Stephen King's tarot of monsters

Toby Frost

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In Dance Macabre, Stephen King identifies what he calls three tarot cards of horror: archetypes to which, he claims, almost all monsters can be traced. They are:

The Werewolf – not just literally, but the concept of chaos and evil hiding inside or behind an ordered, kindly exterior. Jeckyll and Hyde is a good example.

The Vampire – this also would include zombies and anything else that feeds (literally or not) on another person. Essentially, parasites.

The Thing – a rampaging alien monster. Obviously, the creature from The Thing, Tolkien’s orcs, many of Lovecraft’s monsters and possibly heraldic things like dragons, whose horror derives from how unlike humanity they are and their capacity for destruction.

So, the Alien is obviously a Thing, but it also includes elements of the vampire and the werewolf, in a way. King also proposes The Ghost and The Bad Place as possible other tarot cards. Certainly ghosts appeal to something very basic in the human mind – almost every culture seems to have them. The Bad Place is interesting, because some of the best haunted houses are really just reflections of the characters who find them: The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House both use this concept. I wonder also if the hunting ground of a monster (a Thing) might count as a Bad Place: take the sea in which a monster or a shark is hiding, which can almost take on a sense of its own. But that might just be a matter of setting.

To this list, I would add The Impostor, as specifically something evil making a flawed job of passing itself off as human (this could be extended to be The Object Possessed by Evil, to include cars, machines and – yawn – porcelain dolls). This might just be a hybrid of the Werewolf and Thing, but I think it deserves a mention of its own. Obviously this would cover robots, but also perhaps certain ghosts and non-vampiric undead, and even really deranged humans (the villain from Gone Girl, say). Essentially, anything that lives in the Uncanny Valley (which I think would exclude Dracula and actual Werewolves – they’re not nice, but not in that specific way).

This is something I’ve become quite aware of recently: I realised that in writing fantasy, I was using a lot of ideas from science fiction and crime when I wanted to add a new element (as to whether this works, I don’t know). Has anyone else run across this, and are there any other archetypal monsters out there?
 

Phyrebrat

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I had often thought of the Tarot as a great tool for writers - the archetypes of the Major Arcana work well for characters, and the Minor Arcana for situations. I've been reading cards since 1992 and have often thought of how well they represent the Human Condition. As a massive Stephen King fan, I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of his take on this (Danse Macabre being one of the few things I've not read).

pH
 

Wanderlog

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I realised that in writing fantasy, I was using a lot of ideas from science fiction and crime when I wanted to add a new element

A well-developed and complicated science is indistinguishable from magic for an average layman. ;) In fact, for many authors "science" in "science fiction" is another synonym for "black magic". Such "science fiction" is actually a variety of fantasy or simply a fairy tale. So borrowing elements from pseudo-SF is normal.


I had often thought of the Tarot as a great tool for writers

It means restricting yourself with limits of other's fantasy. If you rely on clichés when writing your own books, you'll never write anything distinguishable.
 

Toby Frost

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I should point out that these aren’t a literal tarot: King calls them that because, sooner or later, the same cards get dealt time and time again.

Which brings me to the more important point that these aren’t limitations as such. The point is that they’re always there, like the foundations of a house: almost any monster will have these elements in it somewhere, in the same way that the vast majority of successful stories share elements of plot. There’s nothing wrong with that, I think. These “tarot cards” crop up repeatedly in different forms because they work and appeal to readers. In Danse Macabre, King talks about Ramsey Campbell trying to create a new sort of monster in The Doll Who Ate Its Mother, but King decides that Campbell has unconsciously written about a kind of vampire, but given it a very different spin.
 

Venusian Broon

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This thread got me thinking yesterday and I'll admit to being stumped - the classification system is pretty good! I was going through my mind trying to find a monster that wasn't really any one of those three and failing. I do agree that a lot of monsters are really various mixtures of the archetypes. Taking a scientific analogy rather than the card one, each archetype is like a DNA base pair and you can combine all sorts of pairs to make infinite number of monsters.

However I got a little spark of a thought. Could there be a case for another tarot card - the Frankenstein's Monster? A monster that is not intrinsically evil, but is by its actions or human prejudice is perceived to be evil. The monster is really just trying to survive the only way it knows and humans are not really that important to it, although it will cause harm and deaths (otherwise it wouldn't be a monster)? In this case Frankenstein's monster is probably a bad example - he becomes evil to get revenge on his maker, so is it really a 'Thing'...

Anyway just throwing it out as a thought.

The example that made me think about it was the grey goo in Greg Bear's Blood Music.

They convert most of the animal and plant life of Earth into very intelligent bacteria, because that is how they live and don't understand the macro world...but we find out later that they revere their makers and a happy ending ensues for the all the various human minds that they had converted into mush. (Personally an absolutely TERRIBLE ending to give a great horror SF short story - the short ended with the realisation that the bacteria were out and about and the world was going to be wiped out. Bear then tacked on a happy ending which really takes the punch out of the whole wonderful horror concept IMO. Bear should have left it damn alone.)
 

Toby Frost

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Good point. Is The Pitiful Creature one of the archetypes? Taking it further, there’s probably a particular form of horror based around a mixture of pity and relief (“Thank God that’s not me”, basically). It’s interesting, because Frankenstein’s monster isn’t the main cause of the horror: it’s his circumstances. So perhaps The Terrible/Pitiful Fate is one of the tarot. But that might be stretching the concept of an actual monster a bit far.
 

