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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

GUEST POST: The Character Of Environment by Teresa Frohock


A few years back, just prior to a World Fantasy Con, a question was posited as to whether urban fantasy had become the new gothic horror due to the cityscapes taking the place of haunted houses and castles. It was an interesting idea, but one that I ultimately rejected. Urban fantasy has a texture that isn’t quite as dark as gothic horror; although, I will concede there are many elements that overlap (sorry, no Venn diagram is forthcoming from me).

However, the idea of a physical place, such as a house, a rural landscape, or a city, attaining the same characteristics as a person seems to be common to both urban fantasy and gothic horror. I recently read an NPR review for Lauren Beukes new novel, Broken Monsters, where Michael Schaub noted that Beukes renders Detroit as “… a major, tragic character in the novel.” Sarah Waters gives us a house in The Little Stranger that becomes haunted with a man’s desires. The landscape within Stephen King’s Dark Tower series follows Roland like a member of his ka-tet. The powerful portrayal of the post-apocalyptic environment in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz remains with me decades after I read the story in high school. Carlos Ruiz Zafón turns the city of Barcelona into a character haunted by the recent Spanish Civil War and the turn of fortunes therein.


Especially within the horror genre, the landscape is often used as metonymy for the state of the characters and their spiritual growth, or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Zafón is the master of utilizing metonymy to reflect the atmosphere of his characters and their emotional states. He shows us Barcelona through the eyes of his protagonists, and the city is, in turn, vibrant, rainy, foggy, bright, or dismal, all based on the character’s mood and what is happening in the story.

With these techniques in mind, I deliberately set out with The Broken Road to achieve a story that was gothic in tone, which meant that the landscape in The Broken Road needed to be as memorable as the characters. I wanted to project a world where everything seemed all right on the surface, but deeper scrutiny revealed decay. I did this through the description of Travys and his surroundings. For example, in describing the dining room of the palace, I wanted to overlap the former extravagance with the current corrosion of Travys’ environment:

 "At first glance, the room seemed opulent, but a closer inspection revealed that the velvet cushions of the gilded chairs sported bald spots. Overhead, frescoes darkened by candle smoke and winter fires were mere blobs of color on the ceiling. The people and places in the paintings were so lost in time that no one could recall the stories behind the art. Ornamental plaster flaked and left sharp edges along the walls."

 "All of the doors and windows were thrown open to allow cooler air to circulate through the palace. A servant stood primly in one corner, but even he looked faded and worn in the late afternoon light."


I wrote it this way to show that Travys’ environment was in the process of decaying like the land and the monarchy which he represents. There is a twilight aspect to the first part of the novella. All of the major action happens just before sundown. Yet the story ends with the dawn breaking over the sea. This was intentional and is merely another aspect of the gothic story where the protagonist must move through the metaphorical night in order to conquer the evil that surrounds her or him in order to reach the dawn.

Travys’ plunge into the sea is another place where I wanted to evoke a certain mood. The events are overwhelming to Travys during this point of the story. He has been betrayed. The water is closing over his head and he cannot stop his plunge. I used the vastness of the sea to reinforce his helplessness. So while the setting is one memorable aspect of what makes a story gothic, it is merely one part of a greater whole. Gothic horror also contains elements of mystery and romance, supernatural creatures, madness, secrets, and embodies the best aspects of both horror and romance. For example, in most gothic stories, it is the woman who is threatened. In The Broken Road, I flipped that trope on its head and placed Travys and his lover, Gabriel, in constant danger.

Underpinning it all is the environment. Whether it is a castle, a city, a country, or the secret pathways beneath a city, the environment in gothic horror is a large part of the story. Utilized effectively, the landscape can be seen as a character that motivates the protagonist toward his or her destiny. While all of these properties can also be found in urban fantasy, I think that gothic horror tends to be darker in tone. Of course, this is definitely a case where one’s mileage will vary dramatically, because what is terrifying to one individual is merely light fiction to another.

I want to offer you a work fiction without labels or definitions. The Broken Road contains elements of science fiction, gothic horror, and fantasy all rolled together for fast-paced story. Oh, and there are flamethrowers, which are metaphors for nothing. Flamethrowers are simply cool. As far as I am concerned, you may call The Broken Road urban fantasy, or science fiction, or gothic horror. All that matters to me is that you enjoy the characters and the story.


Official Author Website
Order The Broken Road HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Miserere
Read an excerpt of Love Crystal and Stone by Teresa Frohock

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Teresa Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. T is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and has a short story, “Naked the Night Sings,” in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF. Another story, "Love, Crystal and Stone" appears in The Neverland's Library Fantasy Anthology. Her newest work is the novella, The Broken Road. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Jennifer Neri. Twilight world art courtesy of Apocalypse World: Dark Age.

3 comments:

Maurice Bishop said...

Interesting thoughts on using the setting to set the tone for the character's emotional state. Thanks for the post!

S.A. Hunter said...

Hi Teresa—I so enjoyed your blog post...what you have described goes so much deeper than just "mood setting". We are all affected by our environment...how interesting to turn that on its head and have the environment reflecting us :) Almost like the wounded king grail myth. Lots to think about there...

Teresa said...

Maurice: You're welcome!

Thanks, S.A. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. ;-)

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