Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Generating Horror Plots, Part II

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the first three of a baker’s dozen (plus one) of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.

1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

2. Develop a continuing theme. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

3. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.



4. Rescue a damsel in distress. Perhaps Dean Koontz uses this technique for generating horror plots more than any of his contemporaries, especially in his more recent novels, including The Husband and The Good Guy. In Koontz’s universe, a woman can seldom protect and defend herself, or even find her way through life, without relying upon a strong, competent, able-bodied, and taciturn man. The women’s ineptitude in this regard often cause rather improbable plots on Koontz’s part. Nevertheless, his stories tend to be suspenseful, fun reads. In The Husband, Mitch Rafferty, a gardener, receives a telephone call from his wife’s kidnapper. He tells Mitch to watch a man who is walking his dog across the street. The man is shot and killed on the kidnapper’s orders, demonstrating that he is dead serious about killing Mitch’s wife, Holly, if Mitch tips off the police or fails to provide the hefty ransom that the abductor demands--one which is way beyond Mitch’s financial scope. Fortunately, as it turns out, Mitch’s brother is wealthy, but, of course, the plot twists and turns to the point that the reader wonders whether Mitch will ever rescue Holly or even manage to stay alive himself. The Good Guy’s storyline is similar. This time, the blue-collar worker is Tim Carrier, a stone mason. He’s having a drink at a local bar when a man arrives and, mistaking him for the hit man he’s hired to kill a woman, hands him his $10,000 fee and a photograph of the intended target, Linda Paquette, a Laguna Beach writer (like Koontz himself). Minutes later, the hit man, Krait, enters the bar, mistaking Tim for his client. Tim hands him the money he’s just received, telling Krait that he’s changed his mind about having Paquette killed. Then, he finds the intended target, and he and Paquette flee, the killer on their trail. Fortunately, Tim’s past has well prepared him to be Paquette’s protector, for Krait is an able and relentless, conscienceless killer. Koontz’s modern knights in white armor will uphold the tradition of chivalry, no matter how dead it may be in the everyday world in which the rest of us have to live.

5. Find the strange in the familiar. Two specimens of this approach may be offered, one as much a failure as the other is a success. Although we have discussed them previously, we offer a truncated version of our previous discussions here to demonstrate the technique of finding the strange in the familiar. The failure is the film, The Happening (2008), which was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. As most horror stories of this kind begin, the movie starts by showing a series of bizarre, seemingly inexplicable occurrences: mass suicides and murders by individuals and groups whose behavior is markedly aberrant. As the series of such incidents continue, spreading from person to person, from group to group, and from town to town, various theories are considered and abandoned as to the cause of the strange happenings. Is a bio-terrorist attack behind the events? Is it an epidemic of some kind? A botanist thinks that plants may be responsible for the murder and mayhem, releasing airborne toxins to defend themselves against humanity. The protagonist, a scientist named Elliot Moore, and his wife Alma take refuge with an murdered friend and colleague’s orphaned daughter Hess inside an eccentric old woman’s house as the plants continue to press their attack. Their hostess becomes infected, but they escape her attempts to kill them and, later, leave the house, surprised to find that the attacks have ceased. Three months later, watching TV, Elliot, Alma, and their adopted daughter hear a newscaster warn that the mysterious happening might have been but “the first spot of a rash” to come. Alma discovers she is pregnant, and, as she and Elliot celebrate, another series of bizarre suicides and murders take place in France. The film seeks to find the strange in the familiar, seeing flowers and shrubs and trees, especially those which blow in high winds, to be as menacing as poisonous weeds, but it is difficult to fear vegetation, wind or no wind, and the suspense simply doesn’t build, despite the mad and dangerous behavior of the infected humans whom the plants are bent upon exterminating. The heavy-handed, moralistic environmentalist theme of the movie is about as profound in its delivery as a PETA ad. The plot suffers in other ways, as does the characterization of all the players, but these are matters outside the present concern. A story that is more successful in eliciting the strange within the familiar is Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” Stoker suggests, far more subtly and effectively than Shyamalan, that there may be prodigious unseen powers operating behind the scenes, so to speak, of the natural events that take place in a remote stretch of forested countryside outside Munich on Walpurgis Night. Stoker he suggests that a tall, thin man who’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere and vanished as abruptly after frightening the coachman’s horses and leaving the Englishman stranded in the countryside as twilight gathers toward Walpurgis Night may be the unseen watcher, and perhaps also the occult, supernatural force that seems to control such natural forces as the weather, the wolves, the effects of the blizzard, and the hail. Alternatively, a note to Herr Delbruck by Dracula suggests that Transylvanian count himself may be opposed to whatever supernatural force is controlling these forces of nature and that, as this power’s adversary, he is acting, for reasons of his own, as the Englishman’s protector, however short-lived this self-assigned role may turn out to be. Examples of other stories that are more or less successful in seeking the strange within the familiar are Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 and most of the stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Concerning the finding of the strange in the familiar, the reader is advised to peruse the several articles that we have posted previously on Thrillers and Chillers, under the heading “Everyday Horrors.”



6. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). The past is prologue to the present. Stephen King employs this technique in It, in which an ancient evil makes a reappearance in Derry, Maine, every 27 years. In its last previous appearance, it was defeated by the Losers Club, who reunite as adults to take it on when it makes its next appearance in town. In Summer of Night, a novel that is similar in both plot and theme to King’s It, Dan Simmons’ ancient evil, associated with the House of Borgia, seeks to establish itself in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, but it encounters the determined resistance of five pre-teen boys and a street-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Bentley Little also employs the technique of bringing up the past and relating it as prologue to present catastrophes on several of his novels, including The Resort, in which a former nightmarish resort, although razed long ago, somehow determines the fate of a present, nearby resort and what befalls its staff and guests. A movie that takes this tack is Poltergeist, wherein, because a housing development has been built upon an Indian burial ground, there is hell to pay.

Stay tuned: We will explore additional horror plot staples in subsequent posts.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Generating Horror Plots, Part 1

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the first three of a baker’s dozen (plus one) of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.

1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We can thank Edgar Allan Poe for this one. The narrator of his short story “Berenice” asks, “How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?” In most beautiful persons, places, and things, there is the potential for hidden ugliness. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” are examples, as is Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In “The Birthmark,” Georgiana is an exquisitely beautiful young woman with but one defect. She has an unsightly birthmark that prevents her husband, a scientist named Aylmer, from viewing her as physically perfect. He becomes obsessed with this blemish, and Georgiana comes to share her husband’s fixation. Together, assisted by Aminadab, Aylmer’s aide, the couple seeks to remove the birthmark, but, when they succeed, Georgiana dies. The ugliness, of course, is not in the birthmark, but in Aylmer’s attitude and superficiality. In “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” a scientist, conducting a secret experiment with exotic poisonous plants, keeps his daughter, as a research subject, locked inside the garden that doubles as his laboratory. A medical student, Giovanni, falls in love with Beatrice, visiting her in the garden, whereupon he falls victim to plants’ poison--and to the now-poisonous Beatrice as well. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the oil portrait of the title character ages and becomes uglier and uglier, suffering the consequences of his sins while Gray himself remains youthful and healthy, right up to the moment that he plunges a knife into his likeness and dies, a withered and grotesque old man.

2. Develop a continuing theme. Again, Poe exemplifies the process. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” he argues that the death of a beautiful young woman is the most poetic topic in the world, and this theme is the basis for not only his poems The Raven and “Anabelle Lee,” but also such of his stories as “The Oval Portrait” and “Berenice.” Since we have discussed both The Raven and “The Oval Portrait” in previous posts, we will restrict our current consideration of Poe’s works to “Anabelle Lee” and “Berenice.” “Anabelle Lee” recounts the suspicions of the narrator that angels killed his beloved Anabelle because they were jealousy of her surpassing beauty. Nevertheless, he believes that their love for one another transcends time and space and that, once he is dead, he shall be reunited with her for eternity. Meanwhile, he sleeps beside her tomb by the sea each night, where, in the stars, he imagines he sees her loving gaze. In “Berenice,” Egaeus, planning to wed his cousin, becomes obsessed with the beauty of her teeth. Berenice’s health fails, and, after she dies, Egaeus’ servant brings him the horrible news that Berenice’s grave has been violated. Covered in blood, and with dental instruments beside him, Egaeus realizes that, in a somnambulistic-like state, has robbed his beloved’s grave and extracted the teeth from her corpse. (The fact that Berenice may have suffered from catalepsy and may, therefore, have been mistakenly buried alive, adds to the horror of the story.)


