My day job is teaching creative writing. I sometimes find myself asking students to think about the setting in their piece of writing as a character in its own right. This teacherly request falls short in many respects – it doesn’t do justice to the complex relationship between place and people in fiction and poetry and drama, between space and different kinds of matter, between shared landscapes and personal histories – but it does encourage aspiring writers to see that setting shouldn’t be in the “background”; it isn’t somewhere safely far-off or an after-thought, at least not in the most powerful pieces of writing. Last year I read William Atkins’ extensive exploration of literature and landscape, The Moor. Atkins tells the tale of a double murder on Saddleworth Moor, committed over a century before the infamous Moors murders of Brady and Hindley. Early one morning in 1832, a young girl set out across the moor to fetch some yeast from her grandfather, who lived up at Bill ‘O Jacks, a blackened, wind-blasted pub. What she discovered haunted the popular imagination for decades to come: her grandfather and uncle had both been left to die, butchered down to the bone with vicious and unusual cuts, pooling in their own blood. No one was ever convicted of the crime, but what makes these murders so memorable, Atkins contends, is not just the mystery or the unusual method of cruelty, but the place they occurred: the desolation of the moortops, where the wind might have whipped away the victims’ cries. This setting, Atkins tells us, “turned a double murder into the material of myth”.
Traditional literary criticism has many different terms to describe the complex relationship between a story’s characters and its setting: the “pathetic fallacy”, for instance, is the idea that writing attributes human emotion to inanimate objects or the landscape (the Victorian critic John Ruskin included descriptions of a sea with “cruel, crawling foam” and a passion-flower that shed a “splendid tear” as examples). T.S. Eliot demarcates something a little more subtle with his idea of “objective correlatives”: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding… a set of objects… which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”. For Eliot, “external facts” must be used to create a “sensory experience” for the reader, through which emotion is evoked. We could think of this as an early version of that writing-workshop cliché, “show don’t tell”.
I don’t think these literary terms do justice to the weirdness of the relationship between landscape and characters, between words and places and people, in the pieces of writing that really get under my skin. They describe too clean a process: they make it seem as though human emotion can be critically isolated from the environment, even as we use the environment to express it. The sea, for instance, is de facto not “cruel” and so we lofty literary critics can see the projection and “fallacy” at work in a poem. But what if the boundaries between human experience and physical geography are much more complex than the Victorian literary critic would have us believe? The contemporary critic Timothy Morton has recently described the systemic interconnection of all life-forms as “dark ecology”: different organisms are inextricably linked in complex, dirty, parasitic ways, and the non-human – the sea, a flower, a piece of writing – is intimately looped into human experience.
These ideas of ecology and contamination are at the heart of my new novel, Sealed. In the world of this story, the “outside” does not remain far off, or at any kind of safe distance; the contamination of the environment is also the contamination of our own skins. The narrator of the novel is heavily pregnant: she’s carrying her own concentric system of dark ecology. Sealed, I hope, works in a tradition of writing where landscape bleeds into character and action indeterminately; it’s a deeply contaminated text. And perhaps texts are the strangest of landscapes: systems of black and white marks that proliferate into intricate, teeming worlds; abstractions that worm their way into your mind as insistently as deadly parasites.
Here are some of the literary landscapes that I think show us how weird and powerful the connection between words and the physical world can be:
It all started here for me. When I was growing up, I was especially susceptible to the power of the Pennines, and the Calder Valley was a magical place for me, with its steep sides and awesome, desolate moortops. I fell in love with a boy who lived on a council estate perched perilously high in the valley, and my teenage-intense experiences of Luddenden Foot and Heptonstall blurred with Ted Hughes’ dark creation myths: Hughes’ “great bird” landed here and “drew men out of rock/ living men out of bog and heather./ Its song put a light in the valleys/ And harness on the long moors… Then the bird died … The valleys went out,/ The moorland broke loose”. It’s a landscape I explored in my first work of fiction, The Lost Art of Sinking, and that I’m returning to as I read Ben Myers’ brilliant new work, The Gallows Pole, in which men rise up out of the moors like mossy apparitions.
Emily Brontë got there first: at the very end of Wuthering Heights, the narrator discovers three graves on the “slope next the moor” and lingers round them: he “watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth”. This ending doesn’t harmonise or silence the “unquiet” ghostliness of Brontë’s story. This wind purrs with the voices that have gone before; the moths trace a deathly dance around the growing flowers; the quiet earth is anything but. This moorside slope contains the whole world of the story, and we’re left with an image of the “earth” that is now inseparable from the buried bodies of its characters.
