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Literature: The War of the Worlds

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

So begins The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, the first alien invasion story, and perhaps the best known, in which late-Victorian England, then homeland of the world's greatest empire, is conquered with casual ease by Martians. In the end, only chance saves humanity from slavery or annihilation.

The story begins with the unnamed narrator, a lightly disguised version of Wells, visiting an observatory, where he is shown explosions of the surface of Mars. Shortly afterwards, an apparent meteor lands close to the narrator's house in Surrey. When he goes to look, he sees the first of the Martians emerging from its spacecraft. The invaders swiftly set up strange machinery, incinerating all humans who approach.

The narrator takes his wife to presumed safety then returns just in time to witness gigantic tripods, Martian war machines armed with Heat Rays and poisonous Black Smoke, smashing their way through the massed ranks of the British Army. Three tripods are brought down in a succession of battles before the army and navy are routed, with more Martians landing, reinforcing the invaders.

A few are making grandiose plans for resistance, but it is clear they have no prospect of success: Great Britain, one of the most technologically advanced and powerful countries on Earth, has been utterly defeated. The narrator becomes trapped in the ruins near another Martian landing-site, where he gets a first-hand view of the aliens drinking human blood. It seems they intend to treat humanity as nothing more than food.

At this point, when the full consequences of defeat have become apparent, the Martians disappear. Returning to London, the narrator finds that all the Martians have conveniently dropped dead, their remains being picked apart by birds. It was only later that they figure out that the aliens died from nothing more than common illness, as they had virtually no immunity to Earth's microbiological lifeforms.

There have been several movie versions of this story (the two most famous being released in 1953 and 2005), as well as the famous 1938 Radio Drama, a TV series, renovelizations set in "the present day", a mostly-overlooked but surprisingly faithful RTS game, and, of all things, a Rock Opera (which actually formed the soundtrack - in a remixed form - for said video game.) It has also influenced many subsequent alien invasion stories.

Interestingly, the novel was originally considered part of a different genre - the "Invasion Story", of which there was a spate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, depicting fictional invasions or invasion plans of the author's home country, usually by German or Crypto-German forces. Only later did the "alien" part of "alien invasion" come to be considered more defining than the "invasion" part.

The novel is generally regarded as an allegory of colonialism, depicting Great Britain receiving the same kind of treatment as it had been delivering to the natives of its empire (although figuratively speaking, Englishmen did not usually drink human blood).

