In “Dark Wisdom,” we seek writing and/or publishing advice from the horror fiction masters making up Denver Horror Collective’s Advisory Council.
For this installment, we pick the brains of Carina Bissett, a Colorado Springs-based writer, poet, and educator working primarily in the fields of speculative fiction and interstitial art.
How does mythology influence modern horror fiction?
CARINA BISSETT: By its very nature, mythology provides a broad foundation for writers to build upon. This can also be said when it comes to urban legends, folklore, and fairy tales. These stories tend to speak to universal truths, which is one of the reasons they have endured throughout history. With just a few words, a writer can invoke setting, theme, and mood. Well-known symbols—such as apples, serpents, crows, mirrors, teeth, flowers, chalices, shoes—create a shortcut into story. However, despite their familiarity, they also allow for distance, which can be a useful tool for writers commenting on contemporary issues.
For instance, Mercedes Murdock Yardley addresses rape and the aftermath of public blame in her swan maiden story “Urban Moon,” which was published in the anthology Other Voices, Other Tombs. In the superb flash piece “Skin,” Angela Slatter recasts a selkie myth with an intriguing twist to comment on the problem of domestic violence.
Although the type of animal varies, Animal Bride and Bridegroom folklore can be found around the world. The transformative nature of these tales gave rise to numerous beasts and monsters in myth and fable including the familiar werewolf trope. For instance, in the English ballad “Reynardine,” a young woman is pledged in marriage to a handsome red-haired stranger— a werefox who actually intends to murder and eat her in his ruined mansion in the woods.
On the flip side, there are the fox-wives of Korea and Japan—beautiful, sensual, highly dangerous creatures who feed on the life energy they slowly drain from their bewitched lovers. Kristi DeMeester’s “Milkteeth,” originally published in Shimmer, is a fantastic example of a fresh take on an animal metamorphosis story. (“Milkteeth” was recently republished in Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 11.) Other personal favorites centered on the theme of transformation include “Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma and “Red” by Katie Knoll.
You’ll find an abundance of archetypal characters and tropes in all genres, but this is especially true in dark fiction. Sometimes, the source material is shielded. In other cases, it is blatant. Some of the more identifiable characters found in modern horror include Medusa, Morgan la Fay, and Medea, among others. These queens, acolytes, and witches provide mirrors for feminist authors to reflect on contemporary conditions.
Medusa takes back her power in “Always, They Whisper” by Damien Angelica Walters. A ghost girl dreams of apple, bears, and roses in “Her Bones the Trees” by Georgina Bruce. A witch justifies the murder of an evil stepchild in “These Deathless Bones” by Cassandra Khaw. As Alice Hoffman once remarked, “Every fairy tale had a bloody lining. Every one had teeth and claws.” Myths, perhaps, even more so.
I personally prefer mash-ups that draw from various sources, which is what I focus on in my own work and in my online workshops at The Storied Imaginarium. For instance, my short story “Burning Bright” draws material from allegory with “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton, children’s rhyming and string games, the history of carousels and circuses, the red thread of fate, and tiger legends. My poem “O Mad Arachne: A Folle in Three Acts,” however, comes straight from lines found in Dante’s Purgatorio and Gustave Doré’s illustration of the event, which I expanded on with source material on the Arachne myth.
When it comes to retellings, it’s important to return to the original stories for inspiration. Project Gutenberg has a wide variety of free, accessible sources including Bulfinch’s Mythology: the Age of Fable Book by Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) and The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941). Project Gutenberg is also a great source for regional mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. Personal favorites of mine include Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore by Ernest Ingersoll, Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics by Richard Folkard, and The Fairy Books by Andrew Lang.
In addition to cultivating knowledge of the source material, it also helps to understand your own attraction to a particular myth or legend. A story exploring the context of theme will be much different than one retold in order to change the plot. However, the best part about a retelling is that you can transform the tale into something that reflects your viewpoint while still maintaining the elements that root the original in the collective unconscious. Symbols and motifs are here to stay. All you need to do is to make them your own.