Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Among other topics in his generous introduction, “Contemporary Horror Fiction, 1950-1998,” to Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet, Stefan Dziemianowicz describes several subgenres of the genre, including dark fantasy, or “quiet horror”; small-town horror; urban horror; and various modern monsters (the child, the mad scientist, ghosts, the werewolf, the vampire, psychopaths and serial killers), giving insightful overviews of the use of each in the horror of the day.
The topic of this post is Dziemianowicz’s perceptions concerning “small-town horror,” “the tale of rural horror,” and “the tale of urban horror.” All quotations are directly from Dziemianowicz’s introductory essay:
The small-town horror story--which encompasses. . . suburban. . . and. . . rural horror--. . . characterized life in postwar America. . . . In the typical suburban horror story, a small community serves as a microcosm of the world.
People of the community live in harmony, or at least a tentatively peaceful coexistence, until an external threat causes social disintegration along the lines of smoldering prejudice or social preferment. . . . Although in a small number of these stories. . . the values that tie the members of a community together prove instrumental to defeating the external threat, the basic small-town horror story offers a paranoid vision of something gone rancid at the core of small-town American life (213).
As examples of such horror stories, Dziemianowicz cites Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon, Stephen King’s Needful Things, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Charles L. Grant’s The Hour of the Oxrun Dead, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, King’s The Regulators, and Robert McCammon’s Stinger (213). These stories follow the storyline of the invasion, which I outlined in an earlier post, the prototypical one of which is Satan’s invasion of the Garden of Eden.
According to Dziemianowicz,
The tale of rural horror takes a more traditional tack, evoking a world of savagery outside the boundaries of the civilized city and suburb. . . . In the modern rural horror story, visitors or new residents find a heart of darkness beneath the quaint and charming darkness of rustic life. The milieu is either home to legendary monsters that terrorize old and new townsfolk alike. . . or hostage to primitive customs and rituals that have preserved its unique character. Frequently, . . . the rural menace embodies the hostility of the community to outsiders, and of the country to the city (213).
Among stories of this type, Dziemianowicz includes in his list of examples “H. P. Lovecraft’s tales of Arkham, Dunwich, and other insular New England communities whose degenerate inhabitants are linked to ancient primal forces”; Owen Brookes’ The Gatherer, Alan Ryan’s The Kill, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, Rob Hardy and Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man, Jack Ketcham’s The Off Season, T. E. D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, and Phil Rickman’s Crybbe (213).
Concerning “the tale of urban horror,” Dziemianowicz observes,
The small-town horror story’s counterpart, the tale of urban horror, tends to make much of the incongruity of primitive horrors taking root in a symbol of modern civilization [i. e., the city]. . . . Even more innovative are those stories that present the city itself as a monstrous incarnation of moral decay, human indifference, and brutal violence. . . . Horrors grow out of the grime, crime, and squalor of the urban landscape. Characters in these stories find themselves in danger of engulfment or absorption by their surroundings (213-214).
This type of horror story, Dziemianowicz says, is exemplified by Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Ken Eulo’s The Brownstone, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Whitney Strieber’s The Wolfen, Ray Garton’s Live Girls, Thomas Monteleone’s Night Train, and Klein’s “Children of the Gods” in the Dark Gods anthology (213-214).
Much contemporary horror fiction is set in small towns, rural communities or locations, and urban centers because these are the places that contemporary people live, and each is a source of horrors characteristic, if not always unique, to itself. One of the sources of enjoyment in such fiction is its insertion of the reader into a world that is familiar, but one in which strange and bizarre incidents occur, seemingly at random, either drawing the folk together or driving them apart or, conversely, allowing the reader a glimpse into life as the other half (or third) lives it.
The country bumpkin can get a peek at the lives of city slickers, or vice versa, or the suburbanite can see how things go among his or her city or country counterparts. It may be reassuring to know that others, elsewhere, live problematic lives in which horror and terror are omnipresent possibilities. Maybe the place where one lives is not all that bad, after all, readers, whether urban, rural, or suburban, may conclude after reading about the lives of their counterparts who have chosen or who are forced to live elsewhere instead of next door. Life may not always be better in the pasture on the other side of the fence, after all.
A well-written story in one of these subgenres, if such subtypes they be, also offers a bit of solace to the reader who does occupy the real-life counterparts to one of these fictional settings. The city resident may face serial killers, rats in the sewer, and the inhumanity of man (and woman) to man (and woman) up close, as it were, and personal, but so does everyone else who lives in New York City, Los Angeles, or Detroit. Misery loves company, and, in cities, large, medium, and small, there are anywhere from several thousand to several million other people in the same boat, as it were (to mix a couple of metaphors).
The same is true, of course, of the city residents’ rural or suburban counterpart; the farmer who tends a hundred-acre farm is isolated, to a degree, perhaps, but there are others of his kind across the country and, indeed, around the world; even a far-flung community, the members of which are separated by acres and miles, is still a community, similar or identical values and practices, concerns and hopes, fears and dreams holding them together. The suburbanite has neighbors--sometimes, one too many (and usually the one next door).
In the “What’s My Line” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the protagonist, Buffy Summers, having encountered Kendra Young, a second vampire slayer, like herself, as the result of a once-in-a-million-years’ accident of sorts, tells Kendra, “I’m a freak,” to which declaration, Kendra replies, “Not the only freak.”
These two teenage girls, saddled with the responsibility to keep humanity safe from demons, vampires, and other monsters, natural, paranormal, and supernatural, take comfort in the knowledge that they are no longer alone, that they are “not the only freak” any longer. The same is true of the reader of horror stories set in cities, in rural areas, and in suburban housing tracts across the country and around the world, thanks, in large measure, to the sort of fiction that Dziemianowicz cites, “the small-town horror story,” “the tale of rural horror ,” and “the tale of urban horror.”