Fascinating lists!

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Covers of Gothic Romance Pulp Fiction Novels: Advertising a Genre

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


The covers of Gothic romance pulp fiction novels tip us off to the nature of the genre's fiction. Often monochromatic, perhaps to set the mood, which can be described as “brooding,” the paintings that grace the covers of such fare tend to feature a woman alone, either framed by the window of an isolated mansion, or fleeing from an unseen threat, often through rugged terrain, frequently with a manor house or castle in the background and a threatening sky above.


Whether indoors or out, the mood of menace is heightened by eerie statues, such as gargoyles or satyrs, strange obelisks, cemetery headstones, stunted or malformed trees, black cats and bats, and skies that look somehow as jagged as a predatory animal's teeth.

Sometimes milady, who's usually in her twenties, stands upon the precipice of a cliff, with the sea below. She might flee headlong down a rocky, snow-covered slope.


Occasionally, her flight takes her through an isolated cemetery. A full moon might hang in a cloudy sky.


Open land and sparse vegetation may expose her flight. The sea, a forest, a cliff, or otherwise impassible terrain features impede or prevent her rescue or escape.


As often as not, the damsel in distress is barefoot, suggesting she took to her heels in a hurry. Full, heavy dresses are likely to encumber her, forcing her to hike her skirts. Almost invariably, she looks over her shoulder, as if in search of a stalker. Fog or Spanish moss hanging from the boughs of a remote estate may lend an air of mystery and menace. One wonders what terror launched her sudden flight.


On the relatively rare occasions that the distressed damsel is shown indoors, she is usually confined by a window frame, a dimly lit staircase, or a shadowy hallway, which she negotiates carefully, perhaps with a flickering candle in hand, looking, all the while, for some lurking menace.


Her adversary is seldom shown, and, when the pursuer or pursuers are included in the painting, they are at a distance, indistinct: a lone figure, small in the distance, silhouetted in a the arched entrance to a castle above and behind the heroine or a small band of nameless, faceless pursuers.


Several covers mention “love” of a problematic or dangerous sort: “The lure of love led her through a jungle of horror to a house of blood” (Candace Arkham's Ancient Evil); “She came to Ravensnest to save a life—and found her own threatened as she sought love in a house shadowed by death” (Caroline Farr's Mansion of Evil); “At Whitehall Mansion, Susan's fairy tale romance became a honeymoon of horror” (Elisabeth Offutt Allen's The Hounds of the Moon).


Occasionally, a cover offers a bit of text to characterize the heroine, suggest her plight, and hint at the story's plot: “Innocent and alone, she found herself fighting the forces of Middle Age witchcraft,” reads a blurb on the front cover of Wilma Winthrop's Tryst with Terror. Paulette Warren's Some Beckoning Wraith asks, “Could love and common sense overcome the vengeful spirit that haunted Malvern Manor?” In Lady in Darkness, Evelyn Bond spins a tale in which her heroine's “memory gone, Ellen” cannot tell whether “Whit was her husband—or her jailer.”


Perhaps readers needed to know at least this much about the books they considered buying, but, for me (and perhaps for you), the artwork, which tends to be almost without exception more than simply sufficient and is often splendid, is far more mysterious and intriguing than the bald summaries such text sets forth and needs no explanation or elaboration. In any case, the covers invariably indicate and, indeed, highlight the conventional elements of the Gothic romance genre.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What's So Monstrous About Monsters?

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

What makes a creature monstrous?

That's a question with which artists and writers) have contended for centuries. As a result, there are quite a few visions, visual and literary, of the monstrous. In this post, we'll consider a few examples of the former, as we examine a few ancient, medieval, and modern examples of monsters, as artists have envisioned them.


Since ancient times, the unknown has been one source of the idea of the monstrous. Many of these monsters, the likenesses of which are passed down to us in pictures, sculptures, and poetry, from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere, are hybrids, mixing characteristics of both human beings and the so-called lower animals. Included among these creatures are such monsters as centaurs, hermaphrodites, lamia, minotaurs, and sirens, to mention but a few.


Other monsters are of gigantic scale, are missing an organ, an appendage, or another feature: the cyclops is a prime example, both of a gargantuan figure and of one who is missing an organ, having, as he or she does, only one eye. Another well-known specimen is the monopod, which was also known as the sciapod, skiapod, or skiapode, who appear in Aristophanes's The Birds (414 BC), in Pliny the Elder's Natural History (79), and St. Augustine's City of God (426).

