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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nature and Nurture: Character and Setting as Destiny

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman


Why did you throw the jack of hearts away?
It was the only card in the deck I had left to play.


--The Doors

During the O. J. Simpson trial, observers claimed that, on his defendant’s behalf, attorney Johnny Cochran played the “race card.” Dancing with the Stars critics said that, in an effort to endear herself to the show’s audience and judges, contestant Marie Osmond played the “sympathy card.” Historians claim that the cards that Wild Bill Hickock was playing, which contained aces and eights, comprise the “dead man’s hand,” because he was shot to death while gambling with them.

These allusions are based upon the old analogy that compares one’s personal attributes and assets to the hand that one is dealt at birth. Life, according to this view, is not just any game; it's a card game. It’s a gamble. The stakes may vary, but the goal is always the same: to play the cards one has been dealt to one’s best advantage in the hope of winning the pot.

Even before poker, the life = game equation was popular. The Tarot deck is based upon this notion, and, as a result, its devotees claim, the Tarot hand that one is dealt can foretell his or her future, or fortune.

Beowulf, a poem that is interesting for many reasons, shows us the same thing that a study of Greek mythology discloses: humans, like the gods themselves, were subject to the whims of fate. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, Zeus (or Beowulf) might propose, but it was the Fates (or fate) who disposed of the issues, or determined the outcome of the events, of the day. In the days of ancient Greece, the Fates, envisioned as three sisters, were the ones who decided how events would play out. In Beowulf, the Fates have become fate, an impersonal force, much as the Norse goddess Hel became the impersonal place, hell, in Christian belief. Nevertheless, in both the worlds of the ancient Greeks and of the medieval Norsemen, Geats included, it was not the gods or humans who had the final say as to how incidents or actions, including their own, would turn out. There was a power higher than theirs, to which their own wills were subject.

Beowulf was told and retold for centuries before it was finally committed to paper. The person who wrote it down for posterity was a Christian, and, upon the pagan folkways and beliefs evident in the poem, the scribe overlaid references to Christian faith and doctrine. As a result, there is an uneasy alliance between the pagan and the Christian world views that is incompatible and conflicting. Some may suppose that this duality of vision weakens the poem, but it may be argued that the juxtaposition of these two Weltanschauung, in fact, enriches the narrative. The poem shows what the Norse philosophy of life and social values were before their Christian conversion and what they were becoming during, and would be after, this conversion. For example, before, Beowulf attributed his victories over his foes to fate; afterward, he credits them to God’s will. This twofold attribution of success indicates that, gradually, the idea that it is an impersonal fate that determines the affairs of humans was being replaced by the belief that God’s will is the determinant of such outcomes. In other words, fate becomes God's will. The doctrine of predestination develops this idea with rigorous logic, making humans little more than automatons whose behavior consists of little more than actions that are programmed from the beginning--that is, from eternity--by the will of God.

In the pagan world, the cards one is dealt would have been said to have been dealt by the Fates or by fate. In the Christian world, it is God who deals the cards.


A person might be dealt any of the 22 Major Arcana cards or the 14 Minor Arcana cards of the Tarot deck. All of these cards signified and brought about particular things. Today, people don’t usually think of a person as having any particular set of cards of such a predetermined nature in the hands that fate or God deals to him or her. Instead, whatever personal attributes and assets a person has or accumulates are usually considered the cards that he or she has been dealt. Over time, the cards in a person’s hand may change as one is lost or another is acquired. Were we to apply this concept to Beowulf, we might say that his cards included courage, unusually great strength and stamina, martial prowess, longevity, wisdom, loyalty, compassion, great wealth, popularity, and kingship. When circumstances warranted his doing so, he might play one or more of these cards. In his fights with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, he played his courage, strength and stamina, and martial prowess cards; as king, he played his loyalty, compassion, and wisdom cards.

Human destiny is complex and impossible to know in advance. Life seems to be a gamble. We also sometimes do not know the full extent of our personal attributes and assets until we are, as it were, called upon by circumstances to use them. We are not always privy to every card in our hands; sometimes, some must be played from a face-down position. Luck (in pagan terms) or divine will (in Christian terms) has a role to play as well. By using such metaphors and analogies as life = gamble, life = game, and one’s personal attributes and assets = a hand of cards, we reduce these complex sets of incidents, circumstances, and actions to simpler, more understandable ideas. Whether any of these ideas is objectively true is perhaps unknowable, but they are, at least, true to one’s sense of how things are and of how things work. They seem to explain. They make sense to us emotionally, if not rationally.

What does all this have to do with character and setting? Writers play God (or fate) when they write stories. The writer is the one who deals the cards that the characters must play, giving or withholding this personal attribute or that individual asset. It was the writer--and the group of storytellers before him--who gave Beowulf his courage, unusually great strength and stamina, martial prowess, longevity, wisdom, loyalty, compassion, great wealth, popularity, and kingship, just as it was Charles Dickens, for example, who gave Ebenezer Scrooge his greed and stinginess, his callous disregard for others, and his capacities--at first unrealized--for compassion, sympathy, and love.

The cards that writers deal to their characters represent the genetic inheritance of these imaginary persons. But genetics is only one influence, as scientists remind us, that affects--and determines--behavior. We’re products of our environments as much as we are the products of our genes. Both nature and nurture make us who and what we are and who and what we become.

If the personal attributes and assets of the individual character represent his or her genetic inheritance, as it were, what represents the character’s environment? In fiction, the setting is the time, the place, and the cultural milieu into which the character is born. The setting may be past, present, or future. It may involve a tyranny, a theocracy, a monarchy, an oligarchy, or a democracy. It may be secular or religious. It may be amoral, moral, or immoral. It may be a universe or the microcosm of a total institution, such as a boarding school or a prison. It may be a metropolis or an island. It may be urban, suburban, or rural. It may be a rain forest or a desert, a castle or a shanty, this world or another planet in a galaxy far, far away; it may even be heaven or hell. Obviously, if a character were born into or lives in any one of these settings, his or her development would differ--in many cases, radically--from his or her development in another setting. Beowulf, both because of the cards he’s dealt and the time and place in which he lives, is a very different character than Ebenezer Scrooge!


By giving characters specific attributes and assets and by setting their lives in particular times, places, and cultural milieus, writers mimic the genetic and environmental aspects of human existence, providing their imaginary people with the gifts of nature and nurture that actual humans receive from evolution, geography, and culture. Whereas, for people, these gifts are likely to be seen as the effects of accident, luck, or grace, there’s no doubt as to who provides them to fictional characters, and they are given deliberately so that each character can fulfill his or her role in the drama the author has determined to create. The writer, depending upon one’s perspective, is, for his or her characters, fate or god.

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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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