I’m on the fence when it comes to messing with some of my favorite plotlines, characters and settings in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. In some instances, I’m a die-hard traditionalist. (Fast-moving zombies? No thanks, I’ll take Night of the Living Dead zombies over 28 Days Later zombies any day.) Still, it’s always refreshing to come across a work of fiction that provides an original spin on standard storyline.
Earlier this month, fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer challenged his readers to come up with a list of the most commonly used clichés in sci fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, and it got me to thinking. I always appreciate a classic young hero embarking on an epic adventure, the underdog rising to defeat the villain and a good old-fashioned ghost story, but what are the contemporary works I'd suggest for people looking to read (or watch) this story in a new light? To that end, I’ve selected one of my favorite tropes for each genre from the pool of comments on VanderMeer’s blog post and have listed my favorite classic and modern re-tellings of each cliché ...
Science Fiction Trope: "A retired scientist is approached by his young replacement who needs help with the current crisis. The pensioner at first refuses, but eventually caves in, comes back and saves the day, resolving the dark past issues in the subplot." - Milena
My Classic Pick: When I think of science gone wrong, I think of the zombie subgenre and its origins. The first thing that comes to my mind should be the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, but it’s not. The truth is that H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is one of my favorite scientist gone a little ... off his rocker. In “Herbert West — Reanimator”, West creates a serum that brings corpses back to life. The nameless narrator, West’s prodigy and only cohort, worships the scientist until West’s research becomes morally questionable when the doctor slowly slips into insanity.
My Modern Selection: Although the two major protagonists in this story are not scientists, the unique twist on the doctor/monster tale in Working Stiff by Rachel Caine will definitely satisfy readers looking for this type of action. This story mixes zombies, conspiracies and a pack of deranged scientists with fantastic results. On her first day at her new job in a mortuary, heroine Bryn Davis discovers that her boss has been bringing the dead back to life with a special drug he’s been stealing from a major pharmaceutical company. An accident kills her boss and turns Bryn into one of the living undead, and to get continued access to the wonder-drug that keeps her alive, she must agree to help a rag-tag team of experts take down the corporate behemoth behind the drug's creation. This new urban fantasy series certainly has echoes of Lovecraft’s classic, and it cleverly continues the dialogue on science, medicine and their social implications.
Fantasy Trope: "Initially weak and unwilling protagonist must obtain/destroy ancient magical item to vanquish a powerful evil in a world populated with elves, dwarves, and a generically nasty race of humanoids." - John Nakamura Remy
My Classic Pick: Does anyone else hear Gollum ranting about “My Precious”? This cliché certainly conjures up images of hobbits, orcs and Mordor for me. Tolkien definitely developed one of the most epic renditions of this trope with his legendary trilogy and its prequel.
My Modern Selection: If you are casting about for a new version of this classic storyline, Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart War trilogy follows a similar vein. In a land where special mages, known as vinearts, craft magic from a unique plant, a slave-turned-Vineart apprentice named Jerzy must harness these magical skills in order to save the Lands Vin and secure a safe future for his people. Flesh and Fire, Weight of Stone and The Shattered Vine contain complex character development and impeccable world building, essential for any notable fantasy series worthy of comparison to literary masters such as Tolkien.
Horror Trope: "An ancient evil is reawakened. A single person/small ragtag group must complete single, relatively simple task in order to stop comparatively larger, exceedingly more powerful ancient evil." - Stefen Holtrey
My Classic Pick: I have got to go with Stephen King's Pet Sematary or The Shining (which the author has recently announced will soon have a sequel) for my horror must-read. Both of these books showcase King's ability to create a twisted, original ghost story. Pet Sematary's evil dwells underneath an ancient Native American burial ground, in a truly creepy twist of fate. And who isn't familiar with the spirits in The Shining, that have infested the remote mountain resort, the Overlook Hotel?
My Modern Selections: The Armageddon Chord by Jeremy Wagner and The Good House by Tananarive Due are two new novels that are each different renditions of this trope. In The Armageddon Chord, an archaeologist digs up a sarcophagus, discovering a book of hieroglyphics that make up a song which when played unleashes satanic forces. Alternatively, the supernatural powers in The Good House are a twist on traditional Voodoo spirits wreaking havoc. In both of these recent releases, as in King's stories, "common folk" must attempt to destroy a timeless evil.
So I want to know, what is your favorite modern re-telling of a classic cliché? Leave your comments below and of course, if you are looking for more genre coverage be sure to check out our Everything Science Fiction and Fantasy Page here!