Monday, May 23, 2016

Elements of Storytelling—Symbolism and Iconography in Fiction

While a lot of what I mention is self-evident, I’m actually including source references with this article due to the, ahem, “touchiness,” of some of the symbolic aspects that I mention. So, yeah, you’ve been warned:

Symbols are everywhere, and we are only beginning to understand the full psychological effect on the human psyche. Why are people attracted to certain colors?1 What’s up with the color black always being viewed as a sign of evil or masculine aggression? Why did the Cross (which exists in many forms, like the Egyptian Ankh) give people a sense of protection even before the Christian era?2 And what does all this have to do with writing fiction?

Long before writing and language became the dominant form of communication, ancient humans used to paint symbols onto cave walls to communicate vital information to the rest of their tribes, like the best food to hunt and where to find it.3 So reaction to symbolic imagery was ingrained into the human psyche thousands of years before the first Sumerian cuneiform was created. The skill that ancient humans used to interpret the symbols is what we today call symbolism, better called symbol literacy4.

As writing and language became the dominant communication method our skill in symbol literacy diminished; although, it never completely died out, and much of it became incorporated into the great myths and fairy-tales--the forerunners of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. And it is in those three genres where you find the ancient symbolic iconography appear most often, whether it’s the color symbols used by Edgar Allen Poe or Tolkien representing Sauron as a fiery All-Seeing Eye. Often the image use is a subconscious act during the writing process, but sometimes the writer knows exactly what he’s putting in there and its intended effect.

Nowhere does it become more obvious than in big-budget films like Ultraviolet. You could possibly write an entire book about the symbolic iconography in this film alone, and there are hundreds of films filled with symbols to one extent or another. But let’s just break down one or two of the basics.

In Ultraviolet you have the headquarters of the main antagonist, Dax. The walled compound is in the shape of a cross (a symbol for Life and Resurrection2), and while some of the structures are pyramidal, the main building in the cross’s center possesses a domed roof comprised of triangular glass panes, representing the “dome” of the Sun. Why does the evil guy responsible for tyranny and death dwell here? Because he’s the corruption from within. It’s no accident that the final battle involves flame-covered swords and that the compound gets destroyed by fire, for fire is a two-edged sword that can both destroy and purify at the same time. Throughout the film, the hemophage protagonist, Violet (a color made by the mixing of red with blue, or war with peace) acts as a matronly protective Madonna figure to a child named Six who was engineered with a pathogen that could doom the entire world but also contains the key to possibly cure the hemophages. Six dies, thus saving the world from the pathogen, and Violet’s tears (representing the Water of Life) later “resurrects” Six as a hemophage. Whether the hemophages will one day be cured is left open, but the Twice-Born God2 nature of Six combined with the Isis/Horus (or Mary/Christ) relationship between him and Violet intentionally leaves the viewer feeling hopeful.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey resurrects as Gandalf the White. The color white represents goodness, or the Light. But why does it represent this? Because in ancient times the rise of the Sun meant a new day dawned and they had survived one more night. Night was the most fearful time of all for ancient humans. Predators came out at night who could see at night far better than humans could. That is why night, or darkness (black), was personified as evil; and day, or light (white), was seen as good. This is why white was often viewed as a feminine aspect in matriarchal societies but as a masculine aspect in patriarchal societies. And it is also the reason why the Sun plays such a prominent role in ancient myths all over the world.

Sauron is described as “a great eye, lidless, wreathed in flame” that can pretty much see anything he wants. The All-Seeing Eye is an ancient symbol that represented the Eye of God which the ancients often viewed as being the Sun. So why is a being of evil (or night) pretending to be God? Just as Set seeks to stop Ra, and Satan seeks to stop Christ, because he wishes to be the ruler over all (God); so too does Sauron seek to stop Illuvatar by pretending to be Illuvatar, but he can only succeed at being a cheap imitation.

The above are only tiny examples of the richness and depth to be found in the meaning of symbols that appear in literature, film, music, or even the building you passed on your way to the grocery store. But how can you incorporate such richness to enhance your own fiction?

The first step is to understand that the symbols cannot become the story, they only serve to enhance the story you’re trying to tell or to provide a “hidden” story within the story (which Neil Gaiman does quite often).

Second, unless you plan to let your subconscious have all the fun, you have to know your symbols. A good book to get is Elisabeth Goldsmith’s Ancient Pagan Symbols. That book is the mother load of ancient symbols and their meanings. A good study of the psychological influence symbols and colors can have on the human mind can be found, of all places, on YouTube: Michael Tsarion--The Subversive Use of Sacred Symbolism in the Media. It’s in eleven parts and is an eye-opener to the amount of ancient symbols people get bombarded with on a daily basis and how corporations use them to sell their products. Tsarion is well-known among the alternative research field, and many of his views on other things fall in the category of conspiracy theory. However, I find his work on symbolism well-researched and much along the lines of what people like Elisabeth Goldsmith, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Joseph Campell has written or said on the subject. So, Dan Brown, eat your heart out.

And last but not least, read Poe. Poe knew symbolism, and more importantly he knew how to incorporate them into his stories without making it too obvious. Of course, if you try to bombard your readers like Poe did, you better know exactly what you’re doing; otherwise, it’ll fall flat.

But whether you decide to bombard the human psyche with “in-your-face” iconography, use it sparingly to enhance a scene or two, or just study it to learn what your subconscious had known all along, one thing is for certain. Once you become symbol literate, you’ll never again see the world through the same eyes.

And, with a little luck and some skill, neither will your readers.


