Atmosphere in Weird Fiction
Clark Ashton Smith, 1937
The term atmosphere, in application to fiction, is often used in a somewhat vague or restricted sense. I believe that it can be most profitably defined as the collective impression created by the entire mass of descriptive, directly evocative details in any given story (what is sometimes known as “local color”) together with all that is adumbrated, suggested or connoted through or behind these details. It can be divided roughly into two elements: the kinetic and the potential; the former comprising all the effects of overt surface imagery, and the latter all the implications, hints, undertones, shadows, nuances, and the verbal associations, and various effects of rhythm, onomatopoeia and phonetic pattern which form a more consistent and essential feature of good prose-writing than is commonly realized. Many people would apply the word atmosphere only to the elements defined here-above as potential; but I prefer the broader definition; since, after all, the most intangible atmospheric effects depend more or less upon the kinetic ones and are often difficult to dissociate wholly from them through analysis. An attempt to achieve purely potential writing might result, I suspect, in something not altogether dissimilar to the effusions of Gertrude Stein! Or, at least, it would lead to an obscurity such as was practiced by the French Symboliat poet, Mallarme, who is said to have revised his poems with an eye to the elimination of kinetic statement whenever possible.
A few examples of the use of atmospheric elements, taken from the work of recognized masters, should prove more illuminative than any amount of generalization. Take, for instance, this paragraph from Ambrose Bierce’s tale, “The Death of Halpin Frayser”, one of the most overwhelmingly terrific horror, tales ever written:
‘He thought that he was walking along a dusty road that showed white in the gathering darkness of the summer night. Whence and whither it led, and why he traveled it, he did not know, though all seemed simple and natural, as is the way in dreams; for in the Land Beyond the Bed surprises cease from troubling and the Judgement is at rest. Soon he came to the parting of the ways; leading from the highway was a road less traveled, having the appearance, indeed, of having been long abandoned, because, he thought, it led to something evil; yet he turned into it without hesitation, impelled by some mysterious necessity.’
Note here the potential value of the dream-like clauses. The element of mystery is heightened by the unknown reason for traveling the road, by the “something evil” which has no form or name, and the unparticularized necessity for taking the abandoned way. The ambiguity, the lack of precise definition, stimulate the reader’s imagination and evoke shadowy meanings beyond the actual words.
In the paragraph immediately following this, the potential elements are even more predominant:
‘As he pressed forward he became conscious that his way was haunted by malevolent existences, invisible, and whom he could not definitely figure to his mind. From among the trees on either side he caught broken whispers in a strange tongue which yet he partly understood. They seemed to him fragmentary utterances of a monstrous conspiracy against his body and his soul.’
Here, through the generalized character of malevolence imputed to things unseen and half-heard, images of almost illimitable spectral menace arc conjured up. It should not be inferred, however, that precise statements and sharply outlined images are necessarily lacking in potential quality. On the contrary, they may possess implications no less frightful or mysterious than the wildly distorted shadow cast by some monster seen in glaring light.
I missed out.
I never read Hemingway when I was young. I’m glad I fixed that, because I was missing out.
In Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, you quickly become acquainted with his powerful use of subtext and rapid characterization.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, you can watch the writer peel away the layers of his characters, and his world.
I picked up 7 powerful lessons on writing more immersive dialogue. Because Hemingway was more than “another master of the writing craft…”
…he was a pathfinder.
Let me show you what I’m talking about:
Warning: this contains spoilers for Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Hills Like White Elephants.
Hemingway’s 7 Tricks to Write More Immersive Dialogue
I started reading For Whom the Bell Tolls with some friends, and I was struck – almost immediately – by one of the aspects of Hemingway’s writing that you…
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Dear Book Lovers and Ardent Readers,
RE: A quick note from the writer’s desk…
Working on my novella The Diary of Xander Tully. It is a frightening tale set in the years before America had become a nation, up in the woods of what is now the border between Michigan antd Canada, where French-Canadian settlers have started a fledgling colony led by two old families.
Xander Tulley is a stranger here. His origins are not known to the community. But he is a clever man; he shows the world a practical and rational side; a lover of facts and the path they reveal to truth. But Tulley has other sides. He hails from a foreign land, across the sea. His people are tall, fair of hair and pale of skin. He appears as an artisan printer in the colony of River Raisin, where the villagers have
a respect for the past and their heritage (one of the families traces its roots all the way back to a French king).
When Tulley becomes curious about a tale of an odd grouping of stones located in the deep woods that begin about a mile northeast of the village, he is drawn to the site. There is no visible path to the outcropping, and reaching it is difficult unless you know the woods, and the way. The stones circumscribe what appears to be a gash in the earth, an opening some five paces across at its widest. The villagers don‘t appear to know of the spot, its history, or the fact that a grove of trees surrounds the area in almost a perfect circle. They are deciduous trees, “evergreens”—-and they are the only trees in the wood that turn the color of glowing embers when autumn steals the light from summer and creeps toward the winter solstice.
The story of the woods is old. Some things—some geographies, secrets—-some stories—-lay quiet and undisturbed for a reason. Xander Tulley has been dreaming about the burning trees. His preoccupation with learning the history of the Wood leads him to seek out an indiginous tribe that once dwelt near the area, but has since moved higher north. It is in the tribe’s legends, wrapped tight within in an ancient language, that Tulley begins to see a story form in the forgotten shadows of time, one that once breathed life, and should now be left alone.
Xander Tulley reaches a proverbial fork in the road, where he may learn more about himself than he ever cared to know; and where he will be faced with making the hardest decision he will ever have to make.
Stay tuned for more!
Some Thoughts on Using Those Little ## Signs…
Knowing what tag’s to use to find other readers, or to find readers for your books is important. Here’s a short list of popular tags to help you out.
- #(genre) – #horror or #suspense or #romance generally will come up with books in that genre. Granted #horror will also bring up some stuff vastly unrelated and genre tags are far from book specific.
- #Books – Books.
- #Bookshelves or #Bookshelf — People generally posting pictures or talking about books. #BookPhotography goes kind of hand in hand having pictures of books.
- #KindleBargains or #KindleBargain – Deals on kindle books.
- #BookChat – Is a hashtag for talking about books. You could also use #LitFict for talking about fiction books.
- #GoodReads — Are you on Good Reads? Connect with other GoodReads Members with this tag.
- #GreatReads – People sharing great reads on Twitter.
- #Kindle – People talking about kindle. This gets a lot of attention and your…
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