In a few monsters, traits or organs were multiplied. Cerberus had three heads; hydra, many.


Often, ancient monsters inhabited remote places. The fact that they lived far away made an encounter with one of them unlikely, because long-distance travel was rare for ordinary people, except, in some cases, soldiers. For the same reason, oceans were often represented the homes of mysterious creatures, many of whom were of gigantic size and strange appearance. Examples include the the biblical Behemoth, the Norse Midgard Serpent, and Scylla and Charybdis.

Our brief survey of ancient monsters suggests many often exhibit these one or more of these characteristics:
  • Mix human and animal characteristics
  • Are gigantic in size
  • Are missing one or more organs or traits
  • Have one or more extra organs or traits
  • Reside in distant locations
In Judaism and, later, in Christianity, monsters were no longer simply natural phenomena; they were created by God, for divine purposes. For example, hermaphrodites were tokens of his wrath; their births were warnings of God's fury concerning the conduct of particular communities and of the divine punishment that would occur if such behavior continued. Likewise, the gods of earlier religions were subsumed by Christianity, pagan deities becoming demons in Christian theology.

Throughout the Middle Ages, many monsters were drawn from the same sources: ancient and Christian accounts of these fascinating, terrible creatures, although, now, all familiar monsters were interpreted from the Christian perspective, with pagan monsters assuming demonic significance.



New additions to the ranks of the monstrous came from travels abroad or from pagan European tribes, before their conversions to the Christian faith. Of course, Christianity also supplied several monsters of its own, most significantly, Satan and the Antichrist.

Once Christianity became the religion of most, if not all, of the Western world, it united peoples from various tribes and cultures, becoming the unum round which e pluribus found its center. As polytheism gave way to monotheism and pagan faiths were replaced by one catholic, or universal faith (at least as the Western world is concerned), ideas about the nature of the monstrous changed, even as they merged under the authority and direction of Christian belief, authority, doctrine, and practice. Satan, demons, witches and sorcerers, heretics, and others who became victims of the Inquisition were the new monsters, common to all.


In modern times, the monstrous, as a concept, has taken on psychological significance, as the demons of hell become inner, or personal, demons, which is to say, personifications of individual human beings' unbridled impulses and animal instincts: aggression, lust, and the like. Especially in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the monstrous becomes primarily psychological, rather than cultural or theological per se. Alongside ancient and medieval monsters, we now have the narrator-protagonist of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the vengeance-minded jester of “Hop-Frog,” and the obsessive-compulsive protagonist of “Berenice.”

Monsters are of only two origins: natural or supernatural. (“Paranormal” is merely a term designating natural phenomena which are, as yet, scientifically inexplicable, and psychological monsters, like extraterrestrial monstrosities, are of natural origin.)

But what makes monsters monstrous?


There are a number of theories. Some say monsters are monstrous because they represent actual, existential threats. The werewolf, for example, symbolizes the beast within the human; the madman a person whose behavior is unrestrained by reason. Such monsters are the bane of the rationalist's existence (and aren't we all, at least occasionally, rationalists?) They suggest the Enlightenment, though it undoubtedly happened, might have occurred in vain.


Others contend that monsters are monstrous because they suggest the threat of the unknown and, perhaps, the unfathomable. According to this view, monsters are only monstrous as long as they origin or nature remains unknown. Once the nature of the creature in Ambrose Bierce's “The Damned Thing” is understood (it is of a color outside the range of human perception and, therefore, invisible), it is no longer monstrous (although it remains both terrible and dangerous). Such monsters are epistemological threats or, at least, insecurities. If knowledge is power, ignorance is impotence (and, often, impotence is helplessness).


Monsters who occupy a rung higher in The Great Chain of Being than our own rung on the celestial ladder are theological threats. God defeated Satan, casting him and his followers out of heaven, but, even if we are created in God's image, we don't have his omnipotence; our fight with the devil or with demons, as both The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose show us, is not an even match, nor is it one that we, by ourselves, without divine aid, are able to win.


Christianity, it seems, is in abeyance; its influence over the multitudes of the western world appears to have diminished. As a result, paganism has resurfaced, and with it, the old monsters are, once again, venturing out of the darkness to which they were banished by reason and faith, as the current popularity of vampires, witches, demons, and other such ancient monsters attests. Side by side with them, though, the monsters of Christian faith continue to exist. The psychological monster, the madman, in his (or her) various guises, including those of the serial killer (Ben Willis, of I Know What You Did Last Summer), the sadistic sociopath (Jigsaw, of the Saw franchise), the psychotic murderer (Norman Bates, of Psycho), the mad scientist (Dr. Moreau, of The Island of Dr. Moreau), and the overzealous fan (Annie Wilkes, of Misery) has, more recently, joined them.

