Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Poster Pointers: Color, Imagery, Figures of Speech, and Horror

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Artists often learn from one another, especially with regard to technique. In particular, visual artists—illustrators, painters, and the like—use techniques that writers can adopt, just as the reverse is true.


In this post, we'll take a look at how horror movie poster artists use color to express themes, evoke emotions, and sell films. Microsoft's Bing image browser lets users choose the color (that is, the predominant color) of images. (Other browsers may do so as well; I'm not sure.) This ability helps observers to focus on an artist's exploitation of a particular color as a means of highlighting and conveying themes and emotions.


Sometimes, a writer may be able to accomplish something similar, through description, but, even when doing so is impossible, the painter's use of color can show a writer what the painter emphasized; as a result, the writer can view his or her own subject through the eyes of another artist, one who is, in all likelihood, more visually oriented than writers, in general, as we tend to be more linguistic than visual in our orientation.


Against a black background, a poster for Craig Anderson's 2016 movie Red Christmas shows a round, red Christmas ornament inside which is a human fetus, umbilicus attached. The ornament, transformed by the presence of the fetus into a womb image, drips blood. The poster's text, in white font to the left of the ornament-womb, against the black background, reads, “This Christmas the only thing under the tree is terror.”

By using only the image of the ornament-womb, the artist stresses the metaphor which compares the ornament to a mother's womb. The metaphor also alludes to the birth of Christ, for Jesus's birth is celebrated on Christmas Day, a holiday often represented by the colors green and red. However, blood leaks from the ornament-womb, suggesting the fetus's viability is at risk. Thus, red, which is both one of the colors of Christmas and of blood, fuses the holiday with a suggestion of violence. (In the movie, a woman sought to abort her fetus, but the procedure failed when the clinic was bombed, and her child, a son, survived. Now, on Christmas Day, he returns to exact vengeance.)

The poster seems simple, but it attains depth through the artist's expert used of an image that is both metaphorical and allusive on several levels. Writers frequently use metaphors, too, of course, sometimes as central tropes, but, more often, as figures of speech related to specific narrative points, rather than as an all-encompassing, unifying, central trope. By using metaphors more deliberately and purposefully, writers can heighten and enrich the horror they seek to effect. The tip from this artist to writers seems to be not only to think in images, but also to use metaphors to encapsulate the story's theme.

A poster for Alexandre Aja's 2010 comedy horror film Piranha 3D, a spoof of the 1978 film Piranha, both alludes to and lampoons the famous poster for Steven Spielberg's 1975 horror movie, Jaws. Here are the posters, side by side:


In both posters, positioned at the top center, a young, nude blonde swims upon the surface of the ocean. In the Jaws poster, a shark, its mouth open to show its long, jagged teeth, streaks toward the unsuspecting swimmer. There is no accompanying text; the artist is willing to let the images speak for themselves. In the Piranha 3D poster, a piranha, shown close-up, appears huge in relation to the woman above it. Behind this fish, a school of other sharp-toothed piranha crowd the sea. Their shadowy presence looks eerie, as their features are somewhat indistinct, making them resemble fish, but also plants or rocks, emphasizing their primitive, prehistoric origin. They are clearly a species altogether different from that of human beings. The caption, in title case and sea-green letters, beneath the movie's title, which appears in all-capital, blood-red letters, advises, “Sea, Sex, and Blood—Don't Scream . . . Just Swim!”

The Piranha 3D poster's school of piranha, as opposed to the single shark in the Jaws poster, suggests that the latter movie is many times more horrific than the latter film; after all, an entire school of the deadly fish, not a lone shark, are about to attack the helpless swimmer. The unlikelihood of the swimmer's escaping the predatory piranha by swimming heightens the horror, just as the tongue-in-cheek advice heightens the poster's humor.

Since both posters promote horror movies associated with attacks by marine predators, their dominant color is green; however, the Jaws poster also employs shades and hues of blue (another sea color, reflective of the sky), while Piranha 3D includes grays and red (in the title). In the latter poster, the swimmer is also more clearly seen, as is her golden skin and her blonde hair, which helps her assume presence among the predatory fish that are about to attack her. The woman's placement near the top of each poster devotes much more room to depict the ocean below her. She is small, in comparison to the shark or the school of piranha, which emphasizes her helplessness while highlighting the shark or the size of the school of piranha, which makes them seem all the more formidable.

