This Week’s Prompt:42. Fear of mirrors—memory of dream in which scene is altered and climax is hideous surprise at seeing oneself in the water or a mirror. (Identity?)
The Resulting Story: Catoptrophobia
Mirrors roll in identiy and illusions is one with a long traditon, as many tropes are. There is the understanding that a mirror, fundamentally, provides an accurate but false image. It reflects, but because it is imperfect it distorts. Thus we have the term smoke and mirrors, and the quotation from the bible on troubled perception:
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13. 12, NIV)
The Mirror’s reflection is not the thing itself, any more than the moon is the sun. But, as this prompt also points to, a mirror can be revelatory. You cannot see yourself but in a mirror. And so, self reflection requires this mild obsfucation. Shaksepeare’s…oddly topical play Julius Caesear provides an excellent view of this:
“Therefore, good Brutus, be prepared to hear.
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.”
(Cassius, Act 1, Scene 2, 68-72)
Mirrors roll in idenity and illusion are alluded to in folkloric sources. The Romans attribution of life renewing every seven years is where the destruction of mirrors leading to seven years bad luck originates. Mirrors are often attributed as means of detection among the living from vampiric predators, as vampires leave no reflection. This, like the Roman tradtion, stems from a notion of identity. Vampires, being souless, have nothing to reflect. In a strange way, vampires have no ‘self’ as commonly understood.
Mirrors, because of their connection to the soul and self, were feared as possible traps for ghosts or means of contacting the world of the dead. After all, if the soul was there once, perhaps it is there still. Some Jewish traditions prescribe covering a mirror on the death of a relation, in case the dead was trapped there.
Mirrors self-knowing, however, was sometimes dangerous to the living. Mirrors are often a symbol of vanity, as they only show one themselves, rather than the world around them. It is easy to critize someone who is constantly looking in the mirror, after all. The ancient Greek tale of Narcissius, Narcissism’s root, tells of a man who was so pleased with his reflection he wasted away staring at it, lost in love. Or he drowned, trying to embrace his beloved image. Neither is a pleasant end.
Sometimes, however, the emphasis is on knowledge more than self. Obsidian mirrors were common tools for Mesoamerican shamans, and the Smoking Mirror was a powerful royal god to the Aztecs. Mirrors role as oracluarly devices in this case was linked to the dead of Xibalba, who were believed to possess knowledge of the future and past that was beyond the sight of mortal kin.
So with this all in mind, what are we to do with this story? Mr. Lovecraft has a fondness for bloodlines and lost histories that we’ve noted before. But more pressing here is the transformation of humans into something…else. Shadow Over Innsmouth and Pickman’s Model both do such transformation quite well, and emphasis perhaps the horror at play here.
For, to indulge in pyschoanalysis for a time, few people actually know themselves. And I sometimes wonder how much of our internal thoughts and forces are what we would socially call human. How many monsters do we make from our own vast inner landscapes? But I digress slightly.
A dream revelation of self is certainly fitting, and there is an uncomfortable horror in changing without intending it. There are the normal anxieties in that process that occur through out life. There is puberty, there’s growing old, there’s death. These are all things that change us, that we cannot control.
The Metamorphisis by Franz Kafka touches on some of this horror fairly well. I won’t spoil the classic of horror, but merely link it here.
Working this into a story is still difficult, however. We have a climax, a tomato in the mirror moment that will define the rest of the story. A mystery then seems in order, but the resolution is…well, it’s kinda given away by the prompt isn’t it? If we do a mystery, it is absolutely imperative therefore that the murderer not be the dreamer. I say murderer, because murder is the most common crime in mystery novels.
So if we are telling a mystery story, I think Shadow Over Innsmouth’s mystery was better. The climax there is very similair (though not enough for me to call it entirely from this prompt), and points towards a resolution that is horrifying but not…spoilerific? I won’t divulge the entire plot, but the ending is more adjacent to the more common form of horror in the story.
A possible break from Lovecraft is to remove the normally familial or hereditary component of the transfromation. Rather, make it seomthing like the origin of many demons of the Journey to the West. In Journey to the West, most demons come about from normal creatures overhearing the reading of holy (and thus powerful) scripture, growing powerful in their own right. Our monster-revel might be something similair. Something has imbued the main character and at least on other, maybe dozens, with massive amounts of power/awareness. We’ve seen what Lovecraft thinks of those things, and that horror might feel more original. It’s not in your blood, it in your experience.
I can’t say exactly what form said transformation will take. Nor how it will begin. But seeing something over take everyone you know and love or cherish, and then looking in the mirror to see it changing you certainly is the beating black heart of what we are looking for.