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Eight Horror Films About Writers

Doubt. Stolen manuscripts. Self-loathing. Censorship. Missed deadlines. Unanswered pitches. Typos in query letters. Spotty Wi-Fi? The horrors of writing range from the existential to the melodramatic.

Horror films are exercises in hyperbole. Writers are perfect characters for these tales of dread. Writers often become lost within the worlds of their minds. Their devotions to stories and poems can develop into frenetic obsessions. Writers crave solitude and distance, creating a barrier from the outside world. In a profession where rejection is constant, writers might take out their frustration on friends, partners, and children.

Writers are often the subjects of dramatic films, but less often the focus of horror. Perhaps writers don’t want to write their worst fears into reality. Still, there are enough tales of writerly woe and worry for poets, novelists, and essayists to ponder their deepest anxieties on the screen. Here are eight horror films about writers.

Images (1972)
The film begins with an extended scene of composition interrupted by a phone call. Cathryn (Susannah York), a children’s book author, labors over a draft. Alone in a large house, she crumples and tears manuscript pages. She kneels and rolls on the floor, and then traces letters on a window while rain sprays the glass. When she finally does pick up the ringing phone, she hears a woman ask “Do you know where your husband is tonight?” One of Robert Altman’s largely forgotten films, Images delivers slick scares that are secondary to the psychological terror of a writer whose past and present with her lovers intersect to the point of confusion. Cathryn’s voiceover of the manuscript continues throughout the film — which turns out to be In Search of Unicorns, an actual fantasy novel for children published by York herself.

The Shining (1980)
The Overlook Hotel: a nightmare writer’s residency with spectacular views. Frustrated writer Jack Torrance is the winter caretaker of an expansive hotel in the Colorado mountains. He is alone there — except for his wife, his son, and the various spirits that occupy unlocked rooms and tend empty bars. Jack’s single-sentence manuscript might be the sign of madness, or a recursive experimental novel. In Stanley Kubrick’s house are many mansions: from spatial disorientation to Jack Nicholson’s whirlwind emotional shifts within a single scene (watch the bathroom sequence with the butler closely — is Jack evil, manipulated, or something else entirely?), The Shining might be the ultimate horror film about a writer.

Barton Fink (1991)
“I’m just having trouble getting started.” Playwright Barton Fink has moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. Capitol Pictures wants Barton to pen the script for a wrestling movie since he “knows the poetry of the streets.” Between a struggling writer and hallway shots of a haunted hotel, the nods to The Shining are many, but the tone is quite different. The Coen Brothers — who allegedly wrote this film about writer’s block to break their own real-life writer’s block while drafting Miller’s Crossing — probe the horrors of Hollywood. “This is a wrestling picture,” says studio executive Jack Lipnick. “The audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling — and plenty of it. They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul. Alright, a little for the critics.”

Misery (1990)
Romance novelist Paul Sheldon crashes during a blizzard. He is nursed back to health by his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes. Health, of course, is a relative term. Wilkes becomes Sheldon’s tormentor when she discovers that his new manuscript contains profanities — and that Sheldon has killed off her favorite character in his most recent release. Other than the infamous ankle-breaking scene, the most painful sequence of the film might be when Annie forces Paul to burn his new manuscript.

Sinister (2012)
Actor-novelist Ethan Hawke (Ash Wednesday, The Hottest State) plays Ellison Oswalt, a crime writer whose family moves into a home with a terrible past. Oswalt has been trying to recapture the success of Kentucky Blood, his first book, and turns to the murderous history of his new home as his next subject. He soon finds a boxful of Super 8 snuff films in the attic, and discovers a mystery far more frightening that any book he might have imagined.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Sam Dalmas, an American novelist living in Rome with his girlfriend, has writer’s block. He remains uninspired by Italy, but is soon about to become distracted from his literary worries. Sam views a brutal attack in an art gallery, and although the victim survives, Sam becomes embroiled in the serial killer’s carnage. Scored by Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was director Dario Argento’s first film. He would later direct Tenebre, another slasher about an American author in Italy.

Castle of Blood (1964)
Alan Foster, a journalist from the London Times, wants to interview Edgar Allan Poe about his tales of horror and dread, but Poe assures him that every story he has written is true. Skeptical, the journalist accompanies Poe to a haunted castle, where, from midnight to sunrise, the dead come to life. Classic black-and-white atmospheric horror.

1408 (2007)
An “occult writer” of “ghost survival guides” who plays up the camp of his experiences but is actually skeptical of the supernatural, Mike Enslin has found his newest subject is Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel. Early in the film Enslin is having a reading and book signing for his newest book about haunted houses, and quips ghost stories are “awful convenient for desperate hotels when the interstate moves away.” While mindlessly signing copies of his new book, a fan surprises him with a copy of The Long Road Home, his only novel. The fan says she bought the copy on eBay, and asks the question every author fears:  “are you going to write another one like this one?” Although the bulk of 1408 occurs in the devilish hotel room where the manager says no one else has lasted more than an hour, for writers, a room haunted by demons pales in comparison to the fear that our best work is behind us.

Image Credit: Pexels.

The Long, Lonely Walk: Hallways in Horror Films

“The hallway is my sleep,” writes poet Rafael Campo. Hallways are simultaneously prosaic and oneiric. Hallways are all about perspective.

Jean-Paul Sartre thought modern existence contained a “labyrinth of hallways, doors, and stairways that lead nowhere.” We believe — structurally, metaphorically — that all hallways end. Hallways were not meant for standing, but we adorn them with images. Li-Young Lee’s lines “The photographs whispered to each other / from their frames in the hallway” capture the sense of this place.

I grew up in a ranch house defined by its long central hallway. My bedroom and the living room were on opposite ends of the hall. The New Jersey of my youth was a land of bottleneck traffic, creatively corrupt politicians, and suburbs lined with video rental stores. Whippany, my hometown, was graced with a Movie Van that delivered VHS tapes to doorsteps. The van was a suburban cinephile’s dream, but it didn’t have every horror movie I wanted.

After I exhausted the late-night timer recordings on my VCR, I began borrowing obscure titles from older friends. I covered my eyes during The Beyond, a particularly gruesome Italian film set in Louisiana. When the movie ended and I turned off the television, I froze. I realized what scared me the most: that long walk down the silent hallway back to my bedroom. My brothers had moved out. My sister was home from college, but was on the phone in her room. My parents had gone to sleep after trying to convince me that I should do the same. I did what any kid with an overactive imagination would: I sprinted down the hallway, shut my door, and dove into bed.

When I built up enough nerve to actually finish all of the horror movies I rented or borrowed, it became obvious that hallway scenes are an essential element of American and international horror films. Hallways are tight, narrow, walled, made for transit — and yet sometimes our most sensitive moments are out in the hall, doors closed behind us. Hallways are places for tense encounters, confusion, and fear.

Here are eight essential hallways from horror films.

1. The Shining (1980)

Young Danny Torrence spends much of the film riding his Big Wheel through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. His hypnotic travels reinforce the idea of the hotel as maze and labyrinth.

A ball rolls along the carpet to Danny, and he looks up, allowing Stanley Kubrick to use the hallway structure as readymade perspective. During the first quarter of the film, viewers are introduced to the layout and grounds of the Overlook as if they were to be also hired as caretakers. Kubrick’s methodical method establishes expectations and curiosities. In our homes, hallways are spaces shared with those we know well; in hotels, hallways are tight byways, places where we share space with strangers.

Jack is a stranger to his wife and son, and possibly to himself — his Vermont teaching backstory is blurry in Kubrick’s treatment. He appears to have been birthed at this hotel, naughty from the start (he is casually reading an issue of Playgirl while waiting to meet with the hotel’s manager). Early in the film, he spends much time in the hotel lobby — typing gibberish for hours, throwing a tennis ball at the wall, starring into a model of the hedge maze — but as the film progresses, Jack is more confined to tight spaces: the Gold Room bathroom, the storeroom, and the hotel’s many hallways.