What monsters might the future spawn? What fears will they embody? What means shall overcome them? These, alas, are questions only time will answer, if they turn out to be answerable at all.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Eerie Paintings and Their Equally Eerie Interpretations

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

In an interesting article, “8 Eerie-Looking Paintings People Believe To Be Haunted,” Anantha Sharma provides the scoop on the reasons for this strange belief.

Prints of Giovanni Bragolin's The Crying Boy were found among the debris of burned-down buildings. Correlation became cause as believers claimed the fires resulted from the presence of the prints in the destroyed homes. Without its alleged association with fires, the painting, of itself, doesn't seem all that eerie—at least, not to me. You be the judge:


A painting rendered in oil and the anonymous artist's own blood does look eerie and would look so even if one wasn't aware of its bloody background. Not long after painting his masterpiece, the artist committed suicide. Its present owner, Sean Robinson, attributes the paranormal phenomena he says occurs inside his home, where the painting hangs, to the work of art. Of course, instead of a cause-and-effect relationship between the painting and the alleged paranormal phenomena, there could be only a correlation.


According to Sharma, the present owners of Bill Stoneham's The Hands Resist Him believe the painting is “cursed,” so, to get rid of it, they're selling it on eBay. Apparently, they're not as concerned about passing the curse on to the painting's next owners, whoever they are, as they are of getting rid of the damned thing.


The presently cursed owners claim the children represented in the painting move at night and sometimes, feeling a bit claustrophobic perhaps, step out of the frame and into the chamber wherein it is displayed. The reason they believe the children are alive seems to be their own firsthand experience in having observed the rather animated painting's subjects.

A gift in one hand, a bouquet of rises in the other, a young redheaded girl in a pink dress, a blue sash around her waist, smiles slightly, perhaps hesitantly, as she looks forth from her frame. According to the staff of the Driskoll Hotel in Austin, Texas, the portrait, Love Letters Replica, has attracted the attention of a dead four-year-old girl, Samantha Houston, a US senator's daughter, who tumbled down the hotel's grand staircase as she pursued a ball.


Some believe the girl in the painting seeks to “communicate with them” and witness her “expressions change” when they observe her “too long.” Might young Samantha be trying to communicate with the hotel's staff or guests through the portrait of this young lady with whom Samantha's ghost identifies for some mysterious reason?

Sharma's article, which discusses these and four other mysterious paintings, is well worth a read.

What I'm most interested in, though, are the means by which people assign supernatural or paranormal significance to ordinary objects—in this case, paintings. Obviously, such works or art are paint on canvas, so how and why do they become something more, something else, something otherworldy?

One reason, as mentioned, is that people confuse or replace the idea of coincidence, or correlation, with the concept of cause and effect. As Robert T. Carroll points out in his Skeptic's Dictionary article, “parapsychology,” correlation is not causation and the very notion of correlation is itself complex and problematic:

. . . correlations don't establish causality. Finding a correlation that is not what would be predicted by chance does not establish a causal event. Nor does it establish that if it is a causal event, it is a paranormal event. Furthermore, even if there is a causal event, the correlation itself isn't of much use in determining what that event consists of. What you think is cause may be the effect. Or, there may be some third, unknown, factor which is causing the effect observed. Or, the correlation may be due to chance, even if it is statistically unlikely in a certain sense. Or the correlation may be illusory and due to an experimenter expectation effect rather than to any real causal event.


The ability, Carroll says, to “duplicate the results” of experiments “with more and more rigorous tests” is necessary to determine whether a possible causal relationship is “highly probable.” Otherwise, he suggests, a cause-and-effect relationship between two incidents (discoveries of prints of The Crying Boy at multiple fire sites or the presence of a particular painting in a home in which paranormal events are said to occur) should be taken with a grain or two of salt.

What about seeing something happen with one's very own eyes? Is seeing believing? Not according to Carroll. Eyewitness, or anecdotal evidence, is weak and perhaps even more problematic than determining whether a relationship between the occurrences of two incidents is correlative or causal in nature:

Anecdotes are unreliable for various reasons. Stories are prone to contamination by beliefs, later experiences, feedback, selective attention to details, and so on. Most stories get distorted in the telling and the retelling. Events get exaggerated. Time sequences get confused. Details get muddled. Memories are imperfect and selective; they are often filled in after the fact. People misinterpret their experiences. Experiences are conditioned by biases, memories, and beliefs, so people's perceptions might not be accurate. Most people aren't expecting to be deceived, so they may not be aware of deceptions that others might engage in. Some people make up stories. Some stories are delusions. Sometimes events are inappropriately deemed psychic simply because they seem improbable when they might not be that improbable after all. In short, anecdotes are inherently problematic and are usually impossible to test for accuracy.
Thus, stories of personal experience with paranormal or supernatural events have little scientific value.

Carroll's critique of anecdotal evidence applies to both the animated children in The Hands That Resist Him and the altered expressions of the subject of Love Letters Replica.

In the case of Replica, a few other connections between the painting and unrelated objective events are also identified or suggested:

  • A four-year-old girl, Samantha Houston, a US senator's daughter, tumbled down the hotel's grand staircase as she pursued a ball.
  • Samantha's ghost is attracted to the painting.
  • Samantha's ghost is trying to “communicate” with hotel staff and guests through the painting.
  • Observers witness the portrait's “expressions change” over time.

There is no evidence to connect any of these claims. Nevertheless, by drawing relationships that sound possible or, in some instances, perhaps even reasonable, where there are none, the incidents become linked in a seeming series of chronological and, in some cases, even (allegedly) causal sequences, unifying otherwise disparate and distinct events so that the impression is created that the chain of (supposedly) related incidents reinforces the likelihood that the painting's overall significance (i. e., its interpretation) is apt to be correct: Through the portrait of the girl in the hotel, Samantha's ghost seeks to communicate with the living. In fact, there is no evidence to support the linkages of these separate occurrences or to account for their significance as a whole.

So why do we tend to make such associations? Why must we seek to explain the inexplicable or, indeed, to invent explanations of things that need no explanation? Might a work of art, for example, have significance simply because, having been created, it exists, as proponents of the art-for-art's-sake movement suggest?

One view of the impulse that drives our need to know why is known as “cognitive closure.” Formulated in 1972, by psychologist Jerome Kagan, this theory holds that we are disturbed by uncertainty. When we don't know what causes something, we seek an explanation to “eliminate the distress of the unknown.” The downside to this need to know why is that

. . . cognitive closure can bias our choices, change our preferences, and influence our mood. In our rush for definition, we tend to produce fewer hypotheses and search less thoroughly for information. We become more likely to form judgments based on early cues (something known as impressional primacy), and as a result become more prone to anchoring and correspondence biases (using first impressions as anchors for our decisions and not accounting enough for situational variables). And, perversely, we may not even realize how much we are biasing our own judgments.

Each of these errors can, in turn, occasion situations which themselves present horrific possibilities ripe for the author of horror stories. We can settle for a possible explanation when, had we continued our quest for cognitive closure, we could have discerned more likely explanations with larger and more numerous capacities for application. Perhaps we could even learn how to combat or eliminate the threat our story's characters face (for, in horror fiction, characters always face some sort of threat of an unknown nature or origin: think of Them! or The Thing from Another World.)

Indeed, writers of horror (and other genres of) fiction often play upon this very array of possible explanations, suggesting several before the true one is understood or supplied. In deft hands, this approach heightens suspense, even as it complicates conflicts (think of The Exorcist or The Possession of Emily Rose); while, in less adroit hands, this approach converts the sublime into the ridiculous (think of almost any of Stephen King's or Bentley Little's novels—in regard to the former, I'm thinking, at the moment, of Under the Dome: King's list of possible causes of the dome's existence, among which are a foreign government's technology and the technology of a huge, wealthy corporation, are far superior to the actual cause—an adolescent female extraterrestrial's inversion of a gigantic celestial bowl over the town she thereby cuts off from the rest of humanity).

In horror fiction, as in life, it seems we expect incidents, including paranormal and supernatural ones, to be explained. Short story writers, novelists, or screenwriters who fail to explain such occurrences in emotionally and intellectually satisfying ways disappoint readers or moviegoers at their own risk. There are a wealth of stories to occupy our time; motivated by our need to know the whys and wherefores of events, by our need for “cognitive closure,” we're not likely to continue to read the work of writers whose explanations of bizarre incidents is either nonexistent or too ludicrous to satisfy us, especially after we've devoted hours to their tales of terror.

