"This towns got secrets you can't possibly comprehend!"
December 13, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

It's a common trope in literature, film, etc. where somebody warns another person: "You can't possibly grasp the secret that's going on here!" Which, of course, raises a mystery that an author's got to resolve, usually anticlimactically. What are instances of stories which pay off on those juicy teasers? i.e., stories in which the thing that our protagonist "can't possibly comprehend" is in fact astonishing, unexpected, and totally rewarding for the reader? (Bonus points for avoiding cosmic horror, unnecessary violence, sexual savagery.)
posted by Rory Marinich to Media & Arts (66 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
I immediately thought of the new miniseries Top of the Lake, but it does violate two of your 'bonus points' qualifications...
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:43 AM on December 13, 2013


Showbiz_Liz: question! How long does it take to get to the payoff? I got halfway through and thought it was beautiful, well-executed, but completely uncompelling. Knowing something big was coming up would DEFINITELY keep me going through to the end.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:46 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


You'll either love or hate the ending to G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.
posted by griphus at 10:48 AM on December 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


In Cold Blood?
posted by deathpanels at 10:52 AM on December 13, 2013


If my memory serves me correctly, Foucault's Pendulum.
posted by jbickers at 10:54 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Does it count if three isn't a juicy teaser, but there's a big surprise anyway? Because that would include an awful lot more good reading material than would fit into this question.
posted by serena15221 at 10:55 AM on December 13, 2013


Actually, I think the true crime genre in general may be what you're looking for. Real humans do very incomprehensible things to each other.
posted by deathpanels at 10:55 AM on December 13, 2013


Lars von Trier's Dogville doesn't quite fit but somehow it does. It's like the inverse of this.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think OP is specifically looking for instances where conspiracy is foreshadowed, but the resolution is actually wildly beyond the scope of the anticipated conclusion. Mysteries usually intimate broad conspiracy, but resolve with much simpler solutions.

Rory, I assume you've seen Hot Fuzz? I guess it's more playing against that trope for comic effect than it is trying to pay off the viewer.
posted by Think_Long at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Welcome to Night Vale is sort of this thing, but it's a cosmic horror romp so no bonus points.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:59 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


chinatown?
posted by chasles at 10:59 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
does Vonnegut's Bluebeard count?
posted by Kafkaesque at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


The 'Burbs
posted by KatlaDragon at 11:03 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


American Gods by Neil Gaiman has a few of these.
posted by capricorn at 11:09 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cabin in the Woods is full of cosmic horror and unnecessary violence, but I think it fits the bill.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Chinatown.
posted by willbaude at 11:12 AM on December 13, 2013


Hot Fuzz suits this exactly, in that the sleepy little town in the country is in fact concealing a horrible secret. There's a fair amount of action movie/played for laughs violence though.

Ah, beaten.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:24 AM on December 13, 2013


American Gods isn't quite what I'm looking for — Hot Fuzz is exactly the kind I'm thinking of. Chinatown too. I guess I'd better get back to reading Foucault's Pendulum as well...
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:24 AM on December 13, 2013


Showbiz_Liz: question! How long does it take to get to the payoff? I got halfway through and thought it was beautiful, well-executed, but completely uncompelling. Knowing something big was coming up would DEFINITELY keep me going through to the end.

The payoff definitely comes in the last episode and not before, I'd say. I did marathon it though so there's a chance I am misremembering...
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:26 AM on December 13, 2013


Psych's Twin Peaks episode, Dual Spires?
posted by magnetsphere at 11:27 AM on December 13, 2013


Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town

But being Kids in the Hall, it is a pretty twisted story in general
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:32 AM on December 13, 2013


"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" isn't exactly what you're looking for, but it's adjacent.

Watchmen might fit, too; the actual motivation behind the crimes in the story is far, far weirder than anything the characters suspected.

Atlas Shrugged's twist is sort of stupid, but it's definitely...different.

