Posted on October 6, 2020

Deconstructive Nostalgia in Clown in a Cornfield

Guest Post

Adam Cesare’s first YA horror novel Clown in a Cornfield delivers exactly what it promises from the title. High school senior Quinn Maybrook, a city girl from Philadelphia, moves with her father to the rural town of Kettle Springs, Missouri, after a family tragedy. They’re looking to move on from this trauma, and so it’s ironic that they settle in Kettle Springs, a town rooted in the past. Quinn quickly assimilates into the surprisingly vibrant youth culture in the town, but she soon learns that not everyone is so fond of the town’s teens. The majority of the novel takes place over the course of one night, as a group of killer clowns attack Quinn and her new friends.

So, why killer clowns? As Brandon Cornett’s article on creepy clowns claims, clowns are terrifying because of their inherent unknowability. Their true emotions are hidden through the use of a painted-on facial expression that’s often overly exaggerated. Clowns fit well within the realm of the uncanny valley: they look one way, but, in the case of horror films, commit acts of violence that don’t always add up with their outward appearance – cheerful and animated.

The iconic horror clown, of course, is Stephen King’s Pennywise. He represents the evil embedded within the small town of Derry, Maine – an evil which King also associates with adults. Every authority figure in Andy Muschietti’s first film is linked with the pervasive evil in Derry: they are all servants of Pennywise, even if they don’t realize the clown-demon’s existence.

It’s hard not to think about how Pennywise destroys the image of a seemingly idyllic small town like Derry when thinking about the role that Frendo the clown plays in Cesare’s novel. Frendo is the mascot of Kettle Springs: the logo originated with the creation of the Baypen corn syrup factory, the major source of industry for the town. Although Frendo started out as a symbol of progress, by the present day, Kettle Springs is past its prime. Frendo is now less a symbol of industry and more a symbol of a time when things were better – he becomes twisted into the mascot of the “Make Kettle Springs Great Again” movement. Cesare leans into the obvious real-life political resonances of this slogan in order to develop the novel’s most prominent theme: the generational divide between Quinn and her Gen Z friends and the adults who believe that the kids of the town have no respect for the town, or for them. Whether or not Frendo serves as a symbol of honest nostalgia or anti-nostalgia – weaponized nostalgia, even – depends on which side the reader chooses to take.

Cesare plays with nostalgia in several different ways that go beyond making Kettle Springs great again. And Cesare knows his movies, judging by the content on his YouTube channel (which we give a shout out to here). Usually in film, there’s a thirty-year cycle of nostalgia: for example, filmmakers in the ‘80s took an interest in depicting life in the ‘50s in order to explore – and in some cases, deconstruct – the nostalgia associated with an older time period. Right now, we’re experiencing a ridiculous amount of ‘80s-inspired films and television. In Clown in a Cornfield, Cesare deconstructs both ‘50s and ‘80s nostalgia while ensuring that his story is set in the present day.

The examples of ‘50s nostalgia are easy to spot in the novel. A striking image early on is when Quinn and her father are eating dinner at a small diner – a symbol of the ‘50s if there ever was one. Cesare presents the image of Quinn separated from her new friends by the window of the diner: she’s inside, and her friends are outside. This image is so effective because it shows Quinn’s attempt to assimilate into a place that has no place or time for its youth. If Quinn were to assimilate into the dangerously old-fashioned culture of Kettle Springs, she would risk alienating herself from her new friends and from her generation. The polarization of generations in Kettle Springs has made it so that Quinn can either be on the side of the older generation, or of her own generation. Not both. It’s a toxic mentality that adds to the “real” horror of Cesare’s novel, even before the killer clowns appear.


When Cesare decides that it’s time to send in the clowns, they arrive with guns and crossbows blazing. This is where ‘80s nostalgia comes in, with regards to the slasher genre. One of the most entertaining things about Clown in a Cornfield is that it reads like a gore-soaked slasher film. Part of the enjoyment of watching a slasher is seeing just how bloody it can get, and admiring how creative the kills are. Clown in a Cornfield brings the gore, but it also makes the reader feel the deaths of innocents. What heightens the tension is that this is a book about kids who are all too experienced when it comes to the art of the lockdown drill. Viewing the attack as an active shooter situation rather than a “horror movie” situation creates a real sense of danger and updates a subgenre of horror that more or less ended at the end of the 1980s, and that is seen by today’s teens as harmless fun.

Another key way that Clown in a Cornfield diverges from the standard slasher formula is in the nature of the killers themselves. There are no supernatural occurrences in the novel; the killer clowns don’t have unnatural strength or the immortality of killers like Michael Myers. They can be defeated, and this leads to the possibility of hope. Nothing significant happens to the status quo by the end of the typical slasher film. Good does not defeat evil, good only manages to live another day while evil remains at large. While the ending of Cesare’s novel definitely leaves the fate of Kettle Springs open, he still makes it clear that the kids – the future of the town – are going to do what they can to change Kettle Springs to get it caught up with the present day.

Quinn and her friends are finding it hard to get a word in with these clowns who want to make Kettle Springs great again, especially once they start slicing and dicing. The kids who make it out alive are not completely all right – but they’ll heal along with the town. Nostalgia can only carry a culture so far, as Cesare demonstrates. Now, it’s up to the kids to move past the fear of change and work towards manifesting a new chapter in the town’s history.

Check out Dawn and Liz chatting about the novel in this mini-podcast.

Clown in a Cornfield is available on Amazon #ad:

Hayley Dietrich is a proud member of Generation Z. A senior at Kenyon College, she is studying English and Creative Writing. She is learning from home right now, and misses the Ohio cornfields that provide a spooky fall aesthetic. She is glad that she has so much great new material to inspire her as she works towards a collection of short stories, and she recommends Adam Cesare’s other books to those who enjoyed Clown in a Cornfield. You can find her other writing about Candyman and Cube on this site.

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