Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: The Horror of Small Town America

See if this plot sounds familiar to you: A disillusioned middle-aged writer is forced to return to the small town where he was born to reunite with childhood friends so they can face the ancient evil that almost destroyed them once before.

Since those of you reading this column are likely to read a lot of horror novels, I’m betting you know that story pretty well. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen it pop up everywhere from small press catalogs to bestseller lists and award announcements (see, for example, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter). Upon recently perusing a long list of free Kindle horror books, that plot occupied a whopping half of the offerings (although there was occasionally some slight variation–the protagonist might be young or a detective, and in one wildly original take, it was a woman). In fact, I think this storyline is second only to “group of survivors must band together to make it through the zombie apocalypse” as horror’s biggest plot champion.

As with so many other elements of modern horror, I suspect this one may have been popularized by Stephen King. I don’t recall encountering it prior to Salem’s Lot, but King certainly used it after that (It is probably the prime example). I asked Stephen King expert Rocky Wood about the genesis of Salem’s Lot, and he mentioned that it started with King and his wife Tabitha speculating on what Count Dracula would be like if he suddenly appeared in Maine; however, King has also mentioned Salem’s Lot being inspired by “The Bad Place” (in that novel, it’s the Marsten House) that seems to be in every small town. As for It, Rocky tells me that King wanted to incorporate folklore and his neighbors’ chatter about his own town of Bangor into a novel, so he created the fictional town of Derry.

Rocky, however, also mentioned how much King has used the notion of a group of friends banding together in a struggle against a malevolent power, and thinks this might go straight back to Dracula, which was certainly an inspiration for King. Indeed, many of the elements of this modern trope are present in Stoker’s classic, but the small town is missing…unless you count the Transylvanian countryside where the novel’s climax takes place, in which case Dracula certainly lacks the nostalgic element that’s found in the later books.

That bitter yearning for the past is possibly the quintessential element of this trope, and certainly reflects the changing American landscape of the past half-century. Gone are the Bradbury-esque small American towns where Main Street was a collection of quaint diners and everyone knew your name. Mom and Pop stores have been replaced by Walmarts; towns have died as jobs have moved to urban centers. A modern evil really has consumed the classic small town, but it just wasn’t supernatural (see Bentley Little’s The Store for a clever melding of the fact and fantasy versions of the dying small town). Anyone born in the past twenty years probably thinks that all small towns look like big cities–they all have the same gas stations and the same big box stores and the same fast food joints. The cities maybe still have the edge on crime, homelessness and smog, but the rest of the country is catching up fast.

So, although it’s easy to see where this trope is coming from, I’m going to suggest now that it points out several of the problems with modern horror.

First off, I’ve already mentioned that it’s overused. I suspect that a lot of writers have been influenced by both the film and print versions of Salem’s Lot, and rather than using that modern classic as inspiration have simply lifted wholesale from its plot.

Secondly, this trope–which worked very well for King in 1975, when Salem’s Lot was published and small towns were still hanging on–is passé now in more ways than one. A lot of younger Americans–the readers who grew up on Harry Potter and who are hungry for something new now that they’ve reached adulthood–probably know the classic image of small town America only from a trip to Disneyland’s Main Street. These novels don’t speak to a yearning readers don’t possess. And many of us, including me, may be older, but were born and raised in cities. My experience of small towns is pretty much confined to movies like Blue Velvet, which paint them as places so seething with violence and perversity that I have to wonder why anyone would wax nostalgic for them.

Thirdly, the characters in these books are almost solely WASPs. Now granted, the typical small town wasn’t known for a wide distribution of different ethnicities…but a new generation of readers have grown up with names like Gutierrez and Nguyen and Obama, and it’s time to start recognizing them in the pages of horror fiction.

It’s probably no surprise that the genre of urban fantasy has taken off over the last ten years, fueled as it is by younger, often female protagonists and recognizable, contemporary settings. Even the zombie apocalypse scenario–possibly the most common theme in modern horror–often incorporates urban locations and a variety of characters. Is it possible that both urban fantasy and zombie apocalypse books are popular because they’ve taken that step forward that much other contemporary horror has missed?

Maybe it’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the small town trope in horror, and scatter those ashes far and wide. The world is changing, and horror needs to keep changing with it.

(Special thanks to Rocky Wood)

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of nonfiction books, award-winning prose writer, and Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” Her most recent books include Ghosts: A Haunted History (which The Times Literary Supplement said “excels at presenting us with instances of the persistence of belief, across all times and cultures”), and the short story collection Cemetery Dance Select: Lisa Morton. A lifelong Californian, she lives in North Hollywood, and can be found online at lisamorton.com.