Fascinating lists!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

We all have our ideas as to which movies are the best of their kind, which is fine, of course, as long as we’re able to give some indication as to why we hold these views (or, if you prefer, prejudices). Here are my picks, awarded one (terrible!) to five (great!) skulls, and the reasons behind them:

10. Tremors: Giant, burrowing worms? It’s campy. It’s funny. It also has it’s moments of sheer fear. Three stars.

9. It: The Terror from Beyond Space: A hungry alien aboard a spaceship is never seen--until it’s too late. The monster earns this one three stars.

8. Invaders from Mars: Sure, it’s sci fi, but anyone who thinks it’s not also horror hasn’t seen it. When even one’s parents can become something else--something alien--we’re in nightmare land, for sure. Three stars.

7. Halloween: There’s Jamie Lee Curtis. There’s also Michael Myers. Sibling rivalry stalks the silver screen, drenching us in the blood of teen victims. When her brother’s one of the undead and he has a yen for fratricide, what’s a poor girl to do? You can almost feel that oh-so-phallic knife as it rips and tears the maidens’ tender flesh. Babysitting’s overrated, but, at four skulls, this movie’s not.

6. A Nightmare on Elm Street: Some wouldn’t rate it as high, but I love the premise, which allows even the stupidest incidents, because, after all, anything’s possible in a dream. This movie conveys an honest, usually realistic sense of what it’s like to be trapped inside one’s own nightmare, and Freddy Kreuger’s a hoot. The protagonist, Nancy, is fetching, too, in a girl-next-door sort of way. Four skulls don’t seem too many.

5. The Thing (original): Sci fi, sure, but with a subtext of horror that’s not always submerged. Imagine being trapped inside a remote arctic outpost, far from the crowd’s maddening strife, with a thawed-out shape-shifter out for blood--your blood--and you get just the faintest impression of the claustrophobic terror this flick unleashes. James Arness makes a pretty good Thing, too. Four skulls.

4. King Kong (original): The werewolf writ large (and transformed into a gorilla). Besides, it’s beauty who kills the beast, not the other way around. The remake starring Naomi Watts has better special effects, but the original, although a bit campy, is superb for its time. It deserves four stars.

3. Psycho: Dated? Sure. But the shower scene! The creepy mansion. The fleabag motel. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based, in part, at least, on America’s worst serial killer of all time, Ed Gein. These elements alone make this a great among horror movies and rates it five skulls.

2. The Exorcist: The special effects may not be quite so special anymore, but it’s hard to beat the plot. What parent hasn’t wondered, at least once, whether his or her child isn’t possessed by the devil? The revolving head and the pea soup vomit alone are worth a visit to the Georgetown residence where priests take on the adversary of God himself. Five skulls for sure!

1. Alien: Some might argue, quite reasonably, that this is really a sci fi pic. It is. But it’s also a horror movie, in a broader context, because of the spectacle of blood, guts, and gore. The constant escalation of suspense and outright terror also qualify this film as a horror movie. The monsters, based upon the artwork of H. R. Giger, don’t hurt, either. It’s definitely a pulse-pounder and worthy of five skulls.

Value as a Clue to Horror

Copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

Life is always fragile. One might suppose, however, that, before the advancements in science and technology that we enjoy (sometimes) today, the world must have been fraught with many more perils. Human life must have been especially precarious without the benefits of such modern marvels as antibiotics, computers, incandescent light, and firearms, to name but a few. Pneumonia, tornados, the blindness imposed by darkness, and inefficient or unreliable weapons must have caused many deaths that, today, could be averted or avoided. No wonder Gilgamesh sought immortality. Life in his day must have been both mean and brief. What did others seek? The treasures that were the objects of their quests tell us the things their societies valued most. Whatever threatened these treasures represented their fears, because we fear what we may lose (or want but may never gain). If Gilgamesh sought immortality, he valued life and, consequently, feared death, which may be the greatest loss of all.

