Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe on Writing Short Stories That Sell

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


Edgar Allan Poe described the nature of the fare in which readers of such publications as The Southern Literary Messenger and Blackwood's were interested:

The ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought into the strange and mystical. . . . To be appreciated, you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity.

Unfortunately, he does not offer his own definitions of the terms he uses, implying, perhaps, that he has their standard dictionary definitions in mind, but his explanation suggests the common feature, in each pairing,” whether of “ludicrous” and “burlesque” or “singular” and “strange” and “mystical,” is exaggeration: the ludicrous must be “heightened” to become grotesque; the fearful must be “coloured into the horrible”; the witty must be “exaggerated” before it is burlesque, and the extraordinary must be “wrought” to become weird ad mysterious. It is this sort of exaggeration, these sorts of extreme, that, Poe found, interests and attracts readers. Poe's stories and essays themselves show how he accomplishes these exaggerations.

His tongue-in-cheek essay, “How to Write a Blackwood's Article,” in particular, explains the process of writing sensational fiction, if one reads between the lines, for, it is, after all, both a process analysis essay and a parody of the typical Blackwood's Magazine fare, and his “Loss of Breath: A Tale a la Blackwood's,” parodies the typical Blackwood's story itself, and is, therefore, also instructive in revealing the technique of sensationalizing incidents through exaggeration, its own parodic nature notwithstanding.

Published from 1817 to 1980, this British periodical was originally known as the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine.


In “How to Write a Blackwood's Article,” once Poe gets down to specifics, he has his caricature of the magazine's founder, Mr. William Blackwood himself, tell Signora Psyche Zenobia, who has come to interview him on behalf of an organization of which she is a member, exactly what comprises the typical Blackwwod's fare and how it is produced. First, each story is based upon an improbable, or, often, indeed, an impossible incident. He offers a few examples of such incidents:

There was 'The Dead Alive,' a capital thing!—the record of a gentleman's sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body . . . . Then we had the 'Confessions of an Opium-eater'— . . . plenty of fire and fury' . . . . “Then there was 'The Involuntary Experimentalist,' all about a gentleman who got baked in an oven, and came out alive and well . . . . And then there was 'The Man in the Bell' . . . . It is the history of a young person who goes to sleep under the clapper of a church bell, and is awakened by its tolling for a funeral. The sound drives him mad, and, accordingly, pulling out his tablets, he gives a record of his sensations.”

Second, a Blackwood's tale requires vivid descriptions of emotion, or “sensation.” “Sensations are the great things after all,” Mr. Blackwood tells Zenobia. “Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations—they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet. If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia, pay minute attention to the sensations.”

The typical Blackwood's article also delves into the supernatural, the paranormal, the mystical, or the spiritualistic, using the type of cant that Poe, in his poem “The Raven,” characterizes as the sort of “forgotten lore” that fills “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” There is, in such stories, a patina of the esoteric, the occult, the mysterious, and there are references to lost or little-known sources, such as confessions, diaries, historical accounts of past events, all set forth with “erudition.” Indeed, if the sources are unintelligible, so much the better—as long as they sound learned. These sources may be mentioned by the characters in the stories or in an epigram at the head of the story. (In Poe's article, he chooses the latter method, quoting the cry of a Turkish fig peddlar: “"In the name of the Prophet—figs!”)

The Blackwood's writer is careful to choose a tone appropriate to his other story, Mr. Blackwood tells Zenobia, as he identifies various choices:

“There is the tone didactic, the tone enthusiastic, the tone natural--all common-place enough. But then there is the tone laconic, or curt, which has lately come much into use. It consists in short sentences. Somehow thus: Can't be too brief. Can't be too snappish. Always a full stop. And never a paragraph.

Then there is the tone elevated, diffusive, and interjectional. Some of our best novelists patronize this tone. The words must be all in a whirl, like a humming-top, and make a noise very similar, which answers remarkably well instead of meaning. This is the best of all possible styles where the writer is in too great a hurry to think.

“The tone metaphysical is also a good one. If you know any big words this is your chance for them. . . . I shall mention only two more—the tone transcendental and the tone heterogeneous. In the former the merit consists in seeing into the nature of affairs a very great deal farther than anybody else. . . . Above all, study innuendo. Hint everything—assert nothing.

“. . . As for the tone heterogeneous, it is merely a judicious mixture, in equal proportions, of all the other tones in the world, and is consequently made up of every thing deep, great, odd, piquant, pertinent, and pretty.”

