Twenty-Four Winter Stories

6202f06075a8878a52d5aee8b6946e84Okay, understand before I start that this is in no way meant as a definitive guide to anything. These are simply two dozen books (or stories) that I associate one way or another with winter and winter reading. I’m leaving off a lot of obvious stuff, like Mark Halperin’s “A Winter’s Tale” and Dicken’s “Pickwick Papers.” But it’s my list, and it’s free, so stop complaining. Pretend I knitted you an ugly sweater.

Before you start the list, here are a few tips:

The most important thing about a wintertime book is that the colder the scene, the warmer your surroundings must be. For instance, anybody who undertakes the climb up Caradhras without a fire or a working heater, as well as a cup of hot chocolate or peppermint tea, is a fool of a Took.

I believe the main point of reading about cold weather during cold weather is to appreciate that, at least for that moment, you are only reading about it and not out in it.

However, to fully appreciate a good chilly-season book, you should at least stick your head out the door once or twice, walk through the snow to your mailbox, or at least open a window briefly, say, “Brrrr, that’s nasty,” then close it again. Don’t be a wimp. To understand cold weather you must experience it. A little.

Fires are always good, as long as they are burning in fireplaces and not in the middle of the carpet or in your kitchen drapes. The wise fire-builder thinks about long term consequences. For instance, never make a fire in the lap of an older relative.

Hot beverages are always good in winter. For some of us, hot beverages with booze in them are even better. Check with your doctor, AA sponsor, or parole officer to find out what’s right for you.

Here’s something you might not have thought about: Everybody knows that winter is when werewolves, ghosts, and all kinds of unpleasant spirits run rampant, especially if you live anywhere remotely rural. If someone knocks at your door during a snowstorm, make sure they are not a shape-changing monstrosity before you let them in. Making them sing a few bars of a popular song from the 80s to prove they are human is usually a good idea, but beware, there are more than a few ice goblins with a curious affection for Prince’s early work, and Sauron taught all his ringwraiths the words to “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” so be cautious in your choice of test material.

Also, zombies are actually very good at the zombie dance from Thriller. Do not be fooled. They really are zombies.

Last but not least, remember, winter is a season, not a choice. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about not going outside for two or three months. Your ancestors figured this one out a long time ago – that’s how they survived to be ancestors. The blood knows. Cold is for idiots and frozen dinners; you don’t want to be either of those.

Happy Holidays!

1. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg, trans. by Tiina Nunnally

Here’s a quote from the main character: “I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me. I never close my door behind me without the awareness that I am carrying out an act of mercy toward myself.”

You can see why this appeals to a misanthrope like me. A very good, extremely atmospheric mystery set in the far, far north. The movie was okay, but they would have done better casting Bjork in the lead role. She would have been perfect.

2. Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford

The title refers to the main character having moved to England after living abroad in hot, foreign climes. The humor is of the sarcastic, mid-20th-Century English parlor variety, and the Mitfords themselves were a fascinating family, eccentric and somewhat embarrassed upper class, the daughters split between out and out fascists and out and out communists, with Nancy somewhere on the more gracious side of the divide. If you like Waugh’s comedies and Horace Rumpole, you’ll likely warm to Mitford’s work.

3. Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez

An amazing book about the creatures that live and even thrive in some of the coldest places on Earth. Just reading about the brilliant design of a polar bear’s winter den (where they not only have to stay warm through their hibernation, but also give birth in their sleep!) is enough to peg your wonder-meter. Incredible stuff.

4. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Most of this book takes place in the Caribbean, in beautiful warm weather. I still live by the philosophy invented by Vonnegut for this book, Bokononism, with its “wampeters” and “granfalloons,” but the wintry point of this book comes at the end, and it’s cold stuff indeed. A marvelous, cynical horse laugh at the finish of everything.

5. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon

A wonderful alternative universe I wish I’d thought of, where Europe’s Jews instead of making a home in Israel after the Second World War were given a windswept, frozen wasteland around Sitka, Alaska to be their new home. Chabon’s imagination is first-rate as always, and he develops an imaginary Jewish world in Sitka that seems so real you’ll have trouble afterward separating it from real history. And it’s an excellent detective story, too.

6. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner

This isn’t really a novel about winter, although it does begin in snow: “Let the fairy tale begin on a winter’s morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff.” Kushner’s now classic (at least among smart readers) novel of swordplay, plots, and sly manners is, however, exactly the kind of thing with which to settle into a well-cushioned chair, and to disappear into while the world outside does its usual old, cold thing.

7. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

One of the truly ground-breaking SF novels happens also to be set on a world called Winter, and features a heroic escape across a forbidding icy landscape. But it also raised questions about gender and sex that had previously been largely bypassed or used merely as punch lines in science fiction – before Le Guin rewrote the rules. And if reading the trek across Gobrin Glacier doesn’t make you happy you’re inside, then warmth is wasted on you.

8. The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

C’mon. Mr. P had me at Warrior Polar Bears. But there’s lots more, and much of it’s extremely wintry, plus this story is one of the most fascinating anti-religious pieces of SF/Fantasy ever written – a fascinating tour-de-force. I still don’t understand how this made it onto the mass bestseller lists, because it’s subversive as hell, but it’s a great read.

9. Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914, by Malcolm Johnston Brown and Shirley Seaton

A war famous for the misery and hardship of life in the trenches had this one brief, bright spot, when the British and their allies temporarily put down their guns on Christmas Eve and met the German enemy in No Man’s Land. The soldiers from both sides sang together, drank together, exchanged gifts and souvenirs and even played a bit of soccer. (Sorry, “football.”) One of the most amazing true stories of a long, deadly war that virtually destroyed a generation of young European men.

10. White Fang, by Jack London

The Yukon, the Alaskan gold rush, and the dog of the title. This book’s got action, it’s got snow, it’s got greed and animals fighting – just like Christmas at my house. Even better, it’s got the men of the wild north and the dogs who love them. Well, they don’t love all of them, I guess. Because some of those dog-owners were real bastards up there. It’s all in the book – you’ll see.

11. Blankets, by Craig Thompson

One of the best books ever written in graphic novel form, a meditation on youth, spirituality, and sex, and what happens when they collide. This is real stuff, delicate and sweet and frustrating, as people this age often are. (I was never really young, so I’m not talking about me.) And if you’ve never read a graphic novel (you poor schlump) this is a good place to start, because the art is as good as the text.

12. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Not only did this book cast in ice and solid iron what we now think of as a “Victorian Christmas,” Dickens also was largely responsible for making Christmas trees fashionable in England and the US. If you know the Christmas Carol story (from the countless stage and screen remakes) but have never read the book, then you don’t really know the story. Dickens was a writer, and his own prose is the best way to experience him. God bless us, every one.

13. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith

I could have picked almost any of the Arkady Renko books, because many of them use the cold weather in Russia to great effect, but this one, which begins with murder victims discovered in the frozen slush of the famous Moscow park, is also the first of the series, and it has a brilliant cold-weather climax as well.

14. At The Mountains of Madness, by H. P. Lovecraft

I loved this story when I first read it as a kid, and I still love it. Lovecraft at his best, with all the build-up of his best work – all the “factual” details to solidify the scares – but a much bigger pay-off than some of his work, and all set in the hellish white wastes of Antarctica. If you never read another Lovecraft story – well, that would actually be really sad – but if you only manage one, make it this one. And Happy Shoggoth Day to you.

15. Ghost Story, by Peter Straub

A great novel of horror, featuring all the usual good stuff – hauntings, monsters, revenants, and regret – set in the middle of an epic winter in New York state. You will never again look at an icy pond with unconcern.

16. Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit, by P. G. Wodehouse

Christmas rather takes a back seat to various mischiefs involving needles and hot water bottles, to the drama of love given and withdrawn, plus a possibly premature diagnosis of schizophrenia. It’s Christmas in name only in this Jeeves and Wooster tale, but it’s still one of Wodehouse’s best, and there are very few bars set higher than that. In fact, any Wodehouse is ideal for winter evenings.

17. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

I can’t imagine anyone who read this book who will not forever remember the lamp post standing by itself in the snow-covered forest. It’s a transcendent image. And what the White Witch has done to Narnia at the start of this adventure is a grand and frightening version of why our species has never entirely trusted the winter months. Lewis also understands the importance of feeding your characters well when it’s miserable out of doors.

18. The Snow Women, short story by Fritz Leiber (collected in Swords And Deviltry)

Winter witchery at its most devious and disturbing. The adventures of barbarian Fafhrd before he met his pal the Grey Mouser and they headed off to became the most famous rogues in all Nehwon.

– Stardock, short story by Fritz Leiber (collected in Swords Against Wizardry)

Anybody who knows my writing will probably recognize how this great fantasy tale about climbing an impossibly high mountain (while struggling against dark magical foes) rubbed off on my own imagination. This classic has both Fafhrd and his nimble, clever companion, the Grey Mouser, and they’re both at their best.

19. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Few things are more frightening when you’re a child than Mole and Rat lost in the Wild Wood, hearing noises all around them, lost in the snow. Fortunately for them, (and us younger readers) they find a boot-scraper under the snow…but that would be telling. One of the greatest winter set-pieces in all of fiction, let alone children’s fiction.

Oh, and in my family we always used to eat buttered toast when the jailer’s kind daughter brought some to Mr. Toad, because it made us happy that we weren’t in jail like bad, bad Toad was. So that would make it a classic winter book even without all the other stuff.

20. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Just the part in “Fellowship Of The Rings” where Frodo and the Fellowship cross the terrible Misty Mountains qualifies this. The journey up the mighty peak Caradhras – “Redhorn” – is enough by itself to make you shiver for days, but of course, one of the reasons Tolkien still affects us is because his characters have to find their way through a real and wild world in real, wild weather, which makes their adventures all the more exciting. (It also makes us appreciate our electric heater and hot toddy. Because some of us are fairly hobbit-like, and prefer reading about adventures to actually having them.)

21. Stalingrad, by Anthony Beevor

You haven’t experienced winter until you’ve experienced Russian winter. The siege of Stalingrad was not only a story of impossible, unbelievable resistance, but may have been the key turning point of the Second World War. This is not a fun read by any means, but if you’ve had a tough day shoveling the drive way or fixing the water heater, you might feel better when you see what the people in Stalingrad went through.

22. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The countryside is always a character in Austen’s books, especially because Regency women like her characters (unless they were rich and married) were so limited in where they could go. Great/scary winter scene: Elizabeth Bennet’s beloved sister Jane gets caught outside in the snow and winds up at death’s door. English winters didn’t mess around in those days.

Sadly, despite their long familiarity with cold, the English never developed the Inuit habit of putting their elders out onto ice floes when they’d outlived their usefulness. Which means you’ll never get to see that happen to Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet, much as she deserves it.

23. Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley

This book has been more use to me as a fantasy writer than the next three or four on my best-research-books list combined. What people really used to wear, how they used to eat and sleep, how they kept track of hours and the calendar, and how they coped with the change of seasons, Hartley does a wonderful job of making it all familiar yet fascinating to modern readers. If you like the parts of history that allowed all the other, more flashy bits to happen, this is for you.

24. The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

I love this book deeply, and of course for many reasons it’s a classic winter read. One of the most amazing evocations of cold weather comes when Merlin turns Wart (the young, not-yet King Arthur) into a goose and he travels with a flock of wild geese during their winter migration. And there’s a wonderful scene at Sir Ector’s castle during Christmas, which winds up with the English knights singing a the national anthem in honor of their ruler:

“God save King Pendragon,
May his reign long drag on,
God save the King.
Send him most gorious,
Great and uproarious,
Horrible and hoarious,
God save our King!”

So there’s a few books to start with, although I’m sure you have a winter list of your own. Poke up the fire and pour yourself a wassail or two. (I think you pour a wassail. Maybe you unscrew the cap. Okay, to be honest, you might knock them out of the branches of a wassail tree and crack them open on a rock. I’m a Yank – what do I know about wassail?) And toast the season with me. Preferably while you’re toasting your toes, as I’ll be, in front of a warm fire, with a book. Or, even better, lots of books. Lots and lots and lots of books…

Tad Williams
December 2013
for Hodderscape’s Advent

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2 thoughts on “Twenty-Four Winter Stories

  1. Thank you for the list! Just finished The Abominable by Dan Simmons. That one qualifies as a good winter read. So cold at high altitude on the slopes of Everest.

  2. Some nice Leiber stories in there but my favorite of his also is the one I most associate with cold: “A Pail of Air”.

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