Fascinating lists!

Friday, September 20, 2019

Ray Bradbury's "The Island"

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Although The Cat's Pajamas, published in 2004, may not be one of Ray Bradbury's finest collections of short stories, it does contain some good ones.

“The Island,” in which a family of four (Mrs. Benton, her daughters Alice and Madeline, and her 15-year-old son Robert) live in a large house, isolated from the larger world and imprisoned by their paranoia, may not be an altogether successful story. It does, however, show Bradbury's talent for indirection.

It seems that Mrs. Benton's fears have infected her children. Bedridden, the matriarch fears that her home may be invaded, either by robbers seeking to steal the $40,000 she's hidden beneath her bed, to rape her and her daughters, or to do both before killing them all. The children share her fears. Their defenses are to arm themselves and to ensure that “the house was locked and bolted” (15).

They have also discontinued their telephone service, except for a battery-powered “intercommunication phone circuit” (18) that lets them talk to one another in their separate rooms. Preferring not to rely upon the world beyond their own house, they've also discontinued the electric service, opting for “oil lamps” and the light and heat of logs blazing in the house's fireplaces (20). To protect themselves, each of the family members, except Mrs. Benson, keeps a pistol at hand in his or her bedroom. These decisions add to their jeopardy after they hear one of the downstairs windows break and fear that a stranger has invaded the sanctuary of their isolated home.

Their maid does not live in the family home, and she does not share the family's fears: “She lived but a few hours each day in this outrageous home, untouched by the mother's wild panics and fears. [She had been] made practical with years of living in the town beyond the wide moat of lawn, hedge, and wall” (20).

According to the omniscient narrator, everyone hears the breaking of the window. The family responds as the reader might predict, based upon Bradbury's characterization of them: “Rushing en masse, each [to a] room, a duplicate of the one above or below, four people flung themselves to their doors, to scrabble locks, throw bolts, and attach chains, twist keys” (20). (Bradbury makes a mistake in having his omniscient narrator declare that “ four people flung themselves to their doors,” etc., since Mrs. Benton is bedridden. Confined to her bed, she would not be able to rush back to her room or lock her door; indeed, she would never have gotten out of bed to begin with.)

By contrast, the maid does the sensible thing, as she performs “what should have been a saving, but became a despairing gesture”: she rushes from the kitchen, where she'd been cleaning and putting away “the supper wineglasses,” and “into the lower hallway,” where she calls the family members' names (20). After the family hears her “one small dismayed and accusing cry,” the mother and her children wait “for some new sound” (21).

They seem to want to confirm their worst fear (the invasion of their home) the same way that they earlier confirmed, to their own satisfaction, that their house had been invaded, by taking the sound of “metal rattling” as proof that the earlier sound of a breaking windowpane was not due to “a falling tree limb” or to a snowball (19). In other words, the residents interpret a succession of incidents as confirming one another (or as failing to do so), whether the incidents have anything to do with one another or not.

The Maid as Killer

Has the maid been killed by an intruder, someone who'd entered the house, perhaps to steal the money hidden under Mrs. Benton's bed, to rape her and her daughters, or to kill the family?

Or is the maid really dead? Has she only faked her own murder? Is she herself the killer?

The maid might have a motive: the $40,000. As the person who cleans the house, she might have found the cache, although, since Mrs. Benton is bedridden, it seems unlikely. The maid could have heard of the money, perhaps when, “in the years before,” Alice and her mother debated the wisdom of locking the house and of keeping the large sum of money on hand:

“But all a robber has to do,” said Alice, “is smash a window, undo the still locks, and—”
“Break a window! And warn us? Nonsense!”
“It would all be so simple if we only kept our money in the bank.”
“Again, nonsense! I learned in 1929 to keep hard cash from soft hands! There's a gun under my pillow and our money under my bed! I'm the First National Bank of Oak Green Island!”
“A bank worth forty thousand dollars?!”
“Hush! Why don't you stand at the landing and tell all the fishermen? Besides, it's not just cash that the fiends would come for. Yourself, Madeline—me!” (17)

All the maid would have to do is to break a window. Then, as panic ensues among the members of the family, she could visit the room of each, individually, and murder them, one by one. Neither Mrs. Benton nor Robert is said to fire a weapon at their killer. Madeline does and miss her aim. Alice also fires at her attacker—three times, in fact—but with her eyes closed, so it is easy to imagine that Alice misses her target, as the omniscient narrator verifies for the reader, stating that one bullet penetrates “the wall, another . . . the bottom of the door, [and the] third . . . the top” of the door (26).

