A Walk in The Fictional Snow: Seven Chilling Winter Tales
It was only after I put this list together that I realised how eerie some of these books are – how peculiar. As I hunted for the best sub-zero fiction on my shelves, I realised just how many stories set in snow are unsettling. The expanses of white seem to bring out the spectral in storytellers. Well, as there is a long history of Christmas Ghost Stories, why not a list of seven chilling winter tales for these dark, January nights?
The title story in the collection Tenth of December – George Saunders
Saunders writes the most beloved prose that no one can describe. Often reviewers use the word ‘surreal’ to describe his writing – plus wry, disturbing, and dazzling. He is a tough writer to pin down. ‘Original’ seems like the best bet. Personally, I think his writing makes me feel I am in safe (if a little odd) hands. And the writing is mind-bendingly good. If you like writing to surprise you, to take you down a dark path and then make you laugh, to shift suddenly, and take turns you didn’t know could be taken: read Saunders. In Tenth of December, a small boy imagines he is embarking on a NASA mission, out into the freezing cold, to cause the evil Nethers some trouble and do some ‘real saving’. Or does he? A madcap midwinter tale.
The Vanishing Act – Mette Jakobsen
The Vanishing Act is a very quiet book. But it is by no means dull. It is a peculiar tale set on a tiny island covered in snow. The characters are scarce in number, and all have lost something, or someone. They go about their lives as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist. There is a magician on the island, and a priest with an unnamed dog, a father and the protagonist, his young daughter, Minou – but Minou’s mother is long gone. As the little girl begins to grow up and imagine life beyond the small island, things begin to unravel. She realises that so many of the things we take for granted as the truth, when we are children, later turn out to be very different indeed. A poetic and unusual coming-of-age novel, made all the more poignant by the wintery weather.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clark
Adding to the other-worldliness of an already ethereal story, snow falls in the background of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The story is an alternative history of England that changes one fact: magic is real. From this alteration pivots the entire, labyrinthine plot – filled with spells, prophesies, sinister beings and unnatural happenings. The rivalry between the two great magicians, Norrell and Strange, is one of my favourite in fiction for its credible combination of sheer admiration and outright hatred. The novel has a crisp, chill edge and throughout, at key moments in the plot, snow begins to fall. It also contains a beautiful quote:
“The night before Mr Norrell was due to perform the magic, snow fell on York and in the morning the dirt and mud of the city had disappeared, all replaced by flawless white. The sounds of hooves and footsteps were muffled, and the very voices of York’s citizens were altered by a white silence that swallowed up every sound.”
Snow Piercer - Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette
A stark, dystopian sci-fi graphic novel that George Orwell would, I think, have admired, Snow Piercer is astonishing in is simplicity. Drawn in pared-down black and white, it depicts a future earth frozen white, every inch of which is arctic tundra. To walk outside is to walk to your death. The last of humanity exist on a behemoth of a train, with 1001 carriages, that thunders across the quiet earth, powered by an engine in perpetual motion. The rich live at the front of the train, the poor at the back, with numerous class distinctions in between – not to mention garden carriages, restaurant carriages, brothels, bars, and barracks. All of life as we know it, on one reinforced train, with nothing but snow stretching for miles in every direction... It makes you shudder.
And where there is inequality, there is rebellion…
The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey
A little light in the winter darkness, The Snow Child, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, tells the story of a couple, Jack and Mabel, who relocate to Alaska for a fresh start. They had lost a child, years before, and hoped that such a challenging, unfamiliar life, in the freezing wilderness, would distract them from their personal tragedy. But one day, they make a small snowman, or 'snowchild', for fun, one that resembles a little girl… and before long, a little girl appears in their life. Is the child real? Is she imagined? And does it matter? The writer gives nothing away. Told with measured, simple prose, there is a grounded, naturalness to the book, despite the peculiar goings-on. But this is not to say it is plain; the story is evocative without unnecessary ornamentation. Every other page seems to contain an astonishing, clear description of the remote, beautiful, snow-clad world. You will want to get on a plane and visit Alaska by the time you finish. However, if you see a little girl in the snow…
Ice – Anna Kavan
If you fancy a walk in the fictional snow that will be like nothing else you have read, read Ice by Anna Kavan. Strange does not do it justice. Mesmeric, illogical and meandering, it has a rhythm that draws you in and holds your attention, even while you try and fail to decipher what exactly is happening. The dystopian landscape is a freezing, war-torn one, ice is closing in, on all sides, and the main character drifts in and out of coherent thought, as though suffering from what used to be called prairie madness. Bewildering but beautiful. You will either love or hate this chilling book. But there is no doubt it will get under your skin.
The Shining – Stephen King
This list would not be complete without mention of the book that brought us the Overlook Hotel, because in the end, it is the snow that makes The Shining a claustrophobic nightmare. Snow, in this novel, is sublime in the gothic tradition if the word – something to be admired and feared. And, as it brings out the true nature of the characters, it is a kind of mirror too. Without it, there is no story. Even before the main characters begin to caretake the hotel, the ominousness of the freezing cold is stressed; the job is presented, by those offering it, as an unattractive and dangerous one because of the peril in being so isolated, in such extreme cold. Nature is seen as severe and unforgiving. The cold is seen as something to battle. It is hard to say which danger is worse in The Shining, the sub-zero weather or Jack Nicholson’s Mr Torrance.
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