In what ways can setting be used to establish the sub-genre of psychological horror in a Post-Apocalyptic novel?
Horrors are more frightening when characters are alone. ‘When you isolate a character, you’re usually ruling out rescue, so the protagonist must struggle alone (or with a small group) for survival’ (Morrell 2006, p.163). In THE NEST, the students are on their own. They are cut off from the outside world, and, for reasons unknown to them, there are no adults in the school to protect them and maintain order.
The environment itself creates a suffocating, overbearing sense of hopelessness with no end in sight, which has a severe impact on a character’s mental stability. ‘Writers, especially horror writers, often use setting to isolate their characters, stage elaborate showdowns where the cavalry will not arrive to help, and eliminate escape routes’ (Morrell 2006, p.162). Much like in Lord of the Flies, too many tightly wound characters in a high-stress situation creates ‘a crucible or cauldron, a predicament coupled with a place where the main characters are forced together, where the drama simmers, sometimes sputters, and often boils over’ (Morrell 2006, p.165). The novel affronts the readers on a subconscious level presenting a survival situation where the other survivors are as much a threat as any real physical danger.
Nearly all post-apocalyptic science-fiction, horrors that depict a cast of characters forced into choking surroundings have those characters at each other’s throats in order to ramp up the psychological pressure of the story’s experience. In Stephen King’s The Mist, two clear factions emerge – one influenced by a religious fanatic – when the locals of a small town are surrounded by a mist concealing man-eating creatures. Hugh Howey’s Silo omnibus series (Wool (2013), Shift (2013), Dust (2014)) is literally about humanity incapable of governing itself while surviving in subterranean silos; simply surviving is made difficult by the additional hardship caused by government oppression, conspiracy, rebellion, etc. The idea of people versus people from within a horrifying context creates an emotionally and mentally unstable platform where madness can take over and rescue is impossible, both internally and externally.
I deploy fairly obvious mechanisms to enforce a sense of isolation in THE NEST: the fire pillars preventing students from leaving the building; the constant reminder of close quarters through the description of tiny spaces packed with stinky, unwashed survivors; and, the scare of food running out and no way of getting resupplied. Another technique more conspicuously weaved into the narrative is the sense of time being frozen within my setting, which increases the desperation and deepens the isolation even further.
A main ingredient in post-apocalyptic storytelling is the dead world outside where time has stopped. All life has ceased to move forward, towards any hope of a fruitful future. There is no vegetation and the surrounding city is a decaying corpse. The idea of growth and development – normally nurtured in a school context – is completely removed. ‘Time passes, slowly or quickly; time exerts pressure, imposes urgency; time promises and then withholds the promise; time gradually sees people change, or change one another; time waits, to spring surprises, or leads down mysterious trails to disappointment’ (Hodgins 2001, p.86).
In every scene where the characters are described looking outside the school at their ruined town or navigating through the hallways, Amanda, the narrator, mentions a loss of time. Minutes seem like hours. The background does not change regardless of how long they stare at it. Even the students themselves at certain moments are absolutely still. Amanda calls Martin a ‘totem pole teen’ right before the latter commits suicide in the opening scene. She later describes Owen as ‘inanimate’ when the readers first meet him. ‘Nothing on him fluttered; not his shaggy blonde hair.’ The entire theme of time frozen is summed up when Owen is introduced. He and Amanda meet up in a classroom by the windows looking out at the dead landscape:
We had been standing and staring out of our windows at the remains of our world for what felt like several hours. Though it was probably only a few minutes. Our town was a time capsule now; something for some future species to dig up like the foundations of Pompeii. Watching its stillness froze anyone who paid it any attention.
Your humble writer,
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.