According to Mr. Blackwood, writers of the type of fiction that appears in his magazine—sensational fiction—must sprinkle trivia that has an air of erudition throughout the story, introducing little-known facts as if they are the results of research or personal acquaintance with the scholars who provided the expert tidbits of knowledge. It is acceptable, or even desirable, to present the information in a foreign tongue that is then translated into English (or not). As an example, he offers a line in German, from the philosopher Schiller:


'Und sterb'ich doch, so sterb'ich denn
Durch sie--durch sie!'

Translated into English, the line reads, “'And if I die, at least I die for thee—for thee!” French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Latin offer other usable quotations that will give the story a sense of erudition.

The occasion that inspired the Blackwood story might be mundane, but if it is presented according to the principles, using the elements he has identified, Mr. Blackwood implies, it will be properly exaggerated to the point that it is worthy of inclusion in his magazine:

It is just possible that you may not be able, so soon as convenient, to—to get yourself drowned, or choked with a chicken-bone, or—or hung, or bitten by a—but stay! Now I think me of it, there are a couple of very excellent bull-dogs in the yard—fine fellows, I assure you—savage, and all that—indeed just the thing for your money—they'll have you eaten up, auriculas and all, in less than five minutes (here's my watch!)—and then only think of the sensations!”

In short, it will fit the Blackwood's formula.

In “Loss of Breath: A Tale a la Blackwood's,” Poe furnishes a short story that, parodying those which typically appear in Blackwood's Magazine, also exemplify the principles and techniques he has outlined in “How to Write a Blackwood's Article” as forming the formula for such sensational stories.

For aspiring writers who would like to see a story in the genre itself, rather than a parody, they need seek no further than Poe's work itself, for, according to Paul Collins, the author of the critical study Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, assures us that Poe's short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” constitutes “a Blackwood's story to top all Blackwood's stories”: Poe could mock sensational “predicament” stories . . . . but he also knew they sold readily, and he had a magnificent one in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Monday, May 21, 2018

Breasts as Emblems of Horror

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


Bare breasts are big in horror movies, which begs the question: what's so horrific about mammary glands? 

Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) devotes several pages to listing “Most Popular 'female-frontal-nudity,' Horror Feature Films.” There are a lot of them on the list: 665, in fact, to date. Perhaps these films may indicate why filmmakers consider women's breasts terrifying enough to feature prominently in the movies they make, if the exhibition of breasts is not merely gratuitous—in other words, presented only to sell tickets.

In The Shining, Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer who is earning money by taking care of a vast hotel that's closed for the off-season, sees a naked succubus. The female sex demon appears to be a beautiful young woman, but she soon reveals her true self, taking on her actual appearance as a withered old crone. Is Jack hallucinating, or has the succubus actually transformed, shedding her youth and beauty? Does her change in appearance have a psychological or a supernatural cause? In the words of Tzvetan Todorov, is she, respectively, a specimen of the uncanny or the marvelous?

In a sense, the succubus embodies the crux of the matter investigated by Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Stephen King's novel. The producer believed in the possibility of the survival of death. His succubus suggests this state of existence in the presence of the sex demon. However, Kubrick leaves room for a psychological explanation of the female sex demon: maybe Jack is psychotic and she's merely an hallucination. Since the succubus can be understood in either natural or supernatural terms, depending on one's world view, her presence in the film is not gratuitous, but symbolic and thematic.

But what about her nudity? Must she be naked? Again, the answer to this question will be determined by the individual viewer's view of the nature of ultimate reality. If she is regarded as being of a supernatural origin, her nudity is not gratuitous, for it accords with the legend of the succubus, a female sex demon who invariably appears in the altogether as a temptress intent upon collecting human semen. Once successful, according to some stories, she assumes the form of a male sex demon, the incubus, appearing to women, usually during their sleep, to seduce and inseminate them—with the demon (or female sex demon) collected from human males in his (or her) previous incarnations as a succubus. (Demon sex is more complicated than we might have imagined.)

If she is a succubus, though, it is difficult to imagine why she gives herself away by transforming her appearance as a beautiful young woman into a shape that's not merely undesirable, but repulsive. As a succubus, she would be intent upon collecting Jack's seed in order to inseminate a woman. Assuming the appearance of someone who's undesirable doesn't help her to achieve her goals.