For the television series, see War of the Worlds. For Jeff Wayne's Rock Opera, see Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. For the real-time strategy game, see Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds. For the 1953 movie, see The War of the Worlds. For the 2005 Spielberg film, see War of the Worlds. For the 2002 Dark Horse Comics version (and follow-ons) see Scarlet Traces. For the 1938 radio adaptation by Orson Welles, see The War of the Worlds.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Miss Elphinstone, considering she kept a revolver under the pony chaise's seat.
  • Accentuate the Negative: Wells may have written the alien invasion hitting Britain first as an example of Creator Provincialism, possibly for the same pragmatic reason the current film adaptation has them hitting the USA first (If you want to conquer Earth, take out its greatest military power first. In the late 1800's that was Britain, today it's the USA), or as a subtle criticism of the actions of the British Empire. However, a more personal reason to Wells has been advanced. He may have had the all-destroying alien tripods land in London, at least partly with the intention of having them reduce his home region, the towns of Woking and Bromley, to smouldering corpse-heavy rubble. Wells utterly despised this part of Surrey for its parochial mentality and its lower-middle-class smug smallmindedness. He also wanted to get even for long, soul-destroying thirteen hour days spent in a miserable McJob working for a tiny-minded bully. Today's Woking boasts a statue of an alien tripod on the main street to commemorate Wells' vision.
  • Agent Scully: An early example in Ogilvy.
  • Alien Invasion: One of the very first such stories to be told.
  • Alien Kudzu: the Red Weed
  • Aliens and Monsters
  • Aliens Are Bastards: Subverted. The Martians launch their invasion only because they are facing imminent extinction, and their brutality towards the humans is qualified by comparisons to the colonial powers' own Moral Myopia towards inferior cultures. The author even gives the supposed bad guys a sort-of happy ending by inferring that after the failed invasion they found a more secure settlement on Venus.
  • Author Avatar: The narrator, although Wells is mentioned as a separate person: see Mythology Gag, below
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Wells notes when introducing the Martians proper that all present expected "a man." What emerged was decidedly more Lovecraftian (or rather, proto-Lovecraftian). Even granted the genre was an outgrowth of terrestrial varieties, future Alien Invasion stories seem to have largely missed this delightful precedent.
  • Biological Weapons Solve Everything: Earth's bacteria do in the aliens. This is kept in most adaptations, from radio to the 1950's movie. Subverted at first in the 80s TV show that just had the aliens in hibernation. Later one of the characters develops a bacteria to kill off the aliens for good.
  • Brilliant but Lazy: The Artilleryman, who lays out a convincing prediction about the new order the Martians will bring and how humanity can eventually retake the world, but treats the whole thing as an idle hobby.
    "Oh, one can't always work," he said, and in a flash I saw the man plain.
  • Body Horror: The bacteria that the Martians fell victim to? Necrotic bacteria.
  • Chekhov's Gun
    • Midway through the story, the narrator describes certain things that the humans have since learned about the Martians - among them, that they are/were vulnerable to terrestrial germs...
    • Averted in one incident involving Chekov's gunfire. At one point, the narrator hears the sound of heavy gunfire that sounds like artillery pieces. Never expanded upon.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The Artillery soldier believe that the Martians will recruit human prisoners as recons or auxiliary troops.
  • Comic Book Adaptation: Or comic book sequel, rather. The Marvel character Killraven lives in the post-apocalyptic world left after the Martians made a second attack in the late twentieth century.
    • War Of the Worlds also forms the backbone of the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
    • Scarlet Traces by Ian Edgington and Disraeli, is also a sequel - Britain is now reaping the benefits of the Martian technology; the same team later reunited to do an adaptation.
    • An Elseworlds story explored what would happen if the original Superman went up against the Martian invasion.
  • Cool Boat: The HMS Thunder Child. At the time, a torpedo ram like Thunder Child represented the most powerful destructive force in the world - fully armoured, with a sharp ram on the bow, torpedo tubes, heavy guns and powerful engines to take it up to ramming speed. In the real world, however, torpedo rams were completely useless; all that they ever destroyed was a single, grounded ship and a harbour jetty. The Other Wiki says "It has been suggested by some that, in view of the limited military value the torpedo ram demonstrated, Wells's immortalization of the type in what would become a literary classic was the torpedo ram's greatest achievement."
  • Cool Plane
