How does David Almond create atmosphere in Chapter One of Skellig?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Chapter One of David Almond's Skellig, the author artfully creates an atmosphere to introduce the boy's discovery at his new house.

The setting is important. 

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.

A feeling of mystery is present because the reader does not know to whom the narrator is referring, and as "his" identity is unknown, this creates, too, a feeling of suspense as the author builds up to his literary disclosure. The word "found" is an unusual word choice, and an excellent example of diction.

Diction is defined in the following way:

The word choice a writer makes determines the reader’s reaction to the object [being described], and contributes to the author’s style and tone.

Diction provides clues for the reader, especially if he or she is searching to discover the mood or atmosphere of a piece. The reader may wonder:

Why that particular choice of words? What is the effect of that diction?

This lets you know that a good writer carefully chooses his or her words to create a desired effect upon the reader. (See Poe's short story of horror, "The Tell-Tale Heart.")

In this case, if the author had written that the boy had met someone, we wouldn't be as curious. "Found" implies that something has been lost or that a discovery has been made!

Later in the first paragraph, we learn that "Dr. Death" is in the house. Since the family is worrying about the baby, we can infer that she is sick. "Dr. Death" may be the boy's way of expressing concern about the seriousness of the child's illness.

Almond does not make the reader wait, but quickly begins his description of the subject of the boy's attention. "He" is lying in darkness "in the dust and dirt." One can summon an image of distaste—perhaps someone who is grimy. The next line adds a sense of the supernatural (i.e., something beyond the realm of the natural world):

It was as if he'd been there forever.

The description continues, creating more questions than it provides answers:

He was filthy and pale and dried out and I thought he was dead.

This piece of narrative would be fitting for a cockroach, most especially "dried out." What remains troubling as we attempt to make sense of the image is how "he," and not "it," could be desiccated. A dead body might be mummified after months in a very dry place, such as a desert, but not a human being. We are further mystified as to what kind of discovery the boy has made. All of this continues to create a growing sense of suspense. 

While the reader is still not certain as to the identity or classification of the boy's discovery, the last part of the second paragraph opens wide the door to endless possibilities:

I couldn't have been more wrong. I'd soon begin to see the truth about him, that there'd never been another creature like him in the world.

We now understand that it is a "creature," which is a broad and mysterious term. However, the boy uses the pronoun "he."

The other aspect of the atmosphere the author creates cannot be ignored. This colors the way the boy feels about being in his new home. As the real estate agent took the family on a tour of the house, the only thing that stuck with the boy was the former owner. 

All around the house it had been the same. Just see it in your mind's eye...I kept thinking of the old man, Ernie Myers, that had lived here on his own for years. He'd been dead nearly a week before they found him under the table in the kitchen. That's what I saw when Stone told us about seeing [the house] with the mind's eye.

We now understand that the boy is in a home that he finds awful, most especially (we can understand) because a man had died and remained undiscovered for seven days: this is the stuff of which horror movies are made. Already feeling out of place, perhaps the youngster is able to take the discovery of the creature in stride because life has already taken a turn that has provided him with a sense of the surreal

Almond creates an atmosphere of suspense and mystery (regarding the creature), as well as distress (over the baby's serious state of health) and horror (over living in the house where a man died and his body remained for days).

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