What lesson does the Piranha 3D poster offer horror novelists and short story writers? If a story is to include humor alongside horror, the humor is apt to arise from the situation. Although the situation itself is horrific, the humor is accomplished by undercutting the horror. The story alternates between presenting scenes that are truly horrific and, at the end (or, sometimes, during) the same scenes, undermining the horror, perhaps with ludicrous advice (swim—maybe you can outpace the piranha) or some other means. Mixing humor and horror is difficult. Before attempting such a feat, it is a good idea to study how screenwriters accomplish this task. Buffy the Vampire Slayer offers some excellent examples.

These posters also show the need to design the action of a scene to maximize its horror. The woman's comparably small size, her isolation—she is alone in the sea—and her utter helplessness in the face of predators much larger than she, increase the horror of her situation. At the same time, the poster's design focuses the action of the scene on the conflict between the woman, as victim, and the shark or piranha as monstrous creatures intent upon attacking, killing, and gorging upon her, even before she dies. A well-planned combination of images can both direct action and unify the scene in which it occurs.


Some horror movie posters use a dominant color because the color is suggested by the film's title (Red Eye, Red Water, Red Christmas); because the color is associated with a holiday or the season of the year during which the story unfolds (Red Christmas uses red; Halloween, orange); because the color has symbolic associations with the movie's subject matter (Red Eye's caption makes it plain that this is one of the reasons for its use of red: “He wants to see your insides”); because it contrasts sharply with, and, therefore, emphasizes, the subject matter or its representation, in the case of The Eyes of Laura Mars, by way of a synecdoche, which shows the whites of her eyes against her shadowed face and a black background); or, in some cases, as an alternate way to convey a condition or a situation (dark blue is often used to represent darkness, as it is in the poster for Poltergeist and many other films, because black is too dark). Doubtlessly, there are many other reasons that a particular color is chosen. What is done with the color is what separates amateur designers and artists from the pros. Use the color selection tab on Bing or the image browser of your choice, and see what you can discover.


Many other horror movie posters show how carefully planned images can convey unity, theme, action, emotion, and other elements of a story using color, the positioning of models (in stories, characters), settings, figures of speech, lighting, camera angles, points of view, and other elements of storytelling and cinema. Studying them can suggest similar ways of accomplishing these goals in a novel or a short story.

Monday, July 16, 2018

"The Cone": Style, Sentence by Sentence

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


As I mentioned in “H. G. Wells: The Art of 'The Cone,' Wells is a master of style. He makes every word count toward the creation of the final effect he designs his stories to create. Style, as Jonathan Swift defines it, is “proper words in their proper places.” Mark Twain, like other writers, agrees that “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” AlfredHitchcock says something similar concerning images, the lexicon of film. It is not any single image that matters, he says, but the way in which they are assembled to evoke thought and feeling. On the importance of style, a science fiction writer, a satirist, a humorist, and a master of suspense agree, as does any serious writer or producer. Style is not a small thing; it is everything, for it shapes and invigorates everything: character, including dialogue, action, plot, setting, theme.


With a single phrase or sentence, Wells often accomplishes several narrative or rhetorical purposes at once in his exemplary short story, “The Cone,” as he does in his other tales. The story is a true tour de force, the literary equivalent of expressionistic and surreal paintings, but, as I discuss this aspect of the story in “H. G. Wells: The Art of 'The Cone,' there's no need to repeat it here. Instead, I will concentrate on the effects, literary and rhetorical, he achieves by several phrases and sentences in “The Cone.”

At the outset of the story, his omniscient narrator comments, “They [Mrs Horrocks and the artist Raut] sat at the open window, trying to fancy the air was fresher there.” This sentence accomplishes three things:

  1. It suggests that the air is not “fresher” near the open window, because it is not “fresh” anywhere.
  2. The fact that they are “trying to fancy” fresh air near the window means that they are not succeeding. The open window admits no fresh air; like their attempt to imagine fresher air, the open window is a mere prop and, therefore, a failure.
  3. The illicit couple's attempt to “fancy the air was fresher” characterizes them. In the face of a reality they find unpleasant, they imagine their circumstances are different. They seek to impose their own preferences upon the world, adjusting what is to what is suitable to them. In this, the sentence's use of “attempt” suggests, they also fail.

Wells gets much out of other phrases, too. In the story's fifth paragraph, his narrator describes an approaching train: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight black oblongs—eight trucks—passed” not only shows the passing of the cars, but also makes readers count them as they go past: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight black oblongs—eight trucks.” The counting helps to make the paragraph active, but it also reinforces the number of cars in the train. The ironworks, we think, is a busy, productive place. In the same sentence, the narrator adds that the cars “were suddenly extinguished one by one in the throat of the tunnel,” causing readers to imagine each car being “extinguished” as it enters the tunnel's “throat.” This description includes one of the many personifications Wells uses to bring his ironworks to life as an active, vengeful, and menacing entity.