Dick Hallorann’s long, slow walk seems to get longer and slower with each viewing of the film. The Shining continues past its final reel: a hallway without end.

2. Black Christmas (1974)

The film’s anonymous killer hides in the attic of a sorority house, so he must descend through the upstairs hallway. Near the end of the film, Jess Bradford is alone in the big house, worried as much about the prank-calling killer as she is about her overbearing boyfriend — who is enraged about her decision to get an abortion.

Director Bob Clark, who would revisit this holiday in a lighter fashion within A Christmas Story, plays with hallways and tunnels throughout the film. The police attempt to trace the obscene calls made to the sorority, and the narrative cuts to a technician at the phone company trying to find the origin as he moves through hallways of sound.

3. The House of the Devil (2009)

Viewers of horror films from the ’80s remember the convoluted music interludes that preface the real horror. Think Silent Night, Deadly Night for the right amount of camp. Ti West’s film is a litany of horror homages, but his two-minute dance interlude is quite effective. College student Samantha Hughes spends the night house-sitting for strange owners. An ill, elderly family member rests upstairs, behind a closed door. Bored, Samantha pops a cassette of The Fixx into her Walkman, puts on her headphones, and rocks her way around the house. The song stops when she knocks over a vase in the upstairs hallway.

In a later scene that nods to Rosemary’s Baby, Samantha walks down the hallway, knife in hand. She is not prepared for what happens next.

4. The Exorcist (1974)

Regan MacNeil is sick, and her mother is desperate. She soon enlists the Catholic Church via nearby Georgetown University, where some Jesuits still dabble in that old-time ritual of exorcism. Father Damien Karras, perhaps the most haunted priest to ever appear on film, battles the demon that inhabits Regan. Beaten by the guilt of not caring for his ill mother, Karras limps his way through early attempts to banish the demon.

William Friedkin holds Karras’s pause for a heavy moment. He stands between the domestic world and the supernatural world; are not bedrooms our most mystical spaces — where we love and sleep?

5. Halloween (1978)

I have always found John Carpenter’s film to be so perfectly suburban — violence and mayhem in one house, silence and peace next door.

Exhausted Laurie Strode has stabbed somnambulant killer Michael Myers in the neck. She tells the children she’s been babysitting to get help, and then do — they run out the front door, their screams piercing the suburban silence. Moments later, as Laurie rests in the hallway’s doorframe, Myers rises. A blank-faced Lazarus, Myers is the perfect villain for horror in the home.

6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

In the climactic scene, the film’s title character finds that a hidden door in her closet leads to a hallway. Rosemary enters, and immediately faces a painting of a burning church.

Rosemary’s subsequent walk is funereal: her body has been drugged, her heart has been wounded, and her child has been taken. As in Halloween, the threshold between hallway and room becomes a place of union, but the effect is somehow opposite. The satanists in the room first appear banal, urban, engaged in a cocktail chatter, while the hallway Rosemary exited was the infernal place.

Parley Ann Boswell sees Roman Polanski’s work in this film as influential for Kubrick in The Shining: the long hallway “provides a sort of birth canal.” Rosemary is, at the least, reborn to a clearer sense of sight when she exits the hallway.

7. Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento’s film mixes pulsating images, almost impossible colors, and an overwhelming score by Goblin to create a psychotropic Black Mass.

American dancer Suzy Bannion attends a ballet academy in Freiburg. After leaving practice, Suzy walks down a hallway. She encounters a strange woman and a child who put a spell on her.

Hallways are transformative throughout the film. A red glow paints Suzy as she hopes to discover the evil secret within the school’s labyrinthine corridors.

8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The only place that might contain more charged memories than our childhood home is our high school.

Nancy Thompson wakes in class to see the animated corpse of her friend Tina sitting next to her. A student in the front of the room drones lines from Hamlet, the class rapt. Nancy follows Tina’s blood trail to the hallway.

