Since we’re all going to hell (by someone’s rules), here is a glossary of terms you may need before you get there. I’d provide a map, but that is coming.
One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades, according to Ancient Greeks. This is an actual river located in northwest Greece. The Ancient Greeks called it the ‘river of woe’. Homer and Virgil contributed to the mythology around it. Virgil called it the main river of Tartarus, which is where you go if you’ve been bad.
Of the Fields of Asphodel. According to Ancient Greek thought, this is the part of the Underworld where ordinary people are sent.
The Romans geolocated the place where Virgil’s Aeneus is meant to have entered the Underworld, and they reckon the entrance is located at a placed called Avernus, a crater near Cumae. To the Romans, Aeneus refers to Hell/The Underworld.
The symbolic underworld of the dream house is the basement. Naturally, stories with basements are more frequently found in fiction written by authors who live in countries where houses tend to have basements. Canadian writer Alice Munro makes use of this in her short story “Cortes Island“. Her main character lives in a basement, but the fairytale upon which is seems based takes its main character to the underworld.
To a modern audience, what makes a setting feel ‘fairytale’? What is it about the tone, style and plot? I argue here that what makes a fairytale setting feel ‘fairytale’ is mostly the ‘fairytale logic’.
Just as we know, almost intuitively, that a particular narrative is a fairy tale when we read it, it seems we know immediately that a particular film is a fairy tale when we see it.
Jack Zipes (1996)
[Fairy tales display a distinctive quality] in the sense of a characteristic, instantly recognizable feel or style […] recognizable in the level of structure and content as much as language.
Symbolically the jungle is the domain of the savage. In contrast, the forest/woodland is the domain of the wild. Both are ruled by appetites. In children’s literature, the jungle is often a carnivalesque arena, just scary enough to provide a thrill.
Medical rooms and hospitals are safe, infantalising, dangerous, creepy, life-saving, traumatising places, and I offer them here as examples of what Foucault called ‘heterotopia‘.
The hospital’s ambiguous relationship to everyday social space has long been a central theme of hospital ethnography. Often, hospitals are presented either as isolated “islands’defined by biomedical regulation of space (and time) or as continuations and reflections of everyday social space that are very much a part of the “mainland.’ This polarization of the debate overlooks hospitals’ paradoxical capacity to be simultaneously bounded and permeable, both sites of social control and spaces where alternative and transgressive social orders emerge and are contested. We suggest that Foucault’s concept of heterotopia usefully captures the complex relationships between order and disorder, stability and instability that define the hospital as a modernist institution of knowledge, governance, and improvement.
Hospitals (like airports) elicit the full range of human emotion and are symbolically useful arenas for storytellers. Who better than writers to describe what it feels like to be inside a hospital?
I followed [the psychiatrist] down a depressing hallway into a tiny windowless office that might have housed an accountant. In fact it reminded me a bit of Myron Axel’s closet, filled with piles of paper waiting to be filed, week-old cups of coffee turned into science experiments, and a litter of broken umbrellas nesting beneath the desk.
I must have looked as surprised as I felt when I entered her office, for Rowena Adler looked at the utilitarian clutter about her and said, “I’m sorry about this mess. I’m so used to it. I forget how it looks.”
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
The author may have enjoyed writing that description because at James Sveck’s next appointment they are in a different room.
Dr Adler’s downtown office was a pleasanter place than her space at the Medical Center, but it wasn’t the sun-filled haven I had imagined. It was a rather small dark office in a suite of what I assumed were several small dark offices on the ground floor of an old apartment building on Tenth Street. In addition to her desk and chair there was a divan, another chair, a ficus tree, and some folkloric-looking weavings on the wall. And a bookcase of dreary books. I could tell they were all nonfiction because they all had titles divided by colons: Blah Blah Blah: The Blah Blah Blah of Blah Blah Blah. There was one window that probably faced an airshaft because the rattan shade was lowered in a way that suggested it was never raised. The walls were painted a pale yellow, in an obvious (but unsuccessful) attempt to “brighten up” the room.
The description of James’ psychiatrist’s rooms is broken up, judiciously, and fits around the action. James’ reaction to the rooms reflects how he feels about life at this juncture: He expected better. He expected different; instead he gets this underwhelming life.
I looked around her office. I know it sounds terrible, but I was discouraged by the ordinariness, the expectedness, of it. It was as if there was a catalog for therapists to order a complete office from: furniture, carpet, wall hangings, even the ficus tree seemed depressingly generic. Like one of those little paper pellets you put in water that puffs up and turns into a lotus blossom. This was like a puffed-up shrink’s office.
In a book of essays, Tim Kreider’s description of hospitals is one of the best I’ve encountered:
Hospitals are like the landscapes in recurring dreams: forgotten as though they’d never existed in the interims between visits, but instantly familiar once you return. As if they’ve been there all along, waiting for you while you’ve been away. The endlessly branching corridors sand circular nurses’ stations all look identical, like some infinite labyrinth in a Borges story. It takes a day or two to memorize the route from the lobby to your room. The innocuous landscape paintings that seem to have been specifically commissioned to leave no impression on the human brain are perversely seared into your long-term memory. You pass doorways through which you can occasionally see a bunch of Mylar balloons or a pair of pale, withered legs. Hospital beds are now just as science fiction predicted, with the patient’s vital signs digitally displayed overhead. Nurses no longer wear the white hose and red-cross caps of cartoons and pornography, but scrubs printed with patterns so relentlessly cheerful—hearts, teddy bears, suns and flowers and peace signs—they seem symptomatic of some Pollyannish denial. The smell of hospitals is like small talk at a funeral—you know its function is to cover up something else. There’s a grim camaraderie in the hall and elevators. You don’t have to ask anybody how they’re doing. The fact that they’re there at all means the answer is: Could be better. I notice that no one who works in a hospital, whose responsibilities are matters of life and death, ever seems hurried or frantic, in contrast to all the freelance cartoonists and podcasters I know.
