This year’s brutal winter in parts of the northern hemisphere has brought blizzards, ice storms, hurricane-force winds, tidal surges and flooding. And it is not over yet.

Winter brings long nights, when the earth is asleep and the imagination ripe for visions both terrifying and sublime. It has served as literary inspiration ever since the early days of written storytelling – in the medieval saga Beowulf, the monster Grendel lays siege to the Danes for “twelve winters, seasons of woe” –  right up to present-day page-turners. It is a time of contrasts: winter’s snow conceals while its cold exposes. Perhaps it is a favourite season of writers also because winter forces us indoors, carving out time for us to interact with our loved ones (or not so loved ones in the case of The Shining’s Jack Torrance) and become more reflective.

Certain images recur again and again throughout wintry literature. The transformation of a river in winter from a fluid pathway to a solid one can be magical or devastating, a glassy arena for figure skating or an icy grave. This shift can convey a powerful mood.

In the opening lines of James Salter’s lyrical early novel Light Years, he describes New York’s Hudson River in winter: “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind… The day is white as paper. The windows are chilled. The quarries lie empty, the silver mine drowned. The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving.”

Viri and Nedra, the central couple, host wintry dinner parties, ice skate on the Hudson and celebrate Christmas with cozy rituals when their children are young. Salter’s luminous descriptions of the river parallel the changing emotional tides between them. Gradually, sadly, as the years pass, their marriage ices up. His winter scenes give the novel a melancholy glaze and, like many other writers, he uses the season’s frosty landscapes as an external projection of inward feeling.

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf immortalised the Great Frost of 1608, when the Thames froze to a depth of 20 feet and birds “froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground.” She examines the political dimensions of winter by emphasising the difference between the desperation of the outlying population and the phantasmagoria of the royal court. Woolf creates a virtual snowglobe of the Frost Fair, King James’ “carnival of the utmost brilliancy” on the river: “Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange and purple fire.”

A death caused by drowning in an icy river – a body dropped, “bloody and beaten”, through a hole in the ice – is a dramatic opening to Kathryn Harrison’s recent novel Enchantments. The book features winter settings in Siberia, St Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo, the Romanov family's private retreat, and shows how the season lays bare the differences between rich and poor. Her narrator Masha is the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, the sexually voracious, charismatic religious figure who was the scandal of the court of Russia’s last tsar. In the opening, Masha describes New Year’s Day in 1917, “the day they pulled Father’s body from under the ice”, as a mob scene on the Neva River. “For the rest of that terrible winter, the last of the Romanovs’ rule, St Petersburg shuddered under one riot after another,” Harrison writes, “and her citizens’ blood remained on the ice under the Petrovsky Bridge.”  

Cabin fever

Winter settings add elements of claustrophobia and danger to a story. The snowbound landscape of an off-season resort hotel in the Rocky Mountains creates a terrifying backdrop for Stephen King’s masterpiece of horror, The Shining. King has said his inspiration was a late autumn visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, in the Colorado Rockies, in 1974. In the novel, Jack Torrance – so memorably played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation – is a writer hired to be the hotel’s winter caretaker. He settles in with his wife Wendy and their five-year-old son Danny. The child has “the shine”, the ability “to understand things, to know things” that others cannot. Danny worries that his father is losing his marbles. King uses the isolation that begins with the first snowfall to emphasise the precarious mental states of the family and how little help is available.

“Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch. The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact it was now cut off from the world… Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.”

As the novel progresses, King uses winter weather brilliantly to ratchet up the tension: “It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the glittering snow crust, sometimes for real, the low whistle of the wind cranking up to a womanish shriek that made the old hotel rock and groan alarmingly even in its deep cradle of snow.”

Survival of the fittest

Beyond the season’s capacity to represent emotional and political turmoil and expose class differences there is simply this: winter is the time in which temperature extremes are most likely to be fatal. And authors invoke it constantly to symbolise danger and death. George RR Martin exploits winter’s symbolic power fully in A Game of Thrones, the first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. The book opens with a warning: “A cold wind was blowing out of the north….”

“Everyone talks of snow forty feet deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north,” Martin writes, “but the real enemy is the cold… It steals up on you and at first your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and you dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for awhile. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after awhile you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier to just sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end… ”

Equally powerful, if less baroque, is Jack London’s 1908 realistic classic, To Build a Fire. The story is set in the Yukon territory, a place of extremes. London’s dramatic pivot is simple: he pits man against nature. London’s protagonist breaks through a crust of ice:

“At the instant he broke through he felt the cold water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: travel with wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.”

Survival in winter is a matter of skill and instinct. London’s hapless Tom Vincent is lacking in both. And the frozen land itself is indifferent to his struggles. If only we could be as indifferent to winter as it is to us.

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