Perhaps, then, the succubus isn't a sex female demon, after all, except in Jack's own tormented mind. She is his version of a succubus, a demonic Galatea fashioned in his own image of a desirable woman. As such, she is far from the reality of womanhood embodied by his wife, Wendy, who is portrayed by Shelley Duvall, the same actress who played Olive Oyl opposite Robin Williams's Popeye. Wendy is not undesirable as a woman—Jack married her and fathered a son by her, after all—but, in Jack's twisted mind, if the succubus is a hallucination, Wendy (and all women) becomes so: her transformation isn't real, but a projection of Jack's own thoughts about women, Wendy, perhaps, in particular. Seductive one moment, women can transform themselves (or be transformed by Jack's fears of women) into repulsive monsters—or female sex demon—the next instant. Woman, Jack's ambiguous thoughts about the opposite sex seem to suggest, thy name is mutability.


The scene in which the succubus makes her appearance suggests Jack's ambiguity concerning women, female nudity, and sex. His hand appears from the left, as he slowly opens a bathroom door. The slowness with which Jack opens the door highlights the moment, dramatizing the revelation that is now at hand. This slow movement, like the lighting during the first half of the scene, gives an ethereal quality to the picture, emphasizing the ideal way in which Jack views the nubile young woman.

As the door opens, Jack sees a bathtub and a half-drawn shower curtain. The tub occupies an arched niche at the rear of the bathroom, which, with the shower curtain, gives the alcove the appearance of being a theater, if not, indeed, an altar. Jack has entered a forbidden (or sacred) zone, symbolized by the closed, if not locked, door. He is about to see something half-hidden from his consciousness, as the half-drawn shower curtain suggests. His staring eyes and a close-up shot of his throat as he gulps, his Adam's apple rising and falling, shows his anxiety. The half-drawn shower curtain opens, as a beautiful young nude woman draws it aside. She is wet (with Freudian significance and otherwise), as her breasts are revealed. Again, the slowness with which the curtain is drawn aside focuses viewers on the revelatory aspect of the moment.


Jack's expression changes from one of anxiety to one of enchanted. He smiles, Slowly, the woman rises. Jack's look of enchantment. changes to one of lust, as his gaze intensifies, Slowly, the woman steps out of the tub, one long leg advancing, the other, just as slowly, following. Jack's gaze is riveted. His smile broadens. The seductive woman advances, her gait slow, measured, as if she is walking in tandem with the wedding march. Her gaze is locked on Jack. Returning her stare, he seems transfixed, but then he walks, slowly, to meet her, as the camera turns slightly to view her from a three-quarters angle. Her breasts and pubes seem to fill the screen, as they do Jack's consciousness.


As they face one another, staring into one another's eyes, the woman's fingertips make contact with Jack's abdomen, gliding upward, across his chest. Her movement, as has been typical throughout the scene, is slow and deliberate. Her hands continue to glide, over Jack's shoulders and around his neck. He has not moved, but stands as if he were a statue. Then, he responds, encircling her waist with his hand. She turns this way and that, offering viewers a glimpse of her buttocks, before she kisses Jack, who now fully embraces her. Jack's eyes close. Theirs is a long kiss, an extended kiss, a passionate kiss.


Jack opens his eyes. They widen, as he sees something over her shoulder. The camera shares his view, in a mirror on the wall behind him: the body of the woman he holds in his arms, as revealed in the looking-glass, is scarred. Her upper left arm, her lower back, and her right buttock are marred by massive discolorations and hideous blemishes. Astonished and horrified, Jack begins to back away from the transformed woman.

For a moment, his shaken son Danny's discovery of a dead older woman, lying, partially submerged in the bathtub, scabrous discolorations and blotches on her body, is interspersed.

Jack continues to retreat, his head shaking, just as Danny's head shook when he saw the drowned, older woman's corpse. As he backs through the doorway, the portal of revelation, the hideous crone follows, her arms parted, as if to embrace Jack.

The scene is interrupted again by Danny's sight of the drowned woman, lying, partially submerged in the bathtub, her body displaying terrible scars and bruises.

Jack retreats down the steps, into the suite's living room, followed by the succubus.

Danny trembles, uncontrollably, as the dead woman's body sits up.

Outside the suite, Jack locks the door to the rooms, leaving the key in the lock, as he staggers backwards, down the hall, away from the rooms,leaving the scene of the revelation behind.

It seems apparent that the nude woman whom Jack encountered is the same one Danny encountered, but Jack saw the woman in her beautiful and desirable guise, whereas Danny saw her as an apparition of a drowned, older woman. For Jack, the woman was a female demon; for Danny, a ghost. Danny is too young to conceptualize women sexually; Jack is not. Therein lies the differences in their conscious understanding and their unconscious depictions of the opposite sex. Danny can see a woman in her physical aspect as a body which, despite the presence of breasts and genitalia, is primarily, or even exclusively, merely anatomical. Jack can see a woman as both physical and sexual, and it is to the latter image that he is anxious, while, at the same time, himself sexually responsive.

