Do fantasy writers give the night short shrift?

Posted on | December 9, 2008

One of the common complaints about much of the fantasy genre is that modern writers are so used to instantaneous worldwide communications, rich and deep libraries and knowledge, and other common physical and intellectual extensions of their selfhood that they have a hard time really grasping the vast well of ignorance about the world through which most of their characters move.  In the real world, even the best-informed prince received knowledge that was months out of date, and reactions had to be gauged based upon a very real understanding of the limitations of that knowledge.   Better writers try to write with this in mind, and I’ve seen Gene Wolfe and Joe Abercrombie pull this off admirably.

I’ve been reading Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a history of what life was like after dark, and (as it’s been resting on top of my copy of Sails and Spells, an anthology of magical fantasy on the high seas) I find myself realizing just how poorly even the best writers deal with nighttime.

Ekirch’s book makes it clear that nighttime, at least on the European continent between Rome and the advent of the light bulb, was a damn scary place.  Beer was plentiful- even the kids drank it- and the night was just mindbogglingly dark. None of the safety implementations we’re comfortable with today existed.  Adults and children who wandered out after dark frequently died of drowning and falling at a rate that would be shocking today.  Fire was a constant terror, especially as urbanization butted one house up against its neighbors, such that “if one house caught fire, the whole town is obliged to burn down.”  Crime was also prevalent it a way we cannot even imagine, so much so that London courts accepted “sleeps in the daytime” as cause to suspect one was a burglar or other “nightwalker.”

In Ekrich’s telling, the Church used the fear of fire as a way of holding off the spread of artificial illumination (falling asleep with a candle lit was a frequent cause of whole city blocks going up in flames), and held that the night was the time when one’s soul was in peril, one should stay indoors, and sleep or pray.  Towns would not just close their gates but drag large logs into throughfares to prevent men and horses from moving about the city willfully at night.

I’m not sure if it’s personal artificial illumination, or light pollution in general, but it seems to me that most fantasy writers treat night as if it were daytime, only darker, and coincidentally a time for eating and sleeping.  Nighttime only becomes siginificantly different from daytime when it’s convenient.  (I’m looking at you, Jacqueline Carey.)

If part of the magic of speculative writing is to create a sense of a genuinely different place and time, writers could do better to handle the very real terror, mystery, and intrigue of the night itself.

Ekrich makes a strong case that, in pre-modern times, a very different and persistent culture emerged after dark, one with its own sensibilities that were rarely invoked in daylight.  Are there writers who you think handled this well?

Comments

4 Responses to “Do fantasy writers give the night short shrift?”

  1. warstoke
    December 11th, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    hey have you read much of feist work most of the time his fantasy works treat night very well night like in the cities …. well they are filled with artificial illumination both mundane and magical
    all but elves and hunters treat dark as dark

  2. Ed
    January 5th, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    You mention a book or reference volume called “Sails and Spells, an anthology of magical fantasy on the high seas”…I have not been able to find any information on this as it seems like it might be interesting to me. Could you provide some more information on it?

  3. Elf Sternberg
    January 17th, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    Hi, Ed, the book is Sails and Sorcery, from Fantasist Enterprises Press.
    http://www.fantasistent.com/books/anthologies/SAILS.php

  4. Elf Sternberg
    February 6th, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    No, I haven’t read much Feist. Folks keep telling me to do so but I never seem to get around to it.

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