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’ withiin a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home. Continue reading “Hotels and Motels In Stories”
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:
- PERIOD – 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.)
- DURATION – 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.
- LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
- MANMADE SPACES – towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
- NATURAL SETTINGS – forests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.
- 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’.
If applied to Breaking Bad:
- 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
If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:
- 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.
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? Continue reading “How can setting be a character?”
How is your country generally depicted in fiction, by writers outside your country? New Zealand in fiction, not surprisingly, is the stock country for ‘a place really, really far away.’
Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand.
– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
In the English light-hearted drama Last Tango In Halifax, a relative who came from New Zealand to England had made a REALLY big effort to be at a wedding celebration, and therefore his very presence was amazing.
In Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (or Perfect Snogging, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on), the main character’s father is sent away to New Zealand to work, which is a plot device to keep him really far away.
New Zealand sometimes even gets a mention in American fiction. Even in Breaking Bad! In this case, New Zealand is the stock country that ‘no one knows anything about’ and is the perfect place for Americans to go if they want a new start. Forget that in order for an American to enter New Zealand with intent to live you actually need a visa. (Works both ways!)
Jane Margolis: Do you know what this is? [refers to a bag full of money]
Jesse Pinkman: It’s a whole lot of cheddar.
Jane Margolis: This is freedom. This is saying, “I can go anywhere I want. I can be anybody.” What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? South America? Europe? Australia?
Jesse Pinkman: Is New Zealand part of Australia?
Jane Margolis: New Zealand is New Zealand.
Jesse Pinkman: Right on. New Zealand. That’s where they made “Lord of the Rings”. I say we just move there, yo. I mean, you can do your art. Right? Like, you can paint the local castles and shit. And I can be a bush pilot.
– from Breaking Bad, penultimate episode of season 2
Sometimes, though, ‘distance’ equals ‘stupidity’ or ‘naivety’. Which makes me wonder what Americans think New Zealand teens do with their time. Because New Zealanders are watching the same shows, listening to the same music, wearing the same fashions, more or less. I’m pretty sure Kiwis know more about American culture than the other way around.
That’s because America has a long history of exporting its culture, while admitting very little in.
What is New Zealand really like?
Here’s an article from a European whose version of New Zealand — from books introduced by his Kiwi girlfriend– turned out to be quite different from the New Zealand he met when he eventually visited the country.
As a writing exercise, describe your own living room, or the living room of someone you know. For inspiration, I offer the following examples from literature.
EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY DAPHNE DU MAURIER
We were all sitting in the long, low room at Farthings, darker than usual because of the rain. The french windows gave very little light, chopped as they were in small square panes that added to the beauty of the house from without, but inside had all the appearance of prison bars, oddly depressing.
The grandfather clock in the corner ticked slowly and unevenly; now and again it gave a little cough, hesitating momentarily, like an old man with asthma, then ploughed on again with quiet insistence. The fire in the basket grate had sunk rather low; the mixture of coke and coal had caked in a solid lump, giving no warmth; and the logs that had been flung carelessly on top earlier in the afternoon smouldered in dull fashion, needing the bellows to coax them into life. The papers were strewn about the floor, and the empty cardboard covers of gramophone records were amongst them, along with a cushion that had fallen from the sofa. These things may have added to Charles’s irritation. He was an orderly man, with a methodical mind.
— from the opening scene of The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier, 1949.
In the short passage above du Maurier conveys a lot of information.
- The reader learns right away that this house — and the people who live there — are not like the landscape outside. The house looks good from the other side but when you’re in it, not so much. The apparent utopia, symbolised by a single house.
- The house is compared to a prison
- The grandfather clock is personified, which in turn makes the actual people seem part of the room. Since the clock is ‘like an old man with asthma’ we know something is about to end and another thing begin.
- We know the temperature of the room
- We have a sense of the light
- We have enough detail to place this room in its approximate time period — the bellows, the open fire which uses coke and coal for fuel, and the gramophone records all indicate this setting is mid-20th century
- Words such as strewn, flung, empty, smouldered and coax work together to not only describe the room but some of its occupants.
- The room is juxtaposed with the first character introduced — the orderly Charles. This is the story’s initial conflict.
EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY ALICE MUNRO
Alice Munro focuses first on a single aspect of this space — the soft furnishings. Why is the carpet daunting? Perhaps because white carpet shows up stains. But because this is a Munro short story, we know that the ‘stain’ is heavily symbolic, beyond the actual carpet.
Grant caught sight of two layers of front-window curtains, both blue, one sheer and one silky, a matching blue sofa and a daunting pale carpet, various bright mirrors and ornaments. […]
Kitchens are great because everything in them feels symbolic. Knives are especially foreboding, even if they’re not used to murder anyone in the end.
On the kitchen counters there were all sorts of contrivances and appliances—coffeemaker, food processor, knife sharpener, and some things Grant didn’t know the names or uses of. All looked new and expensive, as if they had just been taken out of their wrappings, or were polished daily.