The failure to fire a gun or poor aim protects the maid. As a result, the money is hers, and she can retire from the “outrageous home.” In 1952, the year in which Bradbury wrote this story, $40,000 was a lot of money, after all. As a suspect, the maid has the same three requisites for murder that a stranger would have: means, motive, and opportunity.

Alice as the Killer

Three of the family members are attacked and killed (or otherwise dies) in their respective bedrooms. Alice, who is in the library, alone survives. Shooting three times at the stranger who seeks to enter the library—and missing each time—Alice falls from the window she's opened, the sill of which she straddles, and makes good her escape through the snow. Was the maid also murdered? Is Alice, the sole survivor, the killer?

Because of the indirect style that Bradbury employs, which often describes actions, frequently in fragments without much context, and offers only snippets of conversation, while flitting from one character to another, either possibility seems to exist: either the maid or Alice, it appears, could be the killer.

Either could have broken a downstairs window, thereby precipitating the family's panic, and picked the victims off, one by one.

If Alice is the murderer, she certainly has the means (her gun) and the opportunity (she lives in the same house as the victims, her family), but what about the motive? What reason would she have to kill her mother, her sister, and her brother? After all, as a member of the family, she already enjoys the benefits such status confers upon her: food, clothing, shelter, even luxury.

However, she also must suffer the isolation, the deprivation (there is neither telephone service beyond the house nor electricity; nor is there much companionship, and there is no normalcy) in the “outrageous house,” which is occupied by eccentric and paranoid family members. With $40,000, she might start life anew. She alone is in the library, which suggests she has an interest in the wider world and in art and culture, articles which are in short supply in the madhouse in which she lives.

At the end of the story, objectivity appears in the figure of “the sheriff and his men” (26). Finally, there are individuals from the wider world, authorities trained to respond to emergencies and to solve crimes. Alice has been away; she has escaped; now, “hours later,” she has returned “with the police” (26).

The sheriff, observing the open front door, is surprised by the audacity of the intruder: “He must have just opened up the front door and strolled out, damn, not caring who saw!” (27)

The sheriff and his men also confirm the second set of footprints leading “down the front porch stairs into the white soft velvet snow.” The footprints are “evenly spaced,” suggesting “a certain serenity” and confidence (27).

Alice is amazed at the size of the footprints and the implication of their dimensions: “Oh, God, what a little man” (27).

But are the footprints those of a man?

Could they be the maid's footprints? Alice thinks they are the footprints of a man, but Alice never saw the person at the door to the library who'd sought to get to her; she'd fired at the library door with her “eyes shut” when she'd observed the doorknob turning, and all three of “her shots had gone wide” (26).

If the maid faked her own death, prior to killing the other family members, maybe the footprints are the maid's and not those of a male intruder. Maybe Alice has merely supposed the footprints are those of a man. After all, her mother often warned that rapists could assault them: “Besides, it's not just cash that the fiends would come for. Yourself, Madeline—me!” she'd told Alice (17). In this case, the maid left the footprints descending the front porch stairs and parading from the house “neatly” and “evenly spaced, with a certain serenity,” and Alice left the other set of footprints, those that begin outside the library window and run “away from silence” (26-27).

The first set of footprints could also be those of Alice herself. But what about the other set of footprints that Alice sees when she returns with the police, those “in the snow, running away from the silence” of the house? They are not the same set of footprints that she sees and calls to the attention of the sheriff and his men, those which lead down the front porch's stairs and across the lawn, “vanishing away into the cold night and snowing town” (27). Does this second set of footprints constitute an insurmountable problem for the idea that Alice is the killer?

After opening the front door, she could have left it open and run down the porch stairs and across the lawn to notify the police of the alleged intruder's dastardly deeds. This would be the reason that the footprints are small for a man; they were not left by a male intruder at all, but by Alice herself. The footprints that Alice sees fleeing from the library's open window could be imaginary footprints, which only she alone sees, possibly as a means of supporting her fantasy that an intruder, rather than she herself, murdered her family.

If this is the case, it makes sense that, suffering guilt, she would try to obliterate the only set of footprints at the scene, those of the “little man” (Alice herself): “Alice bent and put out her hand. She measured then tried to cover them with a thrust of her numb fingers.” And it makes sense that she stops crying only after “the wind and the winter and the night did her a gentle kindness. . . [by] filling and erasing” the incriminating evidence “until at last, with no trace, with no memory of their smallness, they were gone” (27).