Essentially, Danny is frightened of death, a it is represented by the female corpse he encounters, whereas Jack is terrified of something other than death. Jack is horrified by female sexuality itself, which is alive with beauty and sex appeal, but, at the same time, diseased and repulsive because capable of transforming in various ways. A woman can become pregnant, deliver a baby, suckle an infant, and age. She seems to be in transition, as she undergoes transformations throughout her life. She is manifold in function and in appearance, seemingly unstable and mutable—in a word, from Jack's point of view, monstrous and demonic.

His encounter with the beautiful nude young woman shows Jack's feelings about women as desirable, but his attraction to them, as they are represented in particular by his wife Wendy, is contradicted by his revulsion of them. He seems to think that, beneath their apparent glamour, they are diseased and hideous.

The sexist dichotomy of women which separates them into virtuous and charming companions versus untrustworthy sluts is alive and well in Jack's subconscious mind. In the hotel, whether through supernatural or psychological influences, this unconscious view of women become conscious, at least until the locks the succubus in the hotel suite (his unconscious mind) by repressing the knowledge, which he finds too threatening to embrace, or accept. Therefore, his view of women, and of Wendy in particular, remains dualistic. At the same time, he sees them as beautiful and desirable, seductive temptresses and as hideous and unwelcome, destructive female sex demons.

In The Shining, as symbols of femininity, of female sexuality, of pregnancy, and of motherhood, breasts, as synecdoches of womanhood, are horrific for Jack because he is unable to come to terms with women as they are in themselves. Women are too complex for him, too changeable, too mysterious, too other. He can conceive of them only as beautiful seductresses or as monstrous female sex demons. Despite his marriage to Wendy, he is unable to view women, including his wife, as they are in and of themselves, as human beings, complex and, yes, in the final analysis, mysterious, as all life is ultimately mysterious.

For viewers, watching the movie through more objective eyes, Jack's behavior, stemming, as it does from his beliefs, is insane. However, from his own point of view, his delusions and hallucinations are real. From his perspective, he sees things as they are. When he acts upon his own understanding of reality, horror results. It is this horror, resulting from his monstrous ideas of women, his wife included, that the true horror of Kubrick's film arises.


Of course, plenty of other horror movies feature breasts as symbols of the particular horrors with which they are concerned. While such horror, in general, centers upon women, who sport these accouterments of femininity, the precise sorts of horror that breasts, as synecdoches of the physicality and sexuality of women, represent for other characters, in other movies, differ, because every man—and some women—are Pygmalions who fashion their ideas of women into psychological and, sometimes theological, representations of women. When those concepts of womanhood are irrational, horror can, and, unfortunately, often does, result. Future essays will consider the additional ways in which, in such movies, breasts are emblems of horror.

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All her life, Raven Westbrook has been looking for love. After enduring the emotional abuse of her family and the physical abuse of her lovers, she joins The Black Cauldron. Under the coven's powerful high priestess, Abigail Sheen, Raven becomes an accomplished witch. Unfortunately, this new future doesn't turn out as Raven intended. To stop a mad quest for ultimate power, Lloyd Edwards, a top government agent, joins forces with Raven, and they gather a troop of angels to take on an impending demon horde. They need only one more thing: a woman of renewed faith. With time running out, can Lloyd, as a man of renewed faith, convince Raven there's reason to trust in the goodness of life? Can she find the faith and the love she lost, the way he did, by overcoming the pain she's suffered in her own world full of hurt? Their lives, and the fate of the world, depend on them. If only he can reach her, and if only she can trust him, they may have a chance, yet, to save the world.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Page and Stage


Writers who want to incorporate cinematic techniques into their fiction need, first, to translate the latter into their literary equivalents. I use the word “equivalents” loosely, of course, as there is not precise equivalence between the techniques of the soundstage and the page.

So, what are these “equivalents”?

The camera = description. Everything the camera “sees” can be communicated, in writing, only by way of description. The camera has the advantage of showing everything at once, if it chooses, or of focusing exclusively, and in minute detail, on only one person or object, close up, leaving it to the viewer to perceive that which is displayed and to sort for him- or herself those people (actors) or objects included in the scene upon whom or which he or she chooses to concentrate attention. Of course, through a variety of other techniques—camera angle, intensity, contrast, special effects, and so forth—the director, the cinematographer, and others involved in shooting the scene—can direct the viewer's attention and direct the audience's focus, but, ultimately, it is up to those who watch the movie to see what they will. novelists have a different advantage. Unlike filmmakers, they can appeal to the senses of touch, smell, and taste, as well s to the two senses available for moviemakers' exploitation—sight and hearing. Literary authors can also take their readers inside the minds of their characters, describing their thoughts and feelings about the sights, sounds, tactile sensations, tastes, and sounds they experience during a scene. (A word of caution: novelists should be careful not to overuse description. Unless a picture, or word-picture, is central to a scene or some other narrative element, such as theme, it should be spare, rather than florid. Because filming a movie is enormously expensive, screenwriters have learned to make every image and word count, and most directors plan every second of the filming of each scene. Economy is the filmmaker's watchword, as it should be that of the novelist. As Mark Twain advised, writers should be careful to “eschew surplusage.”)

The camera = point of view. In film, the movie is shown from the camera's point of view, whether the perspective is that of an omniscient, a first-person, or a limited third-person “narrator.” In literary fiction, the point of view can be more complex and experimental and can more easily involve the shifting or alternating perspectives of two or more characters.

Actor = character. It's only partly true that the actor = the literary character, because the screenwriter also creates the movie character. The writer puts the words into the characters' mouths, and, through such dialogue, the character's personality becomes apparent, as does his or her attitude, emotions, values, principles, beliefs, and so forth. By interpreting and projecting these words on the page, actors bring these qualities to life on the screen, making these intangibles tangible.

Audio bridge = transition. In cinema, there are more techniques to indicate a transition from one time to another or from one place to another than there in literary fiction. In the latter, space breaks on thee page or a phrase, or a sentence is all a writer can use to indicate such a shift in time or place. Filmmakers, on the other hand, can use an audio bridge, defined, in Filmsite's “Film Terms Glossary,” as “an outgoing sound (either dialogue or sound effects) in one scene that continues over into a new image or shot [that] connects the two shots or scenes.” As an example of an audio bridge, the Filmsite's article cites Apocalypse Now's use of “the sound of helicopter blades are linked to the next scene of the spinning blades of an overhead fan.” Films also use a number of visual transitions to indicate a change in scene, including the “cut, fade, dissolve, and wipe” (“Film terms Glossary”).

Cut – transition. A cut is “an abrupt or sudden change or jump in camera angle, location, placement, or time, from one shot to another” and may be accomplished in numerous ways.

Fade = transition. A fade can also be accomplished in a number of ways:

[A fade is] a transitional device consisting of a gradual change in the intensity of an image or sound, such as from a normally-lit scene to darkness (fade out, fade-to-black) or vice versa, from complete black to full exposure (fade in), or from silence to sound or vice versa; a 'fade in' is often at the beginning of a sequence, and a 'fade out' at the end of a sequence; a cross-fade means fading out from one scene and into another (often with a slight dissolve or interruption) (“Film Terms Glossary).

Dissolve = transition. A dissolve is “the visible image of one shot or scene is gradually replaced, superimposed or blended (by an overlapping fade out or fade in and dissolve) with the image from another shot or scene.” For example, in Metropolis, this technique “dissolves that transform the face of the heroine Maria into the face of an evil robot.” (“Film Terms Glossary”).

Wipe = transition. A wipe occurs when “one shot appears to be "pushed off" or "wiped off" the screen by another shot replacing it and moving across the existing image.”

There are other film techniques that correspond, roughly, with literary techniques, which is not surprising, since filmmakers, limited to sight and sound, have had to devise ways, using these two methods of storytelling to communicate what novelists accomplish through linguistic means. Now that the stage has largely replaced the page as the storytelling medium of choice for the general public, at least, novelists, in telling their tales, might want to adopt, as far as possible, some of the techniques their cinematographic friends have developed. That mean, first of all, thinking in terms of showing, rather than telling. Thinking as a screenwriter, rather than as a novelist, should facilitate this objective. Again, there is no precise match between the techniques of filmmaking and those of writing novels, but these media's approaches to storytelling are close enough to allow an approximation on the part of the novelist. For example, a novelist cannot use an audio bridge (unless, perhaps, in an audiobook). However, he or she can simulate the use of this technique. Here's an example, using the audio bridge in Apocalypse Now (mentioned above):

The helicopter's whirling rotors were louder and much faster than the leisurely turning blades of the softly humming ceiling fan.

By using sights and sound to appeal the senses of vision and hearing, this transitional sentence imitates an audio bridge, indicating a shift in time and place, as the story's scene changes.

Similar approaches can be taken to suggest many of the other cinematographic techniques motion picture crews use to tell—or show—their stories.

Novelists who want to emulate screenwriters should familiarize themselves with the terms associated with moviemaking and adapt them to the process of writing novels to develop their own set of similar approaches to storytelling. Filmsite's “Film Terms Glossary” is a good resource for this purpose. Novelists who seek cinematographers' techniques for characterization, plot development, story structure, narration, setting, and theme and then, with these (and some actual examples from films) in mind, devise their own similar approaches, are likely to write “cinematographic” novels, which show more than tell. General audiences everywhere will thank them.

Note: Read “The Exorcist: A Marriage of Spirit and Matter in the Style of William Peter Blatty,” my post about William Peter Blatty's use of in his novel The Exorcist for a sense of how a novelist (who was also a screenwriter) uses cinematographic techniques to write a compelling “cinematographic” novel. Novelists can also learn to write this hybrid type of story by reading novels by other screenwriters. Stephen J. Cannel's book, The Prostitutes' Ball, is not only a novel, but, in a sense, a how-to book about writing screenplays and novels!


Monday, May 14, 2018

Poe's Influence on H. G. Wells

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman



Although H. G. Wells claimed that the only standard for judging the value of a short story is whether it has readers, he also suggests, by way of his literary mentor, Edgar Allan Poe, that a few additional criteria may be used to assess the quality of such a work of fiction. He learned from Poe that a short story exists to create a “single effect.”

Whereas Poe wrote, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” that a writer, after “having deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents . . . combines such incidents, and discusses them in such a tone as may serve him best in establishing this preconceived effect,” Wells wrote, in “The Contemporary Novel,” “a short story is, or should be, a simple thing; it aims at producing one single, vivid effect; it has to seize the attention at the outset, and never relaxing, gather it together more and more until the climax is reached.”

According to J. R. Hammond, having learned this lesson from Poe, Wells “adhered to” it “throughout his long career as a practitioner of the short story” (20).

Based on Wells' own statements, then, it seems that a short story, which he suggests can be read in less than an hour, should be judged on the bases that it:

  1. Produces an effect that is both “single” and “vivid”;
  2. Seizes the reader's “attention at the outset”;
  3. Heightens the reader's attention as the story progresses;
  4. Attains a “climax”;
  5. Can be read in an hour or less; and
  6. Is a work that people want to read.

Hammond elucidates several of Wells' terms. By “effect,” Wells seems to have in mind a narrative outcome that is of a specific sort (“informative, amusing, or terrifying”), “depending on the particular story” and which is also unquestionably real. In other words, the story's effect may be cognitive, diverting, or emotional in nature, relating to epistemology, amusement, or affect (20). Wells' own short stories, Hammond says, are often of a “disturbing quality” (20).

As in Poe's fiction, Wells' short stories are concerned with generating a “single effect”; all incidents of the plot, like the story's tone, are intended to produce what Poe calls “the predetermined effect.” Therefore, of the six elements which Wells suggests are the bases for the criticism of the short story, that of the effect seems paramount.


In writing his stories, Wells developed a formula, or “characteristic devise,” Hammond observes, for depicting the climax of any of his stories: “a moment of revelation or discovery in the life of an otherwise unremarkable individual whose outlook is transformed as a result,” and “the story focuses on the moment of crisis or climax and in doing so sets in motion speculations and doubts in the mind of the reader” concerning what he or she might do in a situation or set of circumstances similar to that of the story's protagonist (20). Due to the abbreviated length of the short story, as compared to the novel, Hammond says, “in place of the leisurely working-out of the plot through character and incident there is a single moment of illumination or decision” (20).

Hammond's elucidations allow the critic, as Wells envisions him or her, to expand on his or her analysis and evaluation of the story's effect, the story's climax, and, possibly, the narrative techniques by which the author motivates people to want to read the story. Therefore, one who is interested in criticizing a short story by Wells should begin by isolating its climax, for this is the “characteristic devise” by which Wells provides the transformational “moment of revelation or discovery in the life of” his “otherwise unremarkable individual.”

Then, if desirable, the critic can contend with the other five elements of what may be called the Wellsian critical approach: the production of an effect that is both “single” and “vivid”; the seizing of the reader's “attention at the outset” of the story; the heightening of the reader's attention as the story progresses; the story's length; and the techniques by which the author motivates people to want to read his or her story. (Part of the heightening of the reader's interest must surely lie in the ironic juxtaposing of the life of the “otherwise unremarkable” protagonist's view of the world “before” the revelation or discovery that shatters his [all of Wells' protagonists are male] complacency and the protagonist's view of the world “after” his complacency has been so shattered.)

Hammond is helpful, once again, in identifying the climax of Wells' short story “A Slip Under the Microscope”: The protagonist, a biology student named Hill, is seeking to “identify a specimen placed on a glass slide under a microscope.” Students are “strictly forbidden to move the slide,” but, as Hill adjusts the instrument, he accidentally slips, moving the slide. No one has seen him do so. Now, he must decide whether to “own up to the fact” or “remain silent.” His actions, Hill says, presents a “grotesque puzzle in ethics” (106).

According to Hammond, the climax of the story should be the vehicle by which Wells presents the “moment of revelation or discovery in the life of” Hill, “an otherwise unremarkable individual whose outlook is transformed as a result.” If the slip hadn't occurred, Hill would have continued in ignorance of the significance of “how easily normal life can be deflected by chance . . . occurrences” (20)

Wells heightens the reader's interest in the outcome of the story by relating Hill's ethical dilemma to a personal situation. Hill resents another student Wedderburn, because Wedderburn, whose parents are wealthy, has both the means and the confidence that Hill himself lacks—and because they are both interested in the same coed classmate. If he does what he believes to be the right thing, he may be expelled and lose any chance to court the coed.

When Hill informs the college's authorities, he is, in fact, expelled. He suspects that Wedderburn, who may also have cheated, chose not to confess; by not telling the truth, Hill's rival remains in school, able to woo the coed student whom they both admire. As Hammond points out, Wells implicitly asks his reader whether any “circumstances” may warrant one's lying by omission. The narrative, in this way, is, in effect, “disturbing,” as most of Wells' short stories are.

Hammond, J. R. H.G. Wells and the Short Story. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1992. Print.

"Backcountry": A Study in the Causes and Consquences of Poor Judgments

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


In Backcountry, in Powassan, Ontario, and Caddy Lake, Manitoba, Alex convinces his girlfriend Jenn to go camping with him in one of Canada's remote provincial parks. She's a lawyer, while he's a landscaper. He believes his expertise as a woodsman will allow him to shine once he's in his element, and he wants to impress her, because he plans to pop the question while they're on their trip. Nothing goes as he'd hoped, and, despite his rudimentary skills as a woodsman—he can pitch a tent, chop wood, start a fire, and read sign—it's soon clear he's in over his head. In fact, once she's forced to fend for herself, Jenn, ironically, proves herself to be more competent than Alex, whose vanity, eagerness to impress Jenn at any cost, and minimal woodcraft, led him to make a series of poor judgments that, if it were not for their catastrophic consequences, might have made the film a comedy. He makes at least a dozen serious errors in judgment:

He refuses a ranger's offer of a park map. He's been to the park so many times, he says, he has no need of a map. As a result, when he later becomes lost, he and Jenn have no guidance out of the forest.

Annoyed that Jenn returns telephone calls during their trip to the park, Alex removes her cell phone from her backpack, leaving it behind, in the trunk of his car. Once the couple becomes lost, they have no way to call for help.

He leaves Jenn alone when he goes to chop wood for their campfire. In his absence, a stranger, Brad, happens upon Jenn. As Alex himself later points out, both to Jenn and to Brad, Brad could have been a dangerous “nut” who might have raped or killed Jenn. Despite this realization, Alex again leaves Jenn alone when he goes to retrieve the hatchet he left in the side of a tree at the site at which he'd chopped the wood.

When he spies a bear print, Alex doesn't share this sign with Jenn. Jenn has bear spray and a traffic flare that they could use against the bear, but she is unaware of its presence. The bear could (and, later, does) kill someone.

Although he is uncertain of the correct path to the lake, Alex continues their trek through the forest, despite his not having a map, a cell phone, or a weapon (other than, perhaps, his hatchet).

During the night, Jenn hears mysterious sounds. Without investigating, Alex tells Jenn she's hearing nothing more than acorns falling from the trees, onto their tent. He may believe the sounds are the effects of falling acorns, as he says, or he may not want Jenn to think the sounds are caused by a bear, whether to keep her from being afraid or to prevent her from wanting to leave, in which case he is also being deceitful.

After hearing the sounds of what be a bear, instead of falling acorns, Alex refuses to leave the park.

After seeing a broken tree branch indicative of a bear's nearby presence, Alex refuses to leave the park.

After seeing the carcass of a dead deer indicating the presence of a bear—and of a bear that is both starving (bears, otherwise, don't eat meat—and predatory)—Alex refuses to leave the park.

Even after the bear visits their campsite, Alex refuses to leave the park.

Early in the movie, Alex injures himself by dropping the canoe in which he and Jenn arrive at their initial campsite on his foot. He doesn't tend to the injury for over a day, by which time his sock is soaked in his blood. He hangs the sock in a tree, and the blood attracts a hungry black bear.

Alex leaves his hatchet outside the couple's tent. Had he brought the hatchet inside the tent, he would have had a weapon with which to fight off the attacking bear; without it, he has nothing but his hands and feet.

Jenn also makes several errors in judgment. She is mindful of Alex's need to assert his masculinity and defers to his wishes and judgments, which, under other circumstances, might not have life-and-death significance; in the wilds of the Canadian park they visit, such deference can, and does, have such consequences. These are the more significant errors in judgment Jenn makes:

She does not insist that Alex accept a park map from the ranger or accept one herself.

In Alex's absence, Jenn invites Brad into their campsite.

She does not insist that Alex make sure the “acorns” he says are falling on their tent really are acorns.

She does not insist that Alex take her home after she sees evidence of the nearby presence of a bear.

She returns to their campsite after the bear has killed Alex so she can retrieve the engagement ring he has shown her.

Although Jenn, like Alex, makes mistakes in judgment, she is not a woodman and the couple's survival is not primarily her responsibility. In addition, she is not deceitful toward Alex, as he is to her. When she is alone, after Alex's death, her decisions are wise, allowing her to survive the bear and the wilderness.

Despite these mistakes, Jenn also makes wise decisions, even in the face of danger and under the pressure of stress:

She has the presence of mind to use her bear spray and her whistle to twice frighten off the bear before it can attack her.

She bathes her right arm, which was injured in the bear attack, and bandages it.

She sleeps in the fork of a tree's high branches.

She uses her flare to signal for help.

She recalls Alex's advice about eating spearmint berries and Brad's counsel that hikers should climb down the right, not the left, side of the park's waterfall.

She follows a buck, hoping it will lead her to water or out of the forest. The animal leads her to the waterfall.

She makes a splint and sets the leg she breaks in a fall during her descent of the cliff beside the waterfall.

Despite her amateur status as a woodsman, Jenn is more successful in navigating the forest and escaping the bear than Alex had been. His decisions endangered their lives. Some of hers did as well, although most of them helped her to survive her ordeal.

The movie does a good job of depicting the consequences of the characters' respective behaviors, suggesting that what one does results from his or her character no less than his or her motives.

Alex wants to impress Jenn, but he wants to do so because of his own insecurities. He feels inferior to her, because, in the everyday world in which they live the majority of the time, she, as a lawyer, occupies a position of greater status that he has as a landscaper.

Although she frequently defers to him and is eager, most of the time, to support his sense of himself and to shore up any doubts he may have of his masculinity or personal worth, she seems ambiguous about these aspects of his character. When she loses her temper after they become lost in the park, she says she wants to speak honestly to him “for once,” calling him a “loser” who always manages to mishandle or otherwise botch “everything.”

Alex also seems to care less about Jenn than he does about his own fragile self-image. He often rushes up and down the trail, leaving Jenn in his wake to fend for herself in the rough terrain, among tree branches, logs, brambles, and other obstacles. Even after he knows that a dangerous bear is following them and lurks in the vicinity of their campsites, he continues, without regard for his safety of her own, to proceed on their misguided journey, endangering their lives. In preparing for their trip, he took no precautions, failing to bring bear spray, a whistle, or a rifle.

In his mind, he is too macho to need such provisions or to heed the danger signs he sees in the forest. His poor judgment, however, is no match for the starving bear. The animal's ripping and tearing him apart, which is shown in grisly detail, is proof that he is no match for nature. In trying to impress Jenn by proving his manhood, Alex endangers both his life and hers.

At the beginning of the movie, as they are driving to the remote park, Jenn gives Alex a multiple-choice “boyfriend test” published in an issue of a women's magazine she's brought with her. Many of the items deal with consideration. Alex fails the test miserably, suggesting he isn't considerate at all of Jenn. He cares more about himself than he does her. Although he dies protecting her, giving her an opportunity to escape, it is he who, through his own insecurities and poor judgments, put her—and himself—in such a dire situation to begin with. As the test predicted, Alex was poor boyfriend material. Chances are, he'd have been poor marriage material as well. Jenn was lucky to survive the bear, as she was lucky to survive Alex.







Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sneak Peek: Here's the cover to my new urban fantasy novel

Here's the cover to my new urban fantasy novel soon to be published by The Wild Rose Press:




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.

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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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