Iowa writer Karen Jobst is a poet whose work has appeared in various literary magazines. Her first published fiction, “Into Thin Air,” appears in our current issue (January/February 2022), in the Department of First Stories. It’s the story of a crime and subsequent flight. A flight story has, by necessity, a number of different settings, so it is appropriate that the author has chosen to write about the importance of setting in this post. —Janet Hutchings
Two pieces of literature I have never forgotten over the years are the poem, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, and the short story, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. When I look back at them, one of the first things I remember is setting, from an ember-lit chamber to a sunny town square. From sedate to convivial, setting was the bedrock in these mysteries that paved the way for my full attention.
I was around twelve-years old when my mother put a book of poetry on the coffee table with a few pages she’d check-marked in the upper right hand corner as her favorites—of course one of those was “The Raven.” I loved to read, but at twelve, poetry wasn’t on my radar and probably never would be if it weren’t for that slim book of poems always staring me in the face whenever I sat down on the sofa.
A few times I would pick it up and leaf through it, bored out of my mind—the check mark didn’t help any—until one day, my mother pointed out two poems to me, one which isn’t relevant here, titled “Trees” which was beautiful in its own right, but all trees and no mystery was not enough to rewire my lack of interest. And the other one—something I hadn’t read the likes of in all of my Nancy Drew days: “The Raven.”
The first stanza of “The Raven” poured out loneliness as the following stanzas transformed the poem into an eerie mystery. There was no chase, no murder and no change of scenery like in my Nancy Drew books. Nancy was constantly traveling all over the terrain following clues to a mystery that kept me glued to the pages. What struck me about this weird and mesmerizing poem is that it took place in one room with a fireplace, a door that opened into the night and a window. Through that window, after all the rapping, a sullen and mysterious raven made its entrance. The narrator’s safe haven had changed and would never be the same again as the bird came to rest on a bust above the door and is still there. A room filled with drowsy atmosphere and the intrusion of a mysterious bird, its origin unknown, kept me reading.
The wording of “The Raven,” for me, was difficult to get through, but the setting laid all the groundwork in increasing my dread until the end.
A few years later, in my tenth grade American Lit class I was introduced to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” To this day, I can’t remember another story I read in that thick, required reading book except for Jackson’s. Right away, setting introduced itself and never left—a friendly town square between the post office and the bank where a crowd gathered for an event that looked to be as light and airy as the June day itself. There was a pile of rocks nearby some boys were guarding, but oh well—it’s the town square. What’s the big deal about a pile of rocks? Maybe they were going to build something.
As the crowd grew, they seemed to be at home in the square. Little did I realize a group of men, women and children along with their smiles and friendly conversations was leading me into a wicked mystery?
Then the black box arrived with the three-legged stool it sat on. Their entrance was a tradition, and traditions are part of life. Besides, it was all happening in a seemingly peaceful setting and in front of the whole town, presided over by the same guy who did the square dances, the teen club and the Halloween program. I wasn’t worried—not yet.
The box is opened and the papers inside stirred up. As the head of each family waited their turn to take out a slip, the atmosphere is flipped upside down. The sunny town square wasn’t so sunny anymore. Setting beckoned the mystery to come center stage and hold its characters captive. And it did. Everyone had become a prisoner in the square, waiting until that one person opened his or her slip of paper with the black dot that no one wanted.
Toward the end of “The Lottery,” I had almost forgotten about the inherent pile of rocks slipped into the story earlier, that the townspeople would need and used to end a woman’s life—all in the name of tradition.
From a lonely chamber to a crowded town square, setting was what kept me tethered to the story. Without it, “The Raven,” and “The Lottery” would have evaporated in my mind with all the other mysteries I read and cannot recall.
Nevermore underestimate the power of a cozy chamber at midnight and a raven—or a town square in the morning and a black box.