A Dragon in the Time Machine: The Gross Anatomy of Horror
By Nicholas Seeley
22 October 2012
Originally published in Strange Horizons on 7 September 2009.
It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology . . . the old teachers knew what they were saying. Once we have learned to read again their symbolic language, it requires no more than the talent of an anthologist to let their teaching be heard. But first we must learn the grammar of the symbols. —Joseph Campbell, from the Preface to The Hero With A Thousand Faces
Perhaps a decade ago I read a newspaper article—now long lost—in which a scientist of some stripe was speculating upon the subject of why, in almost every culture around the world, it seemed there existed a myth concerning a creature that we would call a dragon.
The reason, the article proposed, became clear when one tried to define what was a "dragon," exactly. The definition that fit the greatest number of stories, as well as our own understanding, was that a dragon was a giant creature whose form included some elements reminiscent of a serpent, some of a great cat, and some of a raptor. And in this definition an answer became apparent: here were the three great predators with which early man shared the world. The lions and tigers, the birds of prey, and the invisible serpents were the dangers that generations of humans learned to avoid. So when those humans turned their minds to constructing a symbol of great and deadly power—well, what would you expect it to look like?
Since the savanna, we have been afraid. The question is not what we fear, or even why—never mind why some of us like to be scared so much that we try to artificially induce terror by reading and writing horror fiction. The question is what our fears tell us about ourselves. The story of the dragon is one path toward constructing an answer to this question. It's an attempt, using psychology and conjecture, to identify one of the archetypes of horror, the ur-forms of the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties that are following our species down the corridor.
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. The cards have been laid out for us—but what's the hand?
The thoughts I have on the subject, such as they are, came to me quite suddenly—not in a flash of light, of course. They came out of the dark, in the middle of the night, as I lay awake in a strange house after a day spent reading tales of Cthulhu. I offer them in the hope they may interest, and with all possible respect to Mr. King, who laid out these cards in the first place.
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?
Imagine a circle, like the face of a clock. We begin at 12:00, of course—the stroke of midnight—where we find the Vampire. Many of the classic vampire stories fit into the frame this archetype creates, but the Vampire, capital-V, represents something bigger. It is the symbol for all that is "evil, from without."
In the kingdom of the Vampire live also the krakens and the evil witches, the pod people and the long-legged beasties. Some have names and faces, others do not. They come crawling in out of the blackness, be it from the swamps or the dark of the woods or the vast reaches of outer space. A. E. Van Vogt's lovely beast Coeurl is here, rubbing shoulders with the Big Bad Wolf, and Great Cthulhu, and the whole legion of other midnight things that are banging on the door of our little world: trying to get in.
Many of them, interestingly enough, are predators, who want in, with the intent of, in some way or another, eating us. Perhaps this is another group memory of the ancestral savanna. Here there be dragons.
King conceived of Dracula as the personification of this external evil—and he fits the bill, at least in Bram Stoker's novel, where he comes slouching out of the ruins of Europe with blood on his lips. Unlike the glamorous movie versions, Stoker created the Count as very close to pure monster: hirsute and bestial, soulless and empty of anything but hunger. (I still love Frank Langella's performance in the classic 1970s version, but brilliant as he was, I suspect he came much closer to Stoker's vision of Dracula in Frost/Nixon.)
But to my mind, the perfect work to illustrate the Vampire archetype is perhaps not the one you would expect: Ridley Scott's film Alien. This is a Vampire story distilled to its essence: a small group of humans, alone with the darkness, in which lurks a thing that is coming after them. They have done little or nothing to deserve this fate, but it doesn't matter much. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon takes some pains to develop the characters, but character is, in the end, nearly irrelevant too. The good and the bad, the strong and the weak get eaten all alike. There's no excess in this movie to distract from the horror—and wonder—of the beautifully conceived monster that's coming to get us.
Dracula might seem the more obvious choice, but it is a little more complicated, and to put it in its rightful place, we have to move a short way around the circle (widdershins, of course). As much as Dracula himself is an elemental Vampire, anyone who has ever read the book closely (or indeed from a distance, through binoculars) knows that the story is a thinly veiled metaphor for the dangers men of Stoker's era saw in female sexuality. (For some Victorian men, one suspects a woman was not so far off from a predatory alien, after all.)
