For somebody who hates to describe things in her writing, I’m a big fan of setting. I think of setting as another character, as context that changes the conflict in a scene, as barriers and enablers, as a huge carrier of theme, so I keep Pinterest boards of pictures I find that evoke setting in the same way that I keep pictures of people that evoke character. That is, just as I’ll have multiple placeholders for a single character because I’m trying to evoke a mood/personality instead of the way somebody actually looks, I’ll have multiple pictures of different places to represent the same setting because I want to evoke what it feels like to be there.
Which brings us to hostile architecture.
Atlas Obscura has this great piece on designing urban spaces to be hostile to the homeless, to addicts, to teens, to anybody else they want to say “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” (This always evokes Hot Fuzz for me, all those privileged sociopaths intoning “for the greater good.”) I tripped on the article because I saw this picture of a fence in the teaser for it:
That’s the fence that’s around Dark House when Zo and Gleep see it in the first scene of “Zo White and the Five Orphants,” the first story in Paradise Park. I knew I wanted something bleak and dark and hostile, but until I saw this vicious piece of boundary iron, I had no idea how awful it could be. I like the “hostile architecture” tag because it sells the way I look at setting: you see that fence and you know the people inside it are just mean sons of a bitches, afraid of the outside world getting in, close-minded and hostile, so you make sure your characters are on the outside of it and need to get in. Setting as barrier, setting as character (for Randolph who owns the house and put up the fence), setting as mood, and setting as theme, a story about outsiders who are trapped by the architecture not only of the lethal house but by the architecture of society, homeless orphans rejected for being too different. That fence as setting sums it all up for me.
It also reminds me of one of the best bits of setting as antagonist, conflict enhancer, mood builder, and theme that I’ve ever read, the house from The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson was a viciously good writer, and her description of a house built so that every wall was just a fraction off plumb so that no room ever felt right, not only meant there was a permanent sense of unease in the book, but that there was never a safe place to stand in the architecture and in the story. The house in that case was literally hostile, but it was the physical description that sold it and still makes the story impossible for me to read at night. (I read it when I was about twelve, in bright daylight with my best friend reading it beside me while we held hands, it was that damn scary. Haven’t read it since but I think maybe I might go back to it when I can see clearly enough to read again. It’s great fiction, but it’ll scare the hell out of you.)
Of course some of the best bits of hostile design come from the movies, like this hallway that looks like monster’s teeth from Crimson Peak:
Gothics are always going to be goldmines for hostile architecture, but I like even more the subtle stuff, like Hill House’s walls being not quite right, or like some of the benches that look so lovely but are designed to be too uncomfortable for the homeless to sleep on:
Because the key to really effective hostility is when it’s cloaked. Archtecture that says, “I’m going to tear you apart” is fun to look at because you see the threat. It’s those walls one degree off center, that beautiful curved bench that’s too narrow to fall asleep on, the amusement park that’s supposed to be for kids but looks vaguely creepy . . . that’s where hostility in setting is really effective.
I’m really fixated on this right now. Anybody else have some good examples of hostile architecture, overt or subtle, in story setting?