Small Worlds

by John Holbo on December 26, 2013

I just finished watching Season 1 of The Returned. French zombies! Fun!

Plotspoilers Under the Fold:

No brain-eating, but something’s up for sure! Then, finally, Julie and Claire do what someone should have done already: try to get the hell out of Dodge, with Victor in tow. It turns out: you can’t. The whole area is now some sort of inescapable fairy circle. You end up back where you started. So it’s Lost. Or Under The Dome. Only our beset band is cast away in a picturesque French valley. This is a teensy bit annoying, because there’s no obvious thematic significance, no clear logic to the arrangement. It feels like a heavy-handed afterthought to the zombie premise. It’s a kludge. You don’t want the French army showing up in force, firing rockets at revenants. You want to keep your cast small. This is to be a low-key, small town affair. Sealing off the zone is an inverse deus ex machina. Some divine power arbitrarily descends to ensure the problem is not solved in the obvious way.

Of course I will be very happy if it turns out, in Season 2, that revenants-plus-fairy circle makes total sense. But I’m not holding my breath. (Sometimes the hermetic seal is justified quite neatly. Cabin In The Woods. I haven’t seen or read Under The Dome, but at least it’s not a kludge when it’s your central premise.)

So my question is: what is the history of this narrative device? The supernatural/science fictional small world, arbitrarily bottled off so just a handful of trapped characters have to deal with the crisis by themselves? No picking up the phone and calling the government! What is a good name for the trope? (Does it have a name already?)

It used to be, of course, you could just plunk your haunting down in an isolated village or lonely manor. But the modern world doesn’t have so many bits that are civilized yet plausibly isolated any more. Cell phones and etc. So these creepy little worlds need to be artificially sealed-off, to stay small enough. What do you think?



Michael 12.26.13 at 12:17 pm

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie comes to mind…


Jim Buck 12.26.13 at 12:36 pm

God and the Wedding Dress by Majorie Bowen (1938) is a Gothic fiction, based on real-life events at the Derbyshire village of Eyam. A 1665 visitation of the plague lead to the parishioners voting to isolate themselves within the boundaries of Eyam; that situation prevailed for over 12 months; external authorities, understandably, kept well away.
There are bound to be earlier examples of course; and I’m reminded of the belief, which was once wide-spread in Central Asia, that if one draws a chalk circle around a Caucasian boy he is unable to step outside it.


Nick Barnes 12.26.13 at 12:41 pm


zj 12.26.13 at 12:43 pm

Not sure about the history within the scifi/fantasy genre, but it may have something to do with the presumably longer tradition of single-set plays or sitcoms (looking forward to the final season of Him & Her, anyone?).


Florian Schwarzer 12.26.13 at 12:55 pm

I’ve always thought of this as “The Wall”, based on an Austrian novel recently turned into a (the novel’s excellent; can’t vouch for the film). Since it was published in 1963, I always thought of it as an early, if not ur-example.


John Holbo 12.26.13 at 1:00 pm

Yes, I should have checked TV tropes first, Nick. “Small Secluded Worlds” seems like a rather unevocative name.

I think it’s important to distinguish it’s function as a classic metaphor and as a classic kludge.


Jim Buck 12.26.13 at 1:52 pm


P.D. 12.26.13 at 1:58 pm

‘Deus en camera’, I think, as the opposite of ‘deus ex machina’.


Jim Buck 12.26.13 at 1:59 pm

The Kryptonian capital city, of Kandor, was shrink-rayed, to bottle size, by the evil collector Brainiac. Action Comics (1958) was when that atrocity was reported to the world. Tiny Kandorians have been banging their heads on the glass, ever since the. So, perhaps, the trope is Kandorian ?


William Timberman 12.26.13 at 2:12 pm

My all-time favorite: Village of the Damned — the original 1960s version. Midwich wasn’t sealed off exactly, but charming little blond kids with mind control capabilities are every bit as effective as zombies or bubbles over the town. Sometimes, when listening to a political blowhard, or watching some particularly swoopy commercial for Archer Daniels Midland, say, or Dodge Ram trucks, I find myself repeating A brick wall…I must think of a brick wall.


oldster 12.26.13 at 2:22 pm

are you looking for precedents for:
1) protagonists can’t get out of circumscribed area! (in which case, e.g. McGoohan’s “The Prisoner”)
2) protagonists should obviously call in outside aid, but don’t! (in which case, e.g., every Harry Potter adventure).


Alan White 12.26.13 at 4:34 pm

I think they’re all No Exit wannabes, existentialist microcosms and all that. One reason I keep watching The Walking Dead (other than how Andrew Lincoln affects such a great flat mid-western accent) is that no one is exempt from sudden death (odd how that phrase as properly used now seems trite from its overuse in sports). They killed Hershel after all.

Thanks for the reminder about Kandor–I’ve always thought Brainiac had it head-and-shoulders over Lex Luthor.


Katherine 12.26.13 at 6:21 pm

The last episode seemed very off-plot to me. We go from following a few people who head home, not realising they are the dead arisen, to a horde all ganged up demanding the return of their own. It… jarred. I’m still looking forward to season 2 mind.


Jim Buck 12.26.13 at 6:59 pm

@11 Brainiac’s green, light-bulb festooned, forehead was obviously a metaphor for the anthropological division of the enlightenment project.


PJW 12.26.13 at 9:31 pm

Stepford Wives?


Donald A. Coffin 12.26.13 at 9:59 pm

As you note, it’s a common trope. There are numerous examples in mystery fiction, including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Ellery Queen used it several times (although I’m blanking on titles). Harder to do with modern technology, but there are places without decent (or any) cell/satellite/other connections, and a sufficiently bad blizzard can prevent getting in or out in other ways.


