In what ways can setting be used to establish the sub-genre of psychological horror in a Post-Apocalyptic novel?
A school is an institution of learning and development, yet what is happening within this environment in THE NEST is the exact opposite as social decency degenerates within a post-apocalyptic setting. ‘There is nothing so shocking as innocence defiled or order destroyed’ (Morrell 2006, p160). In similar works of horror or of drama in which familiar, everyday settings are destroyed to drive the plot forward, the characters caught within are forced to deal with their mental anguish as the world they know is torn apart. A typical grocery store in Stephen King’s THE MIST (1985) is turned into a survivor’s stronghold as otherworldly creatures surround the location to eat them. But despite the relative safety of the store, the group dynamic quickly deteriorates as the characters battle themselves among the produce aisles. A typical beach in William Golding’s THE LORD OF THE FLIES (1962) becomes a battleground for social warfare when it imprisons a bunch of boarding school boys who slowly descend into savagery. A familiar beach turned into a deserted island compounds the trauma that something so pleasant is the cause of such terrible isolation.
In THE NEST, every inch of Citadel High is described to be in ruins in order to establish that upsetting environment within which the characters are forced to endure an extremely difficult and nearly hopeless survival situation. The cafeteria becomes a fortification where the bullies running the school have become entrenched to control the only food supply, leaving the weaker students to barter for scraps less they starve. The music room becomes a hideout for the protagonist, Amanda, and her allies, who are the weaker, less fortunate characters in the story. Lockers are described as gutted, at the foot of which cherished teenage belongs are scattered on the floor among the devastation. In the ultimate symbol of authority destroyed or order loss, the Principal’s office is described, in detail, to mimic the barren wasteland outside the school:
I walked into the Principal’s office. Every single item and stick of furniture in there was pressed up against the wall, except what blew through the door and out into the waiting room. Anything made of wood was pulverized. Everything was a dark, powdery brown. The air was heavy. The stench of smoke made my eyes burn. Even to those who didn’t witness what had happened, it was obvious by the devastation in the classrooms and hallways that what destroyed our town was a blast that had hit the front of the school and pushed everything inside to the back of the building.
It is made clear that the students no longer belong in the school that they were once a part of. ‘To set your characters off and plunge them into immediate difficulties, put them someplace where they don’t belong, where they’re forced to deal with new and possibly frightening circumstances’ (Frey 1994, p.41). The high school being in absolute ruins adds to the danger the characters must face. It acts against them as a landscape of debris that no longer provides the safety it once possessed as an institution of nurturing and protection.
With carefully narrated action the setting can seem to be working against the characters. ‘In some stories, the central struggle experienced by the protagonist is with the environment […]. The setting, then has become the main antagonist’ (Hodgins 2001, p.83). Making the environment seem alive and antagonizing adds a grievous, horrific psychological spin to the novel. James Scott Bell offers this advice on the matter in Revision and Self-Editing for Publication (2012): ‘Think of it [setting] as another character in your book. Make if offer up possibilities of conflict and tension. Make it brood over the proceedings and exert influence’ (Bell 2012, p.167).
In her book on the craft of writing, Between the Lines (2006), author Jessica Page Morrell draws on the example set by Edgar Allen Poe who brilliantly established his settings as characters to intensify the horror in his stories:
Edgar Allan Poe, […], populates his stories with creaky old houses and gloomy, secluded castles. He doesn’t simply depict interiors, he haunts them with shadows, odd noises, and the spooky darkness of endless halls lit dimly by candlelight. In addition to interior details, there are exterior details such as bogs, graveyards, overgrown weeds, and trees that loom and twist. (Morrell 2006, p.157)
Elements of nature ‘that loom and twist’ as well as interiors that haunt make the setting seem alive and overcome with nefarious motivations. Most popular works of science-fiction and / or horror go to great lengths to make the environment a character acting against the protagonists. The family hotel resort, the Overlook Hotel, in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) makes numerous attempts to force Jack Torrance into madness to kill his own family. The 1997 Canadian science-fiction film Cube is based on the premise that a giant hidden facility with a series of interconnected, booby-trapped rooms has been designed to kill or maim those trapped inside. It does this without any human intervention though. There is no character flipping switches sort of speak. The facility is completely automated, as if acting and thinking on its own.
This can be intensified further by describing the setting as a large character, bigger than the protagonist, inferring a predicament of unfavourable odds, muck like a David and Goliath story. All of the character-like settings mentioned above dwarf the characters trapped inside, demonstrating a fish-out-of-water scenario as Morrell puts it: ‘In most fish-out-of-water stories, the main conflict is between the protagonist and the setting. […] Because the character is often inept and out of his depth, his situation causes reader empathy, forces the character to confront his fears, and plumbs the depths of his character’ (Morrell 2006, p.164). The notion of being outnumbered, outflanked, miniature, insignificant against a larger opponent (a resort hotel, a giant booby-trapped maze) underpins the psychological impact of hopelessness and desperation.
This element of setting as character is taken one step further in THE NEST where setting is not just an antagonizing character but it can be seen also as a carnivorous creature, operating on instincts to torment whoever it comes into contact with. There are numerous references in the novel to how the air is thick with a red hue that seems to coat and suffocate everything in a blood mist. In scenes of confinement, Amanda, the narrator, describes how the red in the air snakes in and around her, invading her senses. The thick, red clouds covering the landscape and swirling above the school resemble vultures hovering overhead, waiting for something to die. In the Principal’s office, Amanda describes how the shards of glass still stuck inside a window frame resemble the mouth of a shark looking to attack its prey. Characters who believe that the building can physically harm them are stuck in a constant state of panic. They are trapped inside their own mental anguish, unable to grasp what is real and what is not. In this state of mind they are at risk of not recognizing what the actual physical threats are.
To be trapped in a setting that was once familiar but is now an alien environment that seems alive reinforces the suffering in solitude that all the characters must deal with while going through extremely dangerous circumstances. The fact that something unseen is preventing the students from leaving the school intensifies the isolation that horror stories rely on. And that coupled with the paranoia that everything inside the school is working against the characters supports the notion that the horror in the novel is also a psychological one.
Your humble writer,
Bell, James Scott. (2012). Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells. 2nd ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Frey, James N. (1994). How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Hodgins, Jack. (2001). A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction. 3rd ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Morrell, Jessica Page. (2006). Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. 1st ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.