Half a lifetime ago, I put up this post looking at the consistency of language across the Sherlock Holmes canon, and for my first post today in celebration of John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday — a second post will be going up later today, then a round-up of the posts I’m kinda just trusting that other people are doing will go up this evening — I thought I’d utilise a similar approach to analyse an aspect of Carr’s writing that is often much-discussed: his use of atmosphere.
Thus, I returned once again to web-based text analysing software Voyant with three texts that struck me as particularly notable from an atmosphere perspective — the semi-suffocating fog of his debut It Walks By Night (1930), the dense gloom of The Crooked Hinge (1938), and the much later Panic in Box C (1966) which I remember as being almost entirely devoid of any tangible atmosphere at all. In short, the sense of atmosphere gets less oppressive as the books go, so I thought they made a nice corpus to explore.
I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but was curious to see if any clear divergence or any commonality could be found. And I’m not even sure if what I found is worthwhile, but one thing I did notice was this: once you remove the pronouns, titles, speech attribution verbs (said, yelled, etc), conjunctions (and, it, of, the, to, etc.), and basic words (if, is, with, etc.), the same two words crop up in the ten most common words in each book: ‘face’ and ‘eyes’. What I found even more telling — and we start to veer into subjectivity here, but no-one ever claimed this was scientific — is that as the density of atmosphere decreases so too does the frequency of these words.
A John Dickson Barr-chart!
Now, there are clearly two things that need to be addressed here, but it starts getting Russian-doll-like once you start unpacking it — firstly, does the commonality of either of the words ‘face’ or ‘eyes’ have anything to do with atmosphere? Well, clearly that depends on what you mean by ‘atmosphere’.
Without wishing to get into it too deeply, I’d argue that a book invokes an atmosphere if you have a sense of the environment, and feel involved in what is going on, beyond that which is explicitly described. This can be achieved in many ways — use of particular verbs is a key one (someone running away has a slightly different feeling to it if they are instead described as fleeing) and the appropriate smattering of adverb also helps (He yelled dramatically vs. He yelled desperately). It’s interesting to note — Russian doll level five or so — that the most profligately-daubed adverb in each book is ‘suddenly’, which accounts for 45 of nearly 67,000 words in It Walks by Night, compared to ‘certainly’ (22 out of 76,000) for Crooked Hinge, and ‘nearly’ (18 out of 84,000) for Panic in Box C…so if you do wish to put equate atmosphere and adverbs, again there’s a case that the decrease in one is a decrease in the other.
Whatever the cause, atmosphere is of course not brought about by just one thing, and around 0.04% of a book’s content won’t have an overwhelming effect on its own when scattered throughout said text. However, my point here — which I’m clinging to despite all the paths this opens up that I’m eager to dart down and explore — is whether we can claim increased involvement in a piece of text through increased reference to the face or the eyes of the people involved. And, y’know what? Yes, we can.
Consider the extreme close-ups of characters’ faces and eyes utilised by Sergio Leone to heighten the tension in his glorious gun battles, and tell me that isn’t a masterful piece of suspense-building. I watched the movie Whiplash recently and — no spoilers — it’s a film played out in a lot of close-angle shots of faces and eyes, and there’s a shot during the finale of one particular character’s face as an expression of realisation dawns over his face that might be the most impressive shot in the entire film. Sure, film is a visual medium, but the act of reading a description conjures up a sense of visualisation in your mind — be honest now, there are book you’ve out down in disgust because you just can’t picture what’s going on — and you’ll be able to bring to mind a particularly affecting or moving scene, something that really drew you into a movie, where the key focus is on an actor’s face and/or eyes.
To diverge for a moment — if diversion is not your thing, skip to the next paragraph — I’ve read something in the last few months (I can’t remember exactly where…I’ll chase it up if anyone’s interested) about how superheroes like Iron Man and Spider-Man are so successful because the fact that their face is covered means not only do we a) have an easier job superimposing our own face onto theirs in our mind when reading the comics and so seeing ourselves as heroic but, also b) have an easier time buying into their super-powered shenanigans because they’re dehumanised in a way and so it’s easier to believe in them. Think about it: a lot of drama comes from the de-masking of these heroes, the revelation of them revealing their faces suddenly opens them up to vulnerabilities…and makes us more engaged in the outcomes.
If you’re still with me I’m hoping it’s because you agree with this central thesis, because that’s what I’m going to go on with from here. If the face and eyes of the people we meet day-to-day are the first point of assessing their interest and involvement with us, then reminders of those facets of characters will help us to engage with them. But 118 mentions of the word ‘face’ in a book doesn’t equate to the building of atmosphere. If Stephen Face faces the clock face and must face up to how the Face fortune is facing a difficult time on account of the message daubed on the face of the clock…well, chapter 1 alone could account for 90% of that single word (and, man, would that be a tough book to read…). So we need to look at the use of these words throughout a text to see if they occur in enough of a spread to serve as stimulus for atmosphere.
Return, then, to Voyant, and its ability to chart the appearances of a word in a given text. I divided each book into 100 sections (for percentage, because…reasons) and looked at the number of occurrences of ‘face’ and ‘eyes’ in each percentage division of each book. Charting each word on a separate line, you can see how they occur throughout the book and how much they overlap, too. Essentially, a bigger circle means more occurrences of the word in that percentage of the book. Here are the results, click on each image to see the spread of ‘face’ (the top line) and ‘eyes’ (the bottom line) in each text:
It Walks By NIght
The Crooked Hinge
Panic in Box C
Now, I find it telling that the number and length of the sections where Carr is mentioning neither the face nor the eyes of his characters — represented here by stretches where neither line has a coloured circle on it — increase as the books go. Inevitably there must be some of this in every book, but look how the size and distribution of these circles drops off from It Walks By Night to Box C…we knew there were fewer in the latter book, of course, and we know that this meant they must be scattered more sparsely throughout the text, but consider the density of these words decreasing as the books get newer…personally I find this a very telling graphic.
Comprehensively it proves nothing, of course, but my mind runs in these directions sometimes, and it’s lovely to have something like this to play with when I fear there’s nothing new to add to what has already been said about an author a great many times since the start of their career. Perhaps you’re not convinced, perhaps you have a clearer idea of what else contributes to Carr’s sense of dread and the compelling way his stories get inside your head…there will be plenty to add, I don’t deny, and this is simply one of the many strings that made up his writing.
So, whaddaya think? Or have you all stopped reading by this stage? And if you’ve skipped to the end, well, I don’t blame you, but you missed that brilliant joke about the baboon…
Later, something more…normal. Now go and have some cake! No, I don’t care about your diet — it’s John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday, dammit, you’ll be offending the man if you don’t eat some cake…