When reading a book, one usually focuses on the plot, characters and their actions considering them to be the pivotal part of any story. Meanwhile, there is another vital element which not only makes it easier to imagine what is going on, but helps create the mood and reflect author’s feelings, and this is the story’s settings. Very often, the changes in the surroundings, like weather conditions or places of an action, complete the general mood of the story. These were the representatives of Romanticism who brought nature description on the higher level, believing that it was an integral part of human life and, consequently, literature. In his short story, “Troll Bridge”, Nail Gaiman makes use of this technique, turning nature into a valuable character which accompanies the main hero throughout the story.
The plot of “Troll Bridge”
“Troll Bridge” begins when Jack, the protagonist, is only four years old. His earliest memories are connected with a bridge which later becomes a significant spot for Jack. In his early childhood, he came to the bridge and watched trains “panting and steaming like a black iron dragon” (Gaiman), which symbolizes child’s curiosity. He says that the fields around his house were “empty and fallow”, and he was eager to explore them. The “emptiness” may represent the absence of the protagonist’s experience. As he grows older, he becomes mature and so do the fields – many buildings are built there, “One by one, row by row, houses sprang up with roads named after wildflowers and respectable authors”(Gaiman).
Night – one of the phenomena of the story
Another natural phenomenon a reader meets in the story, which is also characteristic of Romanticism, is night. When everything is dark, a person becomes scared, and so does Jack, “the night was full of ghosts and witches, hungry and flapping and dressed completely in black” (Gaiman). Day, on the contrary, was “always safe”. Nevertheless, when Jack falls in love, night is no longer scary. Love is a completely new and pleasant feeling for him, and nature corresponds to his mood, “The moon was bright, and the world was visible and colourless, and the night was warm” (Gaiman).
Description of nature and house
While in Gaiman’s story nature reflects the mood of the protagonist, Edgar Allan Poe uses nature to actually create a gloomy tone of the writing. His “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a gothic tale, so the nature there is typical of this genre. Right from the beginning the reader gets the feeling that the story is deprived of joy, because this is a “dull, dark, and soundless day…when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” (Poe). As the protagonist approaches a house of his childhood friend, he gets the feeling that it absorbed all the evil from the objects surrounding it: “decayed trees” and murky pounds. The look of the house itself is also eerie, for it has “bleak walls” and “eye-like windows”. This creates the impression that the house is a living creature.
Later, the reader understands why everything is so unhappy – the protagonist’s friend, Usher, experiences severe mental problems which might have been caused by the sickness of his beloved sister. As the main hero steps inside the house, he notices that it is just as sunless inside, as outside. He does not know what to expect and is alert. The mood is completed with the description of background which is silent and dark. Everything seemed to be oppressing, “the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode” (Poe).
Poe describes the rooms in the house in details and the idea of the discomfort in the house is pretty straightforward, “Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered” (Poe). He mentions musical instruments scattered on the floor, and it feels like joy and happiness have left the building forever. Generally, the house is very claustrophobic and he cannot escape it until it is destroyed.
In the story, Poe mostly describes the inward look of the house, but when the events reach the climax, he also concentrates on what is going on outside. Usher seems to be fascinated by the storm, so he opens the door and they both see “a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty” (Poe). So, the nature is both beautiful and horrible, it is a combination of two things in one, and such doubling reminds of a Gothic technique of doppelgänger.
Nature helps set the mood also in an American horror tale by Lovecraft called “The Colour out of space”. An unnamed narrator speaks about land which the locals call “blasted heath”. Unlike two previous short stories where nature and settings only play the role of background, here it is the center of general interest. Moreover, this is not nature that makes the place so scary, but its absence. The place is absolutely bare, it has no vegetation “but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about” (Lovecraft). As the narrator walks near the place, he only sees the remnants of some buildings and trees. The author keeps readers in suspense, for it is unclear what cause such a state of the piece of land.
The protagonist is now trying to reveal the truth about the place. The legend says the destruction was caused by a meteorite. Here, Lovecraft suggests the idea of familiar and unfamiliar nature. The origin of the stone they had found could not be defined, and this strange natural phenomenon turns out to be dangerous. The stone produced a particular glow, the colour of which could not be defined, and “it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all” (Lovecraft).
The “light” caused mutation of animals and vegetables, which started growing to abnormal size. Everything that was happening after the fall of meteorite seemed to be extraordinary, and the nature on the territory could not be called nature any more. Interestingly, after deaths of Marwin and Zenas people “could not believe that anything contrary to natural law had occurred” (Lovecraft), because they believed that the nature they knew would not cause deaths of people on purpose. It seems that there is an opposition of the normal nature, which does no harm to people, and anomalous nature, which causes human death.
The description of nature helps writers to create the feeling of danger and imply that something bad is going to happen. For example, in “The Colour out of Space”, the behavior of horses which started neighing and agitating suggests that the menace is still there. As the tension grows, “the neighing and stamping of the horses had become utterly frightful” (Lovecraft). In “Troll Bridge”, Gaiman speaks of cold and frost with trees which were “skeletal black against the harsh grey winter sky.” Soon after that, the man comes to the troll which eats life out of him.
Symbolicity of natural elements
Some natural elements may be symbolic and serve to reflect psychological state of the heroes. For instance, in “The Colour out of Space” people, who were escaping the “light”, became “glad” when they reached a path. They were running from an unfamiliar phenomenon to the familiar one, which suggests that people felt safe at the well-known surroundings. In “Troll Bridge, the path, which is mentioned several times in the text, was “straight” and “never changed”, and the protagonist was walking it throughout all his life.
So, the setting is highly important in any kind of literature, and especially in speculative fiction. Not only does it acquaint the reader with the situation and helps imagine the events, but it also creates the mood of the story. It is a perfect instrument to manipulate human imagination, because each person correlates surroundings with particular emotions, so the author can easily reflect his feelings by a proper description of, for example, a natural phenomenon. In the stories under analysis, the authors widely implement this technique – the description of surroundings is appropriate and subtle, so the reader feels like he or she is living a story together with the protagonist.