Time moves differently in hospitals—both slower and faster. The minutes stand still, but the hours evaporate. The day is long and structureless, measured only by the taking of vital signs, the changing of IV bags, medication schedules, occasional tests, mealtimes, trips to the bathroom, walks in the corridor. Once a day an actual doctor appears for about four minutes, and what she says during this time can either leave you and your family in terrified confusion or so reassured and grateful that you want to write her a thank-you note she’ll have framed. You cadge six-ounce cans of ginger ale from the nurses’ station. You no longer need to look at the menu in the diner across the street. You substitute meat loaf for bacon with your eggs. Why not? Breakfast and lunch are diurnal conventions that no longer apply to you. Sometimes you run errands back home for a cell phone or extra clothes. Eventually you look at your watch and realize visiting hours are almost over, and feel relieved, and then guilty.
Tim Kreider, “An Insult To The Brain”, We Learn Nothing
It’s a fact known throughout the universes that no matter how carefully the colours are chosen, institutional décor ends up either vomit green, unmentionable brown, nicotene yellow or surgical appliance pink.
Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
They are now the only two people in the upstairs waiting room of the dental clinic. The seats are a pale mint-green colour. Marianne leafs through an issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and explores her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Connell looks at the magazine cover, a photograph of a monkey with huge eyes.
Here’s one little-known aspect of existing as a Gen X — the fear of sinking to death in sand. Perhaps you escaped this particular horror if your television exposure was moderated, but I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only child of the 80s to approach wet, sandy areas with extreme caution. Films and cartoons conveyed the idea that sinking into sand, never to be seen again, was an ever present danger.
This is why, when our village was recently required to switch from septic tank to town sewerage, I panicked a little when I realised our plumber had turned our entire back yard into a sinkhole:
BUT IS QUICKSAND EVEN REAL?
Yes, but quicksands not as quick as all that, unless you flail about in a panic, or deliberately try to sink yourself deeper:
I do know sand in general can be dangerous. My high school friend’s older brother suffocated to death under a collapsed sandcastle on Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach in the 1970s at the age of nine. Though nowhere near as common as drownings, children dying in sand still happens. However the popularity of the old quicksand trope suggested quicksand was a disproportionate hazard, when I should have been warned instead about burying myself too deep in sand holes:
It used to be a standard trope in action movies, although you don’t see it much these days: a patch of apparently solid ground in the jungle that, when stepped on, turns out to have the consistency of cold oatmeal. The unlucky victim starts sinking down into the muck; struggling only makes it worse. Unless there’s a vine to grab a hold of, he or she disappears without a trace (except maybe a hat floating sadly on the surface). It was a bad way to go. Quicksand was probably the number-one hazard faced by silver-screen adventurers, followed by decaying rope bridges and giant clams that could hold a diver underwater.
There’s a disturbing misogyny behind many of the live action quicksand scenes of the 20th century. Look up famous quicksand scenes from cinematic history and it readily becomes apparent that a sexually desirable woman flailing about and pleading in quicksand is a common male saviour fantasy, which is one thing, but I suspect it’s also a ‘trapping and dispatching with women’ fantasy.
When it’s two men flailing about in the swamp, it’s likely there’s a comedy vibe to it. Stanley is a revenge film from 1972. It gets 4.2 on IMDb and I doubt anyone would watch it for the serious drama. Quicksand tips a dramatic story into melodrama:
This how-to video makes me feel a lot better about quicksand.
The horror of sinking into some suffocating substance apart from water remains a powerful trope. It is used in the horror film A Quiet Place, but in that film it’s not sand — it’s grain in a granary.
According to this guy, who lives in a part of the world with genuine, slightly scary quicksand, it’s probably not going to be the suffocation that kills you. He also makes a good job of describing what it feels like to be stuck in quicksand.
The quicksand trope is used far less commonly these days. You know what basically killed the quicksand trope? The moon landings.
Quicksand is a common and deadly element of swamp, jungle, and desert terrain. Science Fiction stories written before the Moon landings are also liable to describe thick layers of extremely fine lunar dust on the Moon’s surface that are treated as functionally equivalent to quicksand.
Strange as it seems now:
Prior to the first Moon landing, scientists had good reason to believe the lunar surface was covered in a fine layer of dust. While this might not sound like a big deal, it presented a host of concerns to the Apollo mission planners. […]
First and foremost, and as proposed by Gold, the lunar dust might swallow astronauts like quicksand. Indeed, without any prior experience of standing on a celestial body aside from Earth, a concern emerged that the soft regolith on the Moon wasn’t compact enough to support the weight of the Lunar Module or astronauts out for a stroll. Nightmarish thoughts of astronauts getting swallowed up into the lunar dust prompted further investigation.
“The Scarlet Ibis” is a classic short story by James Hurst about an older brother who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. One day they are both out in a thunder storm. The older brother runs for shelter, leaving the younger brother behind. The younger brother is struck by lightning (we extrapolate) and dies.
The symbolism and pathetic fallacy of this story is clear. When the big brother teaches the younger brother to walk, they go down to a swamp.
Where there is swamp, there is the possibility of death and danger. But it’s not just about sinking to death. Bogs, swamps and marshes have a murky history. Case in point:
My favourite story concerns the ossuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral—old St. Paul’s, before the Wren cathedral was built. In the middle of the night, this huge group of carts pulled up outside of the cathedral, and they took all the bones in the ossuary, loaded them into the carts, took them down to the local marsh, threw them into the marsh, and threw dung on top of them. It’s this obviation of the dead, because they decided they want to stamp out any Catholic tendency to pray for the dead.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MARSH, BOG, SWAMP ETC?