It is best to end with a film about nightmares, because that is how we sometimes encounter hallways. We wake from a bad dream and rub our eyes. Unable to sleep, we walk down the hall, and though we know there is nothing to be afraid of, our fingers trail along the wall, hope for comfort in the dark.

Nobody’s Ever Ready: Snow in Poetry, Fiction, and Film

Snow is story. Snow can be an interruption and annoyance, but it is difficult to not appreciate a child’s awe for the white flakes. Snow clogs and closes roads, but it also turns lonely hills into slopes for sledding. Snow is the possibility of a new landscape, if only until for an hour, a day, or a week.

I was born during an Ash Wednesday snowstorm. My father rushed my mother to Morristown Memorial Hospital while white cloaked the streets. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I scoped side roads for hills and banks. The best routes had speed and a smooth finish, and though I would drift to a stop, I would stare into the sky, and not care that I was cold. I listened for school closings on a Sansui, my face lit by the dial. Now I refresh the National Weather Service website as watches become warnings, and still pine for storms.

That white world has influenced my writing: my novella, This Darksome Burn, begins during an Oregon storm, and one of my poems, “The Mailman,” laments undelivered mail. Snow has also become a refrain in my reading. Snow fractures storylines and complicates characters. Snow forces writers to capture atmosphere and mood, and to uniquely describe a common event. Although we may experience many snowstorms in our lifetimes, each fall must be prepared for, dealt with, and, possibly, appreciated. I’ve noticed that writers often raise their descriptive bar when representing this winter world. What follows is a list of snow in poetry, fiction, and film. The usual suspects are mentioned, but my focus is on lesser-known gems. There’s enough reading and watching to keep you busy during the next polar vortex, blizzard, or even onion snow.

I. Snow in Poetry
Antarctica” by James Hoch (2007)

Friends kneel on the dirt floor of a baseball dugout. They pop nitrous canisters “into the communion shapes / of our mouths, slipped inside where / everything seemed to be falling snow.” The poem continues with that steel-like chill, as some boys drift toward further abuse, and even death. Hoch never glorifies drug use, but, like the blur of side-falling snow, he muddies the space between regret and nostalgia. The grown narrator sees kids “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” and recalls his own youth, when he and his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” Hoch’s poem appeared in an issue of Painted Bride Quarterly, but I prefer the version that was included in his second book, Miscreants.

A Winter’s Tale” by D.H. Lawrence (1916)

Snow and love are commonly intertwined, but Lawrence begins this poem in the “grey” past, where the woman’s footsteps document her existence. She is gone: “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky; / but she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half / sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.” Yesterday, she had rushed to meet the narrator for their “inevitable farewell; / the hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow– / why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?” No warmth in this storm.

Invocation” by Denise Levertov (1969)

In 1994, Levertov wrote “Swan in Falling Snow,” based on the photography of her friend, Mary Randlett. Although the title sounds pleasant, the poem is not: the swan is nearly dead, a “barrel-sized, heart-shaped snowball.” Levertov uses commas as knives: “splayed feet, balanced, / weary, immobile.” Yet Levertov had long been interested in snow’s ability to turn a narrative. “Invocation” is a sparer piece, resembling patches of dirt on a snowed page. The collective narrator is about to leave home, and each line in the first stanza is its own sentence, building the anticipation. Here, snow is not worried over, but wished for: “Deep snow shall block all entrances / and oppress the roof and darken / the windows.” Only snow can shutter a home and prevent entry. And that is fine, because the narrator hopes Lares will “guard” the “profound dreams” between the walls, so “that it return to us when we return.” It also contains my most favorite line in all of poetry: “The house yawns like a bear.”

