The title here is taken from an article by Joe Lansdale in Mort Castle’s ‘Writing Horror – A Handbook by the Horror Writers’ Association’, in which he explores the importance of setting in fiction. In it he begins:
In writing, if you’re truly connected to a region, sense of place is like a friendly hand on your shoulder.
Setting the Scene for Multiple Projects
I first read the brief four-page article when I bought the book back in 1997. I was myself writing horror – albeit in a role-playing game scenario format at that time. What has prompted me to revisit it today was my reading an excellent piece by Helen M Walters in the January, 2016 edition of Writing Magazine, in which she also explains the vital part setting plays in fiction. She does this by providing three examples of short stories, by Charlotte Gilman, D H Lawrence and Arthur C Clarke. As is the case when I seem to read anything nowadays, this set the cogs turning and I have since considered how I may use setting in my writing.
Additionally, as writers we are also coached to avoid writers’ block by having more than one project running at any time. This is on the basis that, when creative juices stop flowing on one project, a different recipe may be employed and work continued on another. So why should this extra piece of advice resonate with me today, prompting me to add it here?
I’m currently spending much of my time writing a series of fantasy novels for children. This is a project that I seem to have been working on since time immemorial. Although it’s a work dear to my heart (feel free to read my earlier posts on the subject), I also wish to resurrect my horror writing, and thus have two streams of fiction running in parallel. My previous post revealed those works of horror and their authors that have moved me and prompted me to produce my own similar material. Here I’ll look at setting. This is what Joe Lansdale has to say on it:
So many beginning writers ignore their background and region and try to write about places far away. Places that sound exotic. Places often written about, filmed and glamorized.
I tried this myself. But what I soon realized was that while there’s no crime in writing about places you don’t know – I’ve done it and will probably do it again – there certainly is much to be gained by writing about what you do know.
Cosmic Horror at Reading’s Game Fair
The short stories I’m planning (and who knows, I may even self-publish them) will be horror stories based on the ‘cosmic horror’ ideas spawned by H.P. Lovecraft and much imitated since then. Whilst I haven’t tried to write such stories, what I have written (and had published in the excellent and now extinct UK-based Cthulhu fanzine Dagon) has been role-playing game scenarios; specifically, scenarios for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. Writing these was a thoroughly enjoyable activity in which I strove to create an atmosphere sufficiently foreboding to chill the bejesus out of those who played it. One such scenario (and one which I intend to now convert into a piece of fiction) was ‘Fenland Fog’, which was play-tested at 1985s Games Fair, held at Reading.
Here’s what Dagon’s editor, Carl Ford had to say:
I decided I would add further insanity to the weekend with a playtesting of ‘Fenland Fog’ to a few Cthuloid freaks. The game ran smoothly and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the excellent research by Steve Wand paid off. The investigators lost, unfortunately, several falling prey to a hungry Shoggoth and the remainder being arrested by the local police on suspicion of arson. Though I enjoyed it the investigators seemed a little pissed off, for failing to discover exactly who or what was behind the mystery.
It’s a Mystery
Carl’s account in the ensuing edition of ‘Dagon‘ pleased me immensely – especially in view of the fact that I named the piece on the basis that one definition of ‘Fog’ is ‘Mystery’.
A major feature of the game would have been its atmosphere, and that came from its setting. You see, in order to create a realistic setting for a horror game scenario, I needed one that was familiar to me. As I hail from the fenlands of Lincolnshire that location seemed a logical choice. Whilst the huge open skies afforded by a fenland environment can provide a bright and cheery outlook, fill them with roiling black thunderheads, towering above the open fens and pressing down like a vice and you have a setting with the potential to unsettle all but the sternest heart. Additionally, while H.P Lovecraft and his ensuing acolytes used the piping sound of whippoorwills to add melancholy to their New-England settings, I can call on curlews and corncrakes to do the same.
Enough of my ramblings, here’s some literary examples of scene-setting worthy of note. First of all, some examples from ‘The Horror at Witches Hollow’ by Robert J Curran:
… roads … turn off at a strange angle … curious intersection … a queer set of low hills.
… around which clouds seem to hand oppressively.
… dwellings … wear an air of perpetual abandonment.
… rocky fields which crown down to the highway. A remote and inward-looking place.
… people seem more reclusive … no-one moves in the weed-choked fields by the roadside.
… a gloomy hog-wallow overhung by dark trees …
And here’s some excellent examples from Frank DeFelitta’s ‘Golgotha Falls’:
… stagnant ponds bred crawling mites on browned, drooping reeds.
… issued a stench like sour milk.
Low clouds of dense, bog like vapour hugged the clay banks of the creek.
… [as though] the town had crawled from the church and died in the process …
I love that last one. And now the master of purple-prose himself, H.P. Lovecraft, these two taken from ‘The Dunwich Horror’:
… brier bordered stone walls press close and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road.
And of the local populace:
The average of their intelligence is woefully low whilst their annals reek of overt viciousness and of half hidden murders, incests and deeds of almost un-nameable violence and perversity.
This next example is from one of HPL’s acolytes, August Derleth, the extract taken from ‘The Dweller in the Darkness’:
… there persists an intangible aura of the sinister, a kind of ominous oppression of the spirit … around which century old trees brood eternally … where the only sounds are … the wind’s voices – but is it always the wind’s voices in the trees?
This last example is from J. Vernon Shea. The piece is from ‘The Haunter of the Graveyard’:
Even the bridle path … had been forsaken for horses there always behaved strangely, skittering and shying at unseen obstacles.
Familiar Imagery – With a Twist
That then is a collection of samples taken from my usual bedtime reading. These, along with works by such as M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and Oliver Onions inspired many of my RPG scenarios; scenarios I now wish to convert into fiction format. I’ll finish with the scene setter for my own ‘Fenland Fog’. Using a location well-known to me allowed me to call on familiar imagery and, by employing imagination stirred by such as those examples above, enabled me to produce something that both sets the scene and unsettles the reader, warning him of worse to come.
Lincolnshire, England. This bleak east facing coastline fronts a patchwork of impossibly level farmland; a desolate landscape scoured flat, it seems, by relentless North Sea winds, its peat-black soil compressed beneath huge, cloud-stacked skies.
Products of the region, the rustic inhabitants are honest and productive. Dour, down to earth types, they labour on the land from dawn until dusk. But when the day is done and lamps are lit, and curtains drawn on those dark and silent fields, then is the time for tales. For evenings are for stories, and here in the most haunted county of England, tales are plentiful – and many of them, like the North Sea winds, are chilling.
It is the summer of 1925. Most of England is reeling from the aftermath of the Great War. Unemployment is high, poverty widespread and angers rising. Lincolnshire, however, remains relatively unscathed. For here in the scattered farming communities around the Wash it is ‘business as usual’.
But not all is well here. Unbeknown to those simple, hard-working folk, an evil stirs; one that is already spreading its foul contagion among their number – and it comes from beyond the foam-flecked beaches. Out where dark, white-crested rollers surge relentlessly over a hump-backed sandbank, lying beneath the waves like a dormant beast.