SYLLABI: 9 Captivating Fictional Cities in World Literature

Mar 21, 2023
Dimitris Passas

1) MAYCOMB, ALABAMA (Harper Lee- "To Kill a Mockingbird")

I couldn't help but begin this list with one of the most iconic titles in the American literary canon of the 20th century, Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, a multidimensional epic story touching some of the most scorching issues for the American society, the emphasis being on the racial injustice, so prevalent at the time that the book was written (1960). Some may not know that the story takes place in a completely fictional Maycomb County, a location largely based on the author's personal experiences from growing up in the American south (Alabama) in the 1930s and 1940s. But let the author herself talk about Maycomb: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square (...) A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, noting to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County". Lee's graphic descriptions help the reader to instantly become familiar with the locale and through her work, she rendered Maycomb as one of the most emblematic fictional creations in the American literary history.

2) DERRY TOWN (Stephen King- "It", "Bag of Bones" and more)

Of course, it would be impossible for the "master of horror" not to be included in this list as his creative skills have been proved beyond the shadow of a doubt through the course of the previous several decades. Derry is a fictional town in the state of Maine and was originally featured in King's 1981 short story The Bird and the Album and kept appearing on the page until 2011 in one of the American author's most cherished works 11/22/63. While Derry is not the only fictional town created by King, there is also Chamberlain (Carrie) or Little Tall Island (Dolores Claiborne), it is definitely the most popular as it was the setting in the immensely popular horror fiction novel It, published in 1986. While other authors prefer to give as little information as possible regarding their imaginary locations, King provides ample descriptions of the town and the reader quickly shapes an image in his head. We get acquainted with Derry Civic Center, the Barrens, the Standpipe and other landmarks which are outlined in minute detail. King used Derry as a setting for 8 of his novels, and the town has become a marker for horror fiction fans around the world.

3) MAARDAM (Håkan Nesser- Inspector Van Veeteren Series)

The feted literary figure of Håkan Nesser always guarantees a rich reading experience, and his name is highly revered in his native Sweden. Furthermore, Nesser is one of the patriarchs of Nordic crime fiction along with Henning Mankell and Gunnar Staalesen as the first installment in the popular Inspector Van Veeteren series was published in 1993 and kept on for 10 more years. The fictional city of Maardam was the setting in all 10 novels of the saga featuring the solemn, brooding Inspector Van Veeteren who thinks and acts within the confines of a town populated by 300,000 inhabitants and resembles several countries such as Sweden, Netherlands and Germany. Maardam is also the setting in the short stories/novellas which are included in the majestic Intrigo collection which was successfully adapted into feature films by Daniel Alfredson and casting actors such as Ben Kingsley and Tuva Novotny.

4) KINGSMARKHAM (Ruth Rendell- Inspector Wexford Series)

One of the most prolific English crime writers, her oeuvre consists of several dozens of novels, novellas, and short stories (some of them written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine), Ruth Rendell is an iconic figure for the genre and her most beloved creation was, unequivocally, Chief Inspector Reginal Wexford who was the protagonist of 24 books in total, covering a timespan from 1964 to 2013. The Wexford novels are set in Kingsmarkham, a fictitious setting inspired by Midhurst, a town in West Sussex. Rendell has said about Kingsmarkham: "[it] "is not romantic at all, (with) ugly modern buildings, huge supermarkets, open car lots and bus garages, and sprawling blocks of local authority housing with the police station a concrete box of tricks amid the quiet crowded houses of High Street … a piece of gaudy litter in a pastoral glade and having modern furniture and (a) sleek, gleaming reception counter".

