Setting can be a literary minefield. When used correctly, it can create affecting works of art (think The Shining, The House of the Seven Gables or J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island). But sometimes a writer can become so fixated on setting that they produce a literary still life that is beautiful to look at, but what about the characters? If two people are having a conversation on a bridge, do we really need a three-page description of the bridge?
Probably not, but when setting works to complement the narrative, it strengthens the reader’s bond to a location. My favorite book is Stephen King’s The Stand, mostly because of the first-rate character development: Larry’s sadness, Stu and Franny’s determination, the loneliness of Harold and Nadine. But I can still see those bodies crucified to telephone poles along the Nevada highway. When I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I walked along Pearl and Arapahoe Streets, imagining them the way King did in the novel. During a recent trip to New York, I took a drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and could think only of Larry’s gut-wrenching subterranean escape from a New York ravaged by Captain Trips.
Speaking of stellar post-apocalyptic settings, another master is British writer Tim Lebbon.
Lebbon is a highly decorated author of horror, fantasy and sci-fi. He’ll soon be releasing a new novel in the U.K., Coldbrook, and a collection of short fiction, Nothing as it Seems, but for this Halloween, we’re recalling his 2004 collection, Fears Unnamed.
The four novellas that make up this collection all rely heavily on setting, be it a dystopian landscape covered by a strange, unceasing snow; the interior of a plane crashing into the frigid ocean; or the homey English countryside under attack from some bizarre threat.
The story that stands out the most for me in this collection is “Remnants,” in which the narrator, Peter, is summoned by an old friend to join him in some unidentified, far-off desert. The friend, Scott, is an archeologist and has discovered what he believes to be a city of the dead. The story is more fantasy than horror, and in truth is as much an adventure tale in the vein of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.
Once there, the city becomes a central character:
“Spread across the floor of the depression in the land, seemingly growing from the ground, lay the remains of several large and dozens of smaller buildings. Sand and grit was skirted around bases and against walls, drifted up and through openings that may have been windows, may have been wounds.”
Setting takes on a greater role as we descend into the city’s streets. On the one hand, it’s a psychological riddle, a lost city occupied by ghosts, and is symbolic of Scott, who has gone mad in part due to the death of his son. On the other hand, the city is a physical place, and to navigate its throughways Peter must learn its history and overcome his fear of the spirits residing there.
The city becomes magical yet suspenseful, and through Peter’s efforts it becomes a place of memory and memorial. The buried dead are not forgotten here. This is a place inhabited by all the interred things, and the pain of it is too much for Peter to bear.
He has found the place where all the hurt is buried, and ultimately Peter’s antagonist is not his old friend, but the city itself. “I plunged into the tunnel without a backward glance. If I turned I may have seen something impossible to ignore, a sight so mind-befuddling that it would petrify me, leaving me there to turn slowly to stone or a pillar of salt.”
Lebbon’s achievement is that he not only takes us to this otherworldly place, but makes it somehow familiar.
And for those who’ve had enough of the summer heat, dig into “White,” a fictional freeze-out that delivers chills in more ways than one.