The viewpoint character’s response segues nicely from the thumbnail description, telling us more about him:
He thought it might be a good idea to admire things. He admired the coffeemaker she was using and said that he and Fiona had always meant to get one. This was absolutely untrue—Fiona had been devoted to a European contraption that made only two cups at a time.
We also learn about the woman he has come to visit:
“They gave us that,” she said. “Our son and his wife. They live in Kamloops. B.C. They send us more stuff than we can handle. It wouldn’t hurt if they would spend the money to come and see us instead.”
Grant said philosophically, “I suppose they’re busy with their own lives.”
— “The Bear Went Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro
My favourite detail comes further down, when Munro describes an ordinary kitchen object in gruesome terminology:
She poured the coffee into two brown-and-green ceramic mugs that she took from the amputated branches of a ceramic tree trunk that sat on the table.
All it took was that one word — amputated. Grant feels entirely cut off from his wife, who has dementia, and who is also having an affair inside the care facility.
The island is an ideal setting for creating a story in a social context. Like the ocean and outer space, the island is both highly abstract and completely natural. It is a miniature of the earth, a small piece of land surrounded by water. The island is, by definition, a separated place. This is why, in stories, it is the laboratory of man, a solitary paradise or hell, the place where a special world can be built and where new forms of living can be created and tested.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).
Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.
Island stories often involve a shipwreck.
They also generally involve fire building.
An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.
—Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932
In fact, although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread.
Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.
The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution. Tropical islands, with boggy marshes, humidity and jungle lifeforms are often associated in fiction with rogue scientists, carrying out experiments with life.
R.L. Stine did this in How I Got My Shrunken Head. Stine tells us only that the story takes place somewhere in ‘Southeast Asia’, and then the guide has a Spanish name, which makes the setting completely ambiguous.
Lisa A. Koosis also makes use of a tropical island setting in her book about cloning and bringing the dead back to life, Resurrecting Sunshine. Here she includes some details of the surrounding landscape, including native people who have a strong tradition of ghosts and prayer — putting me in mind of a Catholic Hispanic milieu.
Making The Most of Island Settings
In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.
- Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it. (Need)
- Send the characters to an island. (Desire)
- Create a new society based on different rules and values. (Desire)
- Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)
- Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)
- Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or self-revelation)
Well-known Dystopian Island Settings
- Lord Of The Flies
- Jurassic Park
- Cast Away
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
- Shutter Island
- The Bridge To Terabithia
- The Shipping News
- The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)
Well-known Utopian Island Settings
- Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.
- Anne Of Green Gables/Anne Of The Island — Prince Edward Island removes Anne completely from her former life, to the point where in the classic story she suffers no PTSD (unlike in a proposed remake).
- Robinson Crusoe — The most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primit.ve It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story.*
- Treasure Island — R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.
- The Lie Tree — Frances Hardinge created an apparent utopia in her award winning children’s novel.
*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
- Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
- The Light Between Oceans
- To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
- The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
- The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.
The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived htere and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.
— Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932
Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.
Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.
At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.
ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS
Tanglewood by Margaret Wild and Vivienne Goodman
Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.
Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.
Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)
Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.
The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.
The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.
When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)
Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.
Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”
Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.
But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.
The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
In our picturebook app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.
A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.
ISLANDS IN MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.
In pulp fiction islands are a recurring setting.
The Girl Of Ink And Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave — Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.
When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.
But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.
Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk — This story is set on a very small imaginary island within the realworld Elizabeth Islands, near where the author lives. The islands are described as beautiful — an apparent utopia, except when you live there you know that there are social rifts, and one of the islands was used as a leper colony. The same social problems as anywhere else. However, apart from the interpersonal issues, the islands are more utopia than dystopia. There’s an endless supply of food from nature (from the sea, from the garden), and mainland problems like the build-up to war don’t touch the inhabitants.
- There are bears and coyotes on the mainland, what Crow calls ‘real wilderness’. People holiday on the islands ostensibly to get out into the wild, but they’re actually protected.
CITIES AS ISLANDS
The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.
It can be a city.
The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.
As symbols in stories, consider the ocean as two distinct places: the surface and the deep.
The surface is the ultimate two-dimensional landscape, the flat table as far as the eye can see. This makes the ocean surface seem abstract while also being totally natural. This abstract flat surface, like a huge chessboard, intensifies the sense of the contest, a game of life and death played out on the grandest scale.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
But the thing about the ocean surface is, unlike the desert, you should be a little worried about what’s hiding underneath.
Moby-Dick — a great example of a character who the author sets us up to believe is going to be the hero, but then kills him off for some weird reason. Moby Dick has also been rewritten for children, as many of the classics have. See, for instance, the version by Geraldine McCaughrean.
Titanic — based loosely on historical events, with a great example of a refrigerator ending (you realise afterwards, when you’re looking in the fridge for a snack, that Rose probably could have saved Jack.)
Jaws — the film which revolutionised movie merchandising
Dead Calm — the Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill thriller
Bloodline — Cissy Spacek’s TV series about a black sheep brother who returns home
All Is Lost — the Robert Redford (almost) wordless movie
Open Water — a 2003 American psychological horror drama film loosely based on the true story of an American couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who in 1998 went out with a scuba diving group, Outer Edge Dive Company, on the Great Barrier Reef, and were accidentally left behind because the dive-boat crew failed to take an accurate headcount.