Also, one that few people would actually be surprised by today, because of how famous it is, but kind of fits in that the reveal doesn't fall in the expected range of "secret lover, hidden fortune, carefully concealed crime, etc.": Citizen Kane.
posted by kagredon at 11:43 AM on December 13, 2013


Some Agatha Christie novels are like this although you'd probably only like them if you like Christie in the first place. I'm thinking of The Big Four, Murder on the Orient Express, her Tommy and Tuppence series, and They Came to Baghdad. I mean they are pretty silly but definitely no over-the-top violence or sex of any sort. Maybe a clasp.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:05 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


How much violence is unnecessary?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:06 PM on December 13, 2013


I can think of a few canonical literary works that have such a structure. A few of Borges's short stories do a very abstract variation, such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "Death and the Compass," "The Garden of Forking Paths,""An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," and "Three Versions of Judas" are all sort of metaficitonal versions of this plot that both describe and carry out the "spectacularly weird unveiling" narrative, often in the form of a review of a nonexistent, but oddly twisty book.

Nabokov's Pale Fire, while rather problematic in its depiction of homosexuality, essentially has two (or three, if you buy Brian Boyd's interpretation) of this sort of plot nesting in it.

Kafka, of course, does the frustrating variant where you never do find out the answer to the mystery, which is sort of the shock in itself.
posted by kewb at 12:31 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


How about Declare by Tim Powers? Takes the story of the Cambridge Five and twists it good and hard. I loved it.
posted by pharm at 12:33 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Strangehaven is Hot Fuzz before Hot Fuzz was Hot Fuzz. Unfortunately may never be finished.

The film 2,000 Maniacs completely violates your violence restriction but otherwise is a Hot Fuzz precursor in the American South.

On preview: Ooh Tim Powers! His Last Call book is about the hidden dark magic of casinos. Really good stuff.

Watchmen? No. Come on y'all.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:34 PM on December 13, 2013


kewb: If meta-narratives are allowed, then "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller" does that in spades :)
posted by pharm at 12:37 PM on December 13, 2013


NB. Declare does involve a spot of cosmic horror, but it's still good.
posted by pharm at 12:38 PM on December 13, 2013


The Underpants Monster: My deal is, I love violence, but I'm not particularly interested in violence-as-punchline unless it's done in an especially masterful way (Quentin Tarantino, Barton Fink). I added my disclaimers because so many mysteries seem to resolve as one of the three following things:

— He killed somebody!
— He was a rapist!
— The universe is a thin fabric on top of deeper and more terrifying non-realities!

All of which, to my mind, are all interesting plot points, but not all that big of a punch to the gut as far as actual twists go. What I'm looking for specifically are the books where the big reveal is not only something I've thought of myself, but something which is so shocking (for whatever reason) that it almost breaks the fabric of the story I've known. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING and what-have-you.

Some examples of this that immediately come to mind:

— The reveal of Laura Palmer's killer in Twin Peaks (there's cosmic horror and rape involved, but neither are the actual big shock, which is more intimate and personal in nature)
— Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight has a moment which, once you know about it, completely throws the rest of the story awry.
— Both of the first two season finales to Veronica Mars. The second one in particular was impressively wrenching (because of how long they built up to it).

I feel like this isn't something which all mysteries really possess. The Cuckoo's Calling, which I'm semi-rereading right now, has a very satisfying resolution — but I didn't get to it and feel the bottom drop out of my head. What I really want is the kind of story that teases the possibility of a BIG RESOLUTION!, gets you wondering what it might be, and still manages to pay off so well that all the BIG SECRETS! you were promised feel like, well, a promise actually delivered.

I guess my test for this would be, if I were reading/watching this with a friend for their first time and they were snarking about the mystery when it was brought up, my reaction would be along the lines of... "Holy shit, dude, you have no idea."

Borges, Kafka, Nabokov, and Calvino all have their merits, but are pretty explicitly not what I have in mind.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:38 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


My favorite book for this: Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.

If video games are acceptable, I liked Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors for this reason, and to a much lesser extent its sequel, Virtue's Last Reward.
posted by asperity at 12:42 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


If it doesn't have to be an external conspiracy / what have you, but can be a reveal towards the end of the book that makes you completely re-evaluate everything you've read then how about:

"An Instance of the Fingerpost " by Iain Pears. The same story told four different ways by four equally unreliable narrators.

or maybe the "Wasp Factory" by Iain Banks? A young boy and his youthful adventures. Kind of.
posted by pharm at 12:44 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hah, yes. Ash has a pretty good reveal.
posted by pharm at 12:46 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I didn't care for the movie overall, but Philomena (with Judy Dench) fulfilled this trope for me in the last 5 or 10 minutes. I've read some reviews that said they saw it coming a mile away, but I didn't.