Interestingly, the omniscient narrator states only that Alice saw the set of footprints leading from the open library window, but acknowledges that both she and the police see the footprints descending the front porch stairs and heading across the lawn, toward the distant, “snowing town.” Is one sight a hallucination, the other a reality?

Thanks to Bradbury's indirect communication, maybe not. The omniscient narrator does not tell the reader that the police see this second set of footprints. The omniscient narrator states only that “she [Alice] saw her footprints in the snow, running away from silence.” If Alice is the killer, after dispatching the maid, her mother, her brother, and her sister, she could have “fallen” out the library window and run to the front porch, covering her footprints as she went, the same way the wind eliminates the “small” footprints of the presumed intruder, by “smoothing and erasing them until at last . . . they were gone” (27).

An Intruder as a Killer

Alternatively, the killer could be a stranger, an intruder, come to rob or rape the women of the house, as Mrs. Benton has long imagined and feared might happen. This is the story's straightforward interpretation, and, despite a few incredulities, such as the intruder's remaining alive despite being the target of several shots fired by different individuals, the small footprints said to be his, the unlikelihood of his knowing about the cache of cash, and his breaking and entering without knowing what he risks he might face from the family inside the house, is a plausible—and perhaps the most plausible—interpretation of the plot.

Thee Family Are the Killers

Finally, another interpretation is possible concerning the killer's identity—or identities.

Maybe neither an intruder, the maid, nor Alice is the murderer. Perhaps the family members each killed him- or herself or died of fright. They are paranoid. Each has a loaded gun at hand. Although panicked by the breaking of a window, they allow (at first) that the broken window could have resulted from nothing more sinister than “a falling tree limb” or a thrown snowball. It's only after they hear a second sound, that of “metal rattling,” that they irrationally conclude that a window has been raised and that an intruder has entered their home (19). Their frantic telephone calls to one another fan the flames of their panic, as do the sounds of each successive gunshot, as the family members suppose one of their own seeks to defend him- or herself against the intruder.

While such defenses are possible, it's also possible that the disturbed, terrified mother and children, afraid of being robbed or raped and murdered, dispatch themselves, preferring a bullet to the savagery that the intruder might unleash upon them. Certainly, Bradbury's omniscient narrator impresses their terror upon the story's readers. Each is shut up alone, behind a locked door, separated from each other and from society at large.

Mrs. Benton sees (or imagines) her door opening, and she does not respond thereafter to Alice's frantic pleas over the telephone (24). Did she somehow take her own life?

Robert expires with a groan, perhaps dying of fright: “His heart stopped” (24).

Madeline says the intruder is at her door, “fumbling with the lock,” and the others hear “one shot and only one” (25). Has Madeline shot at the intruder—and missed? Or has she killed herself?

Only Alice now survives (unless the maid faked her own death and is, in fact, the killer). When Alice sees the knob to the library door turn, she also shoots, with her eyes closed—three times—and also misses the intruder (if there is an intruder).

How unlikely is it that two armed, terrified, paranoid people—Madeline, and Alice—would fail to kill their attacker or that Madeline would fire only once at someone she feared was trying to rob, rape, or kill her? Yet precisely this happens!

But what about the maid? In this scenario, how is her death explained? She is not like the family for whom she works. She does not share their paranoia. She is not isolated by choice, but lives in the town and works only a few hours each day in the family's home. She is “practical.” As far as we know, she is unarmed. Besides, even if she has a gun, why would she kill herself? The story is all but silent as to her demise (if she does die). All the omniscient narrator tells readers is that the maid has entered the “main lower hallway,” calling the names of the family members, apparently trying to get them to assemble.

Previously, however, readers have learned that Mrs. Benton objects to and discourages shouting, afraid that it could attract the attention of “fiends” (17). Alice thinks, as, in their panic, the others begin to scream, “I hear . . . . We all hear. And he'll hear . . . too” (22). Using their intercommunication phone service, Alice tells Mrs. Benton, “Quiet, he'll hear you” (23). Later, she is more direct: “Mother, shut up” (24). After her mother's death, Alice thinks, “If only she hadn't yelled. . . . If only she hadn't showed him the way” (24). Alice is downstairs, as is the maid. Could Alice have shot the maid to silence her and protect herself and her family?

As we've seen, there are at least four possibilities for interpreting Bradbury's story. So, what does happen in “The Island”?

Does an intruder actually enter the house and kill its occupants?

Does the maid fake her own death and then execute the members of the family, except Alice, who escapes?

Does Alice kill everyone else, the maid included, before she “escapes” an imaginary killer?

Do the family members kill themselves, while Alice kills the maid?

