In what ways can setting be used to establish the sub-genre of psychological horror in a Post-Apocalyptic novel?
The culmination of familiarity destroyed, setting as character and isolation establishes not a horror that you can see, taste or touch but one that you think you can smell or hear or feel on the back of your neck – the sixth sense ‘that haunts our lives and our literature’ as Sol Stein explains it in Solutions for Writers (1998). Using the many corners and dark areas of a large building to achieve an implied horror encourages the readers’ imagination to go wild, making them intensify their own anxiety. Not being able to see the horror increases the suspense. The monsters are not visible until it is too late. The thing lurking behind the shadows is so obscure that the characters believe their minds are playing tricks on them (like in Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game (1992)). Fear of death, paranoia, fending off other survivors is more realistic than fictitious monsters and so the horror has greater impact at a subconscious level. By hinting at something in the corner, any one reader can frighten him or herself by envisioning their own version of the most terrifying creature. They do it to themselves in essence.
Also, an implied sense of doom and dread is achieved by avoiding the explicit description of violence against the characters, only implying the possibility that the situation is more severe than originally conceived. The threat of rape and physical abuse is prevalent in the story but never really described directly. It happens behind closed doors or backstage or is narrowly avoided. The looming threat of receiving harm, or seeing someone else be harmed, and never actually being harmed, creates an unbearable anticipation within a state of constant fear. All of this is allowed to transpire in an isolating setting that was once familiar but is now dangerous and acting against the mental wellbeing of the protagonists.
In his essay on Cormac McCarthy’s use of setting in Blood Meridian, Alexander Parsons explains:
Description of setting can rival a character’s actions and directly expressed thoughts as a means of revealing and detailing a character’s consciousness with power and subtlety. The external world can be shaped to reflect a character’s perceptions and comment on his or her subjective state through the coordinated use of external, or objective, detail. This externalization of emotion is sometimes referred to as the objective correlative. (Parsons 2011, p.198-199)
Setting can be used to externalize a character’s subjective state, as he writes. Psychological horror is implied by establishing an environment that causes emotional anxiety, paranoia and mental instability. The readers are faced with a train wreck of post-traumatic stress symptoms created by the approach of the apocalypse and compounded by the subsequent suffocating setting that makes every attempt to induce madness. Psychological horror is subtlety brought to the foreground by characters asking: ‘Did you hear that? Is it hard to breathe in here? Do you see something? What’s that smell? Why is it so hot?’
In THE NEST, destroying familiar settings, making setting a character and extreme isolation are the narrative elements that contribute to inferring an implied, self-envisioned horror which is way more destabilizing for a character’s mental state, thus rooting a novel in a psychological subtext. Comparing the story to similar works has confirmed that I am on the right path; setting as character is a recurring theme in all guides to good writing. Areas that can be improved upon to effectively use setting for psychological horror is inserting more description of the characters interacting with their environment through the senses. ‘We writers have an obligation to use all five senses in our work if we are to enrich the laymen’s experience’ (Stein 1998, p.160). Invading the readers’ senses not only helps to make the setting seem alive but creates the discomfort and anxiety that psychological horrors rely on. All five senses are used to describe a bombardment of unpleasantness which maintains a constant state of discomfort among the characters. If the readers can see, feel, hear, smell and even taste the predicament the characters are in, then they will have succumbed to the same psychological torture that is so prevalent in the story.
Even if the readers misinterpret or fail to pick up on all of these elements while reading THE NEST, simply having a well-structured, multi-layered setting adds depth and complexity to the story. The audience might not make the connection that the place in the novel is deliberately contributing to the mental instability of the situation, but at least they will subconsciously feel the claustrophobic effect of such an oppressive environment. I will certainly call it a success if readers of my fiction get a greater chill down their spin every time they turn the page. If they are unable to read my book in the dark for the psychological fear of something lurking in the corner, then my setting will have done its job and I can be considered as a writer who is able to use genres as well as sub-genres to create a complex world of terror.
Your humble writer,
Parson, Alexander. (2011). ‘Matrix for Meaning: Physical Setting in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian’. In: A. Barrett and P. Turchi, ed., A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on their Craft. 1st ed. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Stein, Sol. (1998) Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non-Fiction. 1st ed. London: Souvenir Press.