Recently I was reading a few Edgar Allen Poe stories and I came across the opening from The Fall of the House of Usher. Then just a few days later I was looking at an old yellowed paperback from my father’s collection of hard-boiled detective stories and I found an opening from Mickey Spillane’s The Girl Hunters.
These opening scenes reminded me of two things. First, how very different the writing
styles are of Poe and Spillane but within their different styles what very good writers they are. Second, how important an opening scene is in setting up the entire story. You’ll see what I mean by reading these two descriptions. Let’s start with the opening scene from The Fall of the House of Usher.
During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades
of evening drew on within view of the melancholy House of Usher. … I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping of the veil.
Is there any doubt that something dark and sinister is about to happen in the upcoming pages? The time is the dead season of autumn when the trees lose their leaves, but these trees are beyond losing their leaves. They have white trunks and are decayed. It is also the time of day when the approaching darkness of evening colors the scene and highlights the bleakness of the house. The writing paints a complete picture that fully describes the scene for the reader.
Now here is a very different opening from Mickey Spillane’s The Girl Hunters.
“They found me in a gutter”
Is your imagination at work? Can you see him lying in the street? Can you picture the street? Is the gutter you picture damp with water from run-off, is it littered with bits of trash, does it hide a man from view? Can you visualize the state of his clothes and his physical appearance? Is he in the gutter because he was drunk or was he beaten? Who found him? Was it a high traffic street where people stepped over him until someone finally stopped or was it a deserted street where the first signs of morning life discovered him?
In Poe’s opening we’re presented with a complete description of the location. Few details are left out but we must still rely on our imagination to create the scene in our mind. The way I visualize the House of Usher is very different from the next reader’s visualization of the same scene. In the second opening we are given only one sentence and yet we are still able to visualize a complete scene because our minds fill in the missing details.
Two very different openings but both serve the purpose of getting the reader engaged in the story. Two great opening scenes for the mystery that is to follow—don’t you agree?
Do you have a favorite mystery opening scene?