I cannot bear the Magic Baby. You know the Magic Baby, right? It’s when a character in a book (or a movie, or a television show) suddenly becomes pregnant, often without benefit of any sort of bow-chicka-wow-wow beforehand. The resulting baby usually grows up within a few hours or days, displaying extraordinary mental or physical powers, and occasionally both. Sometimes the Baby turns evil, and sometimes good, but no matter which way her mind swings, she still annoys me. Yet she shows up time and time again, because whether I like her or not, the Magic Baby fulfills certain narrative needs and pleases many readers.
The Magic Baby is a fiction trope, a commonly used (sometimes overused) theme or device. A trope is not quite the same as a cliché, which seems to imply a lack of original thought. Most of the time we talk about tropes that have been done so often we’re utterly sick of them, but it occurred to me that there are some tropes that draw me in as sure as sugar water will draw a bee. So today I’m listing the five tropes that are guaranteed to get my attention.
1) The haunted insane asylum
Yep, set a story in or around an abandoned insane asylum, and I’ll read it on the basis of the setting alone. There’s already something strange and terrifying about mental illness anyway, so setting a story in a functioning psychiatric hospital grants a dark atmosphere right off the bat. Considering the “treatments” patients received once upon a time are more similar to fairy-tale tortures than actual medicine, it seems to follow that ghosts would be flocking around the halls of the hospitals whether there are living patients around or not. If you like this trope, you should read The Hollow City by Dan Wells or Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. Some movies that take on the trope well are House on Haunted Hill, 12 Monkeys, and Session 9. (And even though only a portion of the movie is set in an asylum, Silence of the Lambs has what is probably the creepiest high-security area I’ve ever seen on film.)
2) Catholic mysticism
The ritual of traditional Catholicism appeals to me for many reasons. I’m high-church Episcopalian, and the incense and bowing and chants increase my spiritual feelings tenfold. Stories about demon possession, stigmata and religious secrets push all my happiest buttons (except for The Da Vinci Code – I’m still mad about that one. Buy me a drink at a con sometime and I’ll go on for days about that.) Even though priests have gotten themselves a bit of a bad rep these days, I can’t help being enchanted by stories like The Devil You Know by Mike Carey and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. Great movies in this vein are The Exorcist, Stigmata and Constantine.
I don’t want anyone to steal from me, and I certainly don’t plan to rob anyone else, but there is nothing that pleases me more than a well-planned, perfectly executed heist. There’s something romantic about the con artist, almost like a modern-day pirate. He uses his victim’s greed against him, leaving us, the audience, cheering for the thief to succeed. So it’s as if the con man is conning his mark and the author is conning us at the same time. Fortunately we lose nothing but time and we’re able to enjoy an exciting romp along the way. Two of the better heist tales in fantasy are The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. There are lots and lots of movies, but I’m fond of Ocean’s Eleven (old and new versions), The Italian Job (again, both versions) and Snatch.
At the moment I’m reading a book called Spillover, about the diseases that transfer from animals to humans. It’s a great book, especially because I find epidemics terribly intriguing. Viruses are lethal and fast, and completely free of feelings about what they do to their victims. I have a dreadful habit of sharing the tidbits of information I learn about diseases with friends and coworkers (one of my buddies at the library still looks at me a little funny since the day I explained the differences between the three kinds of plague that all got lumped under the umbrella of Black Death.) Sickness is a weird and alien antagonist, and I can’t help being interested. If you’re looking for some fiction featuring nasty little viruses, try Stephen King’s The Stand, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.
I grew up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and even though I was a suburban white kid, I still came in contact with kids whose grandfathers were bokors, and could create a spell called a root that would cause the person targeted much suffering. Whether you believe in it or not, most people in the Lowcountry respect and steer clear when they see veve signs or trees decorated in certain ways. I’ve always thought there was something deep and archetypal about the practice and belief of voodoo, so I love running into stories that present it properly. Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides is a great example, as is The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis and Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
So share with me…what tropes keep you coming back every single time?