The Seaside Cottage
A house or cottage by the sea probably indicates a cosy setting but with an underlying threat of danger. After all, anything can come out of the sea.
The Seaside Holiday
When the story has Victorian tropes, the characters may well take a holiday near the sea at some stage, as to The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place, in book five. This is in keeping with Victorian ideas about health — without modern medicine, sometimes the best a doctor could recommend was a trip to the seaside. Even without any imminent death, a trip to the seaside was thought to have hugely restorative benefits. Ironic, then, when a restorative trip to the seaside results in near death, in a mystery which must be solved by the main characters.
The ocean deep is the ultimate three-dimensional landscape where all creatures are weightless and thus live at every level. This weightless, floating quality is a common element when the human mind imagines a utopia, which is why the ocean deep has often been the place of utopian dreamworlds.
But the ocean deep is also a terrifying graveyard, a great, impersonal force quietly grabbing anyone or anything on the surface and pulling it down to the infinite black depths. The ocean is the vast cavern where ancient worlds, prehistoric creatures, past secrets, and old treasure are swallowed up and lie waiting to be discovered.
— John Truby
Ocean Deep At The Pool (Children’s Literature)
Sometimes the excitement of the ocean can be achieved in a swimming pool which, to a child, can seem just as scary.
Ocean As Utopia
In stories for children, the underwater world is most often a type of utopia.
The Stream That Stood Still by Beverley Nichols
Modern audiences may not have heard of this story, the second of Nichols’ Magic Woodland trilogy, as it was first published in the 1940s, and hasn’t been made into a movie. The main message in it is that concerted action and goodwill of many weak creatures will sometimes overthrow a single, strong, well-armed tyrant. The underwater world is obtrusively humanised: the sticklebacks belong to a regiment, the minnows are a ladies’ finishing school. The fish have police and magistrates.
The Little Mermaid
Sponge-Bob Square Pants
The comedy in this TV series works (for both children and adults) because the social structure is mimetic of (North American) human society. The underwater setting allows for wacky characters, a novel setting and lots of gags based on sea creatures.
See my post on Ponyo for Miyazaki’s strong sea symbolism.
THE SEA CAVE (LITTORAL CAVE)
Another wonderful advantage of sea settings is that the writer might make use of the caves formed by the nearby wave action to turn the ocean into a vast labyrinth where characters can easily get lost both laterally and vertically. One of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in fiction is the scene in The Beach by Alex Garland where the main character is swimming underground and almost runs out of breath while lost in the network of sea caves.
House symbolism is an interesting way of looking at a story. Most stories have a home in there somewhere.
Some (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.
Dwellings in fantasy don’t always look like the rectangular structure we know and love.
Bilbo’s circular house feels particularly cosy, in stark contrast to the jagged mountains in the distance.
Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.
A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk), and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.
The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.
ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL
There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)
Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.
Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.
By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.
A MINIATURE WORLD
The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little. There are specific narrative reasons for making use of miniatures.
A miniature has three main uses in a story:
1. It lets the audience see the world of the story as a whole.
2. It allows the author to express various aspects, or facets, of a character.
3. It shows the exercise of power, often of tyranny.
— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.
JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING
The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:
There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.
Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.
There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.
Opposite the warm house, the terrifying house is usually a house that has gone over the line from cocoon to prison. In the best stories of this kind, the house is terrifying because it is an outgrowth of the great weakness and need of the character. This house is the hero’s biggest fear made manifest. In the extreme, the character’s mind has rotted in some way, and the house too is in ruins. But it is no less powerful a prison.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…
But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw — there’s something definitely spooky here. And of course your warm house is spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.
WEIRD THING I DON’T GET
What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book? Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.
Across all forms of storytelling, the beach functions as an alternative, liberating space, almost a heterotopia.
The beach takes characters away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city. (love stories, see below.)
The beach contains hidden treasure and fantastical elements. (Paul Jennings short stories.)
The beach is a space in which characters explore their own relationships to life and death. (Katherine Mansfield short stories.)
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
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 BEACH IN LOVE TRAGEDIES
In case you hadn’t heard, Nicholas Sparks does not like his masterful works of art to be labelled ‘chick-lit’; he prefers the term ‘love tragedy’.
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.
THE BEACH AS SETTING IN GOTHIC FICTION
Traditionally, gothic storyworlds 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 binar yrole:
- offers restoration
- be home to all sorts of strange creatures and happenings
In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.
- Tim Winton
- Robert Drewe
- Peter Temple
These novels are about men who retreat to the coast. The atmosphere is dark and brooding. They have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. The landscape feels evil.
For more on this see: Does the coast belong in the Australian Gothic Landscape by Christine Tondorf.
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 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 itself 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.
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.
Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
— Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.
Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.
Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.
This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.
The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
- The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
- Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
- Brokeback Mountain
- Cold Mountain
- The Shining
- The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
- high desert landscapes
- buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
- eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.