The different kinds of wetlands:
MARSHES— no trees, lots of grass, exist at the edge of lakes and streams
SWAMPS— murky water, lots of trees, muddy, full of pits and quagmires
FENS— dominated by grasses, alkaline water
BOG— accumulates peat (deposits of dead plant material), mosses aplenty
All varieties of wetland are essential to the ecosystem, but symbolically, in stories, they function quite differently. The fen is basically a watery meadow, offering little real danger to humans — on fens we can see for miles around — we’d see predators approach. As for the swamp, well that’s a different matter. The swamp contains the worst of all worlds — the shadowy depths of an ocean combined with the foreboding of the forest. We have no visibility in either direction.
Bogs and swamps seem more ‘sinkier’ than fens and marshes, probably because of the English language collocations such as ‘swamped at work’, bogged down by homework’ etc. I’ve never heard ‘marshed at work'(though someone should make that happen).
When a story is told from the point of view of, say, a frog (who needs it for survival), then swamps can function as utopian landscapes.
The wetlands of The Wind In The Willows are a genuine utopia.
At this point I’d like to mention The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter. Beatrix Potter has the undeserved reputation for writing sweet, utopian stories about animals dressed like people. But that’s not true at all. Jeremy Fisher is the story of a frog, set by some wetlands. These wetlands are no utopia, but a dangerous, deadly place. There is nothing happily ironic about Potter’s wetland environs.
Hotels and motels, it seems, are inherently scary. My theory is that they fall into the uncanny valley of attempting to emulate home without actually being our home. Hotels and motels mimic the dream version of home, like when you ‘know’ within a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home.
For storytellers, it follows, hotels and motels are endlessly useful as settings. But are these establishments going the way of CDs and landlines? With the rise of Airbnb, the entire nature of holiday accommodation is changing. That said, I can’t see any downside for storytellers. Staying in someone else’s home in a different town is the perfect potential horror set up.
HOTELS AND MOTELS IN SHORT STORIES
John Irving is expert at writing the creepy, and he does so here in his description of a hotel. The creepy language builds to a disturbing simile:
As a family, we dutifully followed Theobald and my grandmother down the long, twining hall, my father counting the paces to the WC. The hall rug was thin, the color of a shadow. Along the walls were old photographs of speed-skating teams — on their feet the strange blade curled up at the tips like court jesters’ shoes or the runners of ancient sleds. … Grandmother’s room was full of china, polished wood, and the hint of mold. The drapes were damp. The bed had an unsettlingridge at its center, like fur risen on a dog’s spine — it was almost as if a very slender body lay stretched beneath the bedspread.
from The Pension Grillparzer, a short story by John Irving
Annie Proulx is equally expert at painting a setting in few words. Focus on the cheap building materials and the tackiness of the situation is one of Proulx’s strengths. I don’t want to be with this guy in this room, do you?
Thursday night, balked by detours and construction, he was on the outskirts of Des Moines. In the cinder-block motel room he set the alarm, but his own stertorous breathing woke him before it rang. He was up at five-fifteen, eyes aflame, peering through the vinyl drapes at his snow-hazed car flashing blue under the motel sign, SLEEP SLEEP. In the bathroom he mixed the packet of instant motel coffee and drank it black, without ersatz sugar or chemical cream. He wanted the caffeine. The roots of his mind felt withered and punky.
By the way, ‘stertorous’ means ‘laboured’ (in regards to breathing).
Alice Munro has a gift for describing the ordinary buildings of an ordinary town and she describes hotels quite frequently, but here she describes an imaginary motel in an example of side-shadowing:
She would have preferred another scene, and that was the one she substituted, in her memory. A narrow six- or seven-story hotel, once a fashionable place of residence, in the West End of Vancouver. Curtains of yellowed lace, high ceilings, perhaps an iron grille over part of the window, a fake balcony. Nothing actually dirty or disreputable, just an atmosphere of long accommodation of private woes and sins. There she would have to cross the little lobby with head bowed and arms clinging to her sides, her whole body permeated by exquisite shame. And he would speak to the desk clerk in a low voice that did not advertise, but did not conceal or apologize for, their purpose. Then the ride in the old-fashioned cage of the elevator, run by an old man—or perhaps an old woman, perhaps a cripple, a sly servant of vice.
In a similar story, Munro describes another hotel where a young woman has been taken by a bad-boy doctor who perhaps wants to have sex with her:
They stopped, finally, in Kaladar, and went into the hotel—the old hotel that is still there. Taking her hand, kneading his fingers between hers, slowing his pace to match her uneven steps, Neil led her into the bar. She recognized it as a bar, though she had never been in one before. (Bailey’s Falls Inn did not yet have a license, so drinking was done in people’s rooms, or in a rather ramshackle night club across the road.) This bar was just as she would have expected—a big, dark, airless room, with the chairs and tables rearranged in a careless way after a hasty cleanup, the smell of Lysol not erasing the smell of beer, whiskey, cigars, pipes, men.
Almost immediately changes came to the hotel. In the former dining room there was a false ceiling put in—paperboard squares supported by strips of metal. The big round tables were replaced by small square tables, and the heavy wooden chairs by light metal chairs with maroon plastic—covered seats. Because fo the lowered ceiling, the windows had to be reduced to squat rectangles. A neon sign in one of them said WELCOME COFFEE SHOP.
The owner, whose name was Mr. Palagian, never smiled or said a word more than he could help to anybody, in spite of the sign.
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Fearsome Inn” is one classic example from 1984. Some have said this picture book is not in fact for children.
Hotels and motels make for great settings if your child character lives in one, because the child is always meeting other people. It’s a good way to get the character ‘out into the world and mingling’ without them needing to leave ‘home’. This is a good workaround for writing contemporary children, who generally aren’t allowed out alone without some author contrivance.
Mary has a new pet mouse named Pip. But no sooner has she lifted the lid of Pip’s box than he’s off straight into the Grand Hotel! Young readers can join in the search for Pip, hidden in the hotel lobby, the kitchen, even the Royal Suite! Its a merry chase and a hunt-and-find game combined.