Thanks to Bradbury's indirect style, the possibilities multiply. While some may seem less likely than others, each is apt to have its own subscribers. 

Among the other stories in The Cat's Pajamas that I found particularly interesting are “Ole, Orozco! Siqueiros, Si!” and “The Completist,” each of which will be murdered and dissected in future Chillers and Thrillers posts.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Doppelgänger Plots: Double Your Horror, Double Your Thrills

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood . . . . 
—Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Each choice that we make shapes us. Every alternative choice is an opportunity to take one path or another. Every decision is a sculpting of the hands over the present and future direction of our lives. We graft and prune and weed with each action we take. Yes, I have mixed my metaphors; life is too complex for a single trope, as are the many moments that demand we shape our lives, our selves, our beings.

Tweedledee and Tweedledum
 Click the image to enlarge it.
Sometimes, horror fiction allows readers to read about (or, in the case of horror as it is depicted in theater, television, and cinema, viewers) to “see” not only the culmination of the results of the decisions and actions that a character has made, but also those of the decisions and actions that he or she could have made, revealing not only the actual character, but also an alternative character—or even alternative characters—that the one could have become, were he or she to have made other choices and taken other actions than those he or she chose or took.

 Fiction that offers multiple potential versions of the same character is existential, suggesting that, as Jean-Paul Sartre declares, “existence precedes essence”; we are, or become, what we do. However, fiction of this sort, not the least of which, has often used mythical and psychoanalytical (some would say these are redundant terms) models to present the fictitious doubles, or doppelgängers by which such multiplicities of possibility are exhibited.

Perhaps one of the most familiar examples of the double, or doppelgänger, is Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The title of the novel suggests that there are two characters, but, there is only one: the good Dr. Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde are one and the same character.

  Oscar Wilde also explores the possibilities of alternative pathways; the protagonist of his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray sells his soul to the devil so that he may remain young and beautiful while his portrait ages and takes on ever more hideous and deformed aspects each time Dorian sins.

 In a short story, “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” Shirley Jackson's doppelgänger takes the form of a married couple who take turns aiding and afflicting strangers, the husband acting with charity toward all, while his wife acts with malice to everyone; later, they switch roles.

Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film
According to John Fawell, author of Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film, Alfred Hitchcock employs the doppelgänger with a vengeance in Rear Window.

  A fan of such writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Heinrich Heine. Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Guy de Maupassant, and Alfred de Masset, all of whom used the device of the double, Hitchcock also frequently uses “doubles . . . as the basis for his stories” (73). The double, Fawell says, is used in Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and other films, including, of course, Rear Window.

Indeed, Fawell suspects “perhaps no other Hitchcock film has as many doubles in it as Rear Window, creating the effect that the neighbors of the voyeuristic photographer, protagonist L. B. Jefferies, who is laid up in his apartment with a broken leg, are merely images of himself, rather like the figures in one's dream (76): 

The windows [in the apartments through which, using his camera's telephoto lens, he secretly spies] can be seen either as a visualization of Jeff's dream or unconscious world as paraliterary devices, means of reflection and therapy for Jeff . . . . For [critic Robin] Woods, the windows “all in some way reflect his own problems,” whereas, for Hitchcock's biographer, Donald Spoto, “each of the spied-upon neighbors offers . . . a facet of his present psychic life or possibility of the future” (77).

Hitchcock makes his audience aware of Jefferies's thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and judgments concerning the things he sees his neighbors do. In fact, Jefferies nicknames some of them for the trait of each that stands out to him: Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Composer, The Newlyweds. His thoughts about them are his thoughts, so his views of his neighbors allow viewers to “see” the real Jefferies who resides behind the persona of the adventurous, rather arrogant photographer.

 His view of them, is his view of himself. Thus, the ideas and emotions he projects on them represent the different persons he himself might have been, had he made different choices and performed different actions than those he did. Perhaps impotent, perhaps homosexual or asexual, Jefferies wants to get rid of his girlfriend Lisa, a beautiful model; Lars Thorwald, his neighbor, does just this, when he murders, cuts up, and hauls away his nagging wife.