“The wages of sin,” the Bible tells us, “is death,” and this is frequently the punishment that God metes out to the unrepentant, as he did with regard to Adam and Eve, to the civilization that existed at the time of the flood, to the residents of Sodom, and to many others throughout the pages of both Testaments. However, according to Christian thought, there are two types of death: physical and spiritual, as the following scripture suggests:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell. --
Matthew 10:28

The one who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell is God, and, many times, the Bible warns the faithful to “fear God,” as does Matthew 10:20. There is a worse condition that death and a worse place than the grave, as the damned find out when they arrive to spend an eternity’s torment in hell. If hell is considered the state of the soul as it exists apart from God, then its opposite is the value that the existence of hell threatens, namely, being in the presence of God (or love, for “God is love”) for eternity. To be an eternal outcast of love is hell.

A threat to one’s whole way of life, which the Trojan War represented to the ancient Greeks, indicates that a people--in this case, the ancient Greeks--valued their culture. Although war is horrible, it’s not usually a horror story’s antagonist, because the monsters of horror fiction are, as we see in another post, metaphorical in nature. They’re symbolic of something else. Instead of a war threatening one’s way of life, therefore, a horror story might posit an extraterrestrial race, as in The War of the Worlds or Alien, as the antagonist, but, make no mistake, these monsters aren’t going to be satisfied with killing only a handful of victims; they want nothing less than a whole nation or, perhaps, the entire planet. In Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, Galactus represents such a threat to humanity. Following the lead of his herald, the Silver Surfer, who locates inhabited planets, Galactus literally devours the energy that sustains the planets’ life forms, whether they are human or otherwise, going from planet to planet to appease his hunger. Since Galactus threatens humanity itself, as do, or could, the Martians or the extraterrestrial monsters of Alien, he represents the destruction of a whole way of life, or a civilization and its culture. This same monster--the threat to culture--appears in Beowulf, in the guise of Grendel,
Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.

Such monsters, in a more specific mask and costume, showed up in the horror films of the 1950’s. After World War II, which culminated in the nuclear destruction of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world feared wholesale annihilation, a worldwide nuclear holocaust, and the monsters of horror represented such a threat in the guise of Godzilla, giant ants (Them!), and aliens with enormous destructive capabilities (Invaders from Mars).

The post-war decades (1960’s-present) of horror produced more personal monsters, products of the decade’s emphases on sex, drugs, and rock and roll--experiments with sexual freedom (or license), altered consciousness, and the pursuit of passion, adventure, and excitement for their own sake: deranged serial killers, cannibals, and paranormal or supernatural aberrations and entities who acted, as often as not, on the bases of vengeance, lust, or sadism, rather than on the basis of any rational purpose. Again, the monsters are the threats to the values that the writers, filmmakers, and audiences hold dear. It’s hard to exercise one’s sexual freedom when there’s a sadistic serial killer on the loose or to enjoy one’s emotions when doing so could attract an alien or a demon who feeds off human feelings or the energy associated with them.

What’s to come? Time alone, it seems, has the answer. Whatever the new monster’s shape, though, it will be the shadow of the values of the society of the day that spawns it.

Evil Is As Evil Does

copyright 2007 by By Gary L. Pullman

If God is loving, omnipotent, and omniscient, why does evil exist? That question expresses the philosophical (and theological) dilemma that’s known as “the problem of evil.” In horror fiction especially, it’s this problem that’s the basis of the antagonist, who- or whatever he, she, or it may be.

Various authors of horror fiction, past and present, have defined evil. Most of them have presented specific ideas as to what constitutes wickedness. Let’s consider some of their conclusions.

For Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote not only The Scarlet Letter, but also such classic horror stories as “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “The Birthmark,” “The Great Stone Face,” and “Young Goodman Brown,” evil, boiled down to its essence, is a result of sin, in the traditional sense of the term’s meaning: pride, vanity, hypocrisy, and so on.

Edgar Allan Poe, author of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, found passion, usually combined with various mental disorders, the source of various evils, most of which culminated in murder. The protagonist of “The Cask of the Amontillado” walls up a man simply because the main character envies his rival’s knowledge and success about wines and other matters.

H. G. Wells wrote horror stories as well as science fiction classics. One of these stories, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” appears on this blog. For Wells, horror derives from and takes the form of human beings’ abuse of technology, which usually results either from ignorance or arrogance or both.

