Hello my Freaky Darlings,

Last week we chatted about Women in Horror. This week we’ll be chatting about Tropes.

“Tropes are unavoidable. The important thing is make sure that they are not being employed in a way that they have been overused and the only way to do that is to be familiar with the genre. Anyone who attempts to write a vampire story without reading Dracula, or a ghost story without being familiar with the stories of M R James is working in the dark while also wearing a blindfold.”Steve Lockley, author of The Ice Maiden. 

The first time I heard the word Trope I had no idea what the interviewer was asking me about. I promptly went on line and looked it up. This is the explanation I found:

  • Trope: In literature – a familiar and/or often used symbol, style, character, theme or device.

A badly and over used trope can easily become a cliché.

According to The Collins English Dictionary a cliché is as follows:

  1. a word or expression that has lost much of its force through overexposure.
  2. An idea, action, or habit that has become trite from overuse.

“It always seems to me that the best way to tackle a cliché is to first embrace it and then subvert it. A lot of clichés in horror fiction exist for a reason – because once upon a time they were fresh and original and they actually worked. A lazy writer will trot out these familiar clichés in the same way they’ve been used for generations. A good writer will dismantle the cliché and find out what made it work in the first place, before spreading its guts across the page in a new and interesting pattern.”Gary McMahon, author of Pretty Little Dead Things.

Clichés are to be avoided where ever possible, but tropes can be worked with and expanded on.

If you look at the horror novels you’ve read or the movies you’ve watched you’ll notice that there are so many recurring themes, symbols, and characters. Below I’ve listed a few, but I suggest you go and make up your own list of tropes that you can either use or try and avoid in your own writing.

  • The master vampire: It seems that in most Vampire lore there is a master who lures women into his deadly embrace. Dracula is a prime example of the master vampire. They are the makers of other vampires. They are the strong seducers.
  • Pentagrams: Sadly Pentagrams are invariably used incorrectly in horror fiction. In ancient civilisations the pentagram was not an evil symbol. It was a symbol of human spirituality connected with the four elements. Spirit was at the top of the pentagram. The inverted pentagram, used by the church of Satan and other Satanic cults, is a bastardisation and a modern invention. You can read more about Pentagrams here:
  • The damsel in distress: Let’s face it, horror is known for it’s scream queens. From the Gothic novels where young women were being tormented in haunted castles to the more modern city girl being stalked by a vampire or serial killer, it’s all about a girl and her blood curdling scream. Thankfully in the more modern literature the damsel doesn’t have to wait to be rescued, she gets to rescue herself and kick some vampire butt while doing it. Buffy springs to mind.
  • Werewolves: Represent the duality in man, our humanity versus our animality. They’ve been used in horror fiction since the 17th century. They were often thought of as being part of Satan’s army and having a taste for human flesh. Little Red Riding Hood is one of the early children’s folk tales using a werewolf, it’s also a tale that is being reworked quite nicely in modern literature.
  • The apocalypse: Since the dawn of man there have been world ending prophecy’s. The Mayan’s said the world would end in fire in 2012. Then there’s the biblical flood. The book of Revelations is pretty horrific and full of the apocalypse. The end being nigh is a fear that has driven many a novel plot.
  • Zombies: The dead raised by voodoo rituals in The Magic Island by W.B Seabrook in 1929 is where the word Zombie apparently originated. Zombie lore has grown since then. And its no longer just through Voodoo rituals that the dead are being raised. These days anything from genetic research gone wrong, to chemical warfare, to solar radiation can cause it. Modern Zombie fiction writers, however, do seem to think that Zombies and the apocalypse are connected.  I’ve even had some fun with Zombie lore in my novella, Oasis.
  • The haunted house: If you’re writing a ghost story, chances are your setting will be the haunted house, or castle, or even an apartment that the ghost is refusing to leave. Since the beginning of horror fiction we’ve had haunted houses. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a classic example.
  • The mental institution: I used the mental institution in my novel Shadows. The mad house can be used in so many different ways. Is it the building that’s absorbed all the insanity of the inmates over the years? Or is it really just the inmates that make the place as scary as it is? Mental institutions are always gloomy, sad, disturbing places. You could probably go in to the institution as a relatively sane individual, but I’m not sure you’d come out sane after an extended visit. Would you spend the night in a deserted mad house?
  • Ghosts: These little guys have been a staple in horror fiction since time in memoriam. There are so many ghost stories out there you could probably pave an entire highway across a continent with them. But thankfully, ghosts are pretty versatile and very human. Ghosts can be angry, scared, disturbed, pretty much anything you want them to be. They can also be a whole lot of fun to work with.
  • The mad scientist: The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton are prime examples of the mad scientist on the loose. Just think of all the scientific advances there have been. Or have a look at the experiments conducted by Nazi scientists and doctors on their prisoners. What is truly horrific is that most of the advances in modern medicine are based on their experiments. Organ transplants, genetic research, all based on the work done by Nazi scientists!

Now … how many tropes can you come up with and make them fresh?


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  1. Pingback: Setting and Characterisation in Horror | Joan De La Haye

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