There are a lot of ways that books can help you feel more connected to other people and to the world: you can recognize yourself in a character, you can relate to a situation, you can share an emotion. More rarely, an author can describe the world in such a way that you think, "OH. S/HE GETS IT."
I always get that feeling from Stephen King's descriptions of Maine: he captures the everyday weirdness of our culture without overdoing it, satirizing it, or caricaturing it the way that so many others do. I got that same feeling from Robin Wasserman's Ode to King, The Waking Dark, in a different, but almost more personal way: I felt like I was reading a story by someone who shared some of my deepest fears, but also some of my greatest hopes.
In The Waking Dark, it's regular people who are the monsters. But it's also regular people—through shining acts of bravery, selflessness, loyalty, kindness, hope—who bring about their own salvation.
It's an outstanding novel, and as in many of King's stories, the small-town setting plays a large part in it: random brutality is scary, sure, but it's terrifying when neighbor turns on neighbor, preacher on parishioner, husband on wife, father on son. Add to that a small-town setting that's inescapable—as someone who spent my childhood and teen years in a small town, let me tell you: sometimes they can seem inescapable on the best of days, even without armed soldiers guarding the town lines and former friends turning murderous—and you've got the perfect backdrop for a horror story that will give you chills even in broad daylight.
And now, I'll turn it over to Robin:
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the soulless suburbs, my adolescence spent shuffling between the multiplex and the mall with the occasional Baskin Robbins detour to spice things up, but I have always been fascinated by small towns. Cities, I understood. The city was field trips and special occasions, noise and traffic and Broadway shows. The city was My Future, the place I would escape to in that hazy someday when high school ended and I could finally live out the Rent/Fame/Desperately Seeking Susan life of my dreams. There was no mystery there. I knew (or at least, thought I knew) every detail of what that life would be.
Small towns, on the other hand? That was a mystery. That was a life I could barely imagine, because the small towns I knew best only existed in fiction…usually, the kind of fiction that came with vampires and carnies and evil clowns hiding behind every picturesque general store. I spent most of my teen years escaping into fictional worlds, retreating from the agonies of adolescence into scarier but more conquerable horrors. And the best of these horrors were almost always to be found in small towns, where friendly faces hid dark secrets, where innocence butted up against ancient sin. It’s no wonder that when I set out to write my own horror novel, I dreamed up Oleander, Kansas, full of cornfields, cheerleaders, ministers, meth dealers, and many, many secrets. People often ask me why I set The Waking Dark in a small Midwestern town, and I always tell them: Where else?Here, in honor of its publication, are some of my all-time favorite scary small towns:
Derry, Maine – from Stephen King’s It
There are some King fans who swear by Castle Rock (setting for The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, etc), but for me, it’s all about Derry. This small town in Maine has been home to massacres, fires, and lynchings, not to mention your run-of-the- mill “murder by evil, balloon-dispensing sewer creature”—probably because it’s the ancestral home of Pennywise the Clown, who you do not want to meet. Terrible, nightmarish things happen in Derry…and, most terrifying of all, no one in Derry much seems to care.
Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine – from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot
For the first half of the book, this town is nowhere near as terrifying as most of King’s settings. Sure, you wouldn’t want to live there, but you could probably stop by for a burger and shake without getting murdered. Then come the vampires.
Green Town, Illinois – from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes
Never, ever go to a traveling carnival...especially at 3 AM. That’s what I learned from this book. Also, if a guy covered in tattoos, some of which seem to be the faces of people you know, introduces himself as Mr. Dark, probably best to run home, hide under the bed, and wait until the wind blows the smell of cotton candy way out of town.
Somewhere near Monroeville, Iowa – from Daniel Kraus’s Scowler
I don’t exactly know where in Iowa Ry Burke’s farm is supposed to be (the story never leaves the bounds of its property), but I know I wouldn’t want to be stuck there. Especially not with a psychopathic father and three talking dolls, one of which seems to really like killing things. The most disturbing book I’ve read all year, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Wind Gap, Missouri – from Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects
Someone in this creepy little town is murdering young girls and stealing their teeth. Need I say more? (You may wonder what they’re doing with the teeth…and I promise, whatever you’re thinking? It’s even worse than that.)
Colleton, South Carolina – from Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides
The thing that always gets me about this book (which, for some reason, I read over and over again when I was 17) is that, despite all the horrors visited on the narrator’s childhood, he can’t shake his enchantment with the island where he grew up. It’s in his DNA: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
Oelwein, Iowa – from Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Oelwein is a real town, and Methland is a real life horror story about how economic devastation and meth infestation have formed a cancer that’s metastasized across small town America. Oelwein comes to life as a place full of people struggling desperately to save their home from obsolescence and ruin. (Also, the book is an amazing read and one of the huge inspirations for The Waking Dark.)
Honorable mention to…
I know, I know, it’s a TV show. But it managed to scare the crap out of me when I was eleven years old and all these years later I’m still terrified. This is a town that contains the Black Lodge, Owl Cave, the Double R Diner, One Eyed Jack’s (supposedly across the border, but close enough), the Saw Mill, the Road House, and Bob. I’d say more, but I’m too freaked out to keep typing. Watch it for yourself.
Keep the lights on.