The Stephen Crane of the horror genre, H. P. Lovecraft found the universe to be indifferent to human existence. His fiction is replete with otherworldly beings and strange creatures from other dimensions who are representative of a cosmic indifference to humanity, having no regard for or understanding of the humans whom they often slaughter as if they were mere cattle. Viewed objectively and impersonally, from a cosmic perspective, life, for humans, Lovecraft’s fiction suggests, is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Evil doesn’t exist as such; it is rather, a matter of perception: people may regard meaninglessness, as represented by his fiction’s monsters, as evil, but, in itself, it’s just the nature of the universe in which such insignificant creatures happen to exist. His mosnters may be taken, therefore, as embodiments of the idea of nature as it appears apart from the control of an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent deity such as the God posited by Christian belief.

Dean Koontz values, above all things (except, perhaps, dogs), brotherly love. In his fiction, it is the ties to one’s community, to one’s nation, and to one’s species that counts. Even against great adversity and loss, brotherly love, he implies, gives human existence dignity and significance. It seems, therefore, that, for Koontz, evil is whatever threatens or denies the maintenance and development of such love, especially an insensitive indifference to humanity as such. Koontz, despite, or in addition to, his Catholic faith, is also, in this sense, a humanist.

Whatever threatens one’s hometown (an extension of one’s home) is evil, according to Stephen King’s many works of fiction. In this sense, King’s take on wickedness is similar to Koontz’s view of evil. However, King is more provincial, most of the time, finding those nearest at hand (and, presumably, dearest) to be more valuable than strangers who happen to reside in the same state or country or upon the same planet. It is one’s family and friends, not necessarily humanity in its entirety, that seems to matter to King; therefore, whatever threatens one’s family or local community is the bogeyman. Such a theme is conveyed in the bulk of King’s many novels, from Carrie onward.

For Bentley Little, evil is the indifference of nameless, faceless bureaucracies and other impersonal organizations.

Such an alaysis helps us to see the reigning demonic spirit of the age as various literary artists, living and working at various times in the history of the human race, have envisioned it. In his poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yates asks, now that Christianity has come to a close, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches. . . toward Bethlehem to be born.” According to modern horror writers, the beast “with a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun” is indifference, or apathy, at the local, organizational, or administrative, and the universal levels of human existence. However, the beast is nothing if not protean and has appeared in many previous incarnations, as indicated. Most likely, in future generations, it will assume still different forms.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Plotting Horror Fiction: The Invasion Plot

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: Refer to "Basic Plots" for other horror plot patterns that are common to this fiction genre.
This method of plotting works best for the Invasion plot. Other methods work better for other types of horror plots. We may outline these other techniques in future posts.

In plotting, first develop the back story. In horror fiction, this is the true cause of the bizarre incidents that transpire in the story proper. For example, in Dean Koontz’s novel, The Taking, what seems to be reverse-terraforming on the part of invading aliens turns out to be a visit by Satan. The devil’s call is the true cause of the bizarre incidents that occur in the story. In Koontz’s novel. The Good Guy, hints are distributed throughout the story proper concerning the reason that the protagonist is adept with firearms and strategizing. The back story, which is told toward the end of the novel explains why: he is a war hero and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who was instrumental in rescuing hundreds of hostages from their murderous captors. By delaying the explanation until most of the story proper has been told, Koontz maintains suspense. However, the back story, once it is told, provides a believable explanation as to why the main character is adept with firearms and developing battle plans.

After plotting the back story, start with an everyday situation. Introduce the main character and important supporting characters. Set up the conflict. Establish the setting. Characterize the characters. Let the reader get to know and understand the characters. Let the reader like the ones you want him or her to like and dislike those whom you want him or her to dislike.
Dramatize the first of the bizarre incidents. Show it happening. Show it affecting the characters--victims and friends alike. Relate it to the main character’s basic emotions and goals. Perhaps tie it to the protagonist’s past or to the past of the locale--the story’s setting. It may be advantageous to do both. Stephen King does this by making the monster in It appear periodically, attacking a new generation of children in the same town every thirty or forty years. He also has the children who face the monster as preteens return to their hometown, when the monster next returns, to face it again, as adults.

Allow other bizarre incidents to occur. Usually, it’s best to let the incidents befall several characters, rather than the same character (although either course is possible), as doing so keeps the reader wondering why the monster is attacking various characters and looking for the common thread that ties the attacks together. Remember that whatever causes or motivates the monster (whether it’s an impersonal force or an intelligent being) must be accounted for--in a believable fashion--in the back story.

