Given how odd the weather has been in 2016 so far (we had snow at the end of April… what’s that all about?), I’ve been thinking a bit about weird weather in fiction. So much so that I decided to devote a whole show to it: on Saturday May 7th, Hannah’s Bookshelf was all about bizarre and freaky literary weather. You can listen again to the show on the player below, but, as promised, here’s the list of books that were featured on the show.
Not to be confused with the 1980 John Carpenter film of the same name, James Herbert’s horror novel tells the story of John Holman, who is investigating a Ministry of Defence base in Wiltshire when an earthquake opens a crack in the earth. John’s car is swallowed up by the quake, but that’s not the worst part… the cracked earth is now releasing a sinister fog that turns people dangerously insane. John is the fog’s first victim – but he becomes the only man able to defeat the noxious cloud.
Okay… the deadly gas isn’t really ‘fog’ as such, so it’s not strictly speaking ‘weird weather’ (one book in and I’ve already cheated!), but it’s still a classic and deserves to be on the list. For me, the best bits of the book are the little horrific vignettes detailing the effects of the ‘fog’ on people up and down the UK. Stephen King described it as a work of ‘raw urgency’, and that seems a pretty fair assessment.
This may be the first time Baum’s beloved American fairytale has appeared on a reading list next to a James Herbert novel, but hopefully this isn’t too much of a controversial choice. (Incidentally, I’d love to know if anyone ever decides to use these themed shows as a reading list!) I doubt I need to explain why I’ve included The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on this list – the twister that carries Dorothy Gale to the Land of Oz must be one of the most famous bits of weird weather in literature. But perhaps not the most famous…
Surely this must be the most well-respected and well-read example of weird weather in literature? Shakespeare’s tale of the shipwrecked Prospero – and the enslaved creatures Caliban and Ariel – appears on GCSE, A-Level and university syllabuses, and is an absolutely fascinating read (or, better yet, watch) for so many reasons. I included it on this list for the eponymous tempest, magicked up by Prospero as an act of revenge/reconciliation on his brother Antonio, but also for its inclusion of another freaky weather phenomenon: St Elmo’s Fire. When Prospero asks Ariel if the tempest has been created as he ordered, the subservient spirit replies:
“To every article.
I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement; sometime I’ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.” (Act I, Sc. 2)
(Bet you can’t guess which song I played after I talked about this…)
In a show dedicated to weather, I really wanted to include a book about my favourite weather: snow. And why not some sci-fi snow? Roberts’ novel begins with snow falling on London in September – which is slightly weird. But the snow doesn’t stop falling, and eventually the world is smothered under three miles of the stuff – which is a bit weirder. The book follows Tira, a woman from London who has managed to survive the apocalyptic snowfall, who is discovered by a group of miners from the newly rebuilt ‘civilization’ that sits above the snow. Told in an unusual style that mimics government transcripts, The Snow touches on issues to do with military law and censorship, but, as with several of the books on this list, it’s the eeriness of the weather that really stuck in my mind.
After the snow, I thought it might be time for some sun. First published as The Burning World, this early novel by Ballard followed The Wind From Nowhere (1961) and The Drowned World (1962), and was itself followed by The Crystal World (1966). This quartet of ‘catastrophe novels’ deal with the causes and effects of intense weather and natural phenomena that erode and destroy human life as we know it. The Drought is set during a years-long drought, brought about after rain ceases to fall (so it’s really the rain that’s weird, rather than the sun). Charles Ransom has been living at a gradually drying lake with an assortment of neighbours but, after a decade without rain, he finally decides to do what so many other people have already done and head towards the ocean. As with much of Ballard’s work (particularly the early novels) plot and characterization often take a backseat to the surreal landscapes and ‘strange beauty’ of the apocalyptic vision, and it’s an odd, unsettling, but really quite dazzling read.
No list of fictional weather would be complete without at least one Gothic text. No genre does overdramatic weather and punishing natural elements with such enthusiasm as the Gothic. Almost every Victorian penny dreadful I’ve edited begins with a storm, and the image of a sharp bolt of lightning breaking through the clouds on a perilously dark night is pretty much the genre’s catchphrase. So it’s only fitting I ended the show with a spooky bit of late Victoriana – I was spoilt for choice, but decided to go with Bram Stoker’s short story because it has a great description of hailstones (and, after the weird April hailstorms we had this year, I thought this was fitting). ‘Dracula’s Guest’ (probably) began life as an early chapter of Dracula, but it wasn’t included in the published novel. An unnamed narrator travels from Munich to Transylvania, unaware that his journey is occuring on Walpurgisnacht. When a storm breaks, and he violently assaulted by hailstones, the traveller is driven into a tomb for shelter… and now he must spend the night with something not quite of this world.
To hear more about all of these books and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen again to my Weird Weather special here: