Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Not-So-Gentle Sex

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

Horace Walpole

Although Horace Walpole's 1764 novel of mistaken identities, The Castle of Otranto, is the first work of Gothic horror, women writers popularized the new genre.

Ann Radcliffe

Uncanny rather than marvelous, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1874) focuses on the attempt by her uncle to marry of the orphaned Emily St. Aubert to his friend, Count Morano, in a scheme to divest both his own wife and the count's bride of their property. Radcliffe (1764-1823) influenced several notable male authors, including Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Mary Shelley 

Not only did Mary Shelley (1797-1851) create a horror icon when she penned Frankenstein, or; The Modern Prometheus in 1818, but she may also have kept a part of the body of her late husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as a memento. 

Charlotte Dacre

Charlotte Dacre (pen name of Charlotte Byrne) (c. 1771-1825) shocked the literary world of her day with the publication of her 1806 novel Zofloya; or, the Moor, a feminine version of Matthew Lewis's The Monk. Lewis's novel was regarded as salacious; it included a lusty monk and a cross dresser; Dacre's book, which was full of the adventures of harlots and courtesans, was even more scandalous.

Other volumes, as lascivious as Zofloya, followed, including The Libertine (1807) and The Passions (1811). The former was published under the pseudonym Rosa Matilda, a reference to a women who, seduced by Lewis's monk, became a seductress herself.

To read further about these authors of the not-so-gentle sex, check out the fascinating 2019 tome Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroeger and Melanie R. Anderson.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Chillers and Thrillers: New Publisher Sponsors Fiction Contest!

Chillers and Thrillers: New Publisher Sponsors Fiction Contest!: Coming in February to Campbell and Rogers Press : tales with a twist by Michael Williams. An eclectic collection of flash fiction, th...

The Tzvetan Todorov Plot

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

In The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Dr. Tzvetan Todorov differentiates between fiction that is fantastic, uncanny, or marvelous.

A story is fantastic, he says, if it cannot be resolved as either uncanny or marvelous. For example, at the end of Henry James's novel The Turn of the Screw (1898), it remains unclear whether the ghosts are real or simply products of the governess's hallucinations.

A story is uncanny if its seemingly fantastic incidents can be explained rationally or scientifically. According to this understanding, H. G. Wells's short story “The Red Room” (1894) is uncanny: the ghost that allegedly haunts the castle in which the protagonist has come to spend the night turns out to be the invention of his imagination, an effect of his fear.

A story is marvelous if its incidents cannot be rationally or scientifically explained. Stephen King's short story “1408” (1999) is marvelous, because the ghosts (or demons) that allegedly haunt the hotel room in which the writer spends the night are, in fact, truly supernatural.

Whether intentionally or not, Todorov offers a formula for plotting fantastic, uncanny, or marvelous fiction. It sounds complicated, but it's actually fairly simple. This is how it works:
  1. Develop a single situation that can be understood in either natural and or terms or that can be interpreted by reference to the supernatural or faith.
  2. During the course of the story, indicate that the situation may be supernatural.
  3. Show that the situation actually is supernatural or natural in origin of character or that the situation cannot be resolved in either way.
Fiction provides many models of this approach. Here are a few:

Uncanny:“The Damned Thing” (short story) (1893) by Ambrose Bierce; “The Premature Burial” (short story) by Edgar Allan Poe (1844); A Tough Tussle” (short story) by Ambrose Bierce (1888)

 Marvelous: The Exorcist (novel) (1971) by William Peter Blatty; The Sixth Sense (movie) (1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan; “Dracula's Guest” (short story) (1914) by Bram Stoker

Fantastic: The Exorcism of Emily Rose (movie) (2005) directed by Scott Derrickson;“The Birds” (short story) (1955) by Daphne du Maurier; Let's Scare Jessica to Death (movie) (1971) directed by John Hancock

By analyzing these stories and others that use the Tzvetan Todorov plot, we can see what specific techniques their writers use to create and sustain the ambiguity that results from the tension between the two opposite interpretations of the stories' incidents, that of the natural and that of the supernatural.

Uncanny: In writing “The Red Room,” Wells withholds the actual (natural) cause of the allegedly supernatural incident (the ghost's haunting of the red room) that the protagonist investigates. By doing so, Wells allows the extinguishing of the candles and the fire in the room's fireplace to seem to be the work of the ghost. His panic causes him to run through the chamber in the dark, seeking escape, which results in his knocking himself unconscious when he collides with a piece of furniture. It is only upon awakening that he realizes that the red room was haunted only by his own fear-fueled imagination.

Marvelous: In The Exorcist, Regan MacNeil's strange behavior causes her mother Chris to seek both medical and psychiatric help for Regan after Chris cannot rationally account for Regan's behavior. Both sciences fail to help Regan, who becomes worse. To help Regan, Chris eventually turns to a priest, Father Damien Karras, despite her own atheism. Through exorcism, at the cost of his own life, Father Karras rids Regan of the demon that possesses her. By postponing the revelation that Regan's apparent demonic possession is, in fact, genuine, Blatty creates and sustains ambiguity as to whether the possession is apparent (the result of a physiological or mental disorder) or real.

Withholding the cause of the seemingly fantastic, as Wells does in “The Red Room,” or showing the failure of both reason and science to account for a seemingly supernatural incident before revealing that the incident actually is fantastic, as Blatty does, introduces the possibility of the fantastic while establishing it as subject to natural or rational interpretation or as genuinely marvelous. 

Other techniques that writers using what is here referred to as the Tzvetan Todorov plot include:
  • Swinging back and forth between the natural or scientific explanation of an incident that only at first appears to be marvelous and never explaining the incident's inexplicable mystery (i. e., implying its truly marvelous character).
  • Explaining, eventually, that the apparently fantastic incident is the result of a trick; it is a hoax, a prank, or a publicity stunt.
  • Explaining, eventually, that the apparently fantastic incident is the enactment of a rite or ritual performed by people who genuinely believe that the act is supernatural.
  • Confusing one state of affairs (e. g., a cataleptic trance) with another state of affairs (e. g., death).

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

New Publisher Sponsors Fiction Contest!

Coming in February to Campbell and Rogers Press: tales with a twist by Michael Williams.
An eclectic collection of flash fiction, this volume of over thirty stories (all under 1,200 words) includes action-adventure stories, fantasy fiction, tales of horror, humorous stories, science fiction narratives, and even a Western!

Among other dark-chocolate treats, the publisher promises readers these unusual delights:

. . . a comedian's encounters with “small assassins,” a divorced husband's regrets about feeding his ex's cat, drone technology's new windows of opportunity for theft and ransom, a woman who takes it upon herself to kindly put “losers” out of their “misery,” and a mobster's son who learns too late what honor means among thieves.

For readers who are also writers, Campbell and Rogers Press will soon sponsor a flash fiction contest. Check their website for additional details!

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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