Actor Carey Mulligan grew up living in motels.
“Until I was eight we lived in hotels,” Mulligan explained. “So I lived in The Mayfair when I was first born in London, then… we moved to Germany and lived there for a bit.
“It probably gave me a strange perception of life. We finally got a house when I was eight and we got a key, a proper key, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just swipe things [like a hotel key card]?'”
However, Mulligan added that she felt like she belonged in the hotels she stayed in.
She joked: “I’d sit in the maid’s dirty laundry trolley and we were part of the hotel.”
My own grandmother ran a motel when I was a very young child. I remember the big spa pool and I also remember the linen closet. Motels in New Zealand and Australia always seem to smell like hot buttered toast at certain times of day. That smell, especially when it includes bacon, makes me think of a motel.
Pip in the Grand Hotel by Johannes Hucke, Daniel Müller (Illustrator) is a picture book with a setting and inciting incident reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. A child with a pet mouse goes off through a hotel looking for the escaped mouse. This one is more of a madcap adventure than a life or death situation:
Mary has a new pet mouse named Pip. But no sooner has she lifted the lid of Pip’s box than he’s off straight into the Grand Hotel! Young readers can join in the search for Pip, hidden in the hotel lobby, the kitchen, even the Royal Suite! Its a merry chase and a hunt-and-find game combined.
In Withering By The Sea by Judith Rossell:
Stella lives with her three Aunts in a majestic hotel along the coast. Her Aunts are miserable and mean, demanding that Stella be quiet and dutiful. Stella though would rather read the dilapidated atlas that she discovered only partially burnt in the garbage pile behind the hotel. That is why she is in the quiet conservatory and witnesses something being hidden in one of the planters. The knowledge is just one part of the mystery that is about to unfold in the hotel. It is a mystery that Stella finds herself caught up in, taking her away from the hotel and her dull Aunts and into a world of magic and new friends and enemies that even the atlas could not fully prepare her for.
An enchanting urban fantasy middle-grade debut―the first book in a trilogy―set in a magical hotel full of secrets.
Orphan Elizabeth Somers’s malevolent aunt and uncle ship her off to the ominous Winterhouse Hotel, owned by the peculiar Norbridge Falls. Upon arrival, Elizabeth quickly discovers that Winterhouse has many charms―most notably its massive library. It’s not long before she locates a magical book of puzzles that will unlock a mystery involving Norbridge and his sinister family. But the deeper she delves into the hotel’s secrets, the more Elizabeth starts to realize that she is somehow connected to Winterhouse. As fate would have it, Elizabeth is the only person who can break the hotel’s curse and solve the mystery. But will it be at the cost of losing the people she has come to care for, and even Winterhouse itself?
Mystery, adventure, and beautiful writing combine in this exciting debut richly set in a hotel full of secrets.
Back at the Winterhouse hotel for another holiday season, Elizabeth and Freddy dig deeper into the mystery surrounding Riley S. Granger, a hotel guest who left behind odd artifacts—one being a magical book that the evil Gracella Winters once attempted to use to gain destructive power over the entire Falls lineage. The two friends follow a trail of clues, inadvertently attracting the attention of a suspicious new hotel guest: Elana Vesper. The clock is ticking as Elizabeth and Freddy struggle to figure out whether Elana is merely a pawn or a player in the plot to revive the spirit of Gracella. If that wasn’t enough, Elizabeth suspects she is coming into her own special powers—and she’s fearful it might lead her right into Gracella’s vicious web.
It’s wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler’s inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers’ adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo’s home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House—and themselves.
Welcome back to the irresistible world of Greenglass House where thirteen-year-old Milo is, once again, spending the winter holidays stuck in a house full of strange guests who are not what they seem. There are fresh clues to uncover as friends old and new join in his search for a mysterious map and a famous smuggler’s lost haul.
When Miss Lana makes an Accidental Bid at the Tupelo auction and winds up the mortified owner of an old inn, she doesn’t realize there’s a ghost in the fine print. Naturally, Desperado Detective Agency (aka Mo and Dale) opens a paranormal division to solve the mystery of the ghost’s identity. They’ve got to figure out who the ghost is so they can interview it for their history assignment (extra credit). But Mo and Dale start to realize that the Inn isn’t the only haunted place in Tupelo Landing. People can also be haunted by their own past. As Mo and Dale handily track down the truth about the ghost (with some help from the new kid in town), they discover the truth about a great many other people, too.
A laugh out loud, ghostly, Southern mystery that can be enjoyed by readers visiting Tupelo Landing for the first time, as well as those who are old friends of Mo and Dale.
HOTELS AND MOTELS ON TV
Gilmore girls features a hotel as a central setting. In later seasons, Lorelai and Sooki’s Inn, and even Lorelai’s chain hotel, are utopian settings. Even though things apparently get stressful, it is still to be seen as a glamorous job being Lorelai, who never seems to actually be doing much. (She’s said to be doing much.) The kitchen is always overflowing with food, much like in a scene from Brambly Cottage. Melissa McCarthy does a great job of the slapstick, almost killing herself and others with her klutziness.
Schitt’s Creek features a rags-to-riches family who go bankrupt and are forced to move to the small town purchased as a birthday present joke. Mother and father share a bedroom right through the wall from their grown son and daughter, plunging them back into adolescence.
Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) is the British ancestor of Schitts Creek and if you look closely, you’ll see a lot of the same gags and comedic structure in common. I don’t know if the creators of Schitts Creek were influenced by Fawlty Towers — it’s hard to say, because the comedic structure employed can be seen across many sit-coms, whether set in a motel/hotel or otherwise.
Road trip stories will likely include a hotel or motel or horror inn somewhere along the journey, as part of the plot if nothing else.
