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September 7, 2009 4:09 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by a recent question about the Seven Basic Plots and so forth: Can you tell me what the origin of the "Creepy Little Town" or "Something's Not Right Here" story type is? I'm wondering if it's a uniquely American trope in origin.

It's about a town that preserves a surface normality, sometimes total and saccharine, sometimes odd and off-kilter. A traveler, a former resident, or a suspicious outsider inside the town detects that something is strange and soon discovers a big old vat of hidden evil. All the townspeople are complicit, either because they're frightened, they're deluded, or they too are evil.

Salem's Lot is a good example, and I'm certain Stephen King wrote plenty of others along the same line; The Stepford Wives is a different kind. The Wicker Man is also a classic (of course it isn't an American movie, at least not the good one from the '70s). Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is another. (I wouldn't exactly count the "Seven Samurai" or "Shane" type of plot, in which there is a powerful enemy that controls the town, but there is not supposed to be anything wrong with the whole place.)

I am interested to know how old this type of story is, and where, if anyone knows, its earliest examples came from.
posted by Countess Elena to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938, British) is set up in a similar way: a young woman impulsively marries a very wealthy and secretive widower and moves to his isolated country manor, which is full of shifty characters who all increasingly appear to be hiding a terrible secret. The bride goes into detective mode, and, well, I won't spoil it for you.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:24 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some examples in TVTropes. I first thought of H.P. Lovecraft stories.
posted by clearlydemon at 4:28 PM on September 7, 2009


The Blessing of Pan was from an English author in 1927.
posted by dilettante at 4:30 PM on September 7, 2009


Kafka's The Castle is somewhat like this.
posted by kickingtheground at 4:31 PM on September 7, 2009


Thanks, clearlydemon! I don't know how I browsed the whole list and missed that entry!

oinopaponton, that is a good example. The only thing I remember about Rebecca is wondering why the bride ever married Maxim in the first place, all sulky and insulting and pencil-thin-mustache as he was.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:33 PM on September 7, 2009


And since Rebecca is just a ripoff of Wuthering Heights....
posted by IndigoJones at 4:41 PM on September 7, 2009


Hot Fuzz is like this, and its British.
posted by jeb at 4:42 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I mean, Jane Eyre. (Brains, brains....)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:43 PM on September 7, 2009


I'm wondering if it's a uniquely American trope in origin.

Heck no. If anything, I think of this as more British than American. Just about every Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie fits this description, as do many other British mysteries, whether they are of the tea-cosy type or more 'modern' and brutal, e.g. Ruth Rendell.
posted by thread_makimaki at 4:45 PM on September 7, 2009


Crops up sort of kind of in various places in the Odyssey. Homer doesn't waste a lot of time building suspense before revealing what's not kosher in the different places, but the trope is identifiable - locals from whom hospitality should be expected treating strangers badly.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:47 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


It an also be taken as an extrapolation of classic fairly-tale tropes - the home containing an evil-stepmother, the room of blood in Bluebeard's castle...
posted by Billegible at 5:15 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


How about the first part of Dracula, where Jonathan Harker comes to his castle? There's a growing sense of dread as Harker realizes that Something's Not Right Here...
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:58 PM on September 7, 2009


It an also be taken as an extrapolation of classic fairly-tale tropes - the home containing an evil-stepmother, the room of blood in Bluebeard's castle...

I was thinking the same thing, along with all the folk tales about lost villages hidden in the mist that look normal when discovered, but really contain plague victims or leprechauns that will make you sleep for 100 years.
posted by muddgirl at 6:13 PM on September 7, 2009


Yep, it's as old as the hills. Think of circe's island, a procrustean bed, every second village on the Journey To The West etc etc.
posted by smoke at 6:21 PM on September 7, 2009


See the title story from Dashiell Hammett's short story collection Nightmare Town: a man turns up in a bizarre desert town after a drunken bender and soon realizes there's a deeper evil behind the ugliness and violence he witnesses .
posted by Khalad at 6:40 PM on September 7, 2009


Hot Fuzz is like this, and it's British.

Yep. Hot Fuzz is parodying a huge body of UK takes on this trope, especially The Wicker Man.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:55 PM on September 7, 2009


Thank you Sidhedevil for saying what I could not remember. The cursed town trope is at least as old as Victorian English horror stories, any they based it on a bunch of old folk/fairy tales. The British really took the whole "This town is NOT WHAT IT SEEMS" to a head in the last, last century.
posted by The Whelk at 7:20 PM on September 7, 2009


For a recentish take on this trope, may I suggest The League Of Gentlemen?

It's Hammer Horror done as a sit-com. I love it.

"This is a local shop for local people! You'll find nothing here!"
posted by The Whelk at 7:21 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


yes! League of gentlemen is awesome!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:05 PM on September 7, 2009


Wake in Fright? An Australian cult classic... there's definitely many other Aussie and British examples
posted by Weng at 9:06 PM on September 7, 2009


Someone up-thread mentioned, H. P. Lovecraft. I recommend the seminal: The Shadow over Innsmouth--1936. Definitely an example, and given Lovecraft's influence, an important one.
posted by LucretiusJones at 1:20 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


There's a segment in Neil Gaiman's epic American Gods where Shadow, the protagonist, visits one of those picture-perfect towns that has a sinister secret of its own. I won't spoil it for you, but it's a very interesting twist.
posted by fantine at 6:27 AM on September 8, 2009


Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" has more than one short story like this, I believe.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:50 AM on September 8, 2009


Diary by Chuck Palahniuk also uses this trope.
posted by alice ayres at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2009


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