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.

I’m just…sayin’.

So, in no particular order, here they are:

By ErgoSum88 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This, on the other hand, I find dead creepy.

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…

  1. Colum Paget says:

    I suspect the reason why you never see ‘Girl marries guy for his money’ is that it would be considered sexist. So why is the reverse okay? I think this is a genuinely interesting question as I suspect that “What’s going on” may be deeper than we’d at first suspect. Here are some similar ‘gendered’ tropes:

    We often see plotlines in which a man is seeking revenge for the death of a female romantic partner. We almost never see the reverse (even in ‘kill bill’ she is seeking revenge for what has been done to her as much s for what was done to her husband and child). The few female revenge plotlines I’ve seen have been about females seeking revenge for wrongs done to themselves, rather than wrongs done to another.
    Extending this, of course, there’s all the possibilites of homosexual people seeking revenge for a murdered partner, which I also think we’ve not seen (might be wrong on that one, not sure).

    ‘Cursed Wanderer’ characters (Bruce Banner, Kwai-Chang-Kane, the Wandering Jew) are always male, and are wandering because they are on the run from their own past mistakes. The equivalent female character is ‘Cinderella’, who is static, imprisoned, and is operating under a curse that is not her fault (Harry potter breaks the mold, as he’s a male cinderella).

    I find it very interesting that horror has a deficit of evil women. Other genres almost lean the other way, if the protagonist and antagonist are different sexes then I’d say, on balance, that the woman tends to be the antagonist.

    Maybe the thing in horror though is that it generally deals with a very direct and physical form of threat, and it’s easy to set this up with a willowy female who’s running through the darkened castle in her nightgown pursued by the dastardly count/boyfriend/axe murderer. (yes, i’m channeling ‘classic horror’ here to make people’s eyes roll). But sometimes it’s better to do the thing that’s difficult.

    Another gender-difference that I see is that when female antagonists threaten males in horror movies they often have a valid ‘excuse’. There’s normally some terrible event for which they are seeking retribution that justifies their actions (‘Misery’ is the exception here, i think). This is much less true for male antagonists, who can just be amoral forces of nature. Almost never do we
    see male antagonists with a just cause to pursue the willowy heroine and chop her head off, almost never do we see a female antagonist without a just cause.

    Here’s the final one for now. Why are stage magicians (not in fiction but rather in real life) almost always male? Do we feel differently about a woman sawing a man in half than about a man sawing a woman in half. If so, why?


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