Early October Snow” by Robert Haight (2013)

A nor’easter slammed New Jersey the day before Halloween, 2011. Trees snapped power lines as some counties saw nearly 20 inches of accumulation. Haight’s poem brought me back to that moment: “this morning we wake to pale muslin / stretched across the grass.” The narrator knows the snow will not stay, but the blanched landscape still fascinates him. I love a poem that isn’t supposed to happen. Snow should wait its turn, but Haight makes this early fall so believable, from the pumpkins that look like “planets / shrouded by clouds” to “leaves, still soldered to their branches / by a frozen drop of dew, splash / apple and pear paint along the roadsides.”

Ash-boughs” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1885)

Hopkins’s final sonnet, “To R.B.,” is a lament about the narrator’s inability to experience “the fine delight that fathers thought:” inspiration to write poetry. “R.B.” is Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, but more importantly, Hopkins’s friend and posthumous publisher. The pair met at Oxford, and agnostic Bridges was the perfect contrast to Hopkins, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit priest. Bridges named this fragment “Ash-boughs” when he published Hopkins’s Collected Poems in 1918. A curtal sonnet, one of Hopkins’s idiosyncratic 12 line variations of the form, the poem begins with a narrator’s wonder at “a milk to the mind:” the branches of ash trees. He enjoys their shapes, reach, and color: “ May / mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray / of greenery.” The tree reaches through the memory of snow to the promise of spring and light.

Hopkins had always connected snow and ash trees, and used their intersection to present his central poetic theory, inscape. Hopkins once explained to Bridges that “no doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” His theory of inscape is equally unusual: “the essential and only lasting thing…species or individually-distinctive beauty of style.” The theory became the core paradox of Hopkins’s poetry and life, which Bridges observed as “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism,” and what W.H. Gardner calls the “tension between the inborn creative personality of the artist and the acquired religious character of the Jesuit priest.”

That one of our most inventive poets synthesized his poetic and personal theories using snow brings me joy. From his notebook, in February and April, 1873: “In the snow flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outline with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps…All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom…[in April] the ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first. I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”

Further Reading

A great list of snow poems appears in the essay “Turning Up the Gravity” by Floyd Skloot. After a bad storm, Skloot heads inside and envelopes himself in winter verse: “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowflakes” by Howard Nemerov, “Snow Light” by May Sarton, “SNO” by e.e. cummings, “The Snow on Saddle Mountain” by Gary Snyder, “Snow” by Charles Wright, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” by Robert Bly,  “Snow” by Philip Levine, “Winter Poem” by Frederick Morgan, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, and “Desert Places” by Robert Frost: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.” I would also add “Snow” by Mary Ruefle, “A Winter Without Snow” by J.D. McClatchey, “[Like brooms of steel]” by Emily Dickinson, “February Snow” by Francisco Aragón, “The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letter from the Ice Field, December” by Sara Eliza Johnson, and, of course, “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, which ends: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

II. Snow in Fiction
The Pedersen Kid by William Gass (1961)

Gass wrote his novella “to entertain a toothache;” I first read it while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. Within his plans for the story’s draft, he explains his goal to “present evil as a visitation –sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable,” bringing to life a line spoken in the text: “nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Gass’s cast is full of effective caricatures: drunken Pa, confused Ma, conniving farm-hand Big Hans, and young Jorge, the first person narrator. Snow appears in the second sentence: in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard, Big Hans discovers a child, the Pedersen kid. The child is resuscitated but delirious, and the family attempts to discover why he is there. Armed with shotguns, sandwiches, and coffee, the men of the home cross snow to hunt the man with mysterious “yellow gloves:” assumedly, someone who has killed the rest of the Pedersen family.

