Maze and Monster

by Thomas Sweterlitsch

I’ve been thinking recently of the creature lurking in the dark, that half-man, half-bull bastard son of Minos, King of Crete, who waits in his maze to devour those who draw near… 

Literature is woven of stories we tell and retell, heroes and loves and monsters who appear and reappear under different names, wearing different masks, almost like these ancient tales of myth and religion are recurring dreams and the stories we write are contributions to that overarching, mercurial story.  As thriller writers, we’re particularly in debt to that first iteration of a hero who tracks a killer to his lair, Theseus and the Minotaur.

The twisted backstory: Minos, a ruler of Crete, asked the god Poseidon to send him favor—Poseidon answered with a magnificent white bull, a bull so beautiful that Minos kept the animal for himself rather than offer it as a sacrifice to the god.  In retaliation, Poseidon bewitched Minos’ wife, Queen Pasiphae, to fall into a passionate love affair with the white bull, an affair that resulted in the birth of a monster, a half-man, half-bull creature, the Minotaur.  Minos and Pasiphae raised the child as their own, but as the Minotaur grew savage and vile, Minos was forced to command his chief architect, the brilliant Daedalus, to build a massive labyrinth that would serve as the bastard child’s prison.

The corpses: When King Minos’ natural son, Androgeus, was murdered by the Athenians, Minos conquered Athens and demanded a tribute—every year, the Athenians were to send their seven strongest sons and their seven most beautiful daughters away to the labyrinth in Crete, to be devoured by the Minotaur.  When the third tribute was due, Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, offered himself as tribute.   

The action: Theseus sailed to Crete, stripped of weapons and without friends, but when he arrived on the island, he met the beautiful and clever Ariadne, and the two fell deeply in love.  Although Ariadne was one of Minos’s daughters, she offered to help Theseus escape, by not only telling him the secrets of the Minotaur, but also by giving him a clew, a ball of thread that Theseus would unspool as he wandered the maze.  Theseus found the Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth and slew him, then followed Ariadne’s thread to daylight.

Theseus and the Minotaur is the template for our modern thrillers—the sins of the past informing the depravity of our current world, horrific secrets locked away, the murder of the innocent.  The clew that Ariadne gives Theseus is where our word “clue” is derived from, and the structure of a hero traversing a labyrinth, whether physical or mental, to find the hideous beast lurking at the center, is the mainstay of our genre. 

I think about Theseus and the Minotaur whenever I read thrillers, and can feel the pulse of the ancient story when I read something like James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential—the lies, the betrayals, a labyrinth the characters navigate, only to find the unspeakable horror at the center of the mystery, a hybrid creature, a monstrosity. 

And I think of Theseus and the Minotaur as I write my own stories, layering and layering plot and characters, knowing that no matter how bleak the world I portray, no matter how challenging the labyrinth, there will be a monster lurking in the center, the black hole of evil that the other evils swirl around.  Theseus will encounter the Minotaur, but in our modern stories, Theseus might not always win…

THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.