Sexuality is a powerful force that comes not from without, but from within. It's part of us, but a part we would perhaps rather not see (especially not in our saintly wives). Sex transforms us; makes us primitive, bestial, slaves to desires rooted in Rabelaisian flesh rather than Descartian intellect. Like Lucy and Mina, we become the monsters.
So the novel Dracula actually occupies a point halfway between the Vampire and the next archetype: the Werewolf. The Werewolf is the beast inside of us, the monster we could become. A few of the classic Werewolf stories are really Vampire tales, about monsters that come out of the dark and eat us. But the best are about what happens to us when we let our desires run wild. Modern film versions like Wolf and Ginger Snaps are among my favorites.
Sometimes we have to be bitten by something to unleash our inner monster, but sometimes he shows up in response to more mundane pressures. Think about The Shining, which for all its ghost story set dressing is mostly about a Werewolf. The less external stimulus required, the further down the circle we go.
The heart of Werewolf country is where the human monsters live: Jack the Ripper and Deacon Brodie and Max Cady and John Doe, the apocalyptic preacher of Se7en. This time, the horror of their deeds isn't that they weren't committed by men, but that they were. No external evils needed. The purest Werewolf story I can think of has nothing supernatural in it at all: it's American Psycho, though a close second can almost always be found in the Metro pages of your daily paper.
King's choice for a Werewolf archetype is also not particularly lupine: it's the tale of Dr. Jekyll, who learns to unleash the evil within himself, gives it a name and a suit and a stout stick, and finds it to be stronger than he ever imagined.
But again, there is another element to the tale of Jekyll and Hyde—one that wasn't there in its real-life inspiration, the story of Deacon Brodie, who was nothing but your standard neighborhood wolf-man, howling at the moon. Dr. Jekyll, though, isn't just a pious social climber; he's a scientist, a genius. He doesn't stumble upon his formula, or have it thrust on him by a curse or a love bite from the local lycanthrope. Nor does he find his dark half awakened accidentally by fear or passion or rage. Jekyll seeks out the inner demon deliberately, tampering with things he should not and awakening powers he does not understand. So to find his story we have to keep moving around, to a point between the Werewolf and the next archetype: The Thing Without a Name.
The central element in Thing stories isn't fear of science, though it often appears that way. It's really fear of creation. The act of bringing something new into existence carries unknown dangers, as is perfectly exemplified in the ancient creation myth of Pandora.
In the most common version, two brothers (Titans) are helping to create the Earth, and one of them gets the bright idea of stealing fire from the Gods to give to mankind. With light and energy at their disposal, men will be able to make the world into a paradise—or so the theory goes. But Zeus is not pleased, and so he creates Pandora, and sends her down with a jar full of sickness, death and other evils, which she unleashes on the unsuspecting human race.
Knowledge and power, it turns out, can have unintended consequences. That's even clearer in a slightly later telling of Prometheus' tale, in which he is not chained to a rock for his crime, but hurled burning from the heavens into a subterranean realm of "no light, but only darkness visible," from which he plots to undermine creation yet again.
Milton's Satan isn't just rebelling because he's willful. He's obeying an impulse that we might today call entropy. Things fall apart. Order yields to chaos. Even God, it seems, can't make things perfect (or won't; Milton skitters around this question, but doesn't offer much of an alternative). Either way, it's the disobedience of his creations that brings death into the world. More on that in a minute.
Much later, a 19-year-old girl would combine these two tales of Promethean rebellion into the modern version: the story of Dr. Frankenstein. The good doctor at first seems to think his creation will be the "modern Prometheus," a heroic titan who brings knowledge and salvation to mankind. But actually, Frankenstein is the titan himself, and the nameless Thing he creates is Pandora, who brings nothing but death.
Theirs really is the perfect Thing story, encompassing both the fallibility of creators and the disobedience of their monsters. Frankenstein's error is often reduced to "playing God," a fancy way of saying he's getting above his station. But God, if you recall, had the same problem. Twice. Thing stories aren't about getting above yourself, they're about chaos. Be we human, god or titan, we can't make the world exactly as we would wish it. All creators are flawed, and they pass on the flaw to their creations. Entropy increases; plans go awry; Descartian reason runs to madness. "Welcome to Jurassic Park."