If your story has a subplot (or two), weave it into the main plot. Often, horror stories have a romance between the main character and another character. Perhaps the main character is the new kid in town, rejected by everyone until he saves the most popular girl in school. Then, he wins her over (but no one else), and they become friends, with her losing her other friends as a result. Possibly, a woman comes to town seeking peace after an especially traumatic experience and, instead, encounters one even more terrifying and dangerous--the monster at the center of your story. Your protagonist will save the day--and her. Maybe there is not romance. Maybe, instead, your main character lacks something--self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect, or whatever--and his fight against the monster allows him (or her) to gain what he (or she) originally lacked, as Beowulf does. In the poem named for him, Beowulf is considered a weakling who is, as such, unworthy of respect. When, in destroying Grendel and his mother, the warrior shows he’s as strong as he is courageous, he gains the esteem of his people; later, he becomes their king. Of course, a story can have a romantic subplot as well as a plot that involves recognition, or self-discovery. However, you don’t want to have too many subplots, because your story is liable to lose its unity and focus.

The main character leads the fight against the monster, protecting his friends and townsfolk from them to the best of his ability. The main character and many others take the initiative at some point in the fight against the monster.

At some point, toward the end of the story, your main character must discover the cause of the bizarre incidents. Armed with this knowledge, the main character sets up a battle plan by which to overcome the monster. He or she takes the fight to the monster. This is a common plot convention. Characters in It, The Taking, Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, Robert McCammon’s Stinger, and many other horror novels seize the initiative once they determine how to slay the monster. Nevertheless, the monster proves hard to kill, and it may have a trick or two to use against the protagonist and his or her loyal (or, as in Beowulf, not-so-loyal) band.

Ultimately, the main character is often triumphant (but he or she need not be). If so, the story frequently ends with an epilogue that suggests that the monster may return or that it may be reincarnated in some new form--in case the writer wants to write a sequel to the original story.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dream Monsters

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

People may disagree as to whether the idea of dream analysis or interpretation has any real value or significance, as such psychologists as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Frederick Perls, and others contend they do, but, even if one determines that the idea is without foundation, he or she may benefit from the work that dream analysts or interpreters have done with regard to defining the symbolic significance of specific dream images, for the associations these researchers have compiled have longstanding parallels in literature and language that doesn’t depend upon psychological theory.
  • Alien (extraterrestrial) - unknown parts of the personality
  • Angel - moral qualities and values
  • Blackbird - bad omen; lack of ambition or motivation
  • Blood - life, passion, disappointments
  • Cannibal - energy drain upon others
  • Castle - recognition; self-esteem
  • Cave - unconscious mind
  • Caveman - uncivilized, instinctive aspects of the self
  • Cemetery - end of a habit or behavior; sadness concerning the death of a loved one
  • Corpse - discontinued or repressed aspect of the self; unresponsiveness
  • Demon - socially undesirable or unacceptable aspects of the self; negative behaviors
  • Devil - temptation to do or to continue doing socially undesirable or unacceptable actions
  • Dragon - unbridled passion; wild behavior
  • Exorcism - attempt or desire to regain control
  • Fog - confusion; worry
  • Ghost - aspects of the self of which one is afraid; memories; past deeds; alienation
  • Giant - overwhelming obstacle or adversary
  • God - perfection; higher self
  • Goddess - feminine side (females); fear of women (men)
  • Gorilla - extreme or wild behavior
  • Grave - unconscious mind; death; feelings about death; uneasiness
  • Graveyard - discarded aspects of the self
  • Halloween - death
  • Haunted house - unresolved childhood trauma
  • Idol - false values
  • Island - relaxation, comfort, leisure; boring routine; isolation and aloofness
  • Lightning - revelation; awakening[ insight; purification; shock
  • Mausoleum - illness, death
  • Monster - grief, misfortune
  • Ogre - self-criticism
  • Poltergeist - lack of control
  • Rabies - anger, hostility, lack of control
  • Rat - doubt, worry, fear
  • Rot - wasted opportunity, potential
  • Satan - evil, wrongdoing
  • Serpent - intelligence, deception, temptation, sexual freedom
  • Skeleton - undeveloped potential or opportunity
  • Skin - ego defenses; superficiality
  • Skull - danger, death, evil
  • Spirit - death
  • Storm - overwhelming experience or emotion
  • Thunder - rage
  • Tomb - hidden aspects of the self
  • Torture - feelings of victimization or need for punishment
  • Vampire - sensuality, sexuality, death, drug addiction, dependency
  • Werewolf - posturing, insincerity, hypocrisy
  • Witch - destructive power of women
  • Zombie - emotional detachment

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The God of Desperation

Copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell. -- Matthew 10:28

Some say that the most frightening character in Stephen King’s Desperation is not the demon Tak or any of his human hosts but God.