3. Enact revenge. Poe, once again, exemplifies this approach in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, also demonstrates how the theme of vengeance can advance a horror story’s plot. In Poe’s story, Montresor, believing that his guest, a wine expert named Fortunato, has insulted him, lures Fortunato into Montresor’s wine cellar, on the pretext that he wishes Fortunato to evaluate a cask of Amontillado wine Montresor has purchased recently. Instead, after getting Fortunato drunk by pausing to have him sample various other wines along the way, Montresor walls his guest up, alive, behind bricks he lays while Fortunato is chained to a wall, leaving him to die. King’s Carrie White has telekinetic powers, which she uses to avenge herself against her cruel classmates and her insane mother, whose religious fanaticism has been a vehicle of psychological abuse for years, leaving Carrie ill prepared to deal with such matters as adolescence, sex, and the society of her peers. Of course, many other horror stories also employ the revenge motif. It is one of the staples of horror plots, both past and present, and, it seems safe to predict, it will continue to remain such in the future.


In subsequent posts, we will consider some of the other techniques by which horror writers develop storylines.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Making a Scene

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The scene is the building block of the short story, the novel, or the screenplay. It features one or more characters; a conflict; dialogue, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, or some other representation of the character’s or characters’ thoughts and feelings; and, like the full-fledged story of which it is a part, a scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end that is developed climactically; and the scene advances a larger, specific purpose, such as developing the narrative’s overall plot, introducing an important character, intensifying suspense, complicating the story’s basic conflict, introducing or developing a related subplot, characterizing an important character, delineating the setting, and so forth.

In horror stories, whether in print or on film, the scene also usually (but not always) communicates something terrifying, horrific, or repulsive. What Edgar Allan Poe advises, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” concerning the short story (or narrative poem) as a whole applies also to the scene: it must be carefully plotted, with the single, unifying effect that is to be created in mind from the start, and everything in the scene should lead to the development of this effect. In short, one must know one’s purpose in writing the scene--what he or she means to accomplish by it--before putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. One must remember to connect one scene with the next through a series of cause-and-effect relationships. One scene, in other words, must logically lead to the next, and it, in turn, must lead to the one after it, and so forth, throughout the story. There mist be a reason, or purpose, for each scene. Otherwise, irrelevancies and confusion will be introduced into what, otherwise, might have been a meaningful and intelligible, perhaps even gripping, story.

In fact, whether the writer also happens to be an illustrator or not, he or she can make some rough pictures, similar to the sketches that make up a film’s storyboard, to indicate the scene’s basic purpose, structure, and Storyboards: What Are They? offers tips for storyboard construction that could aid writers in developing story scenes. The website’s article reduces the process to six steps:
  1. Think of your story as a video.
  2. In your first frame show an overview of your primary setting. Let the setting help communicate the point you want to get across or the mood you want to set.
  3. Make frames that show the 5 W’s. [These elements are identified as the scene’s “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” elements.]
  4. Identify the characters. [These characters are identified as the protagonist and the antagonist.]
  5. Plot. [Specify the problem, the climax, and the resolution, or the means by which the “problem is solved--which can lead directly to your message.”]
  6. Message. [This is the “moral, perspective on life or observation about life,” the theme, that the scene is intended to convey.]
Here is an example of Saul Bass’ storyboarding of the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho:


Although it is not a horror story, the original Karate Kid movie offers a good model of the construction and use of scenes, as does It’s a Wonderful Life, My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, and The Sound of Music, to name but a few of many well-made stories.