Yes, it's the Thing archetype that feeds straight into the darkest side of science fiction, from Michael Crichton's dinosaurs to other, less obvious tales of how little control we have when we venture out into the darkness carrying fire. Think of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations." This archetype can even be found at the heart of the frightening post-utopias in Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night or Robert Silverberg's The World Inside—except in these, the Thing that's got out of control is Civilization itself. And it can eat you, too. Try the Soylent Green.
So here we are at the bottom of the circle, where all the mad scientists' tortured children hang around—and we had better move on before they see us.
So: remember how it was "the fruit / of that forbidden tree that first brought Death / into the world?" The opening lines of Paradise Lost lay out the intimate connection between the Thing and the next archetype: The Ghost.
According to Milton, mortality exists because creations are disobedient, and only Christ can redeem us into everlasting life. But at least until the Rapture, everything that's born must die, and that's the problem. The flaw in creation is that it always ends in destruction. Even the universe is going to come to an undignified end as an undifferentiated desert of cold gas. How's that for a Ghost story?
Whether the universe ends because it was a flawed creation, or whether creation is flawed because it ends, our creation problem is intimately connected to death. The last stretch of the circle was full of mad scientists who unleash the evil in themselves; the next bit is reserved for stories of those who try to cheat death, either by making something that will never die, or trying to cross the border between life and death themselves. This effort seldom ends well—think what happens to the kids in Flatliners, or even poor Dr. Griffin, who crosses over so completely that he disappears altogether.
The end of this road, of course, leads to the Ghost story. The thing that makes the Ghost so exciting, in terms of the horror pantheon, is that it often manages to be terrifying without any overt malevolence at all. A ghost need not try to eat us to be scary. It's scary because it is us; or rather, it's what we become once we're past all the reason and passion, the eating and getting eaten. In that way, the Ghost is a sort of spectral opposite of the Werewolf: Descartes and Rabelais both long gone to dust.
The terror a good Ghost story inspires is probably very close to the Katharsis defined by Aristotle: the pity and fear aroused by seeing someone we admire brought down as low as they can go. The someone, in this case, is everyone we know, starting with ourselves. We know we're going to die, of course, but it's another thing altogether to see it. Dying is, by definition, the one thing we don't have to "deal with." It just is. Unless it isn't.
There seems to be no one ghost story so famous or so present in the popular imagination as Dracula or Frankenstein. But perhaps that's the nature of the beast. Just as the most perfect Werewolf stories come not from fiction but from the realm of True Crime, so the Ghost story has had some of its best development in records of "real" hauntings. We glimpse Ghosts best in folk tales, invented and told 'round dying fires—the stories about sailors watching wrecked ships pass them in the night, or city dwellers who encounter the shade of some past tenant on the stair. These are stories without a clear resolution, often even without a plot. They dwell not on adventure, but on an encounter with otherness, a moment when the curtain between life and death grows thin enough for us to see through.
A few recent films actually do this quite well, while still managing to tell some sort of story. I'm thinking of The Sixth Sense or The Others, in which the relationship between the dead and the living is the crux of the tale. (And yes, I hear you in the back—I'll get to Shirley Jackson in just a minute. Stop banging on the doors . . .)
Many fictional ghosts, of course, are malevolent, and just want to jump out of the darkness and kill us. Or even, in the person of their more fleshly cousins the zombies, eat us. Zombie stories tend to fall into that long region of the cycle between the Ghost and the Vampire. In their human origins, their fleshly and biological presence, they are hauntings: sad remnants of humanity, memento mori come to life. Zombies are seldom more poignant, actually, than when Stephen King creates them, in stories like "Home Delivery" and Cell, among others. He seems fascinated not by the monstrousness of the zombie, but by what bits of the human remain.
But the otherworldly evil that is often assumed to inhabit or motivate the walking dead has much more of the Vampire in it, and zombie tales tend to quickly cross the line into simple run-screaming-and-die stories, turning the sad revenant into just another haunter in the dark.
So here we are, back at 12:00—and it's still midnight, so perhaps it's time to stand for a moment and take stock. Here we have four elemental and related terrors, ranged at the compass points of a circle, around which, it seems, we can travel in something like an unbroken path: terrors that come from without and from within; the terror of birth and the terror of death.
There are other gradients that can overlay this circle quite neatly as well; in particular, light and darkness.
Darkness, of course, is the classic element for horror. We are diurnal creatures, and nightfall makes us blind and helpless. Because we are blind, the dark also carries with it the great, shapeless fear of the unknown. What was it that made that noise? The one just outside your window . . . the one you should really go and investigate, but you won't—because you know the dark is where the Vampires live.
Darkness extends to metaphorical blindness, too—it hides ignorance and paranoia and rage. Darkness is fear itself. But light and bravery and knowledge can be frightening too. Brilliance burns our eyes, whether it be the brilliance of Eternal Truth or the radiance of a thousand suns. We have good reason to believe our own world will end, not in a long twilight, but in a blinding flash. We fear the dark because of what may be lurking in it; we fear the light because of what it shows us—often Things we wish we never saw. Light illumines the monsters for us, and even lets us build our own.
Werewolf and Ghost stories are loaded with a different kind of ambiguity. They are stories for twilight, for when the hour is getting late, and our eyes tired, and we wonder if the thing moving in the shadows is a spirit or a monster, or just our own reflection in a mirror.
This circle, then, is how I hope to read our Tarot hand. The expectation is that, in addition to allowing us to categorize our beasts, it will enable us to see how they fit together into a narrative.
And I do believe there is a narrative that underlies these tales—a story or cycle, rooted in biology or psychology that explains horror stories the way Joseph Campbell's monomyth explains religion and mythology. If we can learn the "grammar of its symbols," we are a step closer to seeing what it is that really frightens us.
Campbell spent a life studying religious stories, of course, and wrote books on the subject—I can only make a few small suggestions.
One thing I have noticed is how many of the famous, classic tales I think of seem to lie roughly around the edge of the circle—blending Vampire and Werewolf, for example, or Ghost and Nameless Thing. This suggests to me that the idea of a narrative is not so far-fetched.
There are outliers of course. I mentioned The Shining, which is part Ghost story and part Werewolf tale, perhaps with a Vampire or two thrown in. Lovecraft's "At The Mountains of Madness," is a Vampire tale, like just about everything in the Cthulhu mythos—but it's a Thing story as well, with its strange history of the Frankensteinian creations of an alien intelligence and their horrible rebellion.
But what fascinates me most are the tales that fall right in the middle, encompassing all four elements in almost equal measure. It's not surprising to me that these stories are, while not the roots of modern horror, still some of its most celebrated achievements.
Take Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. Many people would say this is close to the ultimate Ghost story, and I would agree—if for no other reason than the relentlessly cyclical logic of its first and last lines.
Few passages in literature so elegantly sum up the inseparable veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead, between present and past, than those few phrases. "Whatever walked there walked alone." In its themes of tragedy and downfall, Hill House has all the elements of a ghost story.
But it's not just a poignant reminiscence. Something in that house is very definitely malevolent, and when the lights go down it comes after the hapless "scientific investigators," banging on the doors, trying to get in. The fact that we never know what's out there in the dark only helps to make this a great Vampire story, as well.
But the Werewolf is here too, to be sure. Jackson is a master at creating "unreliable narrators," and we can never be sure if what seems to be going on in Hill House is a real haunting, or just a product of Eleanor's fevered imagination. Even worse: if the supernatural presence is "real," what is it? Is it the ghost of the malevolent old woman who once lived there? Is it the house itself? Or is actually caused by Eleanor, a kind of poltergeist manifesting her wild, stifled desire and sexuality?
If Eleanor is a poltergeist, or even just mad, then where does the responsibility for the terrible events in the house rest? Is it with her, or with Dr. John Montague, the "creator" whose strange (some would say irresponsible) psychological experiment opens up the Pandora's box of Eleanor's psyche? Montague goes looking for ghosts, and he finds them—or does he create them himself?
Light and darkness blend, and we are left unable to tell whether the evil comes from within or without, or even if it's what we would call "evil" at all. But finally it doesn't matter whether Eleanor is the creator or the creation, the predator or the prey. The one bright line in Hill House is the line between life and death, and in the end she crosses it. She walks alone. The circle is complete.