The Lobster (2015) disturbed me. In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.
This idyllic pool scene in Thelma & Louise juxtaposes against what just happened. The grazes on Thelma’s knees become visible to the audience after she lies down, reminding us that this is no idyll.
No Country For Old Men has permanently ruined me for motels that look like this (most of them) and also for people standing right outside a dark room with the hallway light on — worse when they switch the light off.
Hell Hotel — scary and possibly abandoned hotels. I include one of these in our story app Hilda Bewildered.
Inn Security — the bit in a story where the hero is super tired (probably because of some big struggle) and goes to rest in an inn, but is woken up by the inn security in the middle of the night for some reason.
‘If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens.’ With these words the shrewd young proprietress of a modest Swiss hotel opens her account of the remarkable day-to-day events in her establishment. Little escapes here eye, still less her ear; for she is a good listener, and ‘people come to confide in you. They tell you things they would not tell their own parents and friends, not even their lawyers and doctors’.
The period is the late 1940s. Many of Mme Bonnard’s patrons are on the run from some real or imagined horror: from the Russians, from the dreaded Labour Government, from a husband bent on murder, from loneliness or madness…
Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: Why don’t you swallow broken glass. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.
In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.
When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?
When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.
At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.
But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:
a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)
a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting. In many stories we don’t know exactly how long something is meant to take, and we are given no point in time. In that case we might say ‘atemporal’. Highly symbolic stories tend to be atemporal, to emphasis their universality and the state of dreaming, which is unbound by time (and space).
a story’s place in space — On a continuum: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
People are like cities: We all have alleys and gardens and secret rooftops and places where daisies sprout between the sidewalk cracks, but most of the time all we let each other see is is a postcard glimpse of a skyline or a polished square. Love lets you find those hidden places in another person, even the ones they didn’t know were there, even the ones they wouldn’t have thought to call beautiful themselves.
Hilary T. Smith (Wild Awake)
forests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers andmountains.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY
in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT
the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.
When talking about setting and conflict we might also talk about how the apparent setting lines up (or conflicts) with the reality of the setting once we really get to know it.
The fact is, settings wear narrative masks as much as characters do; the fairground an example of a ‘masked character’, or what we might also call a ‘Snail Under The Leaf’ setting, because all you need to do is scratch the surface of a perceived utopia and you get something completely different. Behind its glossy surface the fairground is always a very different beast, even if all that is is ‘not all that fun’. Suburbs and small towns are also commonly depicted as utopias with a dark side.
PERIOD — The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
DURATION — Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
LOCATION — Albuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
MANMADE SPACES — the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
NATURAL SETTINGS — the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization
PERIOD — The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
DURATION — Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
LOCATION — The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
MANMADE SPACES — the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
NATURAL SETTINGS — the Midwest plains
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.
The cinema’s master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliche-free zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give the world this dual pleasure.
When talking about places as characters in literature, the Latin term Genius loci is useful. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. If you ever come across a picture of a figure holding a bowl or a snake, that’s probably an ornament of the genius loci. (The plural is genii, by the way.) Light is important here. The genius loci is powered by the sun.
If you go to somewhere like Japan, or watch Japanese anime, you’ll see the Eastern equivalent, for example the butsudan in traditional Japanese homes. (A butsudan is a corner of a room where you put photos of dead loved ones and incense and food offerings.)
But in the West we mostly refer to ‘the spirit of the place’ rather than something that’s actively guarding.
The term used to refer specifically to gardens, but now can describe the spirit of any kind of place.
SETTING AS CHARACTER
Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.
What do people mean when they talk about setting as character?
To the list above, let’s add the following of any work:
Who else is there (apart from the main character)?
How are these characters interconnected?
What values do they share and disagree on?
Now to that fourth dimension: How is the setting a character in its own right? Let’s start with what makes a ‘character’.
They have to want something. (If they don’t seem to want anything, they have to at least actively resist something, otherwise there’s no story.) Almost every story guru talks about this — it’s so elemental in narrative theory that I’m surprised I wasn’t taught it in school.
Unless you subscribe to an olde worlde religion where you believe spirits exist in the river, in the mountains, in the trees, you probably agree that a physical setting doesn’t want anything — it just is.
However, there are certain aspects of setting — such as weather events — which can take on the persona of a monstrous character. A tornado behaves like a horror villain in its ‘single-minded’ wish to follow its course, caring not for the havoc its wreaks upon those in its path.
Hollywood is fond of odd-couple films, so you’ll be familiar with stories in which two contrasting characters are stuck together to achieve some kind of goal. Lethal Weapon, The African Queen, and Rush Hour are stand-out examples of that genre. Sometimes you get an odd-couple film which doesn’t contrast two characters — instead, it contrasts a character with their setting. This is known as a fish-out-of-water story. Beverly Hills Cop, City Slickers, Splash and so on.
When a setting is used to contrast a human character, the setting itself seems to take on human qualities, turning a story into a different take on the odd couple story. Hero against setting this time. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise, and sometimes it really does seem like nature itself is against you. In reality, the setting doesn’t ‘want’ anything, but when it rains six weekends in a row and you want to get out into the garden, it can seem like the weather has some sort of vendetta against you.
Writers can utilise the cognitive bias of anthropomorising natural events by juxtaposing the main character’s goals against natural events in the environment. Weather is a great one, but it might be a forest which characters can get lost in, or something much less dramatic, like a tall building which prevents an old man’s yard from getting any sun, thereby affecting his tomatoes.
The only way a setting can have a psychological shortcoming is if we’re talking about the collective shortcoming of the people who are there — its visitors or inhabitants. For instance, the insularity of a community who is forced to accommodate strangers, or the lack of community of a big city which is later forced to band together to fight a common evil.
