Thursday, November 14, 2019

Techniques of Horror, Courtesy of Rene Magritte (Part 3)

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Rene Magritte

As we saw in Part 1 of this series, one of the intentions of the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte was to renew people's vision. By seeking to separate images from mundane responses to them, he used a variety of objects to dissociate the things he painted from the typical ideas about them.
 
By presenting objects in wholly unexpected contexts, Magritte hoped to make them visible again, present again, new again. In doing so, he sought to renew his viewers' vision again, lifting them out of the malaise of the everyday.

In this series of posts, we identify these techniques and indicate how they have been used in horror fiction and drama to effect disgust and fear. In future posts, we will take a look at how these techniques can be used to generate plot twists.

In such paintings as Polar Light and The Taste of Tears, Magritte uses images of consumption, which is characteristic of the more general category of destruction among Magritte's various techniques.


Polar Light

In Polar Light, mannequin-like female figures stand, one behind another, on different levels, on the left side of the painting, against a landscape of sand dunes, some of which somewhat resemble female breasts. A shell-like shape, or perhaps, a curtain, stands before the lower figure, concealing it from the thighs down. On the right side of the canvas, an odd, dark shape appears, simultaneously resembling, albeit vaguely, a bird and a hank of hair or, perhaps, a coat.

The figures have eroded. The upper figure, behind the lower one, has lost part of the left side of its face, its left shoulder and part of its chest (revealing that it is hollow), and portions of its right side and upper right thigh. The lower, forward figure, is missing part of the right side of its face, both arms, most of its left side, and a sliver of its upper right thigh. The loss of the latter's left arm reveals that the figure is hollow.

The sky above the figures and the odd shape to their left is dark and layered with gray cumuliform clouds.

As usual, Magritte offers no clues as to the meaning of his painting. There is no context beyond the images themselves, and no explanation of how the mannequins were eroded; how they came to be in the desert; what the strange object is that stands beside them; why the peculiar shell-curtain object is there; or what relationship, or “affinity” exists among the items. Mystery is piled upon mystery. Bizarre, unexplained mysteries are frightening for the very reasons that they are bizarre and unexplained.

In discussing the 1960 horror movie Eyes without a Face, Lucy Fischer sees the deterioration of Christiane Genessier's face, following a skin graft performed on her by her father, Dr. Genessier, as reminiscent of “a similar motif . . . found in his [Magritte's] painting Polar Light (1926-1927), in which destruction affects the entire body” (163).

For some, there is another cause of the fear of mannequins, statues, and dolls, the phobia known as automatonphobia, the irrational fear of “humanoid or 'human-like-but-not-quite' objects including mannequins, marionettes, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax figures, [and] animatrix or robotic figures.” A number of horror movies feature such figures, including Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), Maniac (2012), Tourist Trap (1979), Still Life (2005), The Mannequin (2015), and others. A related phobia, pediophobia, which is characterized by an irrational fear of dolls, accounts for such movies as Child's Play (1988) and its sequels.

Jacob Olesen speculates that “dolls have fixed staring eyes [or] button eyes that appear 'soulless pools devoid of any emotion akin to those of a corpse.'” The same could be said for mannequins and “marionettes, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax figures, [and] animatrix or robotic figures.”


Several horror movies, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), based on the 1890 novel of the same title, by Oscar Wilde, rely upon consumption or erosion. Dorian's portrait ages and withers as the corrupting effects of his many sins erode the image, rather than the man himself. Instead of consuming him, his evil deeds consume his likeness—until the end of the film, when Dorian inadvertently commits suicide when he stabs his portrait, and his shriveled corpse is found beside the painting, which now depicts a handsome young man in the bloom of health.


The Taste of Tears

The Taste of Tears makes use of two of Magritte's techniques, hybridization, a type of combination, and consumption, a type of destruction. A green shape, half bird and half plant grows among green leaves. The plant and bird grow upon the edge of a cliff, beyond which the sea and the sky, both blue, appear; a brown curtain hangs at the right edge of the canvas, to the left of the hybrid plant-bird (or, depending upon one's point of view, the hybrid bird-plant). A caterpillar crawling on the bird's breast, feeds upon the plant-bird (or bird-plant).


Sea Slug


Spotted Salamander

By combining plant and bird, Magritte ignores—indeed, obliterates—the differences between plants and animals, suggesting that, between them, exists some sort of common quality, attribute, or other element. In fact, such organisms as photosynthetic animals do exist: sea slugs, which use “stolen” chloroplasts to photosynthesize; spotted salamanders, by producing pigments known as carotenoids; oriental hornets, which convert sunlight into electricity using the pigment xanthoperin; and pea aphids, which also use carotenoids. (Actually, scientists have yet to determine whether sea aphids are truly photosynthetic animals, although they may be.)