For Raut, the ironworks represents “Gehenna,” meaning “a place of burning, torment, or misery,” or, “(in Judaism and the New Testament, Hell).” The ironworks is impertinent, daring to belch “fire and dust into the face of heaven.” Raut's words suggest that the ironworks is an affront to God Himself, an impious, wicked hell the very existence of which is an insult to heaven. “Fire and dust,” the insults, as it were, which the hellish ironworks belch “into the face of heaven,” are later juxtaposed to the Biblical phrase “pillars of cloud” and “pillars of fire” in which God appears to Moses and the Israelites as He guides them across the desert after their escape from pharaoh: “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.” (Exodus 13:21). The substitution of “fire” for the more eloquent phrase “pillars of fire” and of sullying “dust” for the more elegant expression “a pillar of a cloud” degrades the poetic language of the Bible, substituting crass terminology for its elevated diction. While Raut accuses the ironworks of insulting God, it is he, through his paraphrases of scripture, who actually does so.


In two clever sentences, Wells creates a sort of reverse-personification. His omniscient narrator describes blast furnaces, which stand “heavy and threatening, full of an incessant turmoil of flames and seething molten iron,” as if they are hearts full of passion and rage; Horrocks himself, as their manager, is the mind, or soul, that controls these savage breasts. His “seething” passions and the “incessant turmoil of [the] flames” of his rage are the vengeful hearts that will burn Raut alive. 
 

Throughout descriptions of the ironworks, Wells's omniscent narrator uses phrases suggestive of violence, blood, death, and hell to depict the ironworks, the scene of Raut's eventual demise: “ghostly stunted beehive shapes,” “a ringing concussion and a rhythmic series of impacts,” “fitful flames,” “hammer beat heavily,” “palpating red stuff,” “blood-red reflections,” “succession of ghosts,” “blood-red vapour as red and hot as sun,” “white as death,” “fire writhing in the pit,” “sulphurous vapor,” “boil the blood,” and “hot suffocating flame.”

References to Gehenna, “the pit,” “pillars of cloud by day,” “pillars of fire by night,” “sin,” “sulphorous vapor” and “God” give the story a Biblical, if not an expressly Christian, context, as does Horrocks's horror at what he has done when “his sanity returned to him,” following his apparent crime of passion and he observes the effect of his vengeance, the sobbing, “inhuman, monstrous creature” that had been Raut. However, this context is undercut by Raut's reference to Jove and the omniscient narrator's allusion to “half-naked Titans.” Not only does the adulterous behavior of Raut and Mrs. Horrocks and Horrocks's seeking of vengeance against Raut suggest that religion is, for them, merely conventional, rather than sincere and devout, but Raut's use of the expression “by Jove,” like the omniscient narrator's employment of the phrase “half-naked Titans,” also implies that none of the characters is religious. Whether Horrocks' own plea to God at the end of the story is genuine or merely an expression of his horror at the sight of what he has done is open to question.


Through his conscious and deliberate selections of words and constructions of phrases throughout “The Cone,” Wells creates and maintains a style that is not only appropriate to his tale, but one which complements it at every turn, creating ironic contradictions; movement and pace; a religious context; complex characterization through allusions and personification; a sense of violence, blood, death, and hell; doubt concerning the characters' true devotion to the religious faith that is implied by the story's allusions to religious themes and theological concepts; and, overall, the unity of effect that produces a seemingly inevitable resolution of the story's central conflict. Wells' style delivers a great deal, largely thanks to his deliberate use of language—“proper words in their proper places”—a and to his own inimitable artistic genius.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Translating Images into Words

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


Alive in Shape andColor: 17 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired, an anthology edited by Lawrence Block, is Block's “encore” to InSunlight and Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of EdwardHopper. This time around, the writers themselves picked the paintings (or, in a couple cases, the statues) upon which they based their contributions. Their choices vary from Norman Rockwell's The Haircut and Art Frahm's Remember All the Safety Rules to Rene Magritte's The Empire of Light and Vincent van Gogh's Cypresses. There are even a couple of nudes, Jean Leon Gerome's La Verite sortant du puits and Lilias Torrance Newton's Nude in the Studio.




Lee Child's “Pierre, Lucien, and Me” is the shortest of the shorts. The eight-page contribution, set in 1919 and based on Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Bouquet of Chrysanthemums, is told by its first-person narrator, the “Me” of the story's title. Having had a heart attack, he learns that a second, fatal one is inevitable within days, weeks, or months. He has no regrets and no need to put things right, except in the case of Porterfield, a wealthy young heir to a steel fortune, whom he'd duped. 