    • The original novel briefly mentions a Martian flying machine (see the quote below). This was a cool plane by virtue of it pre-dating the existence of any actual Real Life planes, and yet uncannily matching the appearance of a flying wing bomber like the B-2.
      Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness - rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.
    • The 1953 movie features Stock Footage of the cancelled YB-49 bomber. If the "flying wing" design reminds you of something, you're right. The basic principle was re-used for the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Considering it does a pretty effective job of implying the general insignificance of humanity (and, to a certain extent, the Martians); made even better by the fact that the credited pioneer of the genre HP Lovecraft would have only been about eight or nine when it was published.
  • Creator Provincialism — There is no mention of what happened outside south-east England; it's not even certain if the invasion reaches beyond England.
    • It's actually pretty clear that it doesn't: at the end the narrator notes the relief pouring in from "across the English Channel, across the Irish Sea, and across the Atlantic," implying that Europe, America, and even Ireland were left untouched.
    • Forget Ireland; Edinburgh and Birmingham are mentioned as sending ships down to London after the aliens die. Apparently while the Greater London Area was being wiped off the map the rest of the country was just getting on with life as usual.
    • Given that the book is supposed to be an allegorical representation of the British conquest of the island of Tasmania from the native point of view, the concentration on a small area is understandable.
    • The 1996 anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches sets out to avert this through a collection of short stories depicting the invasion from the point-of-view of historical and literary figures all over the world.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The entire war. While the humans manage to down several tripods, it's pretty one-sided, especially after the Black Smoke comes into play.
  • Deadline News: the radio drama, combined with Kill 'em All. Even the narrator goes down.
  • Deadly Gas: The "black smoke" used in the novel.
  • Death Ray: The Martian "Heat Ray".
  • Design Compromise: The soldier's dreams of a huge underground city, and the tiny tunnel he has already created.
  • Deus ex Machina: In the end, when all the weapons of Earth's mightiest superpower have failed to make any significant impact on the Martian attack, they die of exposure to Earth bacteria.
    • Although, to give H.G. Wells credit, he did make mention of them in the opening monologue. Unknowingly Heroic Microbes were in the story from page one.
    • For that matter he also makes clear midway through the book that the Martians have long since eradicated all bacteria and viruses on their own planet and live completely free of disease, as well as their feeding method which consists of injecting human blood directly into their own veins; the perfect vector for infection. It's actually all right there for anybody who is scientifically astute enough to see it coming.
    • Dying off to disease also fits in perfectly with the political allegory about imperialism (see Not So Different below): Many European explorers especially in Africa died to diseases they had never encountered before.
  • Disaster Scavengers: The protagonist in the novel, and most of the people he meets, after the Martians topple human civilization.
  • Drop Pod: To deliver the mechs (or the materials needed to build them) to Earth.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: The HMS Thunder Child takes out two Tripods before sinking whilst trying to ram a third.
  • Earth Is a Battlefield: Especially adaptations that make it clear the aliens are attacking everywhere.
  • Earth-Shattering Poster
  • Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: In the radio drama, large numbers of people are killed, either by heat rays or poison gas spewed from the alien spaceships. Several "field reporters" make note of this fact before they, too, succumb to the imminent danger. After a cutaway where a reporter describes millions of fleeing New Yorkers dying en masse — falling victim to gas clouds or falling into the Hudson River to commit suicide — a ham radio operator desperately calls out, "2X2L calling CQ. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air?! Isn't there ... anyone???!!!"
  • First Contact
  • Foreshadowing: The red weed dies off not long before the Martians do.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Despite apparently being a good friend to the narrator, Ogilvy is almost never mentioned again after his early death.
  • Forgotten Trope: War of the Worlds was actually a Science Fiction twist on the then-vibrant genre of the "Invasion Story".
  • Frickin' Laser Beams: The "Heat Ray" is a much more realistic description of the effect of a laser than most fiction has managed since lasers were actually invented. The "Heat Ray" as being invisible, making it terrifying as the protagonists can't see the beam, only what it's currently igniting. A high-powered (and by that, we mean nuclear) infrared-spectrum laser weapon would behave pretty much exactly as described.