The hybrid creature of the science fiction-horror movie Swamp Thing (1982) may not be as impossible as it might seem! The result of a bioengineering project, scientist Alec Holland is transformed into a monstrous human-plant (or plant-human) creature that lives in swamps. The movie is based on the Vertico-DC Comics character that first appeared in 1971.

Why are hybrid creatures horrific figures? My post, “The Horror of Hybrid Creatures,” offers some suggestions.


To be Continued

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Techniques of Horror, Courtesy of Rene Magritte (Part 2)

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

 Rene Magritte

As we saw in Part 1 of this series, one of the intentions of the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte was to renew people's vision. By seeking to separate images from mundane responses to them, he used a variety of objects to dissociate the things he painted from the typical ideas about them.

By presenting objects in wholly unexpected contexts, Magritte hoped to make them visible again, present again, new again. In doing so, he sought to renew his viewers' vision again, lifting them out of the malaise of the everyday.


After the Water, the Clouds

In this series of posts, we identify these techniques and indicate how they have been used in horror fiction and drama to effect disgust and fear. In future posts, we will take a look at how these techniques can be used to generate plot twists.


Time Transfixed

In such paintings as After the Water, The Clouds, and Time Transfixed, Magritte uses images of penetration, which is characteristic of the more general category of insertion among Magritte's various techniques.

There are five images of penetration in After the Water. First, a plant penetrates a puddle on the floor of a room. Second, the plant pierces the floor itself. Third, a small, narrow white column beside the plant penetrates the puddle. Fourth, beside the plant, the column also pierces the floor of the room. Fifth, clouds drift into the room through an open water, penetrating the dichotomy of inner and outer, of room and sky.

The images of penetration in this painting are unlikely. Why are clouds drifting from the sky into the room? Why do plant column pierce both puddle and floor?

Such phenomena are not only unusual, but also bizarre. They beg to be explained, but none are explained. In witnessing the uncanny, the viewer perceives a mystery. The mystery remains mysterious for the very reason that it is unexplained.


Elective Affinities

Magritte's work often relates objects, not through cause and effect, but through what he calls “affinities.” In discussing his painting Elective Affinities, Magritte remarks that

One night, I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it had been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects—the cage and the egg—to each other, whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated.

An affinity is thus a “bringing together” of two objects; the affinity can be unremarkable, such as that which exists between a cage and a bird, or remarkable, such as that which may exist between a cage and an egg. In the former, the affinity, or togetherness, of the two objects is unremarkable for the very reason that it is commonplace: we are used to seeing a bird in a cage.

However, an egg in a cage is remarkable for the opposite reason: we are not at all used to seeing an egg in a cage. The “togetherness” of the egg and the cage, therefore, strikes us as odd; it stands out; it takes on a quality of presence that the affinity of a bird and a cage lacks. Remarkable affinities are considered strange and striking. They are visible, so to speak, whereas unremarkable affinities are mundane to the extent that we overlook, or ignore, them; they are invisible, so to speak.

Therefore, we might say that remarkable affinities renew the world by restoring vision to viewers who, through routine and complacency, have lost their perception of the true wonder of existence; they have, as it were, become blind. It is Magritte's intention, by restoring wonder through his creations of remarkable affinities, to renew the world, to make it fresh again, visible again, mysterious and wonderful again.


In horror fiction, penetration tends to be both physical and personal. Characters are penetrated, sometimes sexually, as in the films Demon Seed (1977) or Rosemary's Baby (1968) and in the novels of the same titles, by Ira Levin and Dean Koontz, respectively, upon which they are based. More often, though, penetration takes place as a physical assault, as a stabbing (although, some critics contend that knives are metaphorical penises, or phallic symbols). Therefore, we might say that slasher movies, of which there are many, are examples of the physical form of penetration, but may also be instances of sexual penetration, depending upon how the act of penetration is depicted.


One of the first examples of a slasher movie is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), which is based upon Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same title.


Undeniably voyeuristic and violent, the shower scene has evoked considerable commentary and interpretation by moviemakers. For director Karyn Kusama, the scene is the “first modern expression of the female body under assault.” The frenzied music, variety of shifting camera angles, closeups of the victim's screams and the huge, flashing butcher's knife (or phallus), the rivulets of blood, and the small confines of the shower, in which the woman is trapped, suggest the victim's terror, helplessness, and pain, which support Kusama's contention. Marion Crane does, indeed, appear to be under a violent physical assault, but one which also has sexual overtones.


