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Jacqueline West Headshot

The Four-Walled World

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The term "world-building" tends to conjure images of maps and manuals and sprawling, fantastical lands. But the worlds that interest me most are usually enclosed by four walls.

I've always been fascinated by houses, both in reality (I'm shamefully prone to peering through neighbors' lit windows after dark) and in fiction, from Green Gables to Hill House. My own first story for young readers -- the story that eventually turned into The Books of Elsewhere -- was inspired by a house in my hometown: a once-grand Victorian that now sagged over a lawn full of fantastical wind-powered machines.

Why do I find houses so endlessly fascinating? I think it's because a house is a world.

A house has its own climate and atmosphere. It has its own inhabitants and culture, its particular food and art and rituals. A house has its own history, its own rules or ethics or powers-that-be. And (like another beloved fictional structure), houses are bigger on the inside -- big enough to contain most or all of the action of an entire novel.

Inch open the door, creep up to the windowsill, and peep inside these masterfully built worlds.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne's tale is all about atmosphere; one of the house's inhabitants describes it as "a rusty, crazy, creaky, dry-rotted, damp-rotted, dingy, dark, and miserable old dungeon." Add a witch trial, mesmerism, and a family curse, and you've got what may be the greatest of American gothics.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Hill House is so unpleasant, so unexpected, so wrong in its construction that it actually makes visitors sick. Maybe it even drives them insane. Or maybe everything they experience is real. We never learn what it is that walks Hill House--only that it walks alone. And this is terrifying enough.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The estate of Bly is rambling, isolated, and inhabited by characters who don't seem to deserve the reader's trust--the perfect setting for a deliciously subtle horror story.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Misselthwaite Manor is a lonely, barren mansion echoing with an invisible child's sobs until another child brings it and its enclosed garden back to life. This is a story that doesn't need any supernatural powers to feel rich with magic.
House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones
In this sequel to Howl's Moving Castle (another piece of wondrous house-sized world building), each time young house-sitter Charmain opens a door, it leads her to a different place: a filthy kitchen, a study full of magical books, a frozen bathroom. Watching her muddle through the house's mysteries is half the book's fun.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The internal culture of stately Manderley nearly crushes the new Mrs. DeWinter, who is compelled by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers to walk more and more closely in the former mistress's footsteps. Rebecca herself is gone, but the DeWinters aren't free of her -- not as long as Manderley stands.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
A chilly stone farmhouse on the wild, wind-blasted Yorkshire moors... The story of Heathcliff and Catherine wouldn't--or couldn't--have unfolded in the same way anywhere else.
Little, Big by John Crowley
Edgewood, the ancestral estate of the Drinkwater family, can't be found on any map, and its appearance seems to change from every angle--one façade is gothic, another Victorian, another modern. Edgewood is truly many houses in one, just like the Drinkwaters are many wildly varied beings in one family, and Little, Big is a novel made up of generations of twisting, multifaceted tales.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby's West Egg mansion could practically be a stand-in for Gatsby himself. The house gives an initial impression of glamor, wealth, and raucous fun. But as both reader and narrator grow to know Gatsby better, it's revealed to be an enormous, eerily empty place--enviable on the outside, hollow within.