Winter Storm Grayson has brought the most prosaic of topics—the weather—to the forefront of our thoughts, tongues and prayers. Widely denounced as the boring last resort in conversation, the weather serves the exact opposite purpose in print. It innervates the narrative, infusing stories with nature. It plucks at the reader’s flesh, numbs and singes the extremities, turns eyeteeth sensitive and faces crystalline; it bows the head, heats the chest, dampens the back, sends eyelids crashing together.
Many of our best tales—both real and imagined—are borne on the weather. After being marooned on the Isle of Calypso, it’s Poseidon’s vengeful gale that sends Odysseus on his Odyssey. An anomic, never-ending sunshine oxidizes the bleach bone island of Christopher Bollen’s The Destroyers. And a dry, craze-inducing Santa Ana wind rattles Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler’s real and imagined Angelenos.
Setting is one of the classic components of writing, and weather is the spirit which animates and hews the geographic body. “On a dark and stormy night” is much maligned, but the tableau set is irresistible, horrible, fantastic. Anyone who has tasted the anticipation of storm can attest to the metaphorical ionization that comes with the physical.
Weather can infuse nonfiction with the supernatural, like the toothy monsters that loft surfers skyward and sweep ships below in Susan Casey’s The Wave. The physical sensations we experience in our atmosphere can connect us to even the most alien point of view; the weather is the most catholic component of our lives, and therefore a powerful tool for unmooring or anchoring us as appropriate.
The finest weather writing is often Biblical, and with good reason. Weather can serve as the love and wrath of a story’s supreme power, be that God, nature, science or civilization—acid rain! the terrible orphans calved from ice sheets by global warming! the hole in the ozone layer! the rent shroud of a new, violent compact between God’s creation and our own!—and provides the writer conflict as quixotic as it is ceaseless.
At its best, written weather is capable of being anything its author requires. It can be the soft blanket on which a plot is laid, or the dreaded background radiation providing constant and superficial menace; the primary antagonist or the curiously omitted.
The sole thing a conjured clime should never be is banal.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, VICE, Jezebel, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.