I have a great many tattoos. Entire appendages are coated in ink. One of my favorites is a small arsenic bottle and a sprig of blackberries on my left arm. It was inspired by the book We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Shirley Jackson. Geez. That woman. Though We Have Always Lived in the Castle is my favorite novel of hers – and the novel that inspired the tattoo, The Haunting of Hill House is what Jackson is most known for. Made famous by two movie adaptations and lauded by Stephen King as one of only two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” The Haunting of Hill House was the first novel that made me aware of Setting as a Character.
If you are unfamiliar with The Haunting of Hill House, the main story thread is thus: four psychically-inclined characters (two women and two men) visit an 80-year-old mansion named Hill House to study the supernatural activity that may or may not be happening there. Strange. Events. Occur. Is it all in the minds of the slightly terrified inhabitants, do ghosts roam the halls, or can a place actually be alive and evil?
Ever been in a place that gave you bad vibes? I have. There is a certain portion of south Chicagoland woods that I will never go to again. I shit you not, I had a murder of crows follow me (and my mother) on a walk for 15 minutes. Weird. Creepy. Ew. Scary woods. Scary crows.
I loved Shirley Jackson’s notion of a setting truly becoming a character. Hill House is alive… and possibly two steps down its own path of madness. Hill House is something more than even a setting as a character. The term Genius Loci is Latin for “the protective spirit of a place.” Modern usage has dulled the term to meaning the atmosphere of a place…but screw that. I like the idea of a setting being wholly and completely inhabited by a personality.
In my debut novel, There Is No Lovely End, I tried to stretch the bounds of what a setting as character could be. I wanted several places to be so infused by history and experience that they were completely animate. They do not speak in human languages, but they communicate with characters – who may or may not be used to their settings acting out, rather than just housing their daily lives. That being said, not every setting is a character. There are dead zones. Not every place you walk by in real life gives you glee or the willies, why should the places in a book be any different?
Here are questions to think about when you are debating writing a setting as a character:
Do you want your setting to comfort your main character?
The Watchbird Theater houses a congregation of oddballs led by Arrol Wester, the theater’s owner. The Watchbird itself is known to reveal hidden passages and sleeping rooms for actors it adores. If the Watchbird were a person, people would describe her as kind, caring, and completely unusual.
Do you want your setting to confront your main character?
Saint Anthony’s Academy of Wayward Sons is a Dickensian slumhole of an orphanage. It’s run by Franwell Doogood, a beastly woman with a beastly son, neither of whom would blink an eye over throttling a ragamuffin with a coinbag or broken chair. Consequently, Saint Ant’s is an antagonistic place that often trips and traps the orphans. Were Saint Ant’s a bloke at a bar, he’d be described as a rotten SOB.
Here are a few more questions to get the brain boiling about what your setting can or can’t do:
· Do you want your setting to mirror the personality of those that own it (like above) or do you want your setting to break all bounds and “be itself.” If so, how will this drive your story forward?
· Can a setting save a character?
· Can a setting destroy a character?
· Can your setting speak? Is it a human language? If not, what form does its language take? Can humans understand it?
· Can a setting be the main character?
· What are some of your favorite books and movies that best exemplify “setting as a character”? Think about one. What would you have done differently to amplify or add subtlety to it?
This is what I do when I am at home alone. I nerd out while listening to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and think about literary and cinematic Genius Loci. It all comes down to this: the only rule is what works. Now get on it. Make setting as a character work for you. Become the new Hill House. Eris knows, I sure as hell will read you.
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 The other novel being Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. (Danse Macabre, 270.)
Author Bio: Patty Templeton is roughly 25 apples tall and 11,000 cups of coffee into her life. She wears red sequins and stomping boots while writing, then hits up back-alley dance bars and honky tonks. Her stories are full of ghosts, freaks, fools, underdogs, blue collar heroes, and never giving up, even when life is giving you shit. She won the first-ever Naked Girls Reading Literary Honors Award and has been a runner-up for the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award. There Is No Lovely End is her first novel. Here is the synopsis…
Apparitions! Outlaws! Mediums!
1884. Nathan Garlan hears and sees the dead. Using his uncanny aptitudes to assist society and its specters, he has become the most acclaimed medium in Boston. But not all esteem him. Nathan Garlan’s own mother craves her boy butchered — and she’s not the only one…
Misery! Lust! Murder!
New Haven. Sarah Winchester is the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune and a haunted woman. She has searched for release from familial phantoms for two decades, yet found no respite. However, she has heard of a medium in Boston who regularly administers miracles…
Wit! Wonders! Outrage!
Who is the Reverend Doctor Enton Blake? Why does the lawless Hennet C. Daniels search for him? What form of profane curio is a trick box — and what, precisely, does one inter within it? Will Sarah Winchester find serenity through Nathan Garlan’s services? Or will Hester Garlan find her son first?