So, I’ve been reading slush for Dark Moon Digest for a while now. Aside from the usual ghosts, werewolves, vampires and zombies, I’ve noticed several recurring themes and plot devices. There are already a few lists out there in Internetland that advise apprentice writers where not to go. “Strange Horizons” has a lengthy, but not exhaustive, list here.
Before I tell you my pet peeves, let me first make a disclaimer: by calling them my “pet peeves”, you’ll know that they reflect my personal reading tastes only, and that I mean no disrespect to anyone with opposite tastes. I’m not trying to hold myself up as some kind of expert in the field, nor do I wish to imply that any story using these tropes is automatically of low worth.
So, in no particular order, here they are:Cannibals. Maybe it’s because I’m descended from cannibals, but I can’t seem to get excited about a cannibal story. Yes, eating human flesh is gross. Yes, anyone who wants to eat human flesh is Evil. So what’s your point? Now, if you REALLY want to read some scary shit about cannibals, take a look at Paul Moon’s controversial non-fiction book “This Horrid Practice”.
Handsome man marries plain looking woman for her money. (I recently edited a novella using just this plot line – if you’re reading this, author, I don’t mean you). Inevitably, hot guy dies horribly for his sins. Sometimes the woman does too, but not because she’s a sinner, because she’s a Victim. I’m not usually one to bang on about sexism, but this strikes me as a particularly sexist concept. ‘Cos you never see the reverse – hot woman marries plain man for his money – used as a horror plot line. Oh no. Because that’s not scary, that’s just the accepted order of things…
Serial Killers. Closely related to cannibals. Serial killers are scary and evil – the end. 21st century Western society seems obsessed with serial killers, and excellent examples of popular serial killer fiction abound, but there’s little scope within the confines of the short story to give the trope a meaningful treatment.
Child abuse. Mercifully, I have not had to read any graphic descriptions of child abuse (yet…). This trope can be handled outstandingly well in a short story. One I read recently in the slush pile was superb, and I hope to be seeing it in the next issue of Dark Moon Digest. Just off the top of my head, also well worth the read is Brendan Duffy’s and Andrew McRae’s “Honeytime”, published in Midnight Echo #1.
Usually, though, it’s handled badly. It’s a bit like the “handsome man vs. plain woman” trope; too often it’s used merely as horror shorthand to distinguish between the Victim and the Bad Guy. And that’s another reason why I don’t like it – the Bad Guy is almost always, well, a guy. C’mon, people ! Women can be evil too, and not just because they’ve cheated on their husbands or turned into vampires!
I now look forward to a deluge of links to short stories that prove me wrong…