In a story that both parodies and praises the adventure genre, the men experience horse troubles and shudder from cold. Pa loses his whiskey bottle in the snow, and Gass spends several pages on Pa’s obsessive search, leading to Jorge’s conclusion: “It was frightening — the endless white space.” The horse ultimately shatters the bottle, and the “brown stain spread,” the “snow bubbling and sagging.” Big Hans laughs, and Jorge thought they “could melt and drink the snow.” Jorge hates Big Hans; would hate him “forever — as long as there was snow.” A Beckett-style scene unfolds. Snow and storm create a maniacal world that is equal parts caricature and deadly real. The men reach the Pedersen barn, and Jorge hears gunshots. In the novella’s final psychotropic pages, Jorge feels reborn in the abandoned Pedersen home, though the killer might near: “More and more, while we’d been coming, I’d been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe.” His thoughts drift toward “a movie where the months had blown from the calendar like leaves. Girls in red peek-a-book BVDs were skiing out of sight.” He sees his motionless father being buried under new snowfall, and realizes there is nothing he can do until spring: “There was no need for me to grieve…The snow would keep me.” He accepts that the “winter time had finally got them all.”

“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen (1988)

From the introduction to Ted Kooser’s book of poems, The Blizzard Voices: “[these poems were] snagged…from actual reminiscences, recorded in old age, of people who survived the most talked about storm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard because of the many children and their teachers who were trapped in rural schools on the bitterly cold days of January 12 and 13.” Hansen’s fictional dramatization of the blizzard is frightening. “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw:” wicked suggests snowfall as sentient villain. The storm took most by surprise: “Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog.”

Animals are thrown about: “Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died.”  Humans appear to lose their minds. “Ainslie Classen” (Hansen’s usage of proper names lends a dated census-like feel to the narrative) “work[ed] his hands into the pigs’ hot wastes, and smeared some onto his skin.”  Mathias Aachen’s house is in disarray: “When a jar of apricots burst open that night and the iced orange syrup did not ooze out” the father of the house promises that “every one of us will be dying of cold before morning.” Aachen doesn’t wait for the storm: “he tilted hot candle wax into his right ear and then his left, until he could only hear his body drumming blood.  And then Aachen got his Navy Colt and kissed his wife and killed her. And then walked under the green tent cloth and killed his seven children, stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload.”

The wicked storm kills “a Harrington woman,” “an Omaha cigar maker,” “a cattle inspector,” “a Chicago boy,” “a forty year-old wife,” and many more.  This is certainly no ordinary storm based on volume alone, but Hansen redoubles the almost mythical convention of snow through description: “Everything she knew was no longer there. She was in a book without descriptions. She could put her hand out and her hand would disappear.” Hansen makes snow a legend.

“Time and Again” by Breece Pancake (1977)

Although she deemed the story “relatively weak” and having a “sort of comic book Gothicism” in her 1983 review, Joyce Carol Oates anthologized Pancake’s morbid story in American Gothic Tales. I assume her appreciation increased with subsequent readings. I was sold on my first reading. Pancake’s story begins indoors: “Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died.” The sentences lean forward; they are blinks of an eye, individual shots, appended with heavy periods.

The narrator’s son has been gone for years. This lonely man keeps hogs, “old hogs. Not good for anything,” but makes his money driving the plow for Mr. Weeks. Besides a loud clue — “the lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat” — the narrator first seems more cantankerous than murderous: “The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead.” He soon picks up a hitchhiker, “a polite boy,” who reminds the narrator of his son. The talk reaches the man’s hogs, and he says they die hard, much harder than men in war. Death remains the topic of discussion: they talk of a serial killer who prays on local hitchhikers. The narrator then talks of snapping the necks of German soldiers in a French farmhouse during a World War II snowstorm. “People die so easy,” he thinks; unspoken words, but heard by the reader. He grips the lug wrench, and asks the boy to look under the seat for his flashlight. But the killing strike never comes. He spares the boy, and drives up the mountain. He tries to think about all the men he killed in France, but can’t think past that night in the storm. He returns home, and Pancake hints at what the narrator usually feeds the hogs. This time, they are unhappy.

How to Talk to a Hunter” (pdf) by Pam Houston (1990)

Besides “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t found better usage of second person narration. The unnamed main character has fallen for the hunter, who “won’t play back his messages while [she is] in the room.” She is attracted to him, but also to the comfort of a warm body in bed during the winter. She imagines that it will snow for “thirteen straight days,” and that they will spend the hours together.

She soon learns that those unchecked messages are from another woman. Houston’s second person narrator outlines a hypothetical storyline: the other woman will bridge the distance from Montana and bring heavy snow with her. Closed highways will snowbound them, and the main character will realize that this man is like all the others: he is his needs and wants, and nothing more. Although not a drop of this storm actually falls, Houston absolutely convinces the reader that this character can worry herself frozen. In fact, by the end of the story there is little discernment between past, present, and possibility, except the realization that the “nights are getting shorter now,” but no less painful.

“A Change of Season” by James Bond (1984)

Bond’s story was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he also published fiction in Willow Springs (“Whiskey Sunday Refusal” and “Fools Fall”), but has disappeared from the literary radar. This is both surprising and not. The story torques its authentic tension through a rotating first person narration, yet it feels somewhat provincial on a first read. Two logging families, the Yanceys and Davazs, are in the midst of a competition for timber and pride. Both think the other clan is unfit for this work, but both agree “if a man can last the winter here he’s got a chance; if he can beat the winter here, he’s somebody.” Buck Davaz claims the Yanceys are “scared of snow:” the second they see fall, they “grab up everything and run, axes, tractors, trucks, saws, and what they can’t carry they throw ahead of them.” Randall Yancey, one of the sons, says Buck “didn’t know winter.”

But Buck needs Bill Yancey’s help. His Snowcat is stuck up on the mountain, and he’s got forty to sixty thousand feet of timber that he’s willing to “pay a pretty penny for help hauling.” Yancey hates scaling the mountain during a fall, but money talks, so he agrees to help. Buck needs the help but revels in Bill’s poor driving in the snow. They load and chain the Snowcat to a truck, but Bill’s towing truck slides before getting stuck. The narrative shifts perspective but never relents, as each man criticizes the other, before Buck ultimately gets his own ride stuck. Angry and frustrated, Buck smashes the windshield with a maul, and strides toward the Yanceys, wielding an axe in his other hand. Each time I read this story, I expect the worst possible ending, but Buck only walks past them, echoing a maxim he speaks earlier in the story: “Knowing when to stop fighting, that’s a side of strength most never learn.”

Further Reading

“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (as well as his non-fiction, Winter: Notes from Montana), the haunting conclusion of “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, the “Snow” chapter in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey; Snow by Orhan Pamuk, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff, and, of course, “The Dead” by James Joyce (“And he [wrote the story] when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” — Mary Gordon).

III. Snow in Film
Pontypool (2008)

A horror movie about linguistics, radio stations, and snow? It exists, and begins with a riddle that includes Norman Mailer, the JFK assassination, and how “physical details spasm for a moment” after a tragic event. Shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is unhappy with his new assignment in a small Ontario town: “These late winters I feel like I’m living in the basement of the world.” On his way to work on Valentine’s Day morning, Mazzy encounters a distraught woman who smacks against his window, says the word “blood,” and then disappears into the snow. And that fall is only beginning: the storm is about to last all day. Local news reports of a hostage situation and gunfire flame into a zombie attack. Their virus is language. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, calls them “conversationalists.” Cult followers of the film (and its novel basis, by Tony Burgess) point to an essay by William S. Burroughs, “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars:” “the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”

This virus begins as a repetition of a word, like a broken record. The album is love: this is Valentine’s Day, so those infected repeat terms of endearment. The repetition devolves into fracture, and words break down. During the final stage, the medium swallows the message: “you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Soon the entire town of Pontypool is placed under quarantine. Mazzy steps outside into the blizzard, but the snow pushes inside, just as the infected pound against doors and windows. Mazzy shifts from sarcastic to serious as he recounts obituaries for those killed and who kill each other, shown in a snow-white and black interlude that recalls Wisconsin Death Trip. Soon the infected smash their way into the studio, and the snow follows, blown like wavering lines of stereo sound.