The God of Desperation is not the Sunday school God, and he’s inscrutable and alien, unknowable and mysterious. He’s also omniscient and omnipotent. Everyone, it seems, underestimates him, including his servant, the pre-teen David, whom, because God’s power is evident in the boy, Tak fears and loathes.
When one of the characters is hesitant to follow the plan God, through David, lays out, saying that doing so could cost all of them their lives, David replies that God doesn’t care whether any of them lives or dies; all he wants is to stop Tak, and he’s prepared to do whatever he must to accomplish his purpose.

By the end of the story, most of the townspeople are dead, as are David’s family--both parents and his younger sister--and David concludes, “God is cruel.” The reader has seen that Tak rejoices in cruelty as well as death and destruction. What might have happened had the demon escaped from the Nevada desert town? Stopping him, even at so great a cost as the lives of those who resisted the demon, might have been worth it.

Years before, having been released early from school, David had nailed his pass to a tree outside his tree house, hundreds of miles from Desperation. At the end of the story, another character finds the same pass in his pocket and gives it to David. On the pass the words “God is love” appear. Which God seems, cruel or loving, is a matter of perspective, it seems, and perspective, in this world, is always finite.

Tak learns that, far from there being no God in Desperation, as he’d supposed, it was God who, from the beginning, had ordered all the events that transpired since--and maybe even before--the demon escaped from his imprisonment in the collapsed copper mine outside the town. Tak was defeated before he began his campaign of terror. For the demon, God seems to rule by virtue of his might. The God of Desperation is like the elephant in the parable of the blind men. Whatever part of the animal one happens to touch suggests the nature of the animal, but it is none of the things the men imagine it to be; it is more, and other.

By bringing God to Desperation to battle a demon never heard of before, rather than a familiar spirit such as Satan, King renews the mystery and the majesty of God. The God of Desperation is, again, transcendent and unknowable--mighty, cruel, loving, all of these things and much, much more. In Desperation, it is a terrible thing, once again, to fall into the hands of the living God.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why Monsters? Why Metaphors?

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: The answers to the "Creepy Crawlies Quiz" are posted at the end of this article.

If you’ve had a chance to read my other posts, you’ve seen that horror writers (perhaps more than writers in other genres of fiction) tend to use metaphors to represent existential and spiritual themes. Often, these metaphors take the forms of the monsters that function as the narratives’ antagonists. The questions naturally arise, Why monsters? Why metaphors?

There are likely to be many answers to these questions. In this installment, I’ll address the two that occur to me at the moment.

First, they have presence.

What do I mean by “presence”? Walker Percy illustrates the idea well in his novel The Moviegoer. His protagonist, Binx Bolling, a soldier at this time in the story, has been injured in a battle. As he lies upon the battlefield, he catches sight of a dung beetle. Normally, he probably wouldn’t have seen the insect and, if he had, he wouldn’t have been likely to devote careful study to it. However, he is not operating under normal circumstances, and he is astonished to see the beetle, in all its glorious detail. It has presence for him; it has become visible. In doing so, it has shed the malaise of everydayness and become real.

Here’s the way that Percy describes the scene:

. . . I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. . . . Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched there awoke within me an immense curiosity. I was onto something.

Later, a similar experience happens to Binx:

. . . This morning, as I got up, I dressed as usual and began as usual to put my belongings into my pockets: wallet, notebook. . . pencil, keys, handkerchief, slide rule. . . . They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues. . . . What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it. It is as invisible as his own hand. Once I saw it, however, the search became possible. . . .

We can all remember the times, usually as a child, during which we could lose ourselves in the contemplation of everyday objects such as a daisy or a drop of dew. We could see each grain of pollen, every glistening color of the rainbow that seemed to emanate from within the clear drop of early morning dew as it shimmered upon a green leaf. All the world was present in a grain of sand.

