You cannot put a Fire out—
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan—
Upon the slowest Night—
– Emily Dickinson
If cave dwellers from millennia ago were to describe their first interaction with fire, they’d probably borrow Bulwer-Lytton’s famous, and much parodied, opening sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night.” That the surrounding stone walls vibrated with the boom of thunder, and beyond it some familiar tree now lay blown to smithereens after being struck by a blinding blue-white fork from the sky. Like moths they approached the demolished tree, drawn by its roaring crown of heat and light, and soon stumbled upon a discovery that holds true to the present day; that fire was both ally and enemy. One could make the same argument for water, since as sure as you can drink it, you can drown in it, too, but there’s a matter of logic involved; your instincts forbid you from treading on something that’s not solid. But fire on the other hand is hypnotic, a thing that overrides instincts, beckons, and one only knows better after having gotten too close.
This fascination towards it is endless, and not only has it played a major role in human survival, evolution, and tragedy, it has also stirred the imaginative embers of creative minds, so we have numerous paintings, odes and stories dedicated to it over the ages.
The verses by Emily Dickinson at the beginning of this post or Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” are sterling examples.
It appears widely in pictorial form, as well, from figures circling a bonfire etched on cave walls to J.M.W. Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament, a series of paintings centered on the fire which swept the Palace of Westminster in London on October, 1834.
One of the first times fire became a subject in cinema was in George Méliès’s The Pillar of Fire, an adaptation of a scene from H. Rider Haggard’s novel She: A History of Adventure. The minute long movie has a capering green demon igniting a fire under a huge skillet, and from it surfaces a woman robed in white, who after some energetic arm swinging transmogrifies into ribbons of fire before disappearing in a cloud of smoke.
Another notable use of fire, although in a low key fashion, was in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Prior to the 1922 film, vampires in fiction were portrayed as only being weakened by the sun, but Nosferatu was the first to depict a vampire perishing by sunlight–Count Orlok fades to a puff of smoke, hence low key, as opposed to bursting into flames, like in modern CGI riddled interpretations–birthing a trope that’s become ingrained in the folklore.
It has since been the houseguest that never left and frequently puts in an appearance, more often in a wasteful way, think of all the gratuitous explosions in recent movies which do less to further plot and serve only as fillers or, worse, a case of deus ex machina.
Meaningfully executed instances do exist, though. Perhaps the most brilliant use of fire was in Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away. Some hazardous substance aboard the aircraft Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is on sparks a fire, and the fact that they’re sailing through a good ol’ dark and stormy night doesn’t help, resulting in a crash. He swims away from the flaming debris towards the uninhabited island, and his ensuing quest for survival is arduous to say the least. During one of his attempts at making a fire, he badly injures his hand and gives himself over to an atavistic rage, flinging and kicking and launches into inarticulate cries of despair. When he reapplies himself to the task and succeeds in coaxing out a fire from the stick of wood, the elation gripping him is almost ancestral. And who can forget the scene of Noland prancing around a bonfire in lunatic glee on the shore? Him proclaiming, “I have made fire!” After his rescue, the film connects both ends of the evolutionary spectrum, bringing it full circle in an evocative scene where a gaunt Noland holds up lighter and gazes pensively at the lick of flame summoned with a click.
Fire is as much a staple as blood when it comes to the horror genre and is present in countless movies and books. Some of the most popular sequences are featured in the writings of Stephen King. In the climactic scene of his first novel, Carrie, after being humiliated and ridiculed at prom, Carrie White triggers a fire which consumes the school. The havoc continues as she walks homeward, psychically manipulating power lines and gas pumps, leaving a conflagration in her wake. In King’s short story “1408,” Mike Enslin lights up his shirt in the haunted room, allowing him to regain a measure of lucidity, enough to effect his escape into the hallway where a fellow guest douses his burning shirt with a bucket of ice-cubes. King’s thorough exploration of man’s love affair, in this case a very unhealthy one, with fire takes place in his celebrated novel The Stand, through the character of Donald Elbert, the Trashcan Man, a schizophrenic pyromaniac who falls in with the Dark Man, Randall Flagg. Also a shining example is the Overlook Hotel going up in flames after the boiler in the basement explodes, the build-up to which, both expository and emotional, is masterful, and not to mention terrifying, coloring the outcome with a sense of inevitability. The Kubrick version is an outstanding movie but abad adaptation–set myself up for backlash right there, didn’tI?–and one of the things I’m disappointed by is the way it ends in ice instead of fire. Circling back to Robert Frost, while ice does suffice, I hold with those who favor fire.
Regardless of era or medium, fire will always remain a crucial component of storytelling, and when done right, it has the capacity to imbue stories with dynamism and can be symbolic in myriad ways, leaving a lasting impression on audiences, like an afterimage.
Rohit Sawant’s fiction has been published in a Kill Those Damn Cats – a Lovecraftian anthology, After the Happily Ever After, Flash Fiction Magazine, and is set to appear in forthcoming anthologies by Belanger Books and Franklin/Kerr Press. He lives in Mumbai, India, enjoys sketching, films, and his favorite Batman is Kevin Conroy. You can find him at his blog, on Tumblr, or on Twitter.