What better way to celebrate spooky season than a series of blog posts on Gothic tropes? I’m hoping to get The Crows back from my editor by December in time for a January release, and every chapter heading is a different Gothic trope.
Chapter Two is A Town with Dark Secrets, and introduces Pagham-on-Sea, a fictional town in East Sussex somewhere between Bexhill-on-Sea and Pevensey. It is not to be confused with the actual Pagham, a small town in West Sussex near Chichester. They have far less werewolves there, for a start.
What I Love About The [Fictional] Secretive Town
The Town with Dark Secrets is one of my favourite tropes next to The Creepy Old House.
TVTropes equates this trope to Lovecraftian Fishmen (which I will return to later), but there’s so much more to it than that, and I hadn’t even heard of Lovecraft when I fell in love with the concept of a Town with Dark Secrets. (Here I will talk about villages too, as the only difference is the size).
One of my favourite childhood films at this time of year was Hocus Pocus, which got me interested in Salem (we didn’t learn much about British witch trials in relation to individual locations, since they happened everywhere), and the aesthetic – along with curses, secrets, kids uncovering forbidden things – helped spark a lifelong attraction to secretive [fictional] places.
I emphasise ‘fictional’ because in real life I’ve passed through small villages – some in England, some in the Peloponnese – where the vibe strongly indicates something Bad happened there. They are the kind of sullen, half-empty places where you get out of the car/bus and know you’re not welcome there before you even ask for directions or the tour guide advises you to call into the single gift shop. I don’t want to name these places, but they tend to be isolated, surrounded by forest in the way islands are surrounded by water, or (in the Greek cases) high in the mountains far from the National Road, and chances are someone reading this will know what I mean. These are not places I ever want to go back to in real life, or find out any more about than necessary. And yet… and yet I am fascinated from a safe distance, and while I have no wish to poke around in things that don’t concern me, I do want to delve into the safe, fictional secrets that present their mysteries to be solved.
In the fictional cases, I was first introduced to the concept of dark secrets in strange places by Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, where he notes to Watson what evils could go undetected in out-of-the-way places in the countryside. But Conan Doyle was only minimally responsible for sparking my interest in this concept.
In 1997, Midsomer Murders aired for the first time when I was about ten years old, with the pilot episode “The Killings at Badger’s Drift“. Originally based on Caroline Graham’s books and adapted for ITV by Anthony Horowitz, we watched it because we liked crime fiction, the more sensational the better. After meeting the creepy inhabitants of Badger’s Drift, especially the colourful but odious (and doomed) Mrs Rainbird and her son Dennis (something weird and Oedipal going on there that I picked up on even at that age), I was hooked. I can’t tell you how influential that fictional county became for me: that series was certainly one of the staple weekend-night TV Events to watch as a family. The sound of the theme got everyone rushing into the living room to watch whatever implausible series of events would be unfolding that week.
It introduced me, as a ten-year-old, to Gothic tropes before I’d even heard of Gothic Fiction.
The villages of Midsomer contained, variously, a pair of murderous, incestuous siblings; at least one psychopath (armed with various implements from a pitchfork to a crossbow, but often a rifle); an evil illegitimate child; murder by natural poisons, including hemlock, toadstools and aconite; old bones in the woods; serial arsonists watching their victims burn alive; concealed pregnancies, feuding families, corrupt clergy, sinister folk religion and dubious, unsavoury local histories.
(If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of discovering the Midsomer Murders Plot Bot on Twitter, treat yourself here: https://twitter.com/midsomerplots)
Nearly every episode took you to a village where everyone was slightly off, morals were skewed, and red herrings abounded as a result when someone ended up bludgeoned or poisoned or shot or stabbed or, memorably, impaled with a pitchfork. Since so many episodes were made, some villages made multiple appearances, like Badger’s Drift and Midsomer Parva, where you definitely didn’t want to upset the neighbours…
How there was anyone left in any of those villages is the biggest mystery of them all, quite frankly, especially by the twentieth season. It has also left me with a deep love of, as well as a deep suspicion for, places with thatched cottages, Morris dancers and well-kept village greens.
Pagham-on-Sea, the setting for my novel The Crows, doesn’t have thatched cottages, but it does have a rundown, creepy atmosphere, places you don’t go at night, and a high murder/missing persons ratio. I wouldn’t trust the Punch & Judy puppets, either. I suspect it owes more to the setting of Lost Boys in many respects (one of my favourite vampire films), just dropped into an East Sussex context. I tweet micro-fiction relating to the town and its inhabitants @OverheardPoS.
About The Trope
This is not a town that is otherwise lovely but has had a Bad Thing happen there that one time. Amity Island, setting for Jaws, doesn’t really qualify, despite the corrupt mayor who cares more about money than people. Once the shark is gone, the town is just a town. Haddonfield, the town that forms the setting for Halloween, doesn’t really qualify either. The town isn’t covering up Mike Myers and the townspeople are not collectively or even partly responsible for him killing his sister in the first place. Until he escapes his facility, the town itself is normal and perfectly pleasant, and when Michael isn’t hanging around trying to stab or strangle people, it goes back to being fairly nice.
No: this is a place where everyone knows something you don’t, a place where there might be multiple dark secrets in its past that the protagonist would do well not to disturb. There might be a conspiracy of silence around old murders, missing people, strange goings-on in the woods, etc., or perhaps the town itself is haunted, a trap, or hiding a variety of personal secrets ranging from corruption to sex scandals to blackmail and everything in between.
The community on Summerisle in The Wicker Man is a good example, Silent Hill of video game fame is another, and so is Gatlin, NE, which has its cult of killer children in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.
Shirley Jackson is of course to blame for inspiring generations of horror writers with her short story The Lottery, in which a human sacrifice is chosen by lot every year to ensure the ongoing prosperity of an otherwise typical American village.
Basically: if your town has a scarecrow god to whom they sacrifice passers-by for the sake of a good harvest, á la Supernatural S1 E11, it’s also a Town With A Dark Secret. In fact, if your town has any sort of conspiracy where outsiders are sacrificed for the greater good or to satisfy whatever is Out There, or just for fun, and believe me, the variations are endless, then it’s part of this trope too.
BUT! it’s not all about Folk Horror and rural pursuits!
It also appears in Blood Drive, where the third episode Steel City, home of mutated nocturnal creatures addicted to some experimental additive the evil corporation put in its gasoline, is another example, set in the dystopian near-future.
Pines by Blake Crouch, made into a miniseries called Wayward Pines directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is another weird sci-fi/thriller version.
Stepford is another good example of an inventive modern version, the setting for Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives.
You can do what you want with this trope, it’s essentially the setting that keeps on giving.
However, I’d be remiss not to point out that one of the people who really made this trope (in)famous (of course) was H. P. Lovecraft.
Gothic Fiction typically sets the protagonist in a more isolated place than an urban centre, but Lovecraft’s novella, The Shadow over Innsmouth, blights an entire Massachusetts town with horrible hereditary issues. There is also this incredibly catchy (and short) gem of a musical version. Again, the story features an outsider, who in this case is also our narrator/protagonist, who is coming to Innsmouth to do some research into his own family history.
The story itself was essentially written as a dodgy eugenics fable, but it’s possible [and advisable] to take it as a cautionary tale against shagging murderous fishmen of the deep and leave it at that.
The Town With A Dark Secret (or more than one) is, as I hope this post has demonstrated, more than Fishmen. If this has got you wanting more, you could visit Goodreads which has a handy list of books featuring Small Towns with Secrets, and if your favourite isn’t on there, you can add it!