The forest has always been a verdant, ambiguous site in literature: it is the context for so many of Ovid’s cataclysmic chase scenes and transformations in Metamorphoses; it is the occasion in Shakespeare for magical substitutions and strange reversals; it is the place where fairy tales come to their most macabre conclusions, where children are lost and risk being cooked in ovens, where wolves and witches roam. The idea of the “pastoral” as a literary mode that celebrates a harmonious relationship between man and nature has recently been transformed for me by the work of Joyelle McSweeney on the Necropastoral, a ‘a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of “nature” which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects’. The necropastoral has become an especially urgent concept as we reckon with our impact on the environment, with that “millennia-long political and ecological catastrophe whose name has been lately (Adamically) formulated: the Anthropocene”.
I think a rendering of woodland as necro-forest is one way that writers now explore our toxic relationship with the “natural” world around us, rejecting some of the “clean” versions of nature offered up in the past. One writer who does this especially horrifyingly is Laura Ellen Joyce. Her first novel, The Museum of Atheism, tells the story of a murdered child beauty-queen, killed in the dead of winter in a snow-secluded cabin at the edge of the woods. The novel opens with a sublimely slimy description of “Mushroom Soil”, of the “creeping liquefaction” under the earth that leads to a spectacular mushroom harvest of Ghost Fungus and Witches’ Butter, Vinegar Cups and False Deathcaps. Each chapter of the novel then begins with an exquisite description of a specific fungi, the environment in which it grows, and its deadly effects. “Nature” here is anything but clean and pure; the forest thrives on bones and blood.
The poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have recently drawn attention to newly-created zones in our environment, debatable areas that fall between the urban and the recongisably rural. Their examples include landfill sites, sewage treatments plants, canals, wastelands, ruins, mines, airports and retail parks. They call these areas “edgelands”, following the work of the geographer Marion Shoard. These “new landscapes”, they argue, have been neglected by landscape and nature writers, but deserve our attention: they are “places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare, and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard”. This is the territory that Ballard was so good at exploring: in his hands, the edges of our cities also become the edges of recognisable literary experience – different genres splice into one another, characters begin to seem like effects of the architecture that surrounds them, and the forensically described physical world might rapidly veer into surreal dream. Nothing is secure or stable in edgelands, or in the edgey texts that explore them.
Some of most unsettling novels I’ve read in the last couple of years have made the seaside an especially weird and desolate place. I’m thinking of Michael Hurley’s The Loney, for instance, whose eponymous landscape is an isolated stretch of the Lancashire coast where the tides are treacherous and the mundane is always on the edge of horror. Or Wyl Menmuir’s The Many, the mesmerising tale of an incomer to a hostile, deserted fishing village. The sea is again charged with danger here: polluted and choked with poisoned fish. Reading the novel begins to feel like navigating quicksand; memories and dreams threaten to submerge the central character and the narrative. Or there’s Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent, where the Blackwater estuary is a site of ingress for both the sea and the supernatural.
Nicholas Royle’s Quilt doesn’t exactly feature a seaside location, but an obsession with sting rays brings the ocean gushing into a seemingly domestic novel. This is a narrative deranged by grief, in which water and words and aquatic life teem together to weird and fantastic effect.
Landscapes of catastrophe
The novelist Amitav Ghosh recently described our contemporary era as one marked by extreme climate events, by “flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes”. We might think of our time, he suggests, as the “catastrophozic” or “the long emergency”. Ghosh challenges novelists to respond to our changing world with new forms of writing, because “if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these waters, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.”
Some novelists are taking up this challenge by writing characters who are enmeshed with catastrophic landscapes. Arundhati Roy’s big, wild new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, opens with a description of graveyard wildlife at dusk: just as ominous as the flying foxes that “drift across the city like smoke” are the creatures that are now missing from this landscape: “the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, that have been wiped out… [by] diclofenac poisoning”. The circulation of a deadly poison through the eco-system is the prologue to everything that follows: the landscapes of this novel, even when beautiful, are potentially deadly.
My own novel, Sealed, is set at the foot of the Blue Mountains, a vast area of wilderness, where the distance is hazed in blue from the rising eucalyptus oil in the air. This is a gorgeous landscape laced with danger, where the heat is incendiary and flash floods rush across the parched earth. The people in the novel are precarious in their surroundings, no mistake, but the real threat is from their own bodies, from the poisons that their skin has absorbed and the strange new ways that their flesh is adapting. For me, successful writing about climate change shows us that the catastrophe isn’t just in the landscape, somewhere out there; the catastrophe is in here, right under our skins.
Naomi Booth was born and raised in West Yorkshire and is now based inYork, where she lectures in Creative Writing and Literature at York St John University.
Her new novel, Sealed, is crowdfunding now on Dead Ink. Click here to order your copy.
Cover image used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Steve Snodgrass.