Through his roommate, Angelo, the narrator learns of Porterfield's love for Renoir's work. A waiter, Angelo had overheard Porterfield express to his dinner companions his desire to purchase a Renoir before the price of the famous artist's work rises due to Renoir's recent death, and Angelo had told the heir that the narrator, an art expert who works at the Metropolitan Museum, might locate some of Renoir's paintings for him. In fact, the narrator is an amateur artist who works at the museum “unloading wagons,” but he agrees to become Porterfield's agent.

In Paris, the narrator locates Lucien Mignon, a painter and friend of the late painter. His own unsigned works closely resemble those of Renoir, whose work is also available. One of the famous artist's unfinished canvases bears a separate painting in its corner: a vase of chrysanthemums. The narrator purchases the still life, and Mignon cuts it from the canvas, reluctantly agreeing to forge Renoir's name on it, since Renoir did, in fact, paint the chrysanthemums. The narrator also buys twenty of Mignon's own paintings, later forging Renoir's name on each of them as well, and ships Mignon's paintings to Porterfield, keeping the genuine Renoir for himself.

Now that he is dying, the narrator regrets having cheated the naive, trusting young man. To make things right, he takes the actual Renoir painting down from his wall, wraps it, and takes it to Porterfield's home, leaving it with the heir's “flunky,” telling him that he wants Porterfield to have the painting because Porterfield likes Renoir. Returning home, he sits, “waiting for the second episode,” the heart attack that will kill him. “My wall looks bare,” he observes, “but maybe better for it.”

Although Child's story is not a horror story, it's an entertaining, well-written piece. How might Renoir's painting inspire a horror story? The answer, clearly, is in any number of ways. Here, for example, is one possibility, a good title for which might be “Last Respects”:


After the wake that follows a lavish funeral in which hundreds of people paid their last respects, the decedent's widow, Chloe Sullivan, recalls moments of happiness she shared with her late husband: his proposal, their honeymoon in Naples, the elegant home they bought, the births of her children and how her husband had doted on them, the birthdays and holidays they enjoyed as a family. 

She is interrupted by her maid, Juanita, who asks her what she should do with “all the flowers” in the parlor, where her husband's body is laid out. It's a shame to toss them out, she laments. “They are so beautiful, especially the chrysanthemums the family sent.” Chloe snaps, “I'd throw those things in the garbage this instant if Salvatore's son, Guido, had attended the wake, but, even now, he has to screw things up, missing his damned plane! It wasn't bad enough his father put a hit out on my Brody?” The maid tries to console her employer, but Chloe shoos her away. “As soon as Guido pays his last respects, though, that bouquet of chrysanthemums will be the first to go!” she promises herself, as, alone in the parlor, she gazes on her husband's remains.




Block found that he was at a loss for his intended contribution to the anthology, until a friend emailed him a reminder that “Looking for David,” a story Block had written years ago, about Michelangelo's statute of David, would make a perfect addition to the volume. The painting in which Block had sought inspiration for an original story, Raphael Soyer's The Office Girls, serves as the anthology's frontispiece; at the close of his foreword to Alive in Shape and Color, Block invites readers to “come up with a story of your own” for Soyer's painting. “But don't send it to me,” he adds. “I'm done here.”



Joyce Carol Oates based her contribution, "Le Beaux Jours," on this painting, Les  beaux jour, by Bathus


Thomas Pluck based his story, "Truth Comes Out of the Well to Shame Mankind," on Jean Leon Gerome's La Veritie sortant du puits



Remember All the Safety Rules by Art Frahm inspired Jill D. Brock's "Safety Rules"

The volume contains seventeen muses, and there are, of course, hundreds, even thousands, of others available in museums around the world—and online—all waiting for a writer, of horror or other types of fiction, to tell the stories that they, the paintings, suggest. They await, in other words, the translation of images into words.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Building Fear

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

The architecture common to horror stories, whether novels, short stories, or movies, is conducive to the evocation of fear. Although this statement may seem something of a truism, it may be less obvious that it seems. What, precisely, makes a building evoke fear? By using the Aristotelian approach—that is, by analyzing mages of haunted buildings—we can identify the exact mechanisms of this evocation.


Size matters.

Size matters. Large spaces, especially when they appear labyrinthine, disorient us, confuse us, frustrate us. When we're not sure where we are, we don't know what places—what rooms, for example—are safe or in which direction our escape lies. Therefore, our ability to fight or to take flight is hampered. Spacious buildings of uncertain layout are frightening because, well, they could be the death of us.