Rene Descartes

Some philosophers, notably Rene Descartes, have argued that each of us is “a ghost in the machine” of the body. While this may (or may not) be the case, the body is certainly more than merely a machine. No computer or robot, for example, can feel horror or disgust, for example, any more than such a mere machine can feel love and delight, nor can a true machine experience pain and despair.

By having a villain penetrate another character, sexually or physically, a novelist, a director, or a screenwriter shows us not only the difference between the subjective self of the character (and the reader or viewer), but also the difference between the ghost, or subjective self, and the machine, or objective, physical body. It is a terrible thing, sometimes, to be a ghost in a machine.

Slasher movies, like Magritte's subtler expression of the technique of penetration, remind us of the precarious and fragile niche humans occupy in the natural world.


To be Continued

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Techniques of Horror, Courtesy of Rene Magritte (Part 1)

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman


One of the intentions of the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte was to renew people's vision. By seeking to separate images from mundane responses to them, he used a variety of objects to dissociate the things he painted from the typical ideas about them. By presenting them in wholly unexpected contexts, Magritte hoped to make them visible again, present again, new again. In doing so, he sought to renew his viewers' vision again, lifting them out of the malaise of the everyday.


The Catholic existential novelist Walker Percy does much the same thing in The Moviegoer by having his protagonist, Binx Bolling, “see” a dung beetle up close while he lies wounded on a battlefield in Korea. In seeing the insect in minute detail, it becomes alien to him. He sees it anew, as for the first time, recovering himself, and sets off on the novel's quest to achieve authentic existence.

Magritte's and Percy's techniques can have a much humbler use for writers. Authors and screenwriters often use these techniques in writing horror stories of screenplays; these techniques can also be used to generate plot twists.

In this series of posts, we'll identify these techniques and indicate how they have been used in horror fiction and drama to effect disgust and fear. In future posts, we will take a look at how these techniques can be used to generate plot twists.


The Treachery of Images depicts a pipe below which “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) is painted in cursive letters. At first, viewers may be confused. Of course it's a pipe! they might think. Upon reflection, however, they may realize that the painting is not a pipe; it merely represents a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe, not a pipe as such. This painting is ironic, because the language it presents, “Ceci n'est pas une pipe,” conflicts with the common-sense idea about paintings that many people have, that such works of art show things as they are in themselves, rather than represent the objects they depict as the painter painted them. The technique of irony is included in the more general category of opposition, since irony uses language that normally signifies the opposite. Other examples of opposition in Magritte's oeuvre are opposition and reversal.


Another way to think about ironic stories is to say that they depict a series of incidents in which something is not as it seems to be. With this simpler definition in mind, we can see clearly that irony is used to generate horror in Hide and Seek (2005). In this film, Emily Calloway appears to embrace an imaginary friend, Charlie, after her mother commits suicide. Seemingly concerned about his daughter's mental health, her father, David, a psychologist, moves away from their home in New York City to a remote house upstate. A number of violent incidents occur, including murders, for which David blames Emily. However, he himself is the culprit. He has developed a split personality, one of which is Charlie. Neither David nor much else in the story is as it appears to be.


To be Continued

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Interview with Author Renee Scattergood!


https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Stalker-Part-Episodes-Bundles-ebook/dp/B00VI2ZCY8
 
Today, Renee Scattergood, author of the dark fantasy series Shadow Stalker, has graciously agreed to be interviewed by Chillers and Thrillers.

As the author of the urban fantasy A Whole World Full of Hurt, I am glad to welcome Renee and to hear her views on the fantasy genre in general and the dark fantasy subgenre in particular.

Renee's books, which have received outstanding reviews, are available on Amazon.

C & T: Welcome, Renee! Chillers and Thrillers is glad to have you as our guest speaker.

R S: Thank you for inviting me! I’m really excited.

C & T: How would you define “dark fantasy”?

R S: I would define it as any fantasy that has dark (as in psychologically dark and twisted) or horror themes.

C & T: I know that George Lucas inspired you to become a fantasy author. In writing the screenplays for his original trilogy, Lucas said that he followed the pattern of storytelling laid out by Joseph Campbell in Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Has Campbell's understanding of the structure of such stories influenced your own work?

R S: Somewhat. I often follow certain aspects of the heroes’ journey, but only in such a way that it drives the plot of my own story, and each story is different.

