Atmosphere in Weird Fiction

Clark Ashton Smith

The term atmosphere, in application to fiction, is often used in a somewhat vague or restricted sense. I believe that it can be most profitably defined as the collective impression created by the entire mass of descriptive, directly evocative details in any given story (what is sometimes known as "local color") together with all that is adumbrated, suggested or connoted through or behind these details. It can be divided roughly into two elements: the kinetic and the potential; the former comprising all the effects of overt surface imagery, and the latter all the implications, hints, undertones, shadows, nuances, and the verbal associations, and various effects of rhythm, onomatopoeia and phonetic pattern which form a more consistent and essential feature of good prose-writing than is commonly realized. Many people would apply the word atmosphere only to the elements defined here-above as potential; but I prefer the broader definition; since, after all, the most intangible atmospheric effects depend more or less upon the kinetic ones and are often difficult to dissociate wholly from them through analysis. An attempt to achieve purely potential writing might result, I suspect, in something not altogether dissimilar to the effusions of Gertrude Stein! Or, at least, it would lead to an obscurity such as was practiced by the French Symboliat poet, Mallarme, who is said to have revised his poems with an eye to the elimination of kinetic statement whenever- possible.

A few examples of the use of atmospheric elements, taken from the work of recognized masters, should prove more illuminative than any amount of generalization. Take, for instance, this paragraph from Ambrose Bierve's tale, The Death of Halpin Frayser, one of the most overwhelmingly terrific horror, tales ever written:

He thought that he was walking along a dusty road that showed white in the gathering darkness of the summer night. Whence and whither it led, and why he traveled it, he did not know, though all seemed simple and natural, as is the way in dreams; for in the Land Beyond the Bed surprises cease from troubling and the Judgement is at rest. Soon he came to the parting of the ways; leading from the highway was a road less traveled, having the appearance, indeed, of having been long abandoned, because, he thought, it led to something evil; yet he turned into it without hesitation, impelled by some mysterious necessity.

Note here the potential value of the italicized clauses. The element of dream-mystery is heightened by the unknown reason for traveling the road, by the "something evil" which has no form or name, and the unparticularized necessity for taking the abandoned way. The ambiguity, the lack of precise definition, stimulate the reader's imagination and evoke shadowy meanings beyond the actual words.

In the paragraph immediately following this, the potential elements are even more predominant:

As he pressed forward he became conscious that his way was haunted by malevolent existences, invisible, and whom he could not definitely figure to his mind. From among the trees on either side he caught broken whispers in a strange tongue which yet he partly understood. They seemed to him fragmentary utterances of a monstrous conspiracy against his body and his soul.

Here, through the generalized character of malevolence imputed to things unseen and half-heard, images of almost illimitable spectral menace arc conjured up. It should not be inferred, how- ever, that precise statements and sharply outlined images are necessarily lacking in potential quality. On the contrary, they may possess implications no less frightful or mysterious than the wildly distorted shadow cast by some monster seen in glaring light. To illustrate this point, let me quote again from The Death of Halpin Frayser:

A shallow pool in the guttered depression of an old wheel rut, as from a recent rain, met his eye with a crimson gleam. He stooped and plunged his hands into it. It stained his fingers; it was blood. Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere. The weeds growing rankly by the roadside showed it in blots and spalshes on their big broad leaves. Patches of dry dust between the wheelways were pitted and sputtered as with a red ruin. Defiling the trunks of the trees were broad maculations of crimson, and blood dripped like dew from their foliage.

This, it would seem, is a prime example of kinetic atmospheric description, owing its power to a visual definitude and exactness rarely equaled. Consider a moment, however, and you will realize the added potential element which lies in the unexplained mystery of the bloody dew, and the abnormally strange position of many of the sanguine maculations. Things infinitely more dreadful and more horrible than the blood itself are somehow intimated.

In much of Poe's best work, the atmospheric elements are so subtly blended, unified and pervasive as to make analysis rather difficult. Something beyond and above the mere words and images seems to well from the entire fabric of the work, like the "pestilent and mystic vapor" which, to the narrator's fancy, appeared to emanate from the melancholy House of Usher and its inexplicably dismal surroundings. The profuse but always significant details evoke dimly heard echoes and remote correspondences. Suggestion is less easily separable from statement, and becomes a vague dark irridescence communicated from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to page, like the play of lurid gleams along somber jewels cunningly chosen and set. To this suggestive element the rhythms, cadences and phonetic sequences of the prose contribute materially but more or less indeterminably. As an illustration of well-nigh perfect atmospheric writing, embodying the qualities I have indicated, I quote from The Fall of the House of Usher the description of the room in which Roderick Usher receives his guest;

The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsonod light made their way through the trellised panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eyes, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to lend any vitality to the scene. I felt I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.

Note here the carefully built impression of spaciousness combined with gloom and confinement, of lifeless and uncomforting luxury. Through the choice and emphasis of material details, an air of spiritual oppression is created, and the idea of a mysterious and monstrous unity between the building and its hypochondriacal owner is cautiously foreshadowed. I have italicized two sentences in which I seem to find a very subtle congruity between the actual sound of the words and their sense. In the first, the frequent repetition of the consonants r, s, fs and t somehow emphasizes the image of "profuse" furniture; and the sharp dentals and sibilants add to the impression of things time- eaten and "comfortless." In the last sentence, the repeated letters, n, r, d, l, m, and v, are all of a heavy or deep-sounding character, giving, with the long, close and sonorous vowels, a hollow and funeral clang that echoes the meaning. Here, too, the very movement of the sentence is like the dropping of a pall.

From certain of Poe's tales and prose-poems, such as The Masque of the Red Death, Silence and Shadow, one can select even more obvious and overt effects of atmospheric color supplemented by sound and rhythm. For illustration, I shall quote a single sentence from the prose-poem, Silence, and leave its analysis to the reader: "And overhead, with a rustling and loud noise, the grey clouds rush westwardly forever, until they roll, a cataract, over the fiery wall of the horizon."

From such instances as these, it will be seen how large a portion of the atmospheric elements in writing can sometimes be contributed by the mere sound of words apart from their meaning. The values implied are vaguely akin to those of music; and it should be obvious that really fine prose cannot be written without an ear for pitch, tone, movement and cadence.

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