Then, as we grew older, things changed--or we changed. Saddled with responsibilities and governed by social expectations and conventions, our priorities changed. Eventually, we changed. We no longer had time to appreciate, admire, and embrace the world around us. We became alienated from our environment and estranged from or surroundings. We took for granted the wonders and enchantments of nature. More and more, the world began to disappear as we took birds and brooks, sun and moon, mountains and beaches, and pine trees and breezes for granted. The malaise of everydayness spread until we were nearly blind and deaf to the world around us. Things and people alike began to lack presence.

Occasionally, something happens, and we see again. We hear again. The world becomes present to us again, as the dung beetle became present for Binx. We recover the world or, perhaps, only a tiny portion of the world--maybe nothing more than a dung beetle. But it’s a start. If we can see an insect today, maybe someday we can see a forest or, looking into a looking-glass, even ourselves.

Monsters make us sit up and take notice. They grab our attention. They have immediate and intense presence, even in a world devoid of detail and force. Like a snake, a monster’s hard to miss. Emily Dickinson suggests this quality when she describes a hiker crossing a serpent’s path:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,--did you not?
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,
Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

The monster, likewise, is noticeable, immediately. That’s one reason that horror writers employ the monstrous. Monsters have presence. They’re bold font, italics, exclamation points, underlining.

Flannery O’Connor, asked why her fiction contains so many grotesque characters--physically, emotionally, or spiritually deformed characters (monsters, of a sort, really)--implied that she wrote for a “hostile audience“ and explained that, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”

Often, monsters are the horror writer’s way of getting their readers’ attention.

That’s one reason horror writers employ monsters in their fiction. Another reason is that, by doing so, such writers also help their readers to face truths that are even more hideous than the monsters that represent these truths.

It's bad enough to come face to face with a ghost, a vampire, or a zombie, but it’s worse yet to encounter Ted Bundy, a child with cancer, the loss of a limb (or a mind), or sudden blindness. Lots of things are worse than demons and trolls and werewolves--Alzheimer’s, insanity, spinal bifida--but, as a rule, people don’t want to think of themselves or their loved ones succumbing to such real-life bogeymen. Therefore, horror writers use stand-ins--goblins in place of serial killers, witches in lieu of drug addiction, alien parasites instead of heart disease, autism, or intellectual and developmental disabilities. By facing these understudies, readers learn how to face the actual situations, circumstances, and incidents that these monsters symbolize.

In the process, we come to understand that we can survive losses more terrible than we want to imagine--or to face.

Note: These are the answers to the "Creepy Crawlies Quiz":

1. B; 2. B; 23. D; 4. B; 5. C; 6. A; 7. B, 8. C; 9. A; 10. C.

Understanding Monsters

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

Today, when we think of monsters, we envision something like Frankenstein’s creature, a troll, or a misshapen blob. That’s not what the word originally meant--or not quite what it meant. “Monster” initially referred to an animal or other creature (humans, for example) that were malformed, often because of a birth defect. The word “monster” meant, literally, “omen, portent, or sign,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and monsters were regarded as “signs or omens of impending evil.” The sense of “abnormal or prodigious animals composed of parts of creatures,” a la many of the creatures of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and other mythologies, originated about 1385, the dictionary asserts, adding that the “sense of ‘person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness’ is from 1556.” By 1556, “monster” had come to also signify a “person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness.”

What was monstrous about monsters? The etymology of the word “monstrous,” the adjective derived from the noun “monster,” gives us a clue or two: “Monstrous,” according to the dictionary meant “unnatural, deviating from the natural order, hideous,” picking up the additional senses of meaning of “enormous” and “outrageously wrong” only later. The existence of monsters was once a subject of study known as teratology (from “teratos,” meaning “marvel” or “monster,” and “-ology,” meaning “study of”).

The etymologies of many of the words for monsters disclose the fears upon which many of them rested. Often, monsters were associated not only with death as such, but also with the horrible way in which one died at the hands--or rather, at the teeth and claws--of various monsters. Often, the unnatural creatures ate people alive, perhaps regarding them much as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s vampire, Spike, thought of people--as “Happy Meals with legs.” However, a victim might be strangled (and then eaten, dead). For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary relates the following information concerning:
  • Manticore = man-eater
  • Ogre = man-eating giant
  • Orc = devouring monster
  • Sphinx = strangler.

