Perhaps one of the best short stories about a small town hosting unspeakable horror is Shirley Jackson’s Southern Gothic classic, “The Lottery.” All the residents of a village–home to only 300 people or so–gather together in an excited, if not trepidatious, mood. They collect stones and assemble for their annual event in hopes of producing another year of good harvest. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” it is said. And then the readers learn just what the lottery is.
“The Lottery” has stuck with me for years because of the positioning of a normal, even wholesome setting against such horror. And Jackson’s not the only horror maven to employ this tactic in her work. From Stephen King’s Derry to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks to more recently Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove, small towns have been the place where everybody knows everybody else. Everybody has a secret. And the darkness below the quaint surface is unspeakable.
Small towns are something with which we’re all acquainted. Whether it’s a sheep village on the moors or a pit stop somewhere along Route 66, the rural village is supposed to be the place where you can stop in a diner and get a hot cup of coffee and the best slice of cherry pie you ever had while not worrying about whether your car’s going to be stolen. It’s the place where hard-working, honest men toil away in fields or maybe a lone factory that supports the whole village while women tend to knitting groups at church or have no fear of what lies in the playground sand. So why are small towns so ripe for horror?
I think much of it lies in the simpleness of small towns. Life couldn’t possibly be so uncomplicated without a hell of a deal being struck. Your neighbors all seem like nice people…until you find out what’s really fertilizing the tomato plants. Families’ roots date back generations, and sometimes it seems there’s no getting out. No escape. And if you try, they may bring you back…
Villages work well for both supernatural and psychological horror. My mother was from a place named Streator. I have fond memories of the village with its farms and “main street,” and and some of those memories are shiny from time. I also remember the eerie gravel road dividing my great-aunts’ and uncles’ homes from each other and the woods behind them, all prone to fog. I heard the folklore about Moon Point Cemetery with its hatchet lady and ghost lights. My mother heard the tales, too, when she was a little girl.
A small town makes for a wonderful setting and if done well, it can feel like a character in its own right. There is a link between villages and horror. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that small towns, truly small towns, are dying away. The ones that haven’t caught up to modern times seem as if there’s something wrong with them to make them so isolated, and that is where writing horror begins. Every small town has a story to tell, and the author must uncover it.