C & T: In writing The Flame of the Sea, my action-adventure Viking novel, I modeled the plot structure on the paradigm of Vladimir Prop's Morphology of the Folktale. Most of my other fiction is modeled on Gustav Freytag's pyramid, which is adapted from his Die Technik des Dramas (The Technique of Drama), which he based on his analyses of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. Have you found these—or other—approaches to structuring stories helpful to you in the writing of your novels?

R S: Honestly, no. I tend to go by feel more than anything. Not sure if that makes sense. I guess you can say I’m more of an instinctive writer and, rather than follow a structure or formula, I tend to go by feel. In the end, there is a structure to it, but I don’t plan it that way.

C & T: What authors, of fantasy or other types of fiction, have inspired or influenced you as a writer?

R S: I’m a big fan of Terry Goodkind. His work has really inspired me and whenever I’m in a lull, I can read one of his books and it always puts me in a writing mood. Lindsay Buroker is another author that has inspired me, and while I love her work, she has inspired me in a different way. She’s self-published, like me, and has made a good living with her work. She shares all her failures and successes, and it helps me with my own work.

C & T: It's always refreshing to me to see a fantasy series presented from the point of view of a female protagonist, as is your own series. How do you think a female protagonist shapes your narrative? Does such a protagonist provide attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, desires, emotional responses, ideas, judgments, or values that differ from those of the genre's male protagonists? How would your teenage protagonist, Auren, differ in these ways from, say, young Lucas Skywalker? What does a female protagonist “bring” to fantasy that a male protagonist may not?

R S: To be honest, when I originally wrote Shadow Stalker, my protagonist was a male. It was also a much different story. I guess in many aspects it was a lot like Star Wars. A friend of mine, who is a published author, gave me some feedback and suggested I rewrite it with a female protagonist.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me. I suppose, growing up, all the heroes of the stories I read were guys, so in my mind that’s the way it was supposed to be.

I was amazed at how much the story changed when I made the protagonist a female. For one thing, her life goals are different. My male protagonist was looking for adventure, whereas my female protagonist wanted to go to college with her friends and have a normal life. She enjoys adventure but doesn’t want her whole life focused on that adventure.

Everyone expects the male to be the hero, but it’s a surprise when it’s a female. The men around her want to protect her, but she doesn’t want to be protected. She wants to show them she can be just as strong.

Mostly, a female protagonist inspires the young women who read about them. They may not be superhuman or heroes in the same way, but it inspires them to be more than what society expects them to be.

T & C: Many of the reviews of your series cite your characters as one of the elements readers enjoy. What makes your characters intriguing to readers? What tips do you have for writers concerning how to create interesting characters?

R S: I start every story I write with the characters. The story develops around my characters, and I really get into their heads to show the readers what the character is thinking, feeling and experiencing.

I’ve likened it to how a method actor researches and gets into the heads of their characters. If you want your readers to really connect with your characters, then you have to get into their heads and bring them to life.

C&T: Reviews also suggest that your plots are gripping. Do you have any particular techniques for creating, maintaining, and heightening suspense?

R S: I think that comes from how I develop the characters as well. As I’m writing, I’m picturing the scene in my head, from the character’s point of view, as though it’s playing out like a movie. I write what I see and feel as though it’s happening to me.

C & T: One reviewer identifies “punishment, torture, and execution” as being features that make your fiction “dark fantasy.” Do you agree with this assessment? Are other elements of dark fantasy present in your work?

R S: Oh absolutely. It’s the main reason I labelled it dark fantasy because I know it’s a trigger for a lot of people, and other just don’t like that. But someone who is looking for “dark” stories expect that sort of thing.

Another reason is because of the twisted mentality of Drevin (the main bad guy at the start) and the Galvadi Empire (which was created by Drevin).

C & T: You have a lot of reviews for your Shadow Stalker series, Renee! What's your secret?

R S: I don’t have a secret, really! I’ve just followed what other successful authors have done. I connect with my readers on a personal level on social media and through my newsletter. I ask them for reviews when they read my work in my newsletter and at the end of the book. It’s really important to have a medium where you can interact with your readers, and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. If they love your work, they’ll want to help you.

C & T: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

R S: Just that I’ve really enjoyed this interview, and I hope your readers enjoy the free copy of Shadow Stalker. I hope they’ll give it a read and let me know what they think!

C & T: If you'd like to write an article to share on Chillers and Thrillers, we'd be glad to follow up your interview with your article, on the topic of your choice.

Thank you for taking time to speak with us today, Renee. We enjoyed your insights and look forward to reading many more of your novels. To learn more about Renee and her work, subscribe to her newsletter (and get one of her books, free) and check out these great resources (click the title to access the site):








Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.


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