Bad Location: How Dark Settings Make For Memorable Stories

Weekly Lizard

Bestselling author Lisa Unger shares some of her favorite scary settings…and the novels that wouldn’t be the same without them. Heartbroken—her latest chilling psychological thriller—is available now in mass market paperback.

If character is king (which it is), and plot flows from character (which it does), then what about setting? Well, it doesn’t often get the same kind of attention when we talk about fiction. Sure, it all has to be someplace. But some might argue that a truly great story could be set anywhere. On the other hand, sometimes the setting of a novel is so richly drawn, so utterly compelling, such an integral part of the story that it acts like character. And when that happens, the characters—and the story they populate—become indivisible from the place in which events unfold.

I have always been a sucker for big, scary settings…places with personality problems, dark agendas, and haunting ghosts. Here are a few novels featuring some of my favorites:

1) Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier never fails to make it onto my “must” lists, no matter what the topic. And Manderley, the tortured Maxim DeWinter’s family estate, has to be one of the all time most atmospheric settings. Though Manderley is not literally haunted, the ghost of Rebecca resides in every room. The narrator, known only to the reader as the second Mrs. DeWinter, feels the beautiful, stylish presence of her husband’s dead first wife from the east wing to the west wing, to the rose garden, to the bluff from which she (allegedly) fell to her death. Manderley is isolated from the rest of the world, surrounded by forest and sea—so it becomes as claustrophobic and strange as Maxim and his murderous secrets. The house evolves as the embodiment of the narrator’s fate and the life she wants but can never have. The story ends only when the house goes up in flames.

2) It’s impossible to talk about The Shining by Stephen King without talking about the Overlook Hotel. Of course, Stanley Kubric’s iconic film may sometimes overshadow the book in our collective memory. In the film, it’s mentioned that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, but that’s not the case in the novel; King himself dwells little on why the Overlook is what it is. What it is, is bad enough without dwelling on how it came to be that way. From Room 217 to the ballroom, from the topiary in the garden to the Presidential Suite, we can feel the malice of its haunting ghosts. The long hallways and opening doors, the blizzard raging outside, the claustrophobic isolation of the hotel all ratchet up the suspense and drive the plot. As the hotel works its evil and the horrific plot unfolds, the Overlook becomes a kind of personal hell, one that seems designed specifically to drive Jack Torrance inexorably into his own special brand of madness.

3) In his 2008 novel The Ruins, Scott Smith created one of the most darkly frightening settings I have come across. When two couples head to Mexico for a week of fun and sun, they can’t resist a bus trip out to rural Yucatan (a.k.a., the middle of nowhere) to visit the site of an archaeological dig. In spite of numerous signs that the excursion is a bad idea (including a little boy who acts as a spooky sentinel, not to mention a group of armed adults warning them away), the foursome forges on. It’s not long before they find themselves trapped on the site that has been grown over by mysterious vines. The four are isolated from the rest of the world, trapped (those armed adults now won’t let them leave), and starting to panic. Then the vines reveal themselves as not only toxic but strangely manipulative and malevolent—provoking the couples and luring them into danger. As each character starts to unravel in his or her own unique way, a series of grisly incidents ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Here the setting literally drives the plot, and it’s a crazy scary ride.

4) In Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, we travel deep into the African Congo in search of the elusive Mr. Kurtz. Though Marlow is telling his story at a distance, comfortably aboard the Nellie as it floats along the Thames, thousands of miles away, it’s the voyage through the Congo that becomes the allegory for his journey toward the black heart of human nature. Conrad’s descriptions of the environment, the natives, the scary fog, and the deep, impenetrable darkness make for what is possibly the richest and most compelling atmosphere in all of twentieth-century literature. The jungle is the journey both internal and external.

When a place comes alive and seems to live and breathe on the page—whether it frightens or seduces, lures or repels—it propels plot and can enrich our experience of the characters’ journey. For me, of course, the darker and more disturbing a setting is, the better. I love to be invited in and asked to stay awhile, even at an inhospitable place like Manderlay or the Overlook. Because a very bad location can make for a very exciting and memorable story, one that stays with you long after the book is closed.