A monster such as the water-dwelling afranc, with appetites for cattle rather than humans, was also feared, because, in eating the cattle, it deprived people of beef (although, it might be supposed, from the cattle’s point of view, the humans who consume them might also have been monsters). After all, what frightens us, as we observe in “Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of

Fear,” is really threats to the people and things we hold dear.

Some monsters suggest that we fear meaninglessness, too (a threat to our need to believe that our existence is important and purposeful). Some unnatural creatures imply that life, including human existence, might be absurd. One such monster is the moon-calf, whose name meant “abortive, shapeless, fleshly mass.” (One thinks of a tumor or an aborted fetus, perhaps.)

What’s most interesting to me is that the word “monster” is contrasted with the concept of normalcy, because a monster, originally, was a creature that was considered, in some way, unnatural. The ancients, of course, believed in natural laws. In physics, these were the laws of nature that controlled cosmic events. For society, similar laws of human nature controlled--or, at least, determined--what was right and proper conduct. These laws were inborn; they were the essential qualities with which one was born and which governed--or should govern--his or her behavior. To act against these natural laws was to act against nature, or to act unnaturally--to behave as a monster and, therefore, to become a monster.

Source Cited

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fill-in-the-Blanks (Don't panic! It's not a quiz!)

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

There are many ways to generate a plot idea and to develop it so that the action that flows from the idea follows the format of the traditional story.

A traditional story depicts its main character as wanting to attain a goal for a definite, specific reason. The main character is then pitted against an adversary, the story’s antagonist, who wants to attain the same goal or a conflicting one for a reason of his or her own.

As a result, the main character encounters a series of increasingly more difficult obstacles. At first, all goes either poorly or well. (If the story is a comedy, things go poorly at first; if it’s to be a tragedy, things go well at first.) At the story’s turning point, the main character’s fortune changes for the better or the worse. If things were going poorly to begin with, they improve. If things were going well at the beginning of the story, they begin to deteriorate.

At the end of the story, for a reason that fits the set of circumstances involved, the main character either attains his or her goal or does not do so (or realizes that the goal was not as important as he or she had once supposed). As a result of the experience that the main character has undergone, he or she learns a lesson. The lesson is the theme of the story.

One way to make sure you develop your story along these lines is to use the fill-in-the blank approach. Here’s a template that you can use:

The main character, _________________ _________________, wants to
_________________ because _________________ , but he or she must struggle against _________________ _________________, who wants _________________ because _________________. This story takes place in _________________ (location) in _________________ (time period). To attain his or her goal, _________________ _________________ (the main character) must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: _________________, _________________, and _________________ (add more if desired). For the main character, for whom everything goes _________________ (well or poorly) at the beginning of the story, the turning point (climax) occurs when he or she _________________, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to _________________(worsen or improve). At the end of the story, _________________ _________________ (the main character) _________________ (attains or does not attain) his or her goal, because _________________ (reason), learning that _________________ (lesson learned from the experience; the story’s theme) and, as a result, changes by _________________ (how the main character changes).

Now, let’s see how the template would look if it had been used to outline The Wizard of Oz (film version) in which we've added bold font to highlight the key information:

The main character, Dorothy Gale, wants to return to her home in Kansas because she is homesick, but she must struggle against the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants Dorothy‘s ruby slippers because they are magic. This story takes place in Oz (location) in the present day (time period). To attain her goal, Dorothy Gale (the main character) must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: escape the fighting trees, survive the deadly poppy field, and seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick (add more if desired). For the main character, for whom everything goes poorly (well or poorly) at the beginning of the story, the turning point (climax) occurs when he or she is sent by the Wizard to seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to improve (worsen or improve). At the end of the story, Dorothy Gale (the main character) attains (attains or does not attain) his or her goal, because Glinda, the Good Witch, tells Dorothy how to use the ruby slippers to take her home (reason), learning that there‘s no place like home (lesson learned from the experience; the story’s theme) and, as a result, changes by being content with her life on the Kansas farm (how the main character changes).

In future installments, we’ll consider other effective ways to generate plot ideas and develop the story’s action.

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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