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 Three of The Crows is currently titled Meeting the Locals, in which we meet the Local History Society who are more interested in saving Art Deco theatres than in resurrecting the secrets of Fairwood House/The Crows. But why are they so cagey about answering questions about a sixty-year-old murder? And are any of them actually dangerous?
My Thoughts on Obstructive Locals…
This is not one of my favourites in the same way as the setting tropes are. I find obstructive people in real life pretty wearing, and I really don’t like the claustrophobic feeling that this trope produces in fiction when it’s done really well. I think it taps into the fear of being Othered or isolated to the point that something could happen to you and everyone would close ranks and get away with it, and that kind of thing really does happen in real life.
I read a few books with this trope that also come under the Town With Dark Secrets umbrella, and I can’t for the life of me remember anything about them – title, author, character names, anything – except for certain scenes and scraps of dialogue.
When I was about thirteen or so I read one that has always haunted me for reasons I can’t quite pin down, but I remember next to nothing about it. If anyone can tell me what the hell it is, I would be really grateful!!! It might have been set in Cornwall or somewhere and featured a female protagonist who rented a cottage in a village where there was a conspiracy of silence around… something, I forget what, a murder probably. Someone burning to death in a cottage, or something. Anyway. She realises that there will be a Big Climax where (I forget what happens) and tries to stop it, and the locals try to prevent her from stopping it, except for one man (her only ally in the village) who I think ends up with his head bashed in? Probably in the church? The only person on her side is the local vicar, and all I remember is her asking him about mercy [?] at the end – doesn’t anyone have any? And the only lines I remember (to the best of my limited ability) are: …she hoped he wouldn’t try to stick God over everything like a sticking plaster. But he said, “In Mr…, my dear. And in you, too.” [No, Google doesn’t help, even though I know the ‘sticking plaster’ is accurate]
And I don’t know why but that’s the only thing that stuck in my mind. I think it’s the tragedy of the story, the way it’s built up so that no one will help, everyone is silent, and the only person who tries to help her suffers for it, but also the way an outsider’s mercy breaks the vicious cycle and makes the locals face up to dark truths they have been hiding, challenging the narratives of justification that they have woven around them. I’ve wanted to write a story like that for a long time.
I find this trope genuinely off-putting, because of the tension, frustration and sense of hopelessness it creates when done seriously and well. Not only is everyone lying to you, but the people you think you can go to for help are in on it as well (or behind it), and there’s no escape.
In The Crows, a lot of the locals are hiding something supernatural, or are unwilling to talk about a ritual child-murder that happened in 1958. Even the characters who aren’t trying to obstruct Carrie’s search for the truth are hiding things from her. We meet more later on, and learn only some of their individual secrets in this novel. One in particular will be considered next time in post 4: The Grande Dame.
About The Trope
Essentially, these locals may refuse to answer questions, may be part of a community-wide conspiracy, or may be a select group within an otherwise normal place. Jaws isn’t a real example of a Town with a Dark Secret (without the shark, Amity Island is just a normal town), but it does have an obstructive mayor who cares more for profit than people, and several people claiming they’ve killed the shark so not to worry, so arguably it falls more under this trope.
It’s possible that there was a feud or a murder or a vigilante event that got out of hand, and people are covering that up. Or perhaps it’s a case of FOR THE GREATER GOOD and everyone is in on ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ happens to be. They certainly don’t want you to know, because you are not local, and you would not understand.
Within this you have the scope for so many character tropes and variations. There are the Local Gossips, the Tragic/Traumatic Backstory Locals, the Corrupt Authority Figures, The Fool (an ambiguous Gothic stock character who can be subverted in multiple ways), The Married Couple With Problems (that they usually hide behind a ‘perfect’ veneer, or hide very badly, or don’t attempt to hide at all).
Depending on your story, some characters are going to be cannon-fodder, and be killed off fairly rapidly. Some might be the Secret (or not-so-secret) Monster. More typical stock Gothic fiction characters can be found in this previous post.
None of these characters need to be cardboard cut-outs, though. They can be just as well-rounded and fleshed out as any other character, if that’s the tone of your work, and you can explore their quirks and secrets in as much detail as you like. The more believable their reasons for being Obstructive to the protagonist, the better. Susan Hill’s novella, The Woman in Black, is a good example of this trope, where, despite facing warnings and obstructive behaviour, the protagonist pursues his course of action without realising (or believing) that he is putting the local children in danger. The Obstructive Locals we meet in the novella don’t want him near Eel Marsh House for very good reasons, and want him to leave as soon as possible.
Again, Midsomer Murders is a classic example, with Caroline Graham’s series of books and the ITV adaptations and their later divergent seasons producing so many colourful local characters, weaving a web of silence around whatever killing(s) have occurred in that episode. You’ll also find a range of tourist-hating and anti-outsider characters in weird horror-comedies like The League of Gentlemen (TV run 1999-2002) set in fictional village of Royston Vasey, and of course, the human-sacrifice-requiring residents of Summerisle in The Wicker Man, where you can’t trust anyone. Hot Fuzz did this brilliantly too, and I forgot to give this film an honourable mention in the Town With A Dark Secret post, but it definitely belongs there too. Yarp.
You can encounter locals like this in country pubs, too, advising you not to go on the moors at night or giving you bad advice about which cabins to stay in, or claiming they have no room and won’t accept guests after dark.