There’s something about winter that makes for memorable fiction. It might be the landscapes that accompany the season: the bare branches of trees, smoke rising from chimneys, snow slowly drifting towards the ground. It could be the particular dangers of the season: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” wouldn’t really work in any other season, for instance. And the fact that winter keeps people holed up in spaces, isolated or in small and intimate groups, also makes for the stuff from which great drama can arise.
What follows is a look at seven novels that explore winter in all of its forms, from the tragic to the comic, and from the terrifying to the transcendental. Here are windows on a number of different winters, and the stories that play out there, from mysterious events in isolated communities to thwarted love to frantic missions in a hostile landscape.
Edith Wharton understood better than most the complex ways in which desire, social mores, and anxiety can twist the paths of our lives. Winter pervades this story of its title character’s flawed marriage, his desire for another woman, and the obstacles to the happiness of virtually every character in the book. It’s a taut, powerful narrative set against the backdrop of cold, both of the emotional and literal varieties.
An isolated hotel, populated by restless spirits; a troubled family; a writer on the edge of sanity. Nothing good can come of these things converging — and in Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining, plenty of awful things do indeed take place. It’s a novel that abounds with unsettling imagery, a slowly accelerating plot, and a sense of place like no other — and the cold and dark outside magnifies each of the emotions that it taps into.
Certain environments call to mind winter during all seasons, and the continent of Antarctica is certainly one of them. It’s been a magnet for horror fiction: Edgar Allan Poe, John W. Campbell, Jr., and H. P. Lovecraft have all written memorable tales set there. Mat Johnson’s Pym is a knowing riff on the genre as a whole (and Poe in particular), sending an academic on a fateful expedition to the stark and snowy landscapes at the bottom of the world, where adventure and more than a little satire await.
Generation Loss is the first of Hand’s novels to feature photographer Cass Neary, a veteran of the New York punk scene who has fallen on hard times, and whose visits to isolated communities frequently reveal dark secrets and mysteries to solve. Here, the setting is a small town on the water in northern Maine, where the end of the tourist season has led to a sharp drop in population. It’s a moody, evocative book with a compelling plot, and a great sense of place heightened by the cold.
No list of novels set in winter would be complete without at least one example of Russian fiction on there. Vladimir Sorokin’s story of a doctor journeying across a distressed landscape that’s at once futuristic and archaic leaves its narrative open to plenty of interpretations. But it’s also a gripping story, with the pared-down elements of a classic adventure tale juxtaposed with numerous doses of the weird and uncanny.
Robertson Davies’s expansive, philosophical novel isn’t entirely set in the winter, and given that it covers the bulk of its narrator’s life, that’s understandable. But it’s a childhood incident in the winter involving an errant snowball that sets the plot of this novel into motion, as well as laying the groundwork for the following two volumes in Davies’s fantastic Deptford Trilogy.
Another atmospheric mystery set against the backdrop of cold weather, this novel features the investigation of a mysterious homicide. The setting is Sitka — although it’s an alternate version of the part of Alaska in which readers might be familiar. In the world of this novel, history played out differently, with a Jewish state founded in Alaska in the 1940s. Chabon captures a setting that’s at once familiar and fresh, and sets a compelling narrative there, with abundant echoes of our own world.