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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Basic Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror Plots

Copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

My analysis of a number of horror novels, short stories, and movies has turned up no fewer than two dozen plots that are routinely used in horror, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and other genres of popular fiction. Don’t be surprised if they pop up in a few classic literary texts, too.

Invasion: An outside threat attacks a community. The community may be idealized, as a near-perfect place to live. Many residents are likely to be introduced. The reader is apt to like or sympathize with many of them. A few may be unlikable because they are arrogant, condescending, cruel, obscene, racist, or unfaithful. Some of these may become victims of the entity or force that attacks the community. Although the community may be a total institution, such as a hospice, a hotel, a nursing home, a private school, or a prison, it is often an entire town. A community, to some extent, may be regarded as an extension of one's home, as the term "hometown" suggests; therefore, one's neighbors may be regarded as one's extended family. In attacking a community, the invader is attacking one's home and family, both immediate and extended. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Invasion plot are Invaders From Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Relic, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, Desperation, The Regulators, Summer of Night, The Taking, and Stinger. A non-fantasy/horror/science fiction story that is based on the Invasion plot is Taps, in which the students at a military academy repel an attempt by the police to shut down the school (to allow its conversion into a condominium complex) and, ultimately, take on the National Guard. Prototype: Satan’s invasion of the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

Fools Rush In: Characters enter the monster’s lair: To conduct a rescue, to neutralize a threat, to capture an unusual animal, to gather plants that may be the source for a new miracle drug, to conduct scientific research, or for a number of other (sometimes foolish) reasons, a character or, more often, a team of characters, enters the place in which a dangerous entity or force resides or is located, and the entity or force protects its territory with disastrous results for the character or team that has entered its lair. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Fools Rush In plot include Alien, Predator, King Kong, Anaconda, Subterranean, and Descent.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Characters seek to capture, kill, or otherwise abuse or exploit a monster: This plot is a subtype of the fools rush in plot in which a character or team of characters enters the territory of an unusual organism specifically to capture it or to kill it. The reason for wanting to capture it varies. The capture may be for the purpose of displaying the organism, studying it, or neutralizing it. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Let Sleeping Dogs Lie plot are King Kong, Anaconda, and Predator.

Serendipity: A chance discovery leads to mayhem. The Thing, Alien, and Rendezvous With Rama are based on the Serendipity plot. Prototype: Pandora’s Box।

Hubris: Pride goes before a fall: (Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, The Island of Dr. Moreau). Prototype: Satan’s rebellion against God in Paradise Lost, which is suggested, but not dramatized, in the Bible.

Deliverance: A hero or a company of heroes seeks to slay or otherwise get rid of a monster: Often, this plot, although it can stand alone, is an extension of the Invasion plot. Once the invader has invaded, one or more characters seek to deliver the community by evicting the invader. Occasionally, the character or characters may travel from one location to another in pursuit of the invader, driving him, her, or it from one invaded community after another. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Deliverance plot are Beowulf, The Exorcist, It, Summer of Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Taking. Examples of non-fantasy/horror/science fiction stories that are based on the Deliverance plot are Have Gun, Will Travel, The A Team, and Pale Rider. In Have Gun, Will Travel, a gunfighter offers his services for hire, sometimes in the deliverance of a town that is being run by corrupt officials and their hired guns. The A Team is a group of four Vietnam veterans, framed for a crime they didn't commit, who help the innocent while on the run from the military; often, their help consists of ridding a town or a group of people of a bully. In Pale Rider, a gunfighter poses as a preacher for a group of gold prospectors, delivering them from local gunmen when he seeks revenge for having been shot and whipped by the gunmen and their leader. Prototype: Moses’ deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in Exodus.

Call To Duty: A prophecy must be fulfilled, a quest must be undertaken, or a mission must be accomplished: Often the call to duty has worldwide, or even cosmic, implications and long-lasting, or even eternal, consequences and may involve supernatural entities and forces, including God and his angels or Satan and his demons. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Call to Duty plot are Excalibur!, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, It, and Summer of Night. Prototype: Abraham’s call to become the “father of many nations,” which was preceded, on a smaller scale, by God’s call to Noah to build the ark that saves a remnant of humanity (Noah and his family) from the universal flood of God’s wrath against sin.

Need To Feed: A monster is hungry; people are its food: To survive, characters must figure out a way to outsmart or circumvent the monster. The Need To Feed plot may be regarded as the Freudian oral stage of psychosexual development out of control. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Need To Feed plot are Tremors, Jaws, and Dracula.

Need To Breed: A monster needs to reproduce, but, to do so, it requires a human mate: A search, with a series of fatalities, may be needed before the monster can find the right mate with which to breed, and the breeding itself may have fatal consequences to the human partner. Sometimes, the Need To Breed takes a technological rather than a biological form, as in Rejuvenator and Demon Seed. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Need To Feed plot are Species, Rosemary‘s Baby, and Demon Seed.

Something To Prove: The main character has something to prove--courage, innocence, judgment: Jurassic Park is, in part, based on the Something To Prove plot.

Too Good To Be True: Beware a bargain! The main character makes a deal, usually with the devil, only to find that the price that he or she must pay far outweighs the benefits, power, or gift that he or she receives in exchange: (“What profits a man who gains the world and loses his own soul?”) Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Too Good To Be True plot are Faust, The Amityville Horror, Needful Things, and The Devil’s Apprentice.

Redemption or Assuaged Guilt: A character attempts to redeem him- or herself or someone else (a family member or a friend) for a past misdeed: Usually, the past misdeeds will be monstrous--far greater wrongs than are done by most other people (matricide, patricide, the killing of a sibling, rape, perjury that results in another person’s imprisonment or execution)-- and, consequently, the redemption, if it comes at all, will be a laborious and protracted process. Often, the character will doubt that he or she can ever be pardoned or forgiven and that, for him or her, the whole process is futile; nevertheless, out of a guilt and a sense, perhaps, of moral responsibility, if not hope for ultimate redemption, the tortured character will persist in performing his or her penance. Example of stories that are based on the Assuaged Guilt plot are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Angel. Prototype: The redemption of humanity in Christ, as told in the Gospels.

Avengers, Assemble!: A wronged person seeks revenge (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The X-Men). Non-fantasy/horror/science fiction movies that are based on the Avengers, Assemble! plot are Sudden Impact, in which the sister of a woman whose gang rape caused her to become catatonic becomes a vigilante, avenging her sister by tracking down and killing her assailants; Rolling Thunder, in which a war hero seeks revenge against the thugs who, in stealing silver dollars from him, kill his wife and son and destroy his hand; and the Death Wish series, in which A New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad against those who have killed his wife, his daughter, and other innocent people.

The Devil Made Me Do It: A character does evil because he or she is possessed by the devil or a demon or is the literal or figurative child of Satan: Examples of novels and movies that are based on The Devil Made Me Do It plot are The Exorcist, The Omen, Faust, The Regulators, Desperation, and The Devil‘s Advocate). Prototype: Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

Greed: Greed outweighs common sense and decency; as a result, someone is usually maimed or killed: In part, King Kong, Jaws, and Poltergeist are based on the Greed plot.

People Are Such Animals!: Men and women turn into beasts: Such transformation stories tap into the sometimes-fine line between the human and the bestial, suggesting that, despite art, culture, and civilization, human beings are closer to the so-called lower animals than they’d care to admit and may act on the same instincts as those upon which animals act, especially on the need to feed and the need to breed. Usually, the only way to end the nightmare is to kill the beast. Examples of novels and films that are based on the People Are Such Animals! Plot are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wolfman, The Howling, and Silver Bullet.

Experiment Goes Awry: A mad scientist’s research runs amuck: This is often a subtype of the Hubris plot, the scientist’s arrogance leading to his or her manipulation of nature with disastrous, unforeseen effects. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Invasion plot are Frankenstein, The Fly, The Island of Dr, Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The Food of the Gods.

Cannibals: Human monsters enjoy gourmet food--people: Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Cannibals plot are Soylent Green, The Silence of the Lambs, The Hills Have Eyes, and Ravenous.

Wrong Turn: A simple mistake or a purposeful cover up has fatal consequences: Wrong Turn and I Know What You Did Last Summer are based on the Wrong Turn plot.

Ragnarok: Something or someone is trying to end the world, often as a prelude to establishing a world of its own: This plot differs from the Invasion plot because the antagonist’s threat is not merely occupation but the annihilation of the invaded community, and the community is not merely a total institution or a town, but the entire world (although the annihilation may begin on a local scale). Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Ragnarok plot are War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars, and The Taking. Prototypes: Revelation in the Bible, Ragnarok (in Norse mythology).

Starting Over: Having survived an apocalyptic catastrophe, natural or man-made, such as a universal flood, a nuclear holocaust, or a plague, a remnant of humanity overcomes extreme hardship and dangers as they rebuild their lost civilization. This plot requires a vast setting and many characters. Often, several small groups will compete against one another for dominance or to become the sole survival, Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Post-apocalyptic Starting Over plot are Damnation Alley, The Stand, Swan’s Song, A Boy and His Dog, The Omega Man, and Road Warrior (a. k. a. Mad Max II).

Dystopia: The world has gone to hell, without the hand basket: The dystopian world is the opposite of a utopia, or heaven on earth, in which, frequently, human beings have been reduced to slavery and are ruled by a ruthless, often barbaric, elite. George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are non-horror examples, as is Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Do or Die: A heroic character must complete a series of tasks or he or someone he loves will be killed; sometimes, a clock is ticking: An examples of a story that is based on the Do or Die plot is Dean Koontz's Velocity. Prototype: The 12 Labors of Hercules.

