Peculiar Little Towns
Some towns contain more secrets than residents. Secluded and set off from cities, where there would be more witnesses to their aberrations, creepy little villages have made great fodder for horror writers H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, not to mention Shirley Jackson and Ira Levin. But real-life towns—such as Taiji, Japan, with its brutal annual dolphin hunt—can sometimes be scarier than fiction.
In the late 1500s, the first English settlers on the American continent vanished without a trace. Located on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina, the “lost colony” and its mysterious fate became folklore, an unsolved mystery, a dark secret known only to the dead. Were they murdered? Starved out? Abducted by Spaniards? Small-town America didn’t get off to an auspicious start.
American horror writers, perhaps naturally, have appropriated small towns. H.P. Lovecraft often set his weird tales in seemingly humdrum New England outcroppings. His fictional Dunwich, Massachusetts, for instance, harbors the Whateleys, a deformed, deranged, dangerous family of wizards, along with the massive monster growing in their farmhouse. “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) cemented Lovecraft’s reputation as the era’s most twisted mind.
Stephen King happily toils in Lovecraft’s shadow, which he admiringly calls “so long and gaunt.” Like Lovecraft, King has set many of his stories in New England backwaters. King’s 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot chronicles the disappearances of Mainers from the titular town. But the book rejects such fanciful causes as those attached to Roanoke’s demise: An ancient vampire simply sucks the town dry.
“The flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” So begins Shirley Jackson’s short tale “The Lottery”—not with a bang but a gentle plunk of idyllic horticulture. Between square dances in a quaint village, an annual lottery is held; this is no ordinary small-town raffle but a sinister selection process for human sacrifice. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” grumbles one townie. With its chilling conclusion, the story earned unprecedented bundles of hate mail after its first publication, in The New Yorker. Some even thought “The Lottery” was factual reportage from white-picket-fence America. It’s now a mainstay assignment in English classes.
When John Graham, protagonist of Stephen King’s 1989 story “Rainy Season,” arrives in Willow, Maine, he finds himself “thinking of Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ for the first time since he’d read it in junior high school.” At the general store, Graham and his wife are advised to leave because a rainstorm of toads is forecast. Incredulous, they stay. If only the Grahams had heeded the town’s Jacksonian vibe, they might not have become gruesome victims of a ritual that promises “seven years of quiet prosperity.” Corn be heavy soon.…
Hogewey village in the Netherlands looks like any other small town: There are small markets, small parks with small benches, small homes. But it’s all an illusion. The town is actually a nursing home complex constructed to comfort patients with severe dementia.
Hogewey is a real-world fake, but a recurring tradition in literature suggests that small towns aren’t always what they appear to be. Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives depicts one seemingly idyllic hamlet nestled in suburban Connecticut. Joanna Eberhart, a New York photographer, moves to Stepford and soon realizes it’s one big fabrication. The townswomen are all perfect specimens of the men’s ideal wife. Real women—with all their independence, intelligence and personality—have been replaced by feather-dusting, cookie-baking robots programmed to serve chauvinistic husbands.
Stephen King called Levin the “Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel,” and Carrie, King’s first book, came out two years after Stepford. In its setting of Chamberlain, Maine (a real place, by the way), teenager Carrie White is a Stepford wife’s polar opposite. She’s plagued by acne and telekinesis. Bullied by her classmates and repressed by her suburban existence, Carrie explodes at the prom and massacres the entire town.
The World’s End, the third film in the Cornetto series, reunites five friends in their hometown of Newton Haven for a 12-pub crawl. (Despite having so many pubs, this is nonetheless a very small town.) Upon arriving, the returnees recognize aspects of their old stomping grounds, but they also notice a new aloofness on the residents’ part and an unsettling flawlessness permeating everything. The town denizens all turn their heads in unison to stare blankly whenever the group enters a pub, for example, and the bars seem to have abandoned their hooligan past—chain restaurants have bought them all up, rendering them identically nondescript. Slowly the pub crawlers discover that their old pals have been replaced with androids. The Network, an alien intelligence that controls these robotic Brits, testily intones near the end of the film, “Your planet is the least civilized in the entire galaxy.”
The director, Edgar Wright, admitted to being inspired by the movie version of The Stepford Wives. Both films reveal the robots that hide beneath human skin—and the characters not yet hijacked would prefer to remain a little less than perfect than lose their humanity altogether.
The Cornetto trilogy, starring Simon Pegg (who also cowrote) and Nick Frost, begins with the comedy–zombie bloodbath Shaun of the Dead, which Stephen King rated a “10 on the fun meter.” The second film, Hot Fuzz, takes a sharp turn into small-town territory, with a London police constable who has been relocated to Sandford, a sleepy Gloucestershire village. At first, Sandford’s most worrisome problems seem to be the appearance of a living-statue mime and the theft of a swan. But, as always, a dark vein runs beneath the quaint historic buildings and well-maintained gardens: Sandford is controlled by a secret society that routinely murders its riffraff to retain its Village of the Year title.
King has dubbed places like Sandford “peculiar little towns.” And he cannot resist them. In his 2009 novel Under the Dome, he goes so far as to drop an invisible barrier around the miniature Maine community of Chester’s Mill (also a real town). Literally separated from the rest of the world, the petty schemes, feuds and backbiting morph into something more aggressive with bigger stakes, as corrupt used-car salesman James “Big Jim” Rennie murders to consolidate power and fulfill his nefarious dream of Mill domination.
In Taiji, Japan, outsiders are threatened and chased away. Residents have high levels of mercury in their bodies. The town council chief eats raw dolphin meat. It’s a “little town with a really big secret,” says Ric O’Barry in the 2009 documentary The Cove. O’Barry and other activists sneak into this hostile coastal village and discover a massive slaughter of dolphins trapped in a tiny inlet whose water turns a gruesome shade of bright red. The hungry dolphins are considered pests that jeopardize the town’s fishing industry, and every September they are mercilessly culled. To make matters worse, the dolphin meat, which contains toxic amounts of mercury, is then sold to grocers and, at one time, to school cafeterias.
H.P. Lovecraft’s 1936 tour de force The Shadow Over Innsmouth also explores a small town’s terrifying relationship with sea creatures. The novella follows a young tourist whose misplaced curiosity leads him to take a ramshackle bus into a decrepit Massachusetts town that contains alarmingly unattractive people and a suspicious number of boarded-up buildings. He narrowly escapes the (surprise!) human-fish-hybrid residents, descendants of immortal underwater deities who ensure the prosperity of the town’s fisheries in exchange for a secret interbreeding program.