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Small towns and out of the way places: 05/25/18
Besides the road, the road narrative needs the small town or the out of the way place. Even when the narrative is the standard one of a cross country trip from New York to California, the meat of the story lies in the encounters along the way, with small town encounters being the most memorable.
Just as the road is constantly in a narrative tug of war with off road travel, the big cities are in a similar opposition to the small towns or even the single dwellings. Road narratives are driven by the negative spaces — the places without roads or with poor roads — and small towns, the places where people can get lost, the forgotten, haunted, bypassed areas.
It is the extreme examples of these small towns that interest me the most, especially in how they are used in orphan magic, labyrinth, or crossing the cornfield stories.
Rural place as portal:
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is carried to Oz on her first journey via a cyclone from her aunt and uncle's struggling farm in Kansas. In later volumes, the ways into Oz multiply, but it's the first trip that is best remembered and the most iconic.
In the Fairyland stories by Catherynne M Valente that center on September, she is always shown leaving her Omaha farm house. Omaha happens to be the 43rd largest city in the United States but in comparison to a big coastal city, it feels small and by setting the departure point from a single house on the outskirts of the city, drives home the sense of remoteness and isolation.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman features a single house that is a portal to an alternate and deadly version of itself. For the film, that house is set on the outskirts of Ashland, Oregon (with a population of 22,000 — or roughly 18 times smaller than Omaha).
While the first two examples provide access to rather positive experiences for protagonists — enough so that both Dorothy and September ultimately decide to relocate to their alternate worlds, Coraline's is a deathtrap.
Rural place as trap:
Coraline is the perfect segue to the the most common of the small town stories (especially in the horror genre), the small town as trap. Here there are two versions of the trap: the townspeople themselves are trapped, or about to be trapped; or the town is the honey pot to lure in outsiders for nefarious reasons.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby opens with the protagonist lamenting that his mother has left him and his brother behind in Bone Gap. She has managed to escape. Everything is okay, but not great, as long as his brother's girlfriend is around. When she is kidnapped in front of the protagonist and no one believes him and people start to act as if she was a figment of his imagination, he begins to wonder if Bone Gap is more than just a middle of nowhere town. Turns out he's right and the only way to see the trap for what it is to go off road and cross through the cornfield (thus the inspiration for my term "crossing the cornfield.")
More extreme examples of these trapped towns are "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby (and so excellently done as an episode of The Twilight Zone with Bill Mumy as the monster; and Boneshaker by Kate Milford, where a traveling medicine show almost spells the end for Arcane. Of course Boneshaker takes inspiration in set up and motifs from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (especially the Disney film which puts all the short stories into a single, coherent horror narrative)
To see what small town centered road narratives I've reviewed so far please see: