Friday, October 16, 2009

Seeley on the Grammar of Horror

Over at Strange Horizons, Nicholas Seeley offers an in-depth analysis of horror archetypes. Excerpts:

In his fascinating monograph-cum-memoir on horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King identifies three archetypes which he believes dominate the heady brew of American pop culture.

"Like an almost perfect Tarot hand representing our lusher concepts of evil, they can be neatly laid out: the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name," he writes. (He toys with ghost stories as well, but his thoughts on the subject are inconclusive.)

King describes the literary and cinematic history of these archetypes much better than I can -- and he admits he's only scratching the surface. But it's not their development I hope to talk about, but the relationships between them. … I believe that using this Tarot hand, only slightly modified, one can create a circle of metaphors that encompasses the vast majority of what could be called "horror." It is at once a cycle (for it is progressive) and a circle of analogies loaded with symbolic and literary relationships. So ... shall we?
Let me admit right off the bat that I’m not a huge fan of archetypal criticism. Its proponents tend to get so wrapped up in abstract categories that they fly right on by the author’s intent without even bothering to wave. Still, the approach has merit, mainly because there is such a thing as universal human experience, and it necessarily means that all sorts of stories will share some common elements. This holds no less true for horror stories, as Seeley demonstrates. He adds a fourth monster to King’s menagerie and explains what each archetype on his continuum represents. The Vampire is an external evil trying to get in, while an internal evil trying to get out is the Werewolf. When evil comes from something’s creation it becomes the Thing Without a Name, which would mean that the Ghost (natch) represents an evil coming from its destruction.

Seeley’s approach neatly explains why horror stories can feel so radically different even when they feature the same sort of monster. The answer? They aren’t the same. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a Vampire in truth, today’s lovestruck bloodsuckers -- think Twilight and its ilk -- act much more like Werewolves, always struggling to keep their bestial desires in check. For we writers, this critical framework can help focus our composition, making sure don’t mismatch theme with convention. For example, if you want to explore the dreadfulness of death (a Ghost story), you might think twice before penning a mad scientist story (which typically dovetails into a Thing Without a Name narrative). True, Seeley’s analysis of
theonomy in Paradise Lost is admittedly simplistic, but read the whole thing yourself and take from it what you will.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


Unknown said...

I find that discussing the basic impulses and archetypes is very useful for thinking about a particular story or genre, but it ceases to be helpful the moment you start treating your newly-forged categories as all-encompassing and requiring other works to all be sorted into the appropriate hats. Sort of like how GNS theory is great for thinking about how your particular RPG addresses specific gaming styles, but becomes nothing but useless argument bait as soon as you start trying to sort games into "Gamist" or "Narrativist" categories. The important part is turning an analytical eye on the thematic underpinnings and the debt to what came before, not the actual categories themselves.

Loren Eaton said...

... it ceases to be helpful the moment you start treating your newly-forged categories as all-encompassing and requiring other works to all be sorted into the appropriate hats.

Yes. That's a great way to put it. Archetypes work great as long as they're descriptive; once they become prescriptive, well, you start running into trouble.