The Shining (1980)

Disciples of Stanley Kubrick have been mining this film long before Room 237 (2013) made basement theories mainstream, but its depiction of snow also deserves mention. My first viewing was a version recorded from WPIX in the late 1980’s. There was no audio during the opening sequence (the Torrance family driving to the interview at the Overlook Hotel, with scrolling, aqua-colored credits breaking beautiful scenery), but the sound kicked-in like a shock. The film is suffused with snow. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for the caretaker position, the window behind the manager beams light, as if the sun is burning off snow. The manager explains that the hotel closes until May, since the cost to plow the collected 20 feet of winter snow is prohibitive. A former schoolteacher and hopeful novelist, he longs for the isolation afforded by this job. He lives in Boulder, but is from Vermont, a place of snow, and claims his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will love the change. He also claims that his wife will be entertained, not frightened, by the manager’s revelation that a former caretaker murdered his family before committing suicide. The eccentricities of the Torrance family are nothing compared to Danny’s psychic powers.

Jack gets the job, and the snowfall doesn’t disappoint. Phone lines are down during a storm early in the film, so Wendy contacts the forest service on a radio. The ranger says it is one of the worst storms they’ve had in years. A shot of the heavy fall precedes Danny’s wandering into the forbidden room 237. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) shares Danny’s psychic powers, and realizes that Jack’s eccentricities have descended into violence. Dick flies from Miami to Colorado, and then drives along a highway littered with overturned trucks and spun-out cars, a white graveyard. He is on the way to the hotel, but his well-intentioned help is not enough.

During the climactic scenes, Wendy has locked herself and Danny in the bedroom to hide from Jack’s wrath. She is only able to open the window halfway. She lifts Danny through, and he slides down a gentle hill of snow to the ground. Wendy can’t fit, so, knife in hand, she waits for Jack to reach her. He axes through one panel of the door, but stops when he hears Dick’s Snowcat nearing the hotel.

The film’s infamous final sequence occurs in the hedge maze, where Danny knows snow holds the key to his survival. The curious photograph at the film’s conclusion hints that, like snow, evil always returns.

Further Viewing

Snow’s power as a visual backdrop makes it ubiquitous in film, but here are some particularly notable whiteouts: The Ice Storm (1997), based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody; Ang Lee’s representation is beautiful, but Moody’s prose is tough to top: “The ice had built up on every surface, on roofs and shrubs and avenues and cars and waterways. It formed a glittering and immense cocoon on tree limbs and power lines, a cocoon of impossible mass. The sound of tree limbs giving out under this weight was like the crackling of gunfire. Mike Williams, who was wandering around in the earliest part of dawn, heard these explosions in the stillness and laughed giddily at them. He was up really late. The threat of heavy weather impelled him out into the elements. To watch.”); Fargo (1996), where snow is present in the first and climactic scenes, and almost everywhere in-between; The Thing (1982), Antarctica is the perfect place to have a showdown with shape-shifting aliens; The Virgin Spring (1960), where a soft snowfall pierces the viewer’s already wounded heart; Black Christmas (1974), watch it for Keir Dullea’s maniacal destruction of a piano, Olivia Hussey’s authentic screams, and Margot Kidder’s dirty-mouthed sarcasm, but snow completes this precedent for John Carpenter’s Halloween; Road to Perdition (2002), Sam Mendes’s dramatization of a former mafia hitman’s (Tom Hanks) revenge was renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall’s final film, and is marked by rain and snow; A Simple Plan (1998), an unusual film in Sam Raimi’s catalog, where friends discover a small plane that had crashed into a snowy forest, with 4 million dollars in tow; Antichrist (2009), the appeal of snow brings a child to an open window, leading to tragedy in the film’s opening minutes; Snow Angels (2007), based on the Stewart O’Nan novel, is an incredibly moving drama about a fractured family that cannot escape pain, and a girl’s wayward walk in snow; Frosty the Snowman (1969), because cinematic snow does not always need to equal sadness.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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