Well, this is a bit out of character. Here I am with a book recommendation post that’s not based on a meme or book tag. I’d like to congratulate myself for stepping out of my comfort zone, but this is all because I haven’t seen a meme or book tag that focuses on only atmospheric stories.
I’ve been working on this post for weeks because I keep overthinking it. I feel weird recommending books sometimes because I start thinking that I haven’t read enough and I don’t know much, but I’ve gotten over myself for the moment and will share in this post a few books I’ve read that I’d describe as atmospheric.
The term “atmospheric” sometimes baffles me. I’ve only ever seen it applied to stories that are dark and gloomy and eerie, which makes me wonder if it’s only such books that can be described as atmospheric. But I’m sure that’s not right. I call a story atmospheric if it convinces me of a particular feeling… Okay, that probably didn’t make much sense, but I now realize that this is hard to explain. For me, an atmospheric novel is one that convinces me of a particular “feeling” about the setting, which doesn’t necessarily has to be dark and eerie.
So, here are a few novels that have a strong sense of atmosphere:
The Storm King by Brendan Duffy
This is a mystery, thriller novel set in a small town nestled along a large lake in New York’s Adirondacks mountains. The story is about a doctor called Nate who returns to his hometown after the body of a high-school friend washes up on the shore of the lake. Nate reunites with old friends, but not everyone is happy to see him and soon the dangerous pranks Nate and his friends used to play as teens start happening again…except Nate and his friends are the targets.
When the story begins, we learn that a hurricane is supposed to hit the area. The pace of the story matches the buildup to the storm. The passages leading up the climax are slow but become increasingly intense until the hurricane hits. Then the plot speeds along to the resolution.
I love the intensity of the storm because it adds to the story’s suspense and I love the hint of creepiness that we get from a decrepit nightclub that crouches by the lake, which seems almost sentient. The combination made the story intriguing despite its slow pace and made me think it would touch on the paranormal, which it did not.
Atmosphere: mysterious, brooding, tense
The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri
(trans. from Italian)
This is marketed as a fantasy novel, but I think of it as magical realism…(actually, I keep debating with myself whether or not this is fantasy or even magical realism)… Anyway, it’s set in southern Italy and is about a group of friends — four guys — who made a pact after high school to meet in the same place in their home town every year to catch up. But this time, the most eccentric of them, the dude who started the pact — Art, — does not show up. His friends decide to search for him, which strongly reminds them of the time Art disappeared for 7 days as a kid and was changed by the experience. As they search for Art, the friends learn weird, unsettling things about him, and realize that finding him might be dangerous.
Well, that quick summary didn’t do the story justice, so I strongly urge you to read the novel. It’s worth it.
“The wind, in particular, behaves like a psychopath. It bites and lashes at you, and when it blows from the sea, it crushes you with the stink of dead fish and a dampness that weighs you down like clothing when you are drowning.”
One of the things I love about this story is the setting and how it affects the characters. The story is set in southern Italy, where it’s bright with large open spaces. That sounds ideal, perfect for vacation, but it can be overpowering and sometimes makes the characters feel insignificant. The vast blueness of the sky can belittle a man and the bright sunlight can be too much. Then there’s the wind. That driving force that can propel characters to certain actions, and the oppressive humidity that precedes the drama of a thunderstorm. I’d never think of this setting as a place where the fantastic and surreal — the hidden things? — could occur, but the atmosphere of this book convinced me of that.
Atmosphere: suspenseful, intense, oppressive
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This is one of my favorite books. It’s a historical fiction, fantasy novel about a circus that is only open at night. There, two magicians compete to see who is best. They perform and show their creations to an audience that is unaware that they are witnessing real magic, even some of the circus performers are not fully aware of how magical the circus is.
Oh I love the setting of this book and wish the Night Circus was real! It tours the world, so its location changes frequently, yet in every location it retains its whimsy and mystery that makes patrons, and readers, want to be a part of it. To me, the circus seems to be a character itself. It seems sentient or at least aware of what occurs within it. The eccentric characters and tents filled with wondrous experiences and things, even the statues that seem alive, all add to the fantastic nature of the Night Circus and, by extension, the story.
Atmosphere: mysterious, enchanting
the Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater
The Raven Boys
The Dream Thieves
Blue Lily, Lily Blue
The Raven King
The Raven Cycle is a YA fantasy series about a group of teens — 4 dudes and a girl — searching for a dead Welsh king along ley lines in Henrietta, Virginia. Ley lines are alignments of places of geographical and historical importance that, in the Raven Cycle series, tend to possess strong and unusual energy.
For much of the series, the pace of the story is unhurried, which gives the story an almost relaxed tone that matches the southern atmosphere of its setting. However, there is an eeriness about the settings, especially the forest Cabeswater, that gives the story a haunting feeling. It makes me wary as I read because it makes me think that any random thing can happen at any moment.
Atmosphere: eerie, haunting
So, what do you think?
What are some books that you would describe as atmospheric? Do you agree with my choices here? Let me know.