 There are many other similarities, too, between Jefferies, the voyeur, and the neighbors he spies upon. For example, as Fawell points out, “just as Miss Lonelyhearts made dinner for a man who literally was not there while Lisa made dinner for a man (Jeff) who metaphorically was not there, so Miss Torso literally waits for a man to return just as Lisa waits metaphorically for Jeff to return to her” (103).
Throughout several seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon and his stable of writers provided fans of the series with an extended sequence in which Buffy is flanked by two other characters who seem to represent possible alter egos for her: Kendra and Faith. In this context, these young women can be viewed as either mythical or psychoanalytic terms:

Socratic Soul
Mythical Model
Freudian Self
Psychoanalytic Model

Beset from both directions, by the demands of Kendra, representing Buffy's Apollonian tendencies (or the demands of her superego) and by those of Faith, embodying Buffy's own Dionysian impulses (or the demands of Buffy's own id), Buffy, as the Socratic Soul (or the Freudian Self), must decide in which direction to go (that is, which impulse or demand to follow). From both Kendra-Apollo-Superego and Faith-Dionysus-Id, Buffy-Socratic Soul-Self acquires strengths and weaknesses, enriching and complexifying her own character.

 She also learns the benefits and the dangers of both extremes, that of the Apollonian (or superego) and that of the Dionysian (or id). Kendra tells Buffy that Buffy that whatever is specified in The Watcher's Handbook must be done—that is, Kendra goes strictly by the book, obeying authority without thought or challenge. Faith, on the other hand, follows her own precepts; when it comes to sex, she says she “get[s] some, [and] get[s] gone.” Likewise, when Faith sees something in a shop window that she likes, she doesn't buy the item; she steals it: “want, take, have” is the credo that guides her actions.

 Kendra's sense of duty and her unquestioning obedience gets her killed; Faith's amoral lawlessness almost gets both Buffy and herself killed. At the end of the series, however, Buffy and Faith survive the Hellmouth; Kendra does not survive even the attack of the vampire Drusilla.

Ultimately, Whedon's series suggests that, although both the superego and the id are valuable to a warrior, over-reliance on the Apollonian (basically, reason) or the demands of the superego (essentially, one's conscience) could get a fighter killed, whereas over-reliance on the Dionysian (basically, instinct) or the demands of the id (again, essentially instinct) although potentially dangerous, might save a slayer.

 When the chips are down, Whedon suggests, go with the gut, not the head—certainly a debatable point.

 Whether the topic of concern to a writer is morality, one's unconscious perceptions of reality, or survival, the use of the double, or doppelgänger is a proven, time-honored device by which writers of any genre, including horror and the thriller, can investigate the perils, strengths, flaws, benefits, and disadvantages of extremes, Apollonian and Dionysian, psychoanalytic, or otherwise.

Saturday, September 7, 2019


Check out my exciting new blog: Wild West Telegraph. (Subscribe to my FREE monthly Wild West Telegraph and get a FREE e-book, Bane Messenger, Bounty Hunter. (See the Wild West Telegraph blog for the subscription form or click here.)

Meanwhile, these great novels are available, as e-books or paperbacks, on Amazon!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Scientist Turned Ghostbuster (and Vampirebuster)

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Are you afraid of vampires?

Do you sleep with a cross or a crucifix around your neck?

Does your house (and your breath) smell like garlic?

Do you keep a bottle of holy water on hand?

Are you careful to be home by dark every day?

Could an unsuspecting guest stumble upon a few wooden stakes and a mallet stashed in your dresser?

If so, you need not fear bloodsucking dead people any longer!

A scientist has come to the rescue with a mathematical proof against the possibility of the existence of vampires!

University of Central Florida physics professor Costas Efthimiou starts with the human population on January 1, 1600, which was 536,870,911. On this day, the first vampire appears and bites one person each month. On the first day of February, there are two bloodsucking freaks. On March 1, 1600, there are four vampires. In 2.5 years, there are no more humans to feed on, because everyone on the planet has been turned into a vampire! There's no food left for the bloodsuckers, so they die of starvation. (On the downside, there are no more people, either.)

Not even doubling the human birthrate (if such a gambit were possible) could save the human species, Dr. Efthimiou says: “In the long run, humans cannot survive under these conditions, even if our population were doubling each month. And doubling is clearly way beyond the human capacity of reproduction.”

So, there you have it, thanks to Professor Efthimiou: there's no need to fear the existence of vampires. If there were, both vampires and humans would have disappeared in mid-1603. Since we humans, at least, are still here, there obviously are no such things as vampires.

For some folks, ghosts are scary phenomena, too, but there's no need to worry about these spectral beings, either, another scientist says.

Dr. Brian Cox, a physicist, has proved there aren't any ghosts, either. If they did exist, they'd be entities of pure energy, since, by definition, they're incorporeal. According to the second law of thermodynamics, energy is always “lost to heat”; therefore, ghosts, as beings of pure energy, would soon drift apart and cease to exist. 

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.

Popular Posts