Winter worlds are great environments for storytelling because they’re so adaptable. They’re able to inspire (the quiet grandeur of the mountains after a snowfall) or terrify (Jack Torrance slowly going unhinged as he’s snowed in with his family in The Shining).
Above photograph by Kate Russell.
Christopher J posted three of his favorite winter worlds earlier and I immediately thought of three more. Each of these snowy environments stand apart for different reasons and I’ll explain why they made an impression on me.
The Snowman’s North Pole:
Everyone drags the Charlie Brown Christmas special for being a bummer, but The Snowman makes gloom look holy. This 1982 BBC animation by Raymond Briggs and Dianne Jackson combines the fresh snowfall with just a dab of seasonal affective disorder to create twenty minutes of beautiful, bittersweet storytelling that plays out with almost no dialogue.
A young boy builds a snowman who comes to life and takes him to a pastel version of the North Pole. They attend a snowman party and meet Father Christmas. My music teacher played this in class because of the beautiful (ly sad) song I’m Walking in the Air. If you haven’t seen the animation, I guarantee you recognize the song from the billion or so times Nickelodeon advertised the VHS in the early 90s.
Spoiler: Unfortunately the title character doesn’t make it out alive, but don’t despair: the little boy grows up to be David Bowie. It’s true! David Bowie says so in the introduction.
You have to hand it to the UK: while the holidays in the states are often oppressively saccharine, the yule season for the Brits is as moody as the sun going down at 4 p.m. The Snowman articulates a part of the winter experience that few pieces of media can capture.
Weird Fiction’s Antarctica:
Nicholas Roerich, Mount of Five Treasures (Two Worlds), 1933
At one point in history Antarctica was sci-fi as heck. No one mapped it and no one knew what was down there. Its remoteness meant that crazed writers could subject their characters to any kind of feral creature or psychological distress they could imagine. This environmental blank canvas is perfect for storytelling. The continent has its own sub-genre of sci-fi called Polar Fiction.
Antarctica was removed from both humanity and time itself. Lovecraft put a lost civilization there, drawing on themes of agelessness. John Campbell’s Who Goes There? uses the empty landscape as a psychological metaphor. The story is a tale of paranoia that eventually became The Thing.
The genre shows up in the earliest science fiction stories. It’s at the opposite pole, but Mary Shelley left Frankenstein’s monster in the Arctic. In modern sci-fi Dan Simmons’ mammoth book The Terror uses a polar landscape to tell the story of an ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Simmons’ descriptions of the Arctic could be mistaken for an alien world.
Polar Fiction lives in the House of Eternal Return in “Ice Station Quellette.” Lauren Oliver-Quellette’s eerie space owls share some DNA with this genre.
Mario 64’s Cool, Cool Mountain:
Ice levels are nothing new in video games, but Mario 64 was one of the first to create a three-dimensional winter world. That’s interesting, sure, but the designers packed this level with every conceivable thing one could do in the snow: Mario builds a snowman, he gets pelted by snowballs, he sleds down a hill on his butt, he skates, he perishes of hypothermia, he cuddles a baby penguin and then sees if it can fly…
There’s not much in a Mario game that can connect with lived experience, but Cool, Cool Mountain reminds me of winter break. Did I go sledding with my friends and then play Mario 64 or am I conflating the two in my memory? I think it’s awesome that I don’t know the answer to that question.