In horror, Poe is a superb storyteller. Each of his scenes is deliberate and purposeful and leads plausibly to the next. Other master craftsmen and artists who are especially adept at the construction and sequencing of horror story scenes include Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Wes Craven, Christian Nyby, H. P. Lovecraft, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, H. P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury. By studying how they create and use scenes, others may benefit, improving their own fiction by dissecting the work of the accomplished others who have gone before them.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Christabel": The Prototypical Lesbian Vampire, Part II

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


As we saw in a previous post, the first part of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem Christabel ends with the protagonist imperiled by the strange, abducted woman, Geraldine, whom Christabel met while at prayer in the woods near her father’s castle and invited to share her bedroom--and then her bed--for the night, after being seduced by her houseguest’s beauty and spellbound by her magic breasts.

In Part II of the poem, as the castle’s bell rings to announce the dawn, Geraldine awakens and dresses before awakening Christabel. Although she seems a bit confused, it seems to Christabel that she has “sinned” somehow. Her confusion may be the result of her sleep, but it also seems, as does her forgetfulness of how, exactly, she has “sinned,” that she is also perplexed as a result of the spell that Geraldine has cast upon her. Christabel is still under the influence of her houseguest’s enchantment. The women visit Sir Leoline’s bedchamber, wherein the baron has himself just awakened. Geraldine has assumed the form and appearance of the daughter of a neighboring nobleman, a former friend and present foe of Sir Leoline named Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. When Sir Leoline hears how Geraldine was abducted, he determines to avenge Geraldine’s honor by sponsoring a tournament at which he may “dislodge” the “reptile souls” of her abductors “from the bodies and forms of men” which they have adopted. As her father embraces Geraldine, Christabel has a momentary, highly disturbing vision of Geraldine’s true form and nature:
And fondly in his arms he took
Fair Geraldine, who met the embrace,
Prolonging it with joyous look.
Which when she viewed, a vision fell
Upon the soul of Christabel,
The vision of fear, the touch and pain!
She shrunk and shuddered, and saw again--
(Ah, woe is me! Was it for thee,
Thou gentle maid! such sights to see?)
Again she saw that bosom old,
Again she felt that bosom cold. . . .
However, Christabel comes at once back under Geraldine’s spell, and Sir Leoline sends his bard, Bracy, to fetch Lord Roland, to retrieve his daughter (i. e., Geraldine, who impersonates the girl), promising to meet him upon his way. He regrets that he and Roland are no longer friends, repenting “of the day/When” he “spake words of fierce disdain/To Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine.” Bracy begs Sir Leoline not to do so, however, advising him of a dream he’s had in which Christabel, in the form of a dove, is being squeezed to death by a green snake at the base of a tree in the forest near the baron’s castle. Again, the poem’s narrator calls upon Jesus and Mary to protect and defend Christabel, implying that the young woman is in spiritual danger. However, Sir Leoline, having fallen under Geraldine’s spell, as has his daughter, says that he and Sir Roland will crush any such serpent, at which point the narrator describes Geraldine as a lamia, or serpent-woman:
A snake's small eye blinks dull and shy;
And the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head,
Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,
And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,
At Christabel she looked askance!--
One moment--and the sight was fled!
In case the reader, being, perhaps, a little slow, has missed the previous implications, Coleridge makes it clear that Geraldine is the very serpent (or serpent-woman) of which Bracy dreamed. It is she who threatens the imperiled Christabel.

When Geraldine’s spell begins to lose its force upon Christabel, she, recalling the true appearance and nature of the lamia, bids her father to send Geradline away at once. However, the baron, still under Geraldine’s sway, is ashamed at his daughter’s inhospitable attitude and sends Bracy upon his way, ad Christabel quickly comes again under Geraldine’s enchantment.
Here, the poem (another of Coleridge’s “fragments”) ends, although, as we saw in the previous post concerning this work, the poet is alleged to have intended to finish it according to this storyline, identified by Coleridge’s biographer, James Gilman:
Over the mountains, the Bard, as directed by Sir Leoline, hastes with his disciple; but in consequence of one of those inundations supposed to be common to this country, the spot only where the castle once stood is discovered--the edifice itself being washed away. He determines to return. Geraldine, being acquainted with all that is passing, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, vanishes. Reappearing, however, she awaits the return of the Bard, exciting in the meantime, by her wily arts, all the anger she could rouse in the Baron's breast, as well as that jealousy of which he is described to have been susceptible. The old Bard and the youth at length arrive, and therefore she can no longer personate the character of