Also, maybe the DuMaurier novel Rebecca.

And Damage, both the Josephine Hart novel and the film.
posted by marsha56 at 12:50 PM on December 13, 2013


The Usual Suspects?
posted by she's not there at 12:53 PM on December 13, 2013


I feel like A History of Violence builds to a climactic sense that nothing will ever be the same for these people now that they know coupled with holy shit I'm unsettled by who this person is and where this ended up in a way that is organic and genuinely moving. I don't know if it fits the arc you describe, though, because we're given two options fairly early on (the man is either 1. a smalltown family man with no mysterious past or 2. someone running from a ...history... of violence... if you will...), and it turns out to be one of those things that is correct rather than some next-level bit of terrifyingness.
posted by jsturgill at 12:54 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Does The Sixth Sense count? There is a mystery, and ghosts, and yet the final twist that someone you thought was alive is in fact dead is much weirder than what you might have expected, if you didn't somehow have it spoiled for you beforehand or figure it out while watching the movie.
posted by jsturgill at 12:56 PM on December 13, 2013


Wool by Hugh Howey.

The Town w secrets is underground, & anyone who questions the world they live in, or mentions going "outside", is expelled & sent on a one-way, death-sentence trip to clean the camera lenses which show everyone what a dead, destroyed wasteland is outside.

WTF abounds.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:01 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Early Kevin Costner movie called No Way Out. Nobody explicitly tells anyone "you can't possibly comprehend this." But you can't. Film actually gave me a headache first time I saw it as my scalp tensed up in astonishment when the truth was revealed.
posted by Naberius at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Michael Hanake's The White Ribbon
posted by perhapses at 1:13 PM on December 13, 2013


That's the premise of at least a dozen South Park episodes.
posted by Ndwright at 1:32 PM on December 13, 2013


The Conversation; Blow-Up; and various remakes of either/both.
(In The Conversation the protagonist essentially goes mad when he finally realizes the complexity and horror of what he had actually witnessed.)
posted by johngumbo at 2:00 PM on December 13, 2013


I also thought of "Rebecca", one of my favorite reads.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:04 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


The universe is a thin fabric on top of deeper and more terrifying non-realities!
Again, Cabin in the Woods. And Trollhunter.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:41 PM on December 13, 2013


MrMoonPie —yeah, that's what I'm NOT looking for. I get the gist of what Cabin in the Woods is about and am not interested in that in the slightest.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:42 PM on December 13, 2013


Dark City
posted by Awkward Philip at 3:57 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Wicker Man might fit the bill, and has an element of the old switcheroo. Might be too well-known to be a surprise, though.

I enjoyed Thomas Tyron's novel Harvest Home.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:18 PM on December 13, 2013


The Golden Notebook does this; the entire narrative structure turns itself inside out and it threw me flat on my face.

It was more surprising and disorienting than anything I've experienced reading 1000s of SFF books.

I still haven't quite regained my equilibrium.
posted by jamjam at 7:00 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


My first response was to think of Rosemary's Baby, but it seems like such an obvious answer that perhaps I misunderstood the question....
posted by jokeefe at 7:13 PM on December 13, 2013


I'd also recommend Dead Again if you like twists in plots (I adore them).
posted by jokeefe at 7:14 PM on December 13, 2013


My first response was to think of Rosemary's Baby, but it seems like such an obvious answer that perhaps I misunderstood the question...

I thought of The Stepford Wives - which is, of course, also by Ira Levin - and had the same reaction of, "That's obvious enough that I must be missing something."
posted by Coatlicue at 8:11 PM on December 13, 2013


Spoorloos. (Avoid the terrible American remake.)
posted by tzikeh at 8:20 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lone Star
posted by Arch_Stanton at 8:41 PM on December 13, 2013


The Others.
posted by kitarra at 8:48 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gone Girl might fit. It's set up as a mystery but there's a point at which everything you thought you knew gets flipped like whoa.
posted by grapesaresour at 11:35 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


... stories in which the thing that our protagonist "can't possibly comprehend" is in fact astonishing, unexpected, and totally rewarding for the reader? (Bonus points for avoiding cosmic horror, unnecessary violence, sexual savagery.)