If a setting is ‘gloomy’, that’s because the viewpoint character feels gloomy. Of course, in real life, a setting just is. If everything around you seems gloomy that’s because you’re seeing it that way. In fiction causality is presumed to work backwards — a character feels gloomy because the setting is gloomy. In earlier times in history, people really did think backwards in this way.
We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.
from “America’s Enduring Caste System”, NYT. A beautiful example of a house as metaphor for human history.
How does a setting have a moral shortcoming?
How does a setting treat ‘other’ characters badly? Your human characters can feel let down and abandoned by their home environment if they’ve dutifully tended to the land only to be faced with a drought which renders them unable to survive. In this way, farms can ‘betray’ farmers. Of course, it’s the farmers feeling this emotion. It’s entirely one-sided. That doesn’t matter in fiction.
In a disaster story like Twister, the setting creates the big struggle. But it doesn’t have to seem ‘proactive’ — a desert just sits there minding its own business, but because a desert is inhospitable to human life, any human who tries to walk across desert sands is going to find themselves in a big struggle against the desert.
Since this stage is inextricably linked to the ‘psychological shortcoming’ part of a story, the same holds true. A community of people can realise something at once, after some common big struggle. Or, maybe the community doesn’t realise anything, but the reader does.
To sum up, this portion of Cheryl Klein’s newsletter explains what most people mean when they talk about ‘setting as character’:
I would love any tips on how to make the setting come alive. Seems sometimes the setting is like a character.
I’d say treat the setting like a character, and try to develop it the way you would a character. Some questions to contemplate: What is the history of this place? Write out a timeline of it. What did it look like before any beings lived on/in it—its landscape, its climate? If it’s a human-made place (e.g. a house or a business or a town), who built it, and for what purpose, and why at that location? Who has occupied this place since, and how have they used it? If there were a “spirit of the place,” what would that spirit be like, and how would it have reacted to each of these occupants? Think of at least three specific details for each of its historical iterations: the kind of flora and fauna that dwelled there, a game played there, the surnames of the families that lived there. Which of those details have survived into the present day of your story?
BRINGING A SETTING TO LIFE
Write about the people who live(d) there.
Write about how the setting either props up or opposes humans who enter its territory.
Individual writers create their own regular tricks to evoke the feeling that a setting is alive.
Annie Proulx is a master at this. For example, Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit. Below she describes a snowy, sleety, windy scene in which a family of men are about to go out hunting:
Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.
Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but Proulx using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive, and also like it’s antagonistic. I’d say the technique of manipulating standard grammar is related to personification, but not quite.
If you’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Matt Bird has a blog post about why (rather than how) Westover turns her mountain into a character.
“Lessard devotes much of the book to exploring what she terms America’s ‘atopia,’ our vast, seemingly unplanned, inchoate, exurban sprawl, which remains to her largely inscrutable and tragic. She writes about such places from what you might call an exalted literary remove. The mode is epistolary, poetic, occasionally honest to a fault.”
The way in which place interacts with human beings is one of the focal points in philosophy, so if you want to know more about that, philosophy is the place to go. For example, Heidegger coined the phrase Dasein to describe the state of ‘being-in-the-world’.
House symbolism is an interesting way of looking at a story. Have you noticed that houses as depicted in Western picture books tend to look the same? Two storied, bedrooms upstairs, slightly untidy but still Pinterest-worthy? There’s a reason for this. Each part of a house is symbolically unique. Gaston Bachelard talks about this in his famous book on architecture and philosophy, The Poetics of Space.
Some commentators (e.g. Scherner) interpret houses in dreams as stand-ins for the human body. The windows, doors and entrances are the entrances into the body cavities. The facades are smooth or provided with balconies and projections to which to hold. In anatomy the body openings are sometimes called the body-portals.
There is a problematic trope in which the large house correlates to a large, overbearing woman. The trope intersects with fatphobia and misogyny. For an example of this trope see the children’s animated feature film Monster House. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is another example of the same trope.
I thought our minds are very much like a house. That’s the metaphor I used for this book.
Home As Metonym For Family
In the middle ages houses were simply places to seek refuge and sleep. There was no conception of children, and no concept of family in connection to this place of crude shelter. Today we think of home quite differently. We strive to make it comfortable (another newish concept) and we strive to fill it with the people closest to us.
Dwellings in fantasy don’t always look like the rectangular structure we know and love.
For example, Bilbo’s circular house feels particularly cosy, in stark contrast to the jagged mountains in the distance.
Do you have a dream house that exists only inside your head? Perhaps it’s somewhere you hope to build one day, or a mixture of great spaces you’ve been to in your lifetime. If you were asked questions about this dream house, I wonder how specific you could get?
How many bedrooms does it have?
How does one get from one bedroom to another?
Where do the inhabitants keep their clothes?
What would I find in the larder?
Which direction does it face?
If I flew into the air above your dream house, what does the surrounding area look like?
As Gaston Bachelard says, quoting Rilke in The Poetics of Space, those of us who keep dreamt-up houses in our heads haven’t worked out the details. Details such as: How does one get from one room to another without a connected corridor?
[The imagined dream house] is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.
Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in The Poetics Of Space
The house I had imagined inside my head wouldn’t necessarily work. And the architecture of the house is essential to the plot, which is certainly not true of many other picture books.
I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper.
Once I’d sketched a layout of the apartment, illustrations progressed at a faster pace*. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.
(By the way, I decided the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)
Header illustration is the classic picture book house, from The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion, 1959; illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham.
Of all the stories you loved in childhood, which of the houses would you most like to live in? Was it, by chance, a ‘bustling’ environment? Was it quirky or intriguing or very large?
The dark, terrifying house contrasts the warm, welcoming house important to children’s stories with a home-away-home structure. Without a home base, modern stories cannot have happy endings.
