A sense of place…

Currently I am in the middle of reading Tragic Life Stories by Steve Duffy (review coming soon) and one of the most marked aspects of the stories is their well-developed sense of place – in other words, where all the action is going on. The roads and towns mentioned in Tantara, for example, are all real-world locations, in north Wales. This got me to thinking – does including a bona fide location in a horror story make it appear all the more realistic, and does it make that seismic jolt necessary in such tales even more of a shock when it comes?

Certainly judging from Mr. Duffy’s writing, the answer to these questions appears to be a resounding yes. Maybe it helps that, coming from Wales myself, I have heard of these particular places, even though I have never actually been there. His descriptions of the landscape, even in general terms, is something I readily identify with and therefore I can empathise strongly with its familiarity and ordinariness. I can very much see in my mind’s eye the kinds of locales Steve is delineating, having grown up in very similar surroundings. That, in combination with the kind of characters drawn in the narrative, help to make the tale being woven that much more convincing.

This is, perhaps, why I find epic fantasy less satisfying, because more often than not all the action takes place on an imaginary world (oddly, though, I have never had the same trouble with science-fiction in that regard -and I’m not sure why that should be). The only epic fantasy story-world I enjoy on a regular basis is the Lord of the Rings’ Middle-earth. I think in part that’s because of Professor Tolkien’s meticulously detailed descriptions of the landscapes that his characters find themselves in; I really do feel as if I am ‘experiencing’ the same things as those characters are. Plus, there’s a distinct sense that that terrain they’re going through is described only from the viewpoint of what one person or a party of people could see. There’s still an awareness that there’s a greater world around them, however, but their only concern are their immediate surroundings.

Many stories are based in ‘generic’ landscapes, verbally scuplted to render service to the needs of the particular story being told. A good writer will successfully transport the reader to that place, and inject the requisite atmosphere and feeling into it to make it ‘believable’, regardless of whether it’s based in the real world or exists purely in his/her mind. Most often, however, the locational tropes are themselves the problem – in other words, the very place where the scenario is set, because of its overuse and unoriginality, makes any kind of realism, or suspension of disbelief, impossible. Imaginative use of familiar components of everyday environments, however, can make the horror that much more unsettling.

Of course, if it were that easy, then everyone would be writing a bestseller almost every day. But that’s why I think that some writers, by using real places and trying to find the darkness hiding within the light, are more successful at generating true horror than others. Their stories are imbued with that unshakeable feeling that ‘I know these places, and I know that this could happen to me’. That’s where the power lies, ultimately: that skill of having got under the skin, and very deeply so. That the sharply defined chiaroscuro they have focused in on is where the horror is to be found lurking.

This is why I sometimes feel, when reading a story based in a location I know about, much more unnerved than if it took place in a stereotypical, imaginary setting. That’s not always the case, I know, but generally speaking, I think stories set in the real world, in towns and cities that are drawn from life, are more pointed. That still depends, of course, on the skill of the writer – you still have to possess a knack of drawing your readers in willingly into the world you’re creating, and not having to drag them in there kicking and screaming. Equally, if you’re a good writer, you need not necessarily have to base your stories in the real-world – your skill with words and painting verbal pictures is enough to do the same job.

For me, then, this is the secret to successful storytelling – writing stories using the places that you, yourself, are most at home in, the places where you would least want to see horror of any kind happening. And that would be because there’s nothing more horrific than the normal and routine turning out to be the most dangerous place for you to be.

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