A. S. Byatt's Possession does this very nicely. It's also a really fun spoof of academia.
posted by nangar at 3:46 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


On a nonfiction side, The New Kings of Nonfiction has a handful of journalism that works like this: the direction you think the piece is going suddenly takes a hard right turn into WTF.

The other thing I have to suggest is movies/books that do not fit neatly into a genre the way you expect. The Stunt Man is a pretty good example of a "comedy" that keeps veering weirdly into horror movie territory, for example.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:53 AM on December 14, 2013


The original Danish versions of The Killing and The Bridge both have endings like this. Perfect wintertime TV.
posted by hamsterdam at 10:15 PM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I really want is the kind of story that teases the possibility of a BIG RESOLUTION!, gets you wondering what it might be, and still manages to pay off so well that all the BIG SECRETS! you were promised feel like, well, a promise actually delivered.

I think the BBC series Edge of Darkness (1985) is a good example of this. It starts with a police officer trying to find out who killed his daughter, and ratchets everything up colossally over the six episodes without ever feeling false or unearned. It's also one of the most critically acclaimed British TV dramas ever made. (I linked the Wikipedia article, but I guess I wouldn't recommend reading it without watching the series!)
posted by rollick at 12:20 PM on December 15, 2013


Bad Day at Black Rock is a classic town-with-a-secret noir/western. The original Wicker Man fits the bill. James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet novels tend to deal with secrets and conspiracies that are bigger than the protagonists can handle. L.A. Confidential has a whole deep conspiracy plot involving a thinly-veiled version of Walt Disney that was left entirely out of the movie.

It's not a whole town, but Ross Macdonald's The Chill is one of my favorite mystery novels. The ending is surprising and very satisfying, and I won't say more.
posted by lovecrafty at 4:04 PM on December 15, 2013


I can't recall if any of these have specific scenes of one character warning another "You possibly can't grasp this!", but I found their reveals satisfying:

* The 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock seems to fit the bill. A WWII vet heads to the town of Black Rock to pay a visit to the father of a Japanese war buddy who died trying to save his life, only to find that the entire town has something to hide. Things...escalate.

* In Toy Story 3, Woody and the gang wind up in a day care that looks like paradise. The toys (led by a fluffy stuffed animal named Lotso Huggin Bear) are all friendly, there are always lots of kids to play with them so that none of the toys ever get outgrown, and there's a repair ward that keeps the playthings in tiptop shape. However....

* Dashiell Hammett's short story "Nightmare Town" (in a collection of the same name) seems to be about a weird town where people act strange, there seem to be more houses than people, and the guy running the town is openly threatened by his son. It turns out to be waaay worse than that. (This is one of the few examples I can think of where the foreshadowed secret/conspiracy isn't supernatural, and yet still manages to be just as much nightmare fuel).

* Peyton Place. Basically, the entire novel is author Grace Metalious's way of saying that every idyllic American small town has at least one dark secret hidden in its depths. (I always wonder if David Lynch got the idea for Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks from Peyton Place).


I'll also suggest the radio play Sorry, Wrong Number (starring Agnes Moorehead in a fantastic performance). The play's from 1947, so a lot of the tension depends on your understanding of how phones worked back then (party lines, phone operators who made the calls for you, and so forth). But the unfolding horror as a woman realizes the implications of the conversation she overheard due to crossed wires is top-notch.
posted by magstheaxe at 5:14 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


A belated idea - Roald Dahl's short stories for adults have creeping building horror and really weird endings. Not 'the world isn't as you know it!'; more like 'that situation was weirder than I imagined'. You will never look at royal jelly the same way.
posted by hydrobatidae at 10:58 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel The Vanishing really fits the bill here. I won't say much more in case I accidentally spoil something, but I am pretty confident you won't be disappointed. Avoid reading anything about it for fear of spoilers (because it is all about the pay off).
posted by chill at 1:38 AM on December 23, 2013


I just remembered there's a terrible US remake of that film, please don't watch that by mistake! It's the original Dutch/French one you want :).
posted by chill at 1:41 AM on December 23, 2013


I'm slow to getting to these, but I'm afraid Top of the Lake didn't do it for me. YMMV, though. :-/
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:04 PM on January 1


Just thought of The Prestige and Audition.

Both have suspenseful build-ups to twists that slap you in the face.

Audition is particularly violent, alas.
posted by jsturgill at 3:12 PM on January 2


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