Jim Buck 12.26.13 at 11:08 pm

Key Largo! Edward G. Trapped on the Keys–pulling his rod, impotently, against an imprisoning storm.


John Quiggin 12.26.13 at 11:25 pm

The Tunnel Under The World (Fred Pohl 1954): Initially, the protagonist appears to be trapped in a single day, replayed over and over again as a full-scale focus group for ad agencies. But, when he finally escapes it turns out that he is in a literal small world – his town has been miniaturized and placed on a tabletop.


Bill Benzon 12.26.13 at 11:44 pm

In a way, Start Trek Voyager. Here we are stuck way out in the Gamma Quadrant with no way to get in touch with anyone else from the Federation and light years and light years to go before we can once again enter Federation space, if ever. So, we’re effectively marooned.

And, to a first approximation, it’s not all that different from the other shows in the Star Trek universe. Despite the fact that we’re cruising over light years of space in mere minutes, they all have a small-worldish feel about them.


Peter K. 12.27.13 at 12:04 am

I really enjoyed The Returned, especially the atmospherics and music by Mogwai.

Holbo mentions cell phones. Great point. Internet, Cable? The gendarmes’ regular contact with other authorities?

I am reminded of the Twilight Zone or X-Files. Once you have one magical thing – like people returning from the dead – anything else goes. For instance, what was Victor up to? Why?

@9 This music video – by a French band – reminded me of The Village of the Damned even though I’ve only seen the Carpenter version.

Maybe the French are playing with the theme of walling themselves off – from Europe or from globalization? Or maybe not. (Notice how the kids in the video were waiting for a leader who could build a solid brick wall.)


Nine 12.27.13 at 4:24 am

Robert Charles Wilson repeats this over and over and over again – Mysterium, Darwinia, Blind lake, Spin etc – with decreasing success. In the Spin trilogy he has the whole world walled off.


Phil 12.27.13 at 10:27 am

I guess you can distinguish between “characters physically can’t escape” (Lifeboat & many others), “can’t escape for supernatural reasons” (the Returned), “could escape but seem to have forgotten how” (The Exterminating Angel) and “could escape any time, but maybe tomorrow would be better…” (which I’ve seen somewhere but can’t think where). There’s another set of stories where characters do escape an enclosed world but always come back – as in several episodes of The Prisoner. There’s a particularly nasty twist in the Twilight Zone episode The monsters are due on Maple St, in which someone goes to get help, only to be seen as an enemy when he comes back.


BJN 12.27.13 at 4:37 pm

@22: if you accept that the long string of bad luck is necessarily the work of supernatural forces that allow a neverending series of people to the small secluded world, but never allows the primary inhabitants to leave for sometimes baffling reasons, and also include the after the fact TV movie, then doesn’t Gilligan’s Island check all of the boxes?

It didn’t come first, obviously, but doesn’t Gilligan’s Island have by far the most cultural saliency? Based on the sheer number of foiled escape attempts and zany hijinx restricted to a small world involved in the series, it must have covered a lot of the possibilities in one form or another just by exhaustion.


Phil 12.27.13 at 6:14 pm

Hmm. I can’t honestly say I’ve never heard of Gilligan’s Island, but I’ve certainly never seen it. (Ditto the Love Boat.) We got I Love Lucy over here, and Bilko and a few others – I still remember the theme/sting for Car 24 Where Are You? – but never either of those.


Ed Herdman 12.28.13 at 3:09 am

I wonder if the economic and urbanizing dislocations of the modernist period (i.e., late 1800s and beyond) helped bring light to that peculiar mirror of the “walled-in” nature of perception (which of course is a kind of theme that’s been banging around since Socrates’ cave).

Certainly The Shadow Over Innsmouth plays with this kind of feeling of isolation, both physical and intellectual (in the mid-30s). Further back, Dracula touches it as well (in the opening when Harker is not allowed to roam free through the Transylvania countryside), and alluded to in the Demeter storyline. There’s also at least a few classic closed room mysteries in Sherlock Holmes, some of which we get the breathing room of contemplating after the fact, but some of which are mildly claustrophobic (i.e., The Speckled Band). Probably there are many other examples from antiquity beyond the Rapunzel myth.


Ed Herdman 12.28.13 at 3:12 am

I knew that Doyle couldn’t be first, because one of his predecessors is Poe, and we all remember The Cask of Amontillado and similar stories that involve somebody being walled or boarded up.

Oh, and for an example that’s not horror or even depressing, I recommend Clifford Simak’s short story “The Big Front Yard,” which turns the whole idea on its head, while still having a few moments that evoke the walled-room idea and might be said to touch upon horror themes (glancingly).


PJW 12.28.13 at 7:08 am

The Yellow Wallpaper.


JO'N 12.28.13 at 2:36 pm

I understood the situation differently. The only people who couldn’t leave were traveling with the returned (Julie and Claire with Victor, and the two brothers). AFAICT, everyone NOT accompanied by one of the returned were able to leave successfully — like the dam workers, who seemed particularly eager to “get the hell out of Dodge”.


psh 12.31.13 at 2:52 pm

There are a couple of Twilight Zone episodes in which people are trapped in towns by various forces. One I recall is almost identical to the Julie and Claire situation–all roads appear to continually loop back to a single destination.

It is my understanding that the series was initially planned to consist of a single season. So, there may have been some scrambling among the writers as a second season was ordered. In any event, I think Adele’s pregnancy might open some rich veins for season 2. Season 1 of the Returned was so beautifully done that I am hopeful for season 2.

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