1. Color Theory--Color Lessons in Art and Design.                                                                              

2. Goldsmith, Elisabeth (2003, June 11). Ancient Pagan Symbols (Illustrated Edition). Red Wheel.

3. Cave Paintings. New World Encyclopedia.

Friday, May 13, 2016

5 New Releases from SSP Today,from L. Andrew Cooper, Crymsyn Hart, and Dan Jolley!

In celebration of the big StokerCon 2016 weekend that Seventh Star Press is attending in Las Vegas, we have five brand new releases to announce!  USA Today bestselling author Dan Jolley's cross-genre Gray Widow's Walk kicks off the Gray Widow Trilogy and brings you an amazing new heroine!  The followup to bestselling author Crymsyn Hart's Death's Dance, Death's Revival, takes the next step in the Deathly Encounters series with a great Grim Reaper element!  Then, L. Andrew Cooper's horror short story collection Leaping at Thorns is available in a second edition, along with the speculative fiction anthology Reel Dark that L. Andrew co-edited with Pamela Turner.  This edition features two brand new short stories from bestselling author Michael West and Alexander S. Brown. Finally, L. Andrew's brand new short story collection Peritoneum makes its debut!

L. Andrew Cooper and Dan Jolley are currently out in Las Vegas at StokerCon 2016 launching Peritoneum and Gray Widow's Walk, but you can get these and all the new titles today!  Our guide below includes direct links to various formats, and includes a synopsis of each book! All titles/versions in eBook format are just $2.99!

Get Gray Widow's Walk today at these links:

Synopsis of Gray Widow's Walk: “The only thing in this world you can truly control is yourself.” 

Janey Sinclair’s ability to teleport has always been a mystery to her. She tried for years to ignore it, but when tragedy shatters her life, Janey’s anger consumes her. She hones her fighting skills, steals a prototype suit of military body armor, and takes to the streets of Atlanta, venting her rage as the masked vigilante dubbed “the Gray Widow” by the press. 

But Janey’s power, and her willingness to use it, plunges her into a conflict on a much grander scale than she had anticipated. 

Soon she encounters Simon Grove, a bloodthirsty runaway with a shapeshifting ability gone horribly wrong… 

Garrison Vessler, an ex-FBI agent and current private defense contractor, who holds some of the answers Janey’s been searching for… 

And Tim Kapoor, the first person in years with a chance of breaking through Janey’s emotional shell—if she’ll let him. 

But as Janey’s vigilantism gains worldwide attention, and her showdown with Simon Grove draws ever closer, the reason for her augmented abilities—hers and all the others like her—begins to reveal itself. Because, high above the Earth, other eyes are watching. And they have far-reaching plans… 

Gray Widow’s Walk is book one of the Gray Widow Trilogy, to be followed by Gray Widow’s Web and Gray Widow’s War. 

Get Death's Revival today at these links:

Synopsis of Death's Revival: Becoming a grim reaper was right up my alley. I enjoyed being dead. I helped souls crossover into either Heaven or Hell with my fellow reaper, Than. For two years, I enjoyed my life and then the killings started. Psychics were being murdered at haunted sites and souls disappearing.Someone was tampering with the fabric of the universe, trying to draw something evil into this world. To do that, the killer needed the souls of the psychics and the ghosts he could gather to open the doorway.I was charged with saving those souls and find out who the serial killer was. Yeah, being used as bait was definitely not my first choice, but who can kill a grim reaper?I'm already dead.With Than's help, I'll stop the evil from penetrating this world so I can get back to my soul gathering. 

I mean the dead stay dead, right?

Get Peritoneum today at these links:

Synopsis of Peritoneum: Snaking through history--from the early-1900s cannibal axe-murderer of "Blood and Feathers," to the monster hunting on the 1943 Pacific front in "Year of the Wolf," through the files of J. Edgar Hoover for an "Interview with 'Oscar,'" and into "The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies" for a finale in the year 2050--Peritoneum winds up your guts to assault your brain. Hallucinatory experiences redefine nightmare in "Patrick's Luck" and "The Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion." Strange visions of colors and insects spill through the basements of hospitals and houses, especially the basement that provides the title for "TR4B," which causes visitors to suffer from "Door Poison." Settings, characters, and details recur not only in these tales but throughout Peritoneum, connecting all its stories in oblique but organic ways. Freud, borrowing from Virgil, promised to unlock dreams not by bending higher powers but by moving infernal regions. Welcome to a vivisection. Come dream with the insides.

Get Reel Dark today at these links: 

Synopsis of Reel Dark:  Welcome to a macabre cinema for the imagination, to twisted tales projected not on a movie screen but on the page. In Reel Dark you'll find suspense, horror, science fiction, and fantasy in fiction and poetry by authors ranging from new voices to bestsellers. From the battle for recognition between a child actress and a vengeful, long-forgotten film star in "Whatever Happened to Peggy...Who?" to a hapless artist whose talent propels him into a nightmare of jealousy and revenge in "The Dreamist," the authors have created worlds filled with madness and twisted desires. Where the lines between reality and fantasy blur, where films flicker at 24 frames per second, we catch a glimpse of strangers' dreams and nightmares. As David Lynch puts it, "This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top." As Karen Head writes in her poem "Amnesia," responding to Lynch, "In the movies / everything is illusion." But with cameras everywhere, how do you know whether you're in a movie?

Get Leaping at Thorns today at these links:

Synopsis of Leaping at Thorns: Leaping at Thorns arranges eighteen of L. Andrew Cooper's experimental short horror stories into a triptych of themes--complicity, entrapment, and conspiracy--elements that run throughout the collection. The stories span from the emotionally-centered to the unthinkably horrific; from psychosexual grossness to absurd violence; from dark extremes to brain-and-tongue twister. These standalone stories add important details to the fictional world and grand scheme of Dr. Allen Fincher, who also lurks in the background of Cooper's novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines.