This Week’s Prompt:33. Determinism and prophecy.
The Resulting Story:My Brother
There is a lot that can be talked about prompts and notes so brief. And there aren’t many subjects as full of potential discussion and possible exploration in stories as the nature of time and fate. Which, make no mistake, is what determinism and prophecy refer too. But given how short of a prompt this is, we will also be extending some of our discussion of story crafting at the end. In other words, this one will be a doozy.
Prophecy is probably the first one we should start with. There are a number of concepts behind prophets and prophecy, and a few of them need some parsing. First there is the sort of divination by divine inspiration that most readers are familiar with. Apollo is the Greek God of such visions, Mimir has a similar role in the north, out of the East Fuxi among the Chinese, Smoking Mirror among the Aztecs. . Across even more cultures, unnamed divinities provide visions of what is to come or what is occurring to mortal voices.
The second aspect of prophecy is bound up with the first, and is most commonly at home in the Near East. These are prophets, yes, but they are not viewers on some great cosmic scheme. Rather, they see the transgressions of society and seek to reform them, often by special gift to mankind. Zoroaster, Elijah, and Mohamed, peace be upon him, are of this sort of prophecy. The future forecasts here are not quite divination as much as impulse to alter the world in a more virtuous way.
While the second aspect has some more interesting aspects to it, if we are being honest with the prompt, it is more fascinated by the first. Determinism gives it a way, really. The philosophy or more properly metaphysics of determinism often relates to whether the future is cast in stone (determinism) or whether we may yet shape it (Self-determinism). While both are filled with potential horror, prophecy leans towards the former.
That being said, there are some interesting facets to consider. And here I must admit, I have primarily knowledge of the Greek thoughts more than the vast Hindu or Middle Eastern thoughts. But I imagine such debates have some universality to them.
Among the Greeks, there are two stories of fate and choice that come immediately to mind: Achilles’s choice in The Iliad between two fates and the tragic choice of Oedipus in his eponymous tragedy. We’ve discussed something of a Greek tragedy way back in our very first research post almost a year and a half ago, found here. But now we can discuss it’s Aristotelian elements in full.
First we are in need of a flawed man. Preferably one with hubris, narcissism, or curiosity as a flaw (while today we rightly laud curiosity, there is a reason for the ‘what men was not meant to know’ trope). Next we need his or her circumstance that begin tragedy. In all likely hood, this moment of action will be some mystery or another, given both Lovecraft and the great Oedipus. Some also involve homecomings and strangers, as the King in Yellow and Agamemnon’s tales do. Or, lastly, a simple strange phenomenon. Anyway, we must then show how, by means of the flaw inherent in our protagonist, he or she comes to a foul end. And end that they have been warned of repeatedly through out the narrative.
So, where to begin? Fate, flaw, or phenomenon? To be honest, it is probably wiser to develop a compelling character first. But I am not necessarily wise. So we’ll start with what has happened. As a writer, I enjoy finding these on weird news sites (like these and these). Sadly, these rarely have ‘ironic ends for those involved’ listed. Not to say that some aren’t interesting reads in a ‘what the hell’ kind of way. Tragedies classically end, however, in the death of all involved if possible. Odd crime sites are better for these (they even have a murder section!) but I must caution those who value animals and humanity from looking too long at them. For short works, a strange murder can often be tweaked a bit to make a good horror or mystery story.
For my purposes, a situation of the supernatural seems well favored. I read Castle Orlanto recently, and the madness that came about there from a sudden and supernatural death of a child has stuck with me as a good starting place. Proceeding, however, I’d suggest swinging in the opposite direction of Orlanto. Rather than the death of a child, a mysterious birth of a monster. A creature like the Jersey devil, strange and alien. This has been done (yes by the Simpsons) but it gives an easy avenue to explore the nature of determinism and the essence of people. Is such a thing, born of an alien mind in human flesh, necessarily wicked?
That brings to mind, for me, my favorite work of horror: Frankenstein. While there is no prophecy there, and ours will certainly have a prophet or seer to warn all of the doom they embrace, there is a discussion of why is the monster a monster. If circumstances were better, would the result be better? Do we control our fate or is it out of our hands entirely?
As a well crafted tragedy, almost all characters must feature some of this conflict (even if the monstrous child is at the center of it). Not that some ancient prophecy involve all of them, but rather that they all struggle in smaller ways to assert agency. And being a tragedy, said assertions are all doomed to fail or to backfire in horrible ways.
This ties the nature of determinism very nicely into Lovecraft’s own notions of cosmic horror. The smallness of one’s self in the face of the universe, how vast it is and uncaring, seems alien to any sort of individualistic notion of self control or determination. The horror comes with the inevitable march of time, and you as a small, singular human cannot stop it anymore than the Elder Things could slow their decay. The modes of escape presented are immortality in the Dreamlands or small, temporary victories that will eventually be overturned.
With that grimness in mind, we can set about our characters and setting. We must assuredly have at least four or five it seems, a large number for our stories. We need something like a family. With all our talk of prophecy and the Bible earlier, I’d say a new and full family. A father and a mother and perhaps an older sibling, as well as the child. Next we are in need of a prophet or prophetess. Not only that but we need a place where such people are somewhat believable. I have heard little of fortune tellers giving dire warnings about children in Phoenix Arizona in the last century, for example. The practice of speaking in tongues is more common in the South East of the United States but…well, frankly, I’ve only been to Florida to see Disney World and fear I would do a disservice. We could instead move in time, back to an era where perhaps such things were more common. It is easier to believe that a small desert town has a fortune telling old woman in the eighteen hundreds then today. It would also, depending on the location, permit for more of a regulated society with which our characters might combat with.
Of course, our point of view should be within the family. Otherwise, we are too distant to appreciate the horror and the tragedy that comes about. But who? I can’t yet say. But that is what I can dissect from this corpse. What about you? Did you find anything of note?
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