Maybe we're starting to see something like a narrative here. You can start at any point on the circle, but a simplified telling might go a bit like this:
Something comes for us out of the dark. We try to run from it, or fight it, first on a primitive, Rabelaisian level—but this does no good. When we look into the abyss, it gets inside of us. Maybe we find out it was already there.
So we cross a border, from the Rabelaisian to the Descartian—perhaps with the "assistance" of a helper figure, often a scientist. We create Things to try to keep the dark away—machines, children, artworks, it doesn't matter: this too will fail us. We are flawed creatures; we pass our flaws onto our creations—and flawed creations destroy themselves.
Mortality is inseparable from us; we are "beings towards death," and were we any other, we would not be as we are. As we come around the circle, we finally see the face of the monster we were running from, and it's a grinning skull under a black hood. It wasn't dying we were afraid of, it was Death itself.
So we cross another border—we die. But the final horror is that death is not really the end—we become ghosts, and the world moves on, and our children and our civilization are left to face the same monster, over and over—and they always get eaten.
It's an atheistic version of Campbell's monomyth, broken and perverted as the hero ventures into the belly of the beast, but fails to return with any enlightenment to share with the world. Behind the veil, all is madness. Some horror stories try to save us, to proffer a last-minute happy resolution—and if we are often all too ready to embrace it, is that not simply a sign of how afraid we really are?
Before we leave the circle, I want to look quickly at one more story that I think encompasses this entire narrative in a profoundly scary way. Again, it may not be the story you'd expect.
The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, was both the first science fiction story I heard and the first horror story. I had it at the unseemly age of 5 or 6, read only slightly abridged on a cassette tape from one of those children's library collections. (I really wonder who selects the books for those things!) I listened to it over and over, and I think it was responsible for the insomnia that plagued me for the next 20 years. For most of my childhood, I couldn't turn off the light without seeing the red eyes of the Morlocks reflecting dully from the shadows. Here there be dragons.
First and foremost, though, The Time Machine is a Ghost story—or that, at least, is what I believe Wells intended. The plot, remember, is episodic, and its through-line is not any one of the adventures, but the story of how the Time Traveler becomes slowly divorced from his own time—his earthly life, as it were. When he finally vanishes into the mists of the past or the future (we're not sure which) he has himself become a ghost. But then, it's a peculiarity of time travel stories that we all get made into ghosts. Looking back from the ends of the universe we see the echoes of our civilization, now a dead thing, and the world we knew is just a shadow, a dream within a dream.
But what echoes! What ghosts Wells conjures! What devil or witch could be more terrifying than the Morlocks, a strange combination of something human, something insectoid, something simian—lurking in the dark with a hunger for flesh. They too are perfect Vampires.
And yet, as we discover soon enough, they are the evil from within, too. The Morlocks are what we have become, Werewolves all: the horrid and hateful in humanity has evolved to enslave its better angels and use them for food.
But while the Morlocks may seem atavistic, remember they are also the guardians of our technology: all those strange engines that throb and hiss as the Traveler descends into their realm. Twisted and debased as they are, the Morlocks are the inheritors of Civilization. When the apocalyptic war came, it was their ancestors who were in the bunkers, making plans for how to survive. Talk about creation gone awry.
And it is a human creation, too, that shows us this future: the damned device of a mad scientist, bringing mankind knowledge it never should have had—knowledge that, in the end, may destroy what is human in the Traveler himself, sending him off seeking oblivion in the far depths of time, where mankind and its monsters are—thankfully!—nothing more than ghosts.
So there it is, the whole mad cycle of our deepest fears. It still scares me.
And this story isn't finished. Perhaps you will find flaws its logic, or stories that do not seem to fit the mold. Or perhaps you will think of ways in which it could be developed further. I hope to read them someday, here or elsewhere.
But maybe this will also help some of you look at your favorite nightmares in a new light; maybe it will even help you create even better ones. And maybe, as you lie awake tonight, it will make you think for a moment about what it is, out there in the dark, that you're so afraid of. And when you think that, just remember: it's not just a dream.