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....?

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*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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