Have you ever thought of a setting—a physical space—as a living thing? The popularization, thanks to Creepypasta, of liminal spaces like backrooms has resulted in more attention placed on environmental storytelling in films and video games. Yet, as is often the case, readers often look to characters with a heartbeat first, when really, in some stories, the setting is the one with soul.
Look at the Hill House from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Consider David Fincher’s 1995 crime thriller Se7en, with its rundown city begging for a breath. These are living characters, each with so much personality you can’t help but wonder about their motives and feelings.
As atmosphere is so vital to horror, let's dive into some examples of settings in novels so memorable and well rendered they feel alive.
An often cited title, Stephen King’s horror classic The Shining stands tall as an extraordinary rendition of a real-life location turned haunting setting. At the heart of the story is The Overlook Hotel, a hotel with a strange, dark past loosely inspired by the real-world Stanley Hotel, an initially idyllic building standing atop a hill, surrounded by nature and would-be tranquil.
Jack Torrance is a writer that takes on a caretaker role for the off-season. The idea is to make some money while also turning the gig into a bit of a writing residency, but Torrance soon becomes “influenced” like the rest of his family by the hotel and its history (ahem, ghosts). Toss in a snowstorm and some cabin fever and King really makes the Overlook Hotel come alive. The Stanley Hotel is regularly visited by King fans for this very reason, with many readers seeking to “meet” the memorable character from their favorite book.
Like The Shining, Roadside Picnic works doubly as an excellent example of the power of reading. Whole generations of readers became fascinated with the setting of the book The Zone, inspired by the Chernobyl reactor incident and the dark mark it left on the contaminated land.
The Strugatskys conceived Roadside Picnic from such tragedies, creating the Zone, a dangerous and logic-defying place that contains a wealth of lucrative alien wares to recover and hock on the underground black market. People daring to enter and hopefully make serious cash are called stalkers. The novel inspired the film Stalker, as well as the video game series of the same name. The rippling success of this franchise speaks to the influence of the setting.
Simmons’ historical epic delves into the tragic tale of a group of men struggling to survive and escape the intense cold of the Arctic. Readers are introduced to one of the darkest and coldest settings one can find on this planet. Captain Francis Crozier, the book’s would-be narrator, is in charge of the HMS Terror as it becomes trapped in the icy Arctic. As the crew fights to escape, Simmons does a wonderful job of reminding the reader consistently of the trials and tribulations of sub-zero temperatures.
However, it’s the Arctic itself that comes alive with every new hardship. The Terror is one of those books that accurately portrays the harshness of nature, so much so that it makes humans look small, without any control, in comparison. Like any good historical tale about an accident or tragedy, readers become invested in the survivors as the Arctic throws constant dangers their way, including a murderous bear-like monster that feasts on the crew.
The Terror manages to make something as vast and soulless as an icy wilderness come alive with untold dangers.
The City We Became
There are New York City novels and then there are New York City novels. Jemisin’s The City We Became taps into the same vein that so many writers have, seeking to explore the bustling city with all its allures and curiosities. However, this book manages to do something very different something far more fantastical than most New York City novels.
The city becomes the stage for a fantastical battle wherein a group of New Yorkers must fight to save the city. Each of the boroughs are alive, beating to its own heartbeat, and readers witness good and evil in all its renditions. A living avatar belongs to each borough, a hero acting as a guardian. When an enemy threat makes a move on the city, the avatars of all five boroughs join up and fight the menace.
Jemisin’s choice to add a human representation to each borough works remarkably well in creating more depth and making New York City come alive even more than it already was. The City We Became has creativity and culture oozing from every city block.
House of Leaves
Love it or hate it, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book whose main character may in fact be a setting. The house on Ash Tree Lane becomes the center of implausibility when the Navidson family moves in. The husband, Will, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, starts filming their lives under the guise of exploring how time and life unfolds.
Their new house stops making sense when they discover a passage that shouldn’t be there. As the house continuously gains expansions, Will becomes obsessed with the oddities. The house itself also seems to groan and react to the family, all the more creating a sense of urgency and terror.
Danielewski uses a large swath of formal experimentation on the page, which can push back on the reader more often than they’d like. However, if you find yourself fascinated by the house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, give it a chance. This novel manages to portray a house that acts as a reflection of its owners, a tale of love and loss.
This Wretched Valley
Jenny Kiefer’s extraordinary debut, This Wretched Valley, begins with a warning—a frank description of the main cast’s bodies. Inspired by true events (see: the Dyatlov Pass incident), the book begins with a brutal realization that what readers are about to experience is all in the past. These characters do not survive, and therefore the tale becomes horribly somber and bleak, tinged with mystery and supernatural intrigue.
Kiefer’s real main character remains alive, however. In fact, it thrives on the attention. The titular valley alluded to in the title consists of a vast Kentucky wilderness, a forest terrain familiar to many, yet equally foreign to any that loses their footing during a hike. Much like the movie The Descent, This Wretched Valley’s characters are climbers seeking a thrill, unaware that they are about to meet “someone” who will change their lives.
Kiefer’s masterful depictions of the wilderness make it come alive, infectious in their telling and harrowing in their haunting appeal. This Wretched Valley will make you second-guess your next hike.