Autumn: The Deadest Season

This is an essay I wrote awhile back about why utilizing the season of autumn in horror stories is a brilliant idea. I’m reposting here, just for fun.
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The Deadest Season

At the beginning of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe foreshadows the doom he is about to unleash as an author by having his unnamed protagonist survey and describe the scene as he approaches the home of his friend, Roderick Usher. He writes:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible (Poe).

It is likely that most people, if asked which they considered to be the deadest season of the four, would answer winter. Winter, for much of the world, is cold, bleak, and dark. Trees wave bare, bony branches in the wind. The landscape shows the grays and browns that belie the burgeoning life that lies beneath the surface. Nevertheless, Edgar Allan Poe, that master of the terror-filled literary setting, in one of his most popular stories, chooses autumn.

Autumn, in fact, is the true season of death. As such, it offers a rich setting to authors seeking to craft stories with death as the theme. Poe’s mastery as an author lay in his application of terror to every aspect of his work: characterization, theme, plot, and not least of all, setting. Authors with very different purposes, however, can still learn from Poe’s expertise and use autumn as a setting to highlight their profound themes of death and rebirth, grief, or loss. Such a setting would help the reader experience the theme on a visceral, subconscious level. This is a credit to a master wordsmith who doesn’t bludgeon the reader with an obvious and transparent ploy. So what does autumn offer?

Most importantly, autumn is literally the season when things die. In winter, what has died merely lies dormant, waiting for rebirth. Autumn, on the other hand, simply reeks of the death chamber! The temperature grows colder and colder, and the sky is often gray and gloomy, with clouds seeming to suffocate the earth and its inhabitants. The leaves on the trees curl in on themselves, becoming parched and withered. Gone is the juiciness of spring and summer. Eventually, the leaves give up their last gasp and fall to the ground, only to be crushed to dust. Light fades in ever increasing increments, moving inexorably towards the deep darkness of the Winter Solstice. At Midwinter, the wheel turns, and the light returns, but while it is still autumn, the dark advances.

If winter is a time of stillness, quiet, and inactivity, then autumn is a time of frenzy and hysteria in preparation. People’s minds are filled with covering windows with plastic, purchasing warm winter clothing, harvesting food for the upcoming winter. People are busy, busy, busy—busy preparing for death. Even the animals run to and fro, lining their nests and burrows and gathering food for the dead time. That they are too busy even to pay attention to the actions of humans lends a sense of isolation to the season. Mr. Poe would likely point out that in autumn, anything could happen, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to notice!

Autumn is indeed the deadest season of all. That season of the steady and unstoppable journey into darkness is like a macabre gift to writers who work with themes of grief, loss, or death. Open that gift, and use it to create settings that enhance theme and plot in subtle and unobtrusive ways. If it’s good enough for Mr. Poe, it’s good enough for anybody!

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Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Doubleday. 1984.

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