Copycat Killers: Crimes (usually murder) are based on urban legends or are copied from other, previous crimes. Often, in committing these crimes, the perpetrator seeks to share the notoriety of the original criminal (Urban Legends).

Building Up the Plot

The 24 basic plots identified above may be too simple, by themselves, to keep readers or moviegoers interested in the story. However, they provide the foundation for building a more complex plot that will keep readers or audience members’ interest. These are some ways that writers build from the 24 simple plots to more complex plots:

Outer and Inner: Relate the basic plot’s outer (natural or social) conflict to the protagonist’s inner (psychological) conflict: For example, in The Exorcist, the battle is between the priest and the devil, but it is also a struggle between the priest and himself, as he tries to hold on to the tattered remnants of his faith, which was shattered by his mother’s protracted suffering and death (a concrete example of the philosophical concern for the so-called problem of evil).

Bigger Is Better: Relate the basic plot’s outer conflict to an area of human concern (religion, politics, art, science) that is bigger than the protagonist and his or her immediate concerns: In Pale Rider, the protagonist avenges himself against sadistic men who shot and beat him; in the process, he prevents similar men from expelling gold prospectors from their goldfield and the denial of the better life that they hope to create for their families with the gold that they find. The individual, while serving his own needs, serves those of the community (or the world).

Fantastic Reality: The basic plot’s outer plot, especially if it is fantastic, can be related to a realistic psychological, social, or other outer struggle: In King Kong, the film producer who captures the giant ape hopes that, by displaying it for admission, he can avert the financial ruin that threatens him during the Great Depression.

Metaphorical Monsters: Make the monster a metaphor for a real-life problem that the protagonist faces (neglect, ostracism, drug addiction, spousal abuse); by vanquishing the monster (if vanquish it he or she does), the main character finds acceptance, self-acceptance, or freedom: In “Dead Man’s Party,” Buffy Summers attacks zombies which, as her friend Xander Harris informs her (and the viewer), are symbolic of thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that she has sought to repress: “You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get you.”

Social Commentary: Like Huckleberry Finn, fantasy/science fiction/and horror novels and movies can provide social commentary about current events or eternal questions, examining such topics as dehumanization, euthanasia, interracial marriage, poverty, racism, religious intolerance, or repression of free speech, or war: The Regulators examines the negative effect of children’s television, particularly its violent content, on children’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Children of the Corn shows the murderous and suicidal results of an unquestioned devotion to religious doctrine. ‘Salem’s Lot and Needful Things shows the conformity, hypocrisy, corruption, and greed that often underlies the ideal image of the American small town.

Questioning Politically Correct Assumptions: Some fantasy/science fiction/and horror novels and movies question politically correct assumptions, one of which is that xenophobia is unnecessary and bigoted: Since it is directed at anyone who is a stranger, xenophobia is the most general form of bigotry, indiscriminate in its prejudice. One should welcome, not fear, strangers, critics of xenophobia contend. Such novels and movies as Childhood’s End challenge the truth of the politically correct assumptions behind xenophobia’s critics’ contentions. Offering friendship to strangers, these stories suggest, could get a person--or an entire people--or the whole human race--destroyed.

This Is That: This treatment of the basic plot is similar to that of the Bigger Is Better and the Metaphorical Monster treatment: In fact, it is a combination, of sorts, of these two treatments in which one state of affairs is a metaphor or an analogy for another, greater state of affairs that is similar to it. An example is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which some critics contend, is, paradoxically, simultaneously both “an allegory for the loss of personal autonomy under Communism and as a satire of McCarthyist paranoia about Communism” (Wikipedia article on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 film)”). A non-fantasy/science fiction/horror story that uses a This Is That plot treatment is Animal Farm, in which the farm represents a Communist society (Soviet Russia) ruled by an elite (the Communist Party, headed by Vladimir Lenin.)

Strength In Numbers: This treatment suggests the importance of community or at least cooperation among individuals, for it demonstrates that by such means, a group may vanquish a threat that individuals alone could not hope to conquer: Examples of this treatment abound and include It, Summer of Night, ‘Salem’s Lot, Desperation, The Regulators, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, Excalibur!, The X-Men, Tremors, and many others.

New World Exploration: Another way to build a simple plot into a more complex one is to set the action in an undiscovered or new world. This treatment is especially appropriate for fantasy and science fiction novels. Even in novels set in the everyday world, a fresh perspective on a familiar environment can make the familiar seem unusual or bizarre. (Situation comedies often use this technique, making the main character or characters new kids on the block or fish out of water, as it were.) By displacing them from a familiar to a strange environment, writers broaden these characters’ experience; at the same time, writers can depict the new environment as it is seen by the displaced person. James Rollins frequently employs this technique in his novels, as do the writers of The Beverly Hillbillies television series.

3 comments:

PJ said...

Great analysis. Super blog!

lazlo azavaar said...

Wow, you pretty much covered everything there, Gary. Great job!

lazlo azavaar said...

Wow, you pretty much covered everything there, Gary. Great job!

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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