Small Town Horror: Not Just King & Bradbury
I want to make one thing clear at the start: I know Lisa Morton. My face-to-face interactions with her have been positive, and I’ve found her to be nothing but the most polished professional when we’ve worked together on projects for the Horror Writers Association. In fact, last year around this time I defended her when some big names in the business ridiculed a blog post she’d written that I thought (and still think) was actually pretty spot-on.
But nobody’s perfect. To err is human. To err on the Internet is to be forever reminded one is human. And so now (over a year after its initial appearance), a troubling column Morton wrote for Nightmare magazine has come to the forefront of (exasperated) discussion on Brady Allen’s Facebook page.
Refer to the links above to read the article and Allen’s critique.
My own critique will focus on one central point: this article is, at best, confused (and confusing).
Morton starts off by noting the enduring prevalence of the world-weary-author-going-home-to-face-monsters-in-a-small-town trope. She says this:
Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen it pop up everywhere from small press catalogs to bestseller lists and award announcements…Upon recently perusing a long list of free Kindle horror books, that plot occupied a whopping half of the offerings…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.
So, Morton is tired of that specific trope. Well, she’ll get no argument from me on that one. I was never that fond of it to start with. This thesis seems entirely defensible. But then her discussion starts to drift, expand, generalize, get — well, there’s no other way to say it — bizarre…
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 Mom and Pop stores have been replaced by Walmarts; towns have died as jobs have moved to urban centers…Anyone born in the past twenty years probably thinks that all small towns look like big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.
Ummm, really? That’s funny, because — as someone who lives in southern Indiana and often goes back home to visit her small town in rural Maryland– I’m a frequent patron of “quaint diners” and “Mom and Pop” places. Yes, the larger of the small towns will often have a Walmart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have local joints, too. And there are towns out there too small for even Walmart’s reach. I’ve worked in towns in southeastern Indiana that are so small that no well-known chain restaurants or retailers existed in them. (The closest you’ll find to a chain in some of these places is an I.G.A. ; which, if you read their website, is actually a sort of anti-chain.) The other businesses (general stores, restaurants, you name it) are often eccentrically advertised with homemade signs created with spray paint and stencils.
Perhaps the strangest comment Morton makes is that “towns have died as jobs have moved to urban centers”. It’s truly mind-boggling to think anyone could write such a sweeping generalization. Morton is wrong. Exceedingly wrong. Manufacturers know that they can pay small town workers less than city workers (especially in red states unfriendly to organized labor), so they sometimes outsource manufacturing (and other) jobs to small towns. In that sense (as a destination for outsourcing), small towns are America’s internal Mexico (or, perhaps more accurately, America’s internal China). That’s not to say that small towns don’t struggle, or that manufacturing isn’t a shadow of what it used to be, but this sort of thing is happening. And there are other employers besides factories. Hospitals. Small colleges. Military bases. Power plants.
And Morton doubles-down with this gem:
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.
Morton now sounds like she’s pitching the plot for a dystopia: small towns (and only small towns) have lost the ability to reproduce. There are no children in these towns. Surely, no cub scout or girl scout troops. No little league teams. You think you see kids going to buy candy and sodas on the main drag? Better go to a shrink because you’re hallucinating!
But maybe Morton knows something I don’t know. I mean, sure I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in small towns. But maybe she has some vital insight or overlooked statistic that overcomes my merely anecdotal experience.
Oops. She doesn’t.
….many of us, including me…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.
I once saw L.A. Confidential, Lisa. But I don’t feel that viewing experience equips me to make sweeping generalizations about L.A. as a whole.
Morton then goes on to make what sounds, superficially, like a valid point about the lack of fully-realized people of color in King-style small town stories.
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.
First, note the past tense (“wasn’t”) applied to small towns. Morton’s still operating under the assumption that they’re “dead”. Next note the ignorance (sorry, can’t call it anything else) on display. Increasingly, people of color live in small towns, too, Lisa. In my own corner of Indiana, the area has become more multicultural largely as a result of immigration. The reasonable living expenses of small towns are helpful to many immigrants (although, granted, racism is still a problem). Of course, racism is a problem for all of the United States, not just small towns. Just ask the L.A.P.D.
Yes, there are people of color in fly over country. And LGBT people, too. And Muslim people and atheists and pagans and…
Well, you get the point.
But no, seriously, Lisa. There are. No foolin’.
Morton concludes with this:
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.
Sheesh…is she saying what I think she’s saying? Again, if Morton is suggesting the King-style writer-returning-home-to-a-small-town trope get staked, then I’ll be the first in line to do the staking. But her thesis has drifted (and wildly expanded) over the course of this short essay. It is, apparently, not just the King trope, but the small town setting itself which is unwelcome. For Morton, small town horror = King and Bradbury (or King and Bradbury pastiches). She seems to be entering this conversation with complete ignorance of the work of a genre heavyweight like seven-time Bram Stoker Award® winner Gary Braunbeck (whose take on small town Midwestern life, at its best, achieves a beautiful bitterness that neither King nor Bradbury would dare explore, given their optimism). She doesn’t appear to be familiar with other writers of small town horror with devoted followings (like the late Richard Laymon or Brian Keene). She doesn’t appear to be familiar with the anxieties of small town life scattered throughout the work of Shirley Jackson. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what newer rural authors bring to the table — sometimes setting surrealistic stories in small town settings. And, on the basis of that limited perspective, she’s essentially asking for the silencing of rural voices. She’s asking that stories not be told, simply on the basis of their zip code.
But horror doesn’t need fewer voices than it has. It needs more. All sorts of voices. Rural authors, small town authors, city authors, suburban authors; authors of every color and ethnicity; of every religion and no religion. Authors from all over the gender spectrum. Authors of all sexual orientations. Authors of every economic class and authors with disabilities.
To paraphrase Eddie Poe, terror is not of the city. It’s of the soul. It’s of all souls. No exceptions. I think (or, at least, hope) that, in her heart, Lisa Morton knows this. But her keyboard generated something that makes it seem like she doesn’t.