Venusian Broon

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Another example of the 'misunderstood' monster that spurred my thinking was the Mothman in the film The Mothman Prophesies. It, some sort of inter-dimensional thing, causes psychological distress and horror to individuals and appears to be taunting and playing with them, but does not actually cause deaths* or disasters. However it may be for all we know find us as unfathomable as we find it.

It just seems to be attracted to the death and disasters; disasters that are just going to happen no matter what. In the same way that we go to a natural beauty spot by the coast to enjoy the view, but we don't control the sun, the weather, the landscape and the sea that make the spot look so pretty to us (and as we lay out a picnic we may destroy the lives of all sorts of small insects and things underneath us without even realising.)

EDIT: I suppose one could file him under 'accidental' or 'amoral' Vampire....?

----------------------------------------------------


*Well it might have been a contributory factor in the Gordon character's death by exposure, but we don't know for sure.
 
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Toby Frost

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Time for some threadomancy. I was wondering if a couple of extra monsters could be included in the tarot:

The Dark Lord - a powerful, manipulative figure who is completely malignant, often for no obvious reason. Examples would be Sauron and Satan, but I'm not sure if they would count as unusually refined examples of the Thing. Also, are they particularly horrific, and hence worth including in a list of horror archetypes?

The Dreadful System - a system, usually social or political, that crushes innocent people. In stories like 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, the monsters are usually the sadistic minions of a dictator, who are really Werewolves - the kind of guys who have a normal family life and spend their work days committing genocide. However, in more fantastical stories, maybe the system itself becomes the villain. Examples might be Kafka's The Trial and "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula LeGuin. But is this just a variation on The Terrible Fate or The Bad Place?

So, the list is:

The Vampire
The Werewolf
The Thing
The Ghost
The Bad Place
The Imposter
The Terrible Fate/Pitiful Creature

and perhaps

The Dark Lord
The Dreadful System
 

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I, personally, would think that the Imposter would just be a sub-type of the Werewolf. As for the Terrible Fate/Pitiful creature, I don't think that would be an archetype on the level of the ones King mentions because the categories he lays out are based around what these things are and what they do to scare us, not their motivations or inner lives. So any of the tarot cards could be a Pitiful Creature. But that's just me, these are all still very good and interesting thoughts.
 

Timebender

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And I think the Dark Lord could be any of the original three (even if it's usually the Thing) but the Dreadful System seems like it could be a good addition. I wonder where we can draw a line at what archetypes and ideas are "monsters"?
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Frankenstein's monster is not only out for revenge against his maker, but also enraged because so many others have rejected him on sight when he desired to be benevolent and loved (or at least that is his story—I don't think Shelley intends him to be an unreliable narrator). So I think the monster either symbolizes that which is by its nature so abominable that it should not even exist and humans must instinctively shrink, or the outcast so horribly abused he becomes anger incarnate, or maybe some part of ourselves that we can never, never accept, which because we neither accept it nor regulate it becomes twisted and dangerous. Is he intrinsically evil? Is he the evil we create ourselves made manifest? In short, the creature is rather more ambiguous and possibly more a reflection of ourselves than some of the traditional monsters.
 

Toby Frost

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I think you've got a point there, @Timebender . I was thinking of the Werewolf as a maniac pretending to be a sane person, where the horror came from the contrast between polite normality and rabid violence, whereas the Imposter would be something that can't quite hide as a human and is therefore sinister - a personification of the Uncanny Valley, in a way. But the two are very similar. Perhaps the Imposter is a mixture of Werewolf and Thing, as I thought in the first post.

I agree with you about the Dark Lord - it's just a more sophisticated Thing. Such characters are rare and often don't really have personalities, so I reckon it wouldn't count. Frankenstein's Monster is harder to place: I think he's a mixture of the Thing and the Terrible Fate.

There's a moment in The Silence of the Lambs where a policeman says "Is he some kind of vampire?" about Lecter. The answer would be "no": he's a Werewolf, as are almost all human villains (with the possible exception of raging lunatics who make no attempt to hide). I can think of almost no human villains in a realistic modern setting who aren't, except for ones who would be too weird to really get on in society, but are allowed to by the plot.
 

Timebender

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I think you've got a point there, @Timebender . I was thinking of the Werewolf as a maniac pretending to be a sane person, where the horror came from the contrast between polite normality and rabid violence, whereas the Imposter would be something that can't quite hide as a human and is therefore sinister - a personification of the Uncanny Valley, in a way. But the two are very similar. Perhaps the Imposter is a mixture of Werewolf and Thing, as I thought in the first post.

I agree with you about the Dark Lord - it's just a more sophisticated Thing. Such characters are rare and often don't really have personalities, so I reckon it wouldn't count. Frankenstein's Monster is harder to place: I think he's a mixture of the Thing and the Terrible Fate.

There's a moment in The Silence of the Lambs where a policeman says "Is he some kind of vampire?" about Lecter. The answer would be "no": he's a Werewolf, as are almost all human villains (with the possible exception of raging lunatics who make no attempt to hide). I can think of almost no human villains in a realistic modern setting who aren't, except for ones who would be too weird to really get on in society, but are allowed to by the plot.

I think you're right, @Toby Frost, about the Imposter being a combination of the Werewolf and the Thing. I think it will tend toward one or the other depending on how bad it is at blending in. Going with the "Uncanny Valley" angle, I think the basic idea of "humanlike but not human" is what happens when you put the two ideas together, on some level anyway.
 

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