What is it about small town horror? Why is it so godsdamned compelling? Good horror can happen anywhere. I’ve written city-based urban horror and international thriller-type horror as well as small town. There’s super famous horror set in the Arctic or the jungle or any number of other locales. A good dark yarn can be spun in any environment. But there’s something particularly delicious about hamlet hideousness. Why?
For many of us who live in or near such places, we see some of the more mundane horrors on a daily basis. I mean, you live in a place where almost everyone knows who you are—that’s terrifying. The level of gossip that circulates a small community like scum slowly circulating a partially-blocked drain, is appalling. But these are indeed everyday horrors.
The small town has its edge, I think, due to several other factors. For one, it shares its tight-knit community with some degree of isolation. After all, if it wasn’t isolated it would be a suburb. The fact that it stands alone is what denotes its identity. And that allows a certain culture to build up. Every small town has a vibe. An accent. A unique weirdness. Mostly they’re entirely benign. Maybe they’re great for antique shopping, or farm produce. Perhaps they have particularly interesting trees. Or maybe, like Snowtown in South Australia, they’re great for bodies stuffed into barrels. (In case you don’t know about that one, the short version is that between 1992 and 1999, three guys murdered 12 people and, with the help of a 4th person, hid all the bodies in barrels in an abandoned bank vault in Snowtown, about 87 miles north of Adelaide. None of the killers or victims were actually from Snowtown, but the town carries the stigma to this day.)
It’s that combination of peculiar local culture and isolated location that lets small towns develop into genuine horrors, if we let them. When I wrote The Gulp and The Fall I leaned hard into that concept—Gulpepper is a small harbour town on the coast of New South Wales in Australia that some maps don’t even show. That town is weird with a capital WEIRD. I got to build an entire mythology around its weirdness which allowed me to tell all kinds of wild stories, and I’m not finished yet. There’ll be more Tales From The Gulp one day.
I wanted to visit that idea again with Sallow Bend, my latest novel coming out through Cemetery Dance Publications on September 2nd. But where Gulpepper is truly weird, Sallow Bend is a small town with a slightly different angle—this one is a pretty regular place, only it has a dark and forgotten history. Forgotten except that it periodically repeats, and at the start of the novel it’s beginning to come around again. That history best left unspoken is another aspect that makes the small town intriguing and potentially frightening. It’s small, isolated, with a dark past…
Where the isolation of the small town allows strange culture to build, it also provides a kind of trap when things go awry. In the city, the police are usually not far away (although they might shoot you simply for calling them, but that’s an entirely different strain of horror). In the city, you can jump on a bus or a train or hail a cab and leg it. In the city, there’s usually cell phone coverage. In the city you can get lost in the crowd and spend most of your time unnoticed. In a small town, the cops are very far away. In a small town there’s no public transport to help you get away (where I live there’s a bus once per hour on weekdays between 9am and 6pm—good luck if the monster is after you in the evening, or you just missed the last bus and have to wait another hour.) In a small town there are often cell phone dead spots—honestly, those places piss people off but they’re a fucking godsend for horror writers. In a small town, you can’t do anything without someone seeing you and taking note. And there’s another aspect of the horror we draw on.
“Oh, I noticed young Charlie wasn’t in school on Tuesday. Perhaps he’s dying of some rare terminal childhood disease!” Yeah, or maybe he had a dentist appointment.
“Hey, I saw old Mr. Crackerjack taking a lot of money out of the bank on Friday. I wonder if he’s paying off some terrible debt? Or hiring a hitman to take out Mrs. Crackerjack?” Yeah, or maybe he needs a new car.
Honestly, the gossip machine is out of control in local communities. But that’s the thing about the small town community—any of those explanations could be true, from the boring to the infernal. The people can have as many dark secrets as the place. Someone might be as sweet as pie or a cannibal who wants to eat your lips, sauteed in a nice onion and garlic sauce. Your lovely neighbour might indeed be dear old Mrs. Flowerpot, who runs the Country Women’s Association and makes delicious orange marmalade cake, or she might be dear old Mrs. Flowerpot, who runs the Country Women’s Association and makes delicious orange marmalade cake and is also a slimy swamp beast wearing the original Mrs. Flowerpot’s skin like an ill-fitting suit. “Do come in for a nice, moist slice of cake dear, then I’ll trim off those full lips of yours and fry them up with onions and garlic.”
Small towns are often old too, therefore packed with haunted places. There are a million apocryphal stories passed on by generation after generation that make city-based urban legends seem like children’s stories. When people see everything that goes on, it’s easy to speculate about your neighbours and the best speculation involves all manner of things sinister and cruel. Despite the idea that small towns are friendly and supportive (which, to a large degree, they often are) they frequently also create sharply opposed cliques, groups at loggerheads with each other about any number of issues, small or large. This engenders all kinds of potential conflict. Now the town is small, isolated, with a dark past, and there are factions and gossip running rife. Who fits where? And why? Or why not?
But the idea of fitting in often brings those communities together on one subject: their disdain for the outsider. Their distrust of anyone not local. That alone creates some wonderful fodder for horror. But what if you’re part of that community but also, somehow, always seen as the outsider?
Equally, of course, the disdain can run the other way, with urban folk sneering at the backwards simpletons in the country. Well, that’s all very well, Chad, until you go for a weekend antiquing and your cell phone has no coverage and dear Mrs. Flowerpot is eating your lips. Sucked in, Chad!
Small town horror has been around forever, and some of our favourite horrors are small town ones. Think of movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Scream, or The Lost Boys. TV like Midnight Mass, Stranger Things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, League of Gentlemen, or Gravity Falls. And of course books, like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, Needful Things or IT, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Josh Malerman’s Goblin, Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People, and so many more. Plus, of course, my own books like The Gulp and The Fall, and now my new one, Sallow Bend. All these examples are just a random selection off the top of my head, and even there you can see such a wide range of horror styles. The genre is indeed a truly broad church, from the blood-soaked to the deeply disquieting and everything in between.
I think small town horror has a place deep in our souls, and I have a theory as to why, beyond the obvious one that it’s just super entertaining and hella creepy. Just maybe it’s because, no matter where we live or were born or grew up, we’re each a kind of small town ourselves, existing in our isolated brain-mind-trapped-in-a-meat-bag state. The locations of these horrors are small, isolated, with a dark past, and there are factions and gossip running rife, and people who don’t fit in. That only serves to highlight our own fears of insignificance, isolation, forgottenness, otherness, with our secrets we don’t want others to know, and a terror of not fitting in, or just being too fucking weird. Perhaps therefore, these stories reflects some of the most deep-seated issues we all carry with us, consciously or not.
But take comfort, friend, because the other thing horror does so well is help us face the darkness. It helps us interrogate our fears. It’s cathartic and emboldening. And while we might each be a little isolated weirdo, we can all be isolated weirdoes together in our love of this wonderful genre. I hope you enjoy some small town horror soon, you brain-mind-trapped-in-a-meat-bag, you.
Sallow Bend is now out through Cemetery Dance Publications — ! Learn more about it and everything else Alan Baxter at www.alanbaxter.com.au
Sallow Bend: Cemetery Dance