Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
In my series concerning “How To Haunt a House” and my critical review of the movie The Descent, “A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism,” I discuss the symbolic significance of setting as a means of conveying themes. A house can represent its resident’s soul or personality, with various rooms corresponding to aspects of the person: the attic, his or her mind; the kitchen, his or her instincts and appetites; the living room, his or her persona; the basement, his or her unconscious; and so forth. In the movie The Descent, the underground cavern in which the female spelunkers are attacked by subterranean monsters, the cave, I argue, represents the womb, and the monsters represent the fetuses that liberated women have aborted in favor of childless independence from their traditional and, indeed, biological, roles as mothers and wives.
As Nicholas Ruddick points out in Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction, a symbol can involve a long history of philosophical development. The idea of the island as a symbol of insular individual identity followed, he says, the loss first of the geocentric worldview and then of anthropomorphic notions which left each man and woman an isolated subjectivity, or island, as it were, cut off from the mainland, which is representative of the rest of humanity:
The idea of an individual island has become associated with that of the individual psyche, though the metaphor of the insular Self. The decline first of geocentrism and then [of] anthropomorphism as a result of scientific discovery has led to the rise of individualism, the philosophical privileging of existence over essence. . . and [the idea of] a universe in which the human domain seems an insignificant speck--at best an island--in the oceanic immensity of the spatiotemporal macrocosm (56-57).Symbolism can be far richer than one imagines!
According to the teleological argument, which is also known as the argument from design, the existence of the universe, as a created artifact, implies the existence of a Creator. Natural theology suggests that we can learn of the nature of God, the Creator, from His creation, nature. This theology, unlike that which is based upon divine revelation that includes the doctrine of humanity’s (and the cosmos’) fall from grace, doesn’t explain (or, some might argue, explain away) the existence of evil, but accepts it as part and parcel of God’s creation and as, therefore, in some way, indicative of God’s own nature as well. As Herman Melville’s Queequeg declares, in Moby Dick, “de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.”
Whether one accepts the portrait (or, possibly, the caricature) of God that natural theology paints, one may apply its insight to the artifacts of human technology: whether microscopes or atomic bombs, the things that we create suggest something about us, their creators. Writers, especially of horror, do well to remember this lesson--and to apply it in their work by consciously and deliberately suggesting the symbolic nature of their central properties, or props, and settings by using them as thematic motifs.
As usual, contemporary writers can take a lesson in doing so from Edgar Allan Poe. The house of Usher (in “The Fall of the House of Usher”) is identifiable with its resident, protagonist Roderick Usher; the fall of the former is also the fall of the latter. Indeed, even physically, the house resembles its resident. According to Walter Evans, the windows of the house are Usher’s eyes, the sedges his mustache, and the white tree trunks his teeth (“‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Poe’s Theory of the Tale” in Studies in Short Fiction, 14.2).
Poe also uses the wine cellar in “The Cask of Amontillado” to great symbolic effect. Wine is the drink of camaraderie and friendship; indeed, in Christianity, wine is an element of communion, representing the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ. In Poe’s story, the significance of wine, as represented by the titular cask of Amontillado, is subverted through irony. The libation of friendship becomes the means by which a mad and vengeful Montresor lures his victim Fortunato to his doom.
Appealing to Fortunate’s friendship as much as to his expertise in wine, Montresor succeeds in getting him to follow him through catacombs, where, after expressing concern for Fortunato’s health while plying him with wine (the catacombs are damp, Montresor says, and Fortunato is coughing), the villain walls up his victim alive, leaving him to die. Half a century later, Montresor, in recounting his tale, brags that he has never been caught.
Wine, which normally cements relationships, here helps to destroy a man who was once at least ostensibly a friend. In the story, the Amontillado, it may be argued, thus represents friendship itself, albeit, in this story, friendship more feigned, on the part of the protagonist, anyway, than real.
Poe’s masterful use of irony to undercut symbolic images and motifs enriches his narratives and, indeed, adds a subtle subtext to the story's overt horror. In learning from the masters, contemporary writers of horror can accomplish similar wonders in their own works of fiction.