  • Ghost City: London in the novel, New York City in the radio play and and Los Angeles in the '53 film.
  • Hope Spot: The HMS Thunder Child takes down two Tripods. Despite being on fire and almost dead in the water, it charges a third Tripod as its ammunition stores explode, clearing a path for the escaping refugee ships. As they reach open water, aerial Martian constructs / more cylinders arriving from Mars (depending on the version) can be seen in the sky.
  • Hostile Terraforming: Martians use areoforming as a weapon, essentially. Possibly an Ur Example.
  • Human Resources: The Martians drink human blood. In addition, in the novel, humans discover they've been using a third, unnamed humanoid race as we might use livestock.
  • Humans Are Morons: Subverted. The main character observes that for all the greater technological advancements the aliens have over humans, they do not appear to have invented a tool as simple and practical as the wheel.
    • Doubly subverted back to being played straight today. Human examination of the Martian tripods describes them as using electrically/magnetically manipulated sliding devices that simulate muscles. Given that wheels don't really appear anywhere in (Earth) biology (the closest thing is the ball and socket joint), this suggests that the Martians have technologically grown to the point that all their machinery works by simulating biological systems, which have millions of years of evolutionary testing and refinement behind them.
  • Humongous Mecha — The towering Martian tripods are one of the first appearances of this in fiction, if not THE first modern appearance.
  • I Come in Peace — Subverted. The humans attempt this when they first meet the Martians. The peace party in question is slaughtered, and things get worse after that. The Martians don't even try to hide their intentions.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: The Martians make no attempt to communicate, and the humans can only speculate on their motives.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted. The Martians drain a child's blood; in point of fact, this is the one time the narrator actually witnesses them do this to a person.
  • I Will Fight Some More Forever: In the movie, even after a nuclear weapon is ineffective on the Martians, the military still keeps (ineffectively) using ordnance on them.
  • Million-to-One Chance: An early example, possibly the Trope Namer, provided by Ogilvy the astronomer.
  • Monumental Damage
  • Mr. Exposition: Ogilvy in the first chapter, before his demotion to Sacrificial Lamb. If it hadn't been for him the narrator would not have known about the business on Mars as early as he did.
  • Mythology Gag: During the sequence where the narrator is watching the Martians from the ruins, he comments that they remind him of an essay he once read about how humans might evolve in a technology-dominated future, by some chap whose name he can't quite remember. The essay actually existed, and was used by Wells as the basis for the Martians' biology; its author was Wells himself.
    • Wells also slams an artist whose depiction of the Martians he didn't like: "I recall particularly the illustration of one of the first pamphlets to give a consecutive account of the war. The artist had evidently made a hasty study of one of the fighting-machines, and it was there that his knowledge ended."
    • In a novel that Wells wrote forty years later, Star-Begotten, there's a hypothetical discussion about the existence of Martians and a man mentions he read a book written by "Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows": The War of the Worlds.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Published in 1898, the novel was set "early in the twentieth century."
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot — These aren't just Martians, they're Humongous Mecha cyborg vampire Martians.
  • Nominal Importance — Inverted; the named characters, such as Ogilvy, Henderson, and the Elphinstones are minor players, while the majority of the significant characters, such as the Artilleryman and the Curate, remain nameless.
  • No Name Given: For the movie, he was given the name of "Dr Clayton Forrester" (Yes, that's where it came from).
    • Although there's a Clay Forester in Jack Williamson's 1949 novel The Humanoids. Some names just say, "I am a GENIUS!"
    • It's worth noting this applies to pretty much every single character in the novel, including the Artilleryman, the protagonist's brother, and the Curate. The only characters with full names receive minor mentions at best; Dr. George Elphinstone is the only one even remotely important to the plot and he never appears at all.
  • Not So Different: The Martians and the Humans. The main character compares the Martians and humans with each other many times; specially the Martians' invasion with the imperialist moments during that time. He even theorize that the Martians maybe had evolved from human-like ancestors, and that our next step in our evolution might be the forms of the Martians.
  • Not So Invincible After All: After shrugging off (nearly) everything humans can throw at them, the aliens die of some minor Earth disease their immune systems weren't familiar with.
    • Human weaponry also managed to do some damage in the original. Not enough to be really meaningful in any extended conflict, but the Martian machines were never completely invulnerable.
    • Imagine the same invasion in the year 2013, with the same tripods, same heat rays and same bloodthirsty Martians. They'd be up against missiles, tanks and possibly nuclear weapons. Definitely not so invincible after all. This is why all subsequent adaptations usually give the war machines indestructible forcefields.
  • Oh, Crap: In the 1953 movie, just as our heroes are coming to terms with the power of the war machine that's about to emerge from the cylinder, they look up and see the second cylinder flashing across the sky.
  • Orson Welles: Directed a famous 1938 radio broadcast that tricked people into thinking the Martians had really invaded.
    • And again in 1949, and again in 1968. WNYC's RadioLab did an amazing (and hysterically funny) live show (hear it in its entirety here) depicting exactly what happened, and analyzing human reactions in terms of our need for storytelling.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The Martians need human blood, therefore they could be technically considered some kind of vampires.
  • Plant Aliens: The red weed grown (or at least imported) by the Martians.
  • Public Domain Character: Or perhaps, Public Domain Civilization, since (more or less) nobody ever reuses the human characters, only the Martians. The most obvious example is in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, though the book wasn't even in the public domain when the first knock-off appeared.
  • Ramming Always Works: # Come on, Thunder Child! #
  • Recycled In Space: When the novel was written, invasion literature (a now-forgotten genre of stories about foreign countries invading England), was popular. War of the Worlds is basically one of these stories WITH ALIENS!
  • Redshirt Reporter: Henderson, who was too interested in the Martians for his own good. Averted with the narrator, who is another journalist.
  • La Résistance: The Artilleryman's plan involves establishing one.
  • The Right of a Superior Species — Unusually, this is articulated by the human narrator at the beginning of the book. After reflecting on how much more advanced and intelligent the Martians are, he concludes:
    And before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
  • Sacrificial Lamb — Arguably Ogilvy. He is friendly to the narrator, seems to be well-intentioned enough if naive, and plays an important role in the story right up to Chapter Five, in which he becomes Heat Ray fodder.
  • Scavenger World: The protagonist spends much of the novel evading detection by the Martians and trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. Just the threat of Martians advancing on London is enough to turn that well-heeled city, the pinnacle of British civilization, into a madhouse of disorganized panic.
  • Spiritual Successor: The War of the Worlds is arguably this to The Crystal Egg, a short story written by Wells the same year, featuring an optical gateway to Mars. Martians and their machines are described, although the events in The War of the Worlds are not clearly foreshadowed.
    • The Tripods, a series of young-adult novels by John Christopher, is in all but name a sequel set in an Alternate Continuity where the Martians were successful in dominating the world.
    • Except Christopher's aliens are three-legged chlorine-breathers from a (different star's) world with higher gravity than Earth, and they took over via Mind Control ("The Trippy Show") rather than war.
    • There was, of course, an actual (and, dubiously, claimed to be "authorised") sequel. It was almost entirely unrelated to the original book (setting the original invasion in Boston, America, among other things) and involved the cannibalisation of Martian technology by Earthly masterminds, including the man who both supported the publication of and lent his title to the book. This was called (and was, indeed, about) Edison's Conquest of Mars.
    • And there's also The Second War Of The Worlds which involves would-be Quislings helping the Martians overcome their lack of a viable immune system and travel between parallel universes. Oh, and the hero is Sherlock Holmes, so you can probably guess at the actual quality of the work.
    • Independence Day is an obvious Expy for the book and film. Instead of a biological virus, they're brought down by a computer virus.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Martians are utterly inhuman. Even their technology is alien; they never invented the wheel, and their mechanical systems use mind-bogglingly complicated systems of levers to do the job of a cogwheel.
  • Stripped to the Bone: The fate of the Heat Ray victims in several film or graphic novel adaptations (notably the Pendragon and Graphic Classics ones).
  • Stupid Scientist: Ogilvy the astronomer, somewhat, although he does change his mind when presented with evidence.
  • Take That: Especially to the loathed towns of Woking and Bromley (see above).
    • Also, there are veiled and not-so- veiled Shout-Out's and Take That's to the Grossmith Brothers' The Diary Of A Nobody, published five years earlier. To begin with, the narrator's wife is called Carrie, as is Mrs Pooter. This hints that the central character is a bit of a Charles Pooter, suddenly abrupted from petty-bourgeois life and given a really interesting set of events to diarise. And the working-class artilleryman, given a break in social norms, is free to really pour vitriol on his social betters in a crowning piece of Class War. He could be describing Pooter:
    All these—the sort of people that lived in these houses, and all those damn little clerks that used to live down that way—they’d be no good. They haven’t any spirit in them—no proud dreams and no proud lusts; and a man who hasn’t one or the other—Lord! what is he but funk and precautions? They just used to skedaddle off to work—I've seen hundreds of ’em, bit of breakfast in hand, running wild and shining to catch their little season-ticket train, for fear they’d get dismissed if they didn’t; working at businesses they were afraid to take the trouble to understand; skedaddling back for fear they wouldn’t be in time for dinner; keeping indoors after dinner for fear of the back-streets, and sleeping with the wives they married, not because they wanted them, but because they had a bit of money that would make for safety in their one little miserable skedaddle through the world....
  • Tempting Fate: After the Martains' hostile intentions become clear, the narrator assures his wife that they're trapped in the pit they landed in due to Earth's higher gravity. The next day, the tripods come out.
  • The Theme Park Version: In the novel, humans manage a few isolated successes against individual Martian tripods, and there are mentions of damaged tripods. By the 1938 radio play, we are explicitly told that the Martians lose only one machine. By the 1953 film, the war machines are totally indestructible, and even an atomic bomb fails to put so much as a scratch on them. Arguably this is an unavoidable part of technology lag - the main problem the humans had in the book was hitting the fast-moving Martian machines directly with conventional artillery (as well as a lack of defence against chemical weapons), and modern weapons are both more powerful and more accurate. If later adaptions didn't "cheat" on behalf of the Martians by making them Immune to Bullets, the Curb-Stomp Battle would be in the other direction. In essence, each adaptation invokes what amounts to an Adaptation Difficulty Spike to counteract [1].
  • This Loser Is You: The Martians, as an allegory for the colonial powers of the time (especially The British Empire).
  • To Serve Man: The Martians feed on people by draining them of blood.
  • Tripod Terror: The Trope Maker.
  • Vader Breath: Martian breathing is described as "timultuous".
  • We Come in Peace — Shoot to Kill: When a group of people (including three named characters) approaches the Martans to communicate, the aliens make their intentions quickly and brutally clear.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Both Henderson and Stent. Neither one receives much Character Development or has much bearing on the plot, and they die too quickly for anyone to get too attached to them.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: The Martians initially underestimate the humans, but as they suffer setbacks they show off their superior intelligence by adapting to each unforeseen threat after it occurs - after artillery takes down one of their walkers, the Martians use dispersed formations and deploy the Black Smoke. After the Thunder Child, they start fooling around with flying machines.
  • You Could Have Used Your Powers for Good: In the 1953 movie especially. The understanding of science and advancement of technology necessary to create the war machine's force fields and skeleton beams is hundreds, if not thousands of years ahead of human understanding. With that at their beck and call, certainly the Martians could have come up with a better solution to their climate change problem than invading Earth.
    • Or perhaps not, just because they had the technology to potentially engineer a fix for their own planet doesn't mean it didn't make more practical/economic sense to use what they already had at hand and just move over to the perfectly good planet next door who's inhabitants can't stop them. You can genetically engineer a grass that only grows to a uniform 3'' height, or you can just take a lawnmower and cut what's already there to that height, which is the easier option?
  • Zeerust: One particular illustration of the tripods drawn by Warwick Goble makes them look atrociously mechanical and clunky, more like walking water towers than anything else. Incidentally, Wells hated this picture so much that he included a Take That against it in a later chapter. Other contemporary illustrations have actually stood the test of time much better.

Seven Days in MayPossible WarThe Great Pacific War
The Time MachineVictorian LondonThe Witch Watch
War and Peace 19 th Century LiteratureWashington Square
The War Against the ChtorrMilitary and Warfare LiteratureThe Winds of War/War and Remembrance
War of the Spider QueenScience Fiction LiteratureWar of the Worlds: Global Dispatches
Fairy TaleImageSource/LiteratureTripod Terror

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