5) GAVRIK (Will Dean- Tuva Moodyson Mysteries Series)

Gavrik, a remote little town located in Värmland, central Sweden, is one of the most bizarre settings in Scandinavian crime fiction literature and the readers were introduced to its strangeness through the publication of the first volume in the Tuva Moodyson Mystery series, Dark Pines in 2018. Today, we have 4 more books narrating Tuva's adventures and journalistic investigations in the isolated town, which is inhabited by some of the most grotesque characters that I've ever encountered in the genre's works. The eeriness of the locale combined with the extraordinary characters make for a fascinating reading experience and each time, and I'm always on the lookout for Will Dean's latest releases, including his intriguing standalones, bearing a distinctive writing style and unconventional characterization. Dean has said about his writing process: "Before I begin a first draft I spend many hours inside my own head, walking around the streets of Gavrik (a fictional town in Värmland, central Sweden). I reacquaint myself with the layout of the place, the small police department, the one bar, the recycling station, the gothic liquorice factory, the hunt store, and, of course, Tuva Moodyson’s employer, the Gavrik Posten newspaper ... Gavrik (and now Visberg, its Twin Peaks-ish hilltop neighbour) feels as real to me as any town in Scandinavia", a feeling shared by the readers.

6) MIDLAND CITY, OHIO (Kurt Vonnegut- "Breakfast for Champions")

Readers are introduced to Midland City in Kurt Vonnegut's seventh novel Breakfast for Champions (or Goodbye Blue Monday as it is also known), a work treading on a variety of themes such as free will, suicide and racial tensions in America. Vonnegut's fictional city was based on Indianapolis, where he was born and raised, and in the novel, the author lays out his burlesque, ironic view of the locale, emphasizing on the feeling of placelessness of Midwestern life. I will cite a quote from another of Vonnegut's novels placed in Midland City in order to let the author voice his own thoughts about it: "Midland City had a goddess of discord all its own. This was a goddess who could not dance, would not dance, and hated everybody at the high school. She would like to claw away her face, she told us, so that people would stop seeing things in it that had nothing to do with what she was like inside. She was ready to die at any time, she said, because what men and boys thought about her and tried to do to her made her so ashamed. One of the first things she was going to do when she got to heaven, she said, was to ask somebody what was written on her face and why had it been put there".

7) CONCENTRATION CITY (J. G. Ballard- "The Concentration City")

The guru of dystopian fiction, J. G. Ballard presented his Concentration City in the titular short story, originally published under the title Build-Up, which was released in January 1957 in New Worlds, a British science fiction magazine. Ballard's work emits a heavy Kafkaesque odor as the city he envisioned is one that oppresses and constrains the individual who cannot escape the vastness of his surroundings and break free as the Concentration City contains and encompasses "everything in known existence to its inhabitants". The streets are unending, the buildings sky-high and "cubic space is in shortage and expensive", thus forcing the inhabitants to never attempt to leave their designated area. In an article published on on January 16, 2022, the author writes: "Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s". The Concentration City is a little tale of despair written by one of the most distinctive British authorial voices of the 20th century.

8) KYMLINGE (Håkan Nesser- Inspector Barbarotti Series)

The second entry for the Swedish wordsmith who, after the finale of the Van Veeteren saga, moved on to create another idiosyncratic detective-protagonist, Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti who lives and works in the town of Kymlinge, another figment of Nesser's kaleidoscopic imagination. The author doesn't provide extensive descriptions of the setting, sparsely mentioning something trivial about the place and leaving the reader's mind creativity to fill in the blanks. Kymlinge remains a white canvas and demand's the reader's artistry in order to become a full-fledged picture. It should be noted that Kymlinge has so far been featured in 7 novels, and there will be more in the years to come.

9) ORMBERG (Camilla Grebe- "Flickorna och mörkret" Series)

Camilla Grebe is one of the younger representatives of the Swedish crime fiction scene, and she won critical appraise instantly after the publication of her first solo novel The Ice Beneath Her. The book is the first installment in the "Flickorna och mörkret" series and it was succeeded by After She's Gone in which the story takes place in the imaginary, sleepy little town of Ormberg. The locale is eerie as anything and in an interview that the author gave to, she said: "Ormberg is a fictional town, but places like it exist all over Sweden and in many other countries (...) in many ways, the area resembles the place in rural Sweden where I spent my childhood summers. I hope readers will recognize Ormberg – the ambience, the fear and the way people think and behave". Ormberg encapsulates the essence of the anxieties experienced by people who live in closed-knit communities and the setting eventually proves to be one of the novel's greatest merits.

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