Probably the best-known example of “size matters” is Stephen King's Overlook Hotel (The Shining [1977]), the mansion in his Rose Red, or the house in the Spierig Brothers' 2018 movie Winchester. (Full disclosure: the house in Winchester and the house in Craig R. Baxley's 2002 television miniseries Rose Red, written by King, were both inspired by the Winchester Mystery Mansion in San Jose, California.)

Books in print, including The Shining; Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959); and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), an early Gothic novel that, when it comes to haunted houses, was one of the prototypes that started it all, are first-rate examples of the principle that size matters.


Darkness matters.

Darkness matters. When it's dark, we can't see; we are blinded. We rely most heavily on our ability to see. When we cannot see, we are handicapped; our ability to observe, to conduct visual surveillance, to reconnoiter, is impeded. What we can't see could be dangerous, even deadly. We could be attacked. We could run into a wall or fall down stairs. We could lose our way.

Many horror stories are shot mostly in the dark, including Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar's 2001 film, The Others; Victor Zarcoff's 2016 movie, 13 Cameras; and Wes Craven's 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs, to name but a few.

Stephen King's novel 'Salem's Lot (1975), Dan Simmons's novel Summer of Night (1991), Bram Stoker's short story, “The Judge's House” (1891), H. G. Wells's short story “The Red Room” (1896) are excellent examples of printed works that take place largely in the dark.


Isolation matters.

Isolation matters. When alone, we are cut off. There are no emergency medical personnel, no firefighters, no police, no military. We do not have access to stores, utilities, or repairers. Our society is sophisticated and complex. None of us knows enough to be entirely self-sufficient. We rely on experts. We're helpless without them. When no one's home but us (and the monster), we're in a whole world full of hurt. Here, King scores again with The Shining. Other stories in which out-of-the-way buildings evoke fear include The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Psycho (1961), Wrong Turn (2003), and The Cabin in the Woods (2012).

For in-print stories of horror in isolated settings, try Stephen King's novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) or his Despeation (1996), James Rollins's novel Subterranean (1999), and Denise Lehane's novel Shutter Island (2003). Sir Winston Churchill's short story “Man Overboard” (1899), H. G. Wells's short story “The Cone” (1895), Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1845), and Charles Dickens's short story “The Signal-man” (1866) are superb examples of the isolated horror story as well.

Neglect matters.

Neglect matters. If someone cannot (or will not) look after his or her own home, he or she probably won't look after us, either, should we need help. Neglectful people are usually careless people. Think about that for a moment: careless people = people who care less; in fact, they may not care at all. People who don't give a damn are not survival assets; quite the contrary, their negligence could get us killed.

Of course, a building, especially a house, in a state of neglect, suggests a negligent resident or owner. Do we really want to trust our lives to such an individual. The answer is simple, and it isn't no; it's hell no! The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (1997) is an example of what can happen as the result of neglect, as is the movie Hide and Seek (2005).

Neglect also happens in Stephen King's novels Carrie (1974) and in Bentley Little's novel The Ignored (1997).


Disrepair matters.

Disrepair matters. Disrepair may be caused by neglect, but it goes well beyond the effects of inattention and laziness. It suggests unsoundness verging upon collapse. Symbolically, a building in a state of disrepair suggests madness. A house in such a state implies that its resident or owner may also be unsound, verging upon mental collapse. Certainly, that's the case in Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and a host of other haunted house horror stories.


Location matters.

Location matters. We've already mentioned how isolation can evoke feelings of helplessness. A house on a hill can dwarf us. Looking up at something implies that we are smaller (and lesser) than it, that we are inferior to it. That's why judges and legislators sit on high, to impress us with their superior status, to help us remember our place, our subordinate positions in society. Elevation confers status and authority, weheras the lower the station, the less importance and standing one has. The house in Psycho (1961) suggests its de facto owner, Norman Bates's “mother,” rules the roost; Norman, her caretaker, works for her, much of the time in the motel on the grounds below.


Personification matters.

Personification matters. Most of the buildings we've considered are frightening, each in its own way. More frightening than most—perhaps all—others, however, is the house with a personality of its own. A house to which human attributes (in the case of horror, horrible ones) have been assigned are more than just creepy; they can think, feel, and, worst of all, accomplish their will through action. They can injure, maim, or commit premeditated murder. The house in The Amityville Horror (2005), we can tell by the “eyelike windows,” to borrow a phrase from Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” indicate there's a twisted, maniacal madness to the place. It's a house with a personality. It even has curb appeal. To enter, though, is tantamount to suicide.

As the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House indicates, her haunted house is also personified:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. 
 

In a later post (maybe the next one), we'll take a look at the interior of buildings built to evoke fear.

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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