Interestingly, a Medieval audience wouldn’t have thought in this way. In Medieval Europe, the house did not equal the home, and shelters were just that — places to sleep. If there was furniture, it wasn’t made for comfort. The very concept of comfort is a modern one. Even until Jane Austen’s time, ‘comfort’ as a word was used quite differently and meant strengthening, support and consolation rather than the modern experience of sitting in a nice, padded chair. The concept of ‘child’ is also modern. In the Medieval era, offspring were sent out into the world as apprentices from about the age of seven. Most people lived in shacks but not houses; houses were not used as metonyms for family as they very much are today.
Scary houses are not always dark. White gothic exists, such as depicted in the cold house below — opulence without comfort. Modern films and TV shows achieve a similar effect by making use of large houses made largely of windows.
The dream cottage exists near woods, in that liminal space between forest and savannah.
The house suppresses Fanny’s dreams and tries to force her to settle in marriage. Once Fanny is in the house she finds out that her immediate family is dirty chaotic and classless. Fanny is left in conflict over whether she should rush to marry her suiter Henry or wait for her true love Edmond. The house represents Fanny’s past and future if she is to move forward Fanny must endure the uncomfortability of living in the house.
Which of the following cottages would you like to sleep in under moonlight and why all of them?
When you think of a cottage today, you’re probably thinking of a smaller than average house which charming, rustic decoration, perhaps honeysuckle grows outside. There’s probably enough land outside for a well-tended garden. But the word cottage hasn’t always referred to the size and mood of the house. First cottages were small, then they were quite large, now they are small again.
late 14c., “a cot, a humble habitation,” as of a farm-laborer, from Old French cote “hut, cottage” + Anglo-French suffix -age (according to OED the whole probably denotes “the entire property attached to a cote”).
The main thing about those really old cottages: cotters lived there. Cotters were farm labourers or tenants who occupied a small house on a larger property in return for labour.
The term ‘cottage industry’ later meant an industry run from home. In order to run a business from home, the house has to be pretty large, actually.
Later, in America, ‘cottage’ referred to how many servants were employed at the house. From there, the word ‘cottage’ once again became associated with ‘small’:
In 1870, fully 60 percent of all the gainfully employed women in the United States worked as servants. Andrew Jackson Downing differentiated between houses and cottages according to the number of servants that they contained–anything with less than three servants was a cottage. Nevertheless, as early as 1841, Catherine Beecher was arguing that more compact houses were necessary since “as the prosperity of this Nation increases, good domestics will decrease.” Indeed, this is what happened, and by 1900, there were less than half as many servants in the United States as in England; more than 90 percent of American families employed no domestics.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Cottages traditionally have thick walls, well suited to cold climates but not to hot, humid ones as they’re inclined to trap the air inside. Unlike a cabin, which is made of wood (probably logs), cottages are made of a variety of different materials, depending on the region and economic situation.
People from far away, from Boston and Philadelphia, discovered the beautiful bay. They bought up land near the water and built large houses that they called cottages.
Barbara Cooney, Island Boy
Cooney demonstrates in the passage above that the cottage — the true cottage, not the grand house disguised as cottage — is the picture book ideal. Happiness is found in a cottage. Whereas the large house is often cold and lonely and scary, the cottage is never so.
In a cottage you can achieve the Christian ideal of making do with little. A cottage is unable to house superfluous possessions.
THE DREAM BUNGALOW
A bungalow is a low house having only one storey or, in some cases, upper rooms set in the roof, typically with dormer windows. However, the word came from South East Asia (Bengal, to be specific), where it actually means a detached house with more than one storey. Unlike a cottage, they don’t have those thick walls. You might say a bungalow is a subcategory of cottage but for tropical climates.
Within Britain, you’re more likely to find cottages inland but bungalows beside the sea.
Here in Australia, the California bungalow was popular after the first world war, when Australians started to watch Hollywood movies and obviously liked the look of this kind of house. Both California and much of Australia are well-suited to this design, with its verandah stretching most of the way around the building.It is raised above ground by a metre or more so that the dwelling does not easily flood. Steps lead up to the front door, and in most cases a large veranda surrounds the exterior of the home so you can sit on the porch to catch a tropical breeze. The interior only uses one level adorned with wide hallways and large windows to help distribute air throughout the home.
Some of them have attics, but they’re just as likely to have a dormer window, or just a vent designed to look like one. (That’s why they’re called one and a half storey houses.)
New Zealand has a lot of California bungalows, too, built around the same time.
But a luxurious house like the one below is also called a bungalow.
Cabins can be rustic and simple or they can be luxurious. The most luxurious are luxurious in a very specific kind of way: luxury reminiscent of turn of the (20th) century wealth, especially the decades between 1890 and 1930.
The log cabin setting…has the affected, cedar-stump rusticity that used to characterize rich men’s hunting lodges at the end of the [19th] century.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Rybczynski noted that that the 1980s version of a luxurious cabin left out the mounted animal heads on the walls. More lately, the stuffed mounted head on the wall is a feature of horror and comedy settings — and best of all, horror comedies.
The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the resident’s lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways. Along the way we encounter the city’s most infamous Madam, a seance, a civil rights lawyer, a bone mermaid, a famous Beat poet, a notorious Edinburgh gang, a spy, the literati, artists, thinkers, strippers, the spirit world – until a cosmic agent finally exposes the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close hurtles the reader through personal and global history – eerily reflecting modern life today.
Across all forms of storytelling the beach functions as an alternative, liberating space, almost a heterotopia. The beach is also a liminal space, partly because it forms the boundary between land and sea.
The beach as a tourist destination is also a liminal space because visitors can “enjoy experiences and feelings that are often repressed in conventional public spaces” (Andriotis, 2010). Some beaches around the world tolerate nudity and drug use, making these “marginal paradises where no laws exist” even more of a drawcard to tourists seeking a completely different experience from the one they’d have at home.
The beach takes characters away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city.
The beach is a space in which characters explore their own relationships to life and death. (Katherine Mansfield short stories.) In common with liminal spaces more generally, there is a thin edge (or veil) between the light side and the dark side (or life and death, summer and winter etc).
