Mars — yikes! I’m also thinking of H.G. Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon,” in which two people travel to that orb in a REALLY small ship.

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  6. Here I go again –
    “Still Life” by Joy Fielding – a woman, hit by a car, in a coma can hear people around her, but they don’t know that she can.
    I found this claustrophobic. Also, “The First Time” about a woman being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease is claustrophobic. I found the part where she goes for an MRI suffocating.
    “See Jane Run” is another one…. a woman kept in a drugged state by her husband.

    I must admit the first 2 stories I thought about were plays. “The Glass Menagerie” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”.

    Good topic, Dave!

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  7. It’s impressive to see how many people suffered or suffer from claustrophobia due to certain experiences! Thinking about this topice “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe came to my mind and it gives me goose pimples, because the writer makes come back to life and after having been buried, the twin sister of Roderick Usher. Dave, you have chosen a very interesting topic, many thanks:)

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  8. I get some anxiety just reading the word ‘claustrophobia,’ Dave! The novels which I remember having this feeling are Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time,” Atwood’s “Alias Grace,” Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle,” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and Kafka’s “The Trial,” and “The Metamorphosis.” Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled” feels like a frustrating dream from which you can’t wake up!

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  9. At last, some time to properly read your post with the wonderful title. Glad to know it wasn’t a fear of Santa or we all could have been in trouble here. In addition to poe’s Cask, there’s also the pit and The Pendulum. he really liked that kind of tale didn’t he? I find the first part of Dracula claustrophobic as it gradually dawns on Harker, that he is not only totally trapped in a remote Transylvanian castle with his host, he’s not getting out alive. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set as it is in a state hospital.

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  10. Mines would be a natural source of claustrophobia:

    Merle Travis, father of Travis-picking on guitar, was also a songwriter– his biggest hit–a smash– was “Sixteen Tons”, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. But he had another mining tune, “Dark As A Dungeon”, which has as its chorus

    It’s damp as a dungeon, cold as the dew/
    Where the dangers are double and the pleasures are few/
    Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines/
    It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

    (Gives me the chills just typing it out!)

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  11. The Burrower (Der Bau), an unfinished short story by Kafka, comes subterraneanly to mind.

    Also, two scenes of the Jack Reacher novels: one, in which Jack swims impossibly long in the water surrounding a compound, to come up for air and do battle with a psychotic giant, and 2) Reacher swims in a flooded tunnel, spots an empty bottle and drains it of lifesaving air. As is ever my weak spot in identifying one Reacher novel from another, I can’t remember which novels the scenes come from. (Having very nearly drowned twice in my life, the claustrophobic/frightening aspects of danger by way of water may move me in particular.)

    Also, several fictional and actual accounts of WWI trench life, during which, at any time the enemy’s big guns were firing, a shelter’s roof could cave in on its occupants, and suffocate them, but until such time, was the safest place to be as the shells rained down. The most common fatality among troops on all sides in that war was death via artillery bombardment. The sheer tonnage of explosives employed in that war is incredible.

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    • jhNY, I also have a hard time telling some Reacher novels apart when I look back on ones I haven’t read recently. Jack definitely gets into some dramatically tight spots, literally and figuratively, and water is sometimes involved. There are also several famous novels by famous authors that end in claustrophobic drownings — books I shouldn’t name to avoid spoilers.

      Yes, World War I trenches — so claustrophobic, too, even if they don’t nightmarishly cave in.

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  12. There are some novellas that are claustrophobic, they include “Notes from the Underground”, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, and “The Metamorphosis”. Full length claustrophobic novels include “Crime and Punishment” and “Nineteen Eighty Four”.

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  13. This is a topic I never would have guessed you could write a post’s worth about, let alone a post this good. I have read many of these books but I wouldn’t have thought to link them by this thread. Well done, Dave.

    My mind went immediately to submarines. While both of these are more likely known for the movies they inspired, I enjoyed both books: “The Boat” – Lothar-Günther Buchheim (Das Boot) and “Run Silent, Run Deep” – Edward L. Beach Jr.

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  14. The first book that came to mind was Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

    Robert Langdon suffers from a severe case of claustrophobia throughout the book. In many ways it was an underlying theme and a major source of tension and conflict in the novel. Langdon often finds himself in tight, dark spaces, such as the elevator and the secret passageways beneath the Louvre, and his fear of these places is palpable. His claustrophobia is a major obstacle for him, causing him to panic and become disoriented in these situations. Was he healed? Ah, that is another conversation altogether.

    “Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.” Dan Brown

    A great post, Dave. It has me thinking that many books that I have read that have nothing to do with claustrophobia, have left me feeling claustrophobic.

    I will be back to read the following conversation which is always, always fun and full of new ideas.

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  15. A tough one, since you’re so well read and mention examples I might have mentioned. I vaguely remember a very scary novella by a Dutch or Belgian author – The Golden Egg (a.k.a. The Vanishing) – turned into a movie, whose denouement is about the worst claustrophobic nightmare of all: that of being buried alive (as in the Poe tale you mention). I better stop thinking of other examples, or I’m going to have bad dreams tonight…

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  16. Dave, now that you’ve mentioned it, I Remember You: A Ghost Story by Icelandic crime author Yrsa Sigurdardottir perfectly fits your description of claustrophobic fiction, though I did not think of it in those terms. It’s a terrifying and mesmerizing tale of three friends who set out to renovate a rundown house in a remote and totally isolated location.

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    • Thank you, Lena! Crime novels can definitely have claustrophobic content. And, yes, claustrophobic fiction can be very dramatic reads — with the real-life readers glad they’re the fictional characters going through a hellish time. 🙂

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  17. There have been more recent television adaptations, one with Rowan Atkinson which I liked, but the 1960s series with Rupert Davies remains a favourite (I can still see the opening and hear the music as he lights his pipe! (Another similar memory being that of Michael Renee as Harry Lime in The Third Man).

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