To be a satisfying horror writer, one need not be a scientist or a philosopher (although at least a basic knowledge of both disciplines can't hurt), but one must, at the very least, not disappoint one's audience with a tacked-on, dues-ex-machina type of ending that explains away, rather than explains, the strange phenomena that have occurred throughout the story.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Evolutionary Fiction

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

According to the theory of evolution, species survive by adapting to their environment. For biologists—until recently, at least—the environment has been pretty much synonymous with the external, natural world. (More recently, a branch of psychology, evolutionary psychology, has suggested that certain mental processes and personality traits may have survived because they helped the human species to adapt to their physical environment and, therefore, to survive.)




Human beings differ from lower animals in several important ways, one of which is their possession not only of consciousness, but also of self-awareness, of consciousness of oneself as a self. Men, women, and children, in other words, live in two environments, that of the natural world without and that of the subjective world within, the world of beliefs, emotions, reason, will, and values.




In evolutionary fiction, a story begins when one or more changes in one or both of these worlds occur(s), disturbing the protagonist's equilibrium (his or her emotional balance, or calmness of mind), causing him or her to adapt to the environmental change(s) and thereby regain his or her equilibrium: in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy Gale becomes dissatisfied with her family life (a change in the inner world of her emotions); as a result, she runs away from home (seeks to adapt to the change in her emotions); she develops independence by acting autonomously, dousing the Wicked Witch of the West with water, thus melting her adversary (adaptation); having come to appreciate her home as a result of her experiences in Oz (adaptation), she returns to her family and friends, whom she'd left behind in Kansas. Dorothy's adaptations to the change in her inner world (her emotions) changes her: she recovers her equilibrium because she changes (i. e., adapts to her environment). In The Wizard of Oz, emotion drives Dorothy to act.




The external world can also introduce change to which the protagonist must adapt. In Backcountry (2015), Jenn and her boyfriend, Alex, leave their home in the city, driving to a national park in Canada. Their arrival introduces them to a different environment, a forest, with different challenges than those with which they are familiar. (Alex has some experience in camping, but his many mistakes show that he is by no means the master woodsman he believes himself to be.) Among the challenges the couple face are those of an intrusive and aggressive stranger, Brad; mountainous and forested terrain; and a bear. Alex does not adequately adapt, so he does not survive the couple's ordeal. Ironically, Jenn, who knows less than Alex about camping, but who has better judgment and makes better decisions, does adapt to the challenges of their new environment, and lives. (Alex's many errors of judgment are identified in my post, “Backcountry: A Study in the Cause and Effects of Poor Judgment”). In short, Jenn's intelligence and common sense prevail, while Alex's smug self-confidence and overestimation of his knowledge and abilities fail.




A similar “test” of mental processes and personality traits occurs in the 1993 thriller, Falling Down, with William Foster failing to adapt to the changes in his environments, both internal and external, and Sergeant Prendergast succeeding in doing so in regard to his own, similar challenges. Foster's marriage has ended in divorce; Prendergast's marriage is on life support. Both men encounter hostility, unfairness, and social decadence. They have both lost children, Foster to his wife in their divorce, Prendergast to death. Because he cannot adapt to the challenges these changes introduce into his life, Foster is killed, while Prendergast, who does adapt to similar challenges in his own life, survives.



With these examples in mind, we can construct the formula that is typical of evolutionary narratives:



  1. A change in the protagonist's environment, internal, external, or both, occurs.
  2. Experiencing disequilibrium as a result of the change(s), the protagonist successfully adapts to the change(s) (comedy) or fails to do so (tragedy).
  3. As a result of the success or failure of his or her attempt to adapt, the protagonist survives or perishes, respectively.




Perishing can, but need not, be literal. A protagonist can “perish” figuratively: he or she can go to prison, lose his or her family or friends, go bankrupt, become disabled, lose dignity or respect, and so forth.




In evolutionary fiction, stories become “laboratories” of sorts in which beliefs, emotions, reason, will, and values are “tested” by changes in the external environment, the internal environment, or both environments. Thus, evolutionary narratives suggest the relative survivability strength of various subjective processes and personality traits, whether the stimuli (challenges) are imposed from within or from without the character him- or herself, thereby underscoring the fact that people are both subjects and objects simultaneously. Ironically, then, evolutionary fiction seems to support the idea that human beings occupy a dualistic world that is both matter and “spirit,” that we are ghosts in machines.



In future posts, we will apply the formula for evolutionary fiction to several horror narratives that appear as short stories, novels, or motion pictures.

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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