THE BEACH IN ROMANTIC COMEDIES
Within romantic comedy, the setting of the beach has come to function as a highly potent and privileged setting, evolving into a generic ‘magic space’ that sanctions and protects those desiring love, while allowing for certain forms of speech involving intimacy and the (sexual) self that cannot be uttered elsewhere.
Time and again, the sea functions as an alternative, liberating space away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city, constituting an arena where characters can find intimacy and give themselves over to love in ways impossible elsewhere.
The sea also suggests the elusiveness of everlasting love. The meaning of the sea in romantic comedy is not entirely stable. It is used to endorse romantic notions about ‘authentic’ love and natural ‘soulmates’. But that’s not all: a certain paradox is at play in the genre’s use of the shoreline, since the liminal space of the sea/beach stands simultaneously both for enduring natural wonder that will outlast each of us, and the very essence of evanescence. Always changing, never fixed, inescapably different from one day to the next, it is a reminder of the capriciousness of love and life, an expressive signifier which by its very nature reminds us of the transience of all things.
notes from the abstract of Sea of love: place, desire and the beaches of romantic comedy by Deborah Jermyn; Janet McCabe
THE BEACH AS WOMB (UTOPIA)
There are also obvious connections between swimming in the water and being housed safely inside your mother’s body. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way the sea can transgressively return us to a primitive time:
In the womb we swim in salty water, sprouting residual fins and tails and rudimentary gills, turning in our little oceans, queer beasts that might yet become whales or fish or humans. We first sense the world through the fluid of our mother’s belly; we hear through the sea inside her. We speak of bodies of water, Herman Melville wrote of “the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin”.
And when we return to swim beneath that skin, our identities and stories are blurred and reinvented. Jellyfish – ancient evolutionary survivors that predate and may yet outlive us – change sex as they mature; cuttlefish and moray eels slip from one gender and back again, shape-shifting in the alien deep. Ever since we began, we have found an affinity in this mutative place and its sense of the sublime.
The symbolic function of the beach in a love tragedy seems to be exactly the same as it is in a romantic comedy, with emphasis on the ephemeral nature of everything, including sublime happiness.
Roger Ebert understood the reason for the popularity of Nicholas Sparks love tragedies:
‘ The Lucky One’ is at its heart a romance novel, elevated however by Nicholas Sparks’ persuasive storytelling. Readers don’t read his books because they’re true, but because they ought to be true.
THE BEACH AS SETTING IN GOTHIC FICTION
Traditionally, gothic settings contain old buildings, misty moors and the like.
In a young country like New Zealand there are no medieval castles. However, there is always the beach. The beaches of NZ have a haunted history which takes the place of Europe’s castles and dungeons.
The beach can therefore function as a gothic setting in its own right.
The coast can have a binary role:
be home to all sorts of strange creatures and happenings
We associate the beach with warm, sunny weather. To change up the weather is to offer an ironic take on archetypal beach setting.
THE BEACH AS HORROR ARENA
It follows naturally from the life and death proximity that the beach as a setting also functions as a horror space.
THE BEACH AS CORNUCOPIA
STORIES WHICH END AT THE BEACH
Because the beach is such a symbolic place, ending a character’s journey beside the sea is left with the audience as a proxy for so much more. Katherine Mansfield does it in “The Wind Blows“. After a long, windy day, the teenage girl main character ends up looking out at the sea.
Richard Ayoade has his main character run to the seaside and there he is joined by his problematic girlfriend. They stand in the water together.
This isn’t so dissimilar to Thelma & Louise, who end up in the canyon, but together. (The canyon was created by a body of water.)
The French Film 400 Blows also ends with the main character running to the sea. The outtake is a freeze frame of his face.
No-bot The Robot With No Bottom by Sue Hendra is a picture book example. A robot loses his bottom, and goes off on a Holy Grail plot to find it. Many things in the world look like robot’s big red missing bottom and he fails to find it, sinking into despair. Here’s where the title earns itself: He is no longer a robot but a no-bot. He runs to the beach. Why? Because that’s what characters often do when they fall into a pit of despair and are all out of ideas. (Yes, he does find his bottom at the beach. At first he thinks some rabbits are using it as a boat, but it turns out it’s being used as a bucket to make sandcastles.)
The story of a Native American girl struggling to find her joy again.
It’s been a hard year for Maisie Cannon, ever since she hurt her leg and could not keep up with her ballet training and auditions.
Her blended family is loving and supportive, but Maisie knows that they just can’t understand how hopeless she feels. With everything she’s dealing with, Maisie is not excited for their family midwinter road trip along the coast, near the Makah community where her mother grew up.
But soon, Maisie’s anxieties and dark moods start to hurt as much as the pain in her knee. How can she keep pretending to be strong when on the inside she feels as roiling and cold as the ocean?
My interpretation of this rush-to-the-seaside as a story ending: The seaside is functioning similarly to how crossroads function narratively. The main character has come to the edge of a chunk of their life just as they have come to the edge of the land, things are about to change completely and the flat bed of the ocean afford them a view of the grand scheme of things. And since the sea is scary, we are left with the sense that their life from here on will include danger — storms, choppy waters and no guarantee that they will get to where they want to end up.
For an example of a (wordless) picture book featuring an ocean described as almost being a character in its own right, see Wave (파도야 놀자) by Suzy Lee (2009).
TRIP TO THE BEACH AS FILLER EPISODE IN LONG-RUNNING TV SERIES
Many long-running TV shows have an episode where characters visit the beach. This episode is often considered ‘filler’ content and includes its own tropes. See Beach Episode at TV Tropes. More than ‘filler’, beach scenery offers a novel setting for viewers. Novelty is hard to come by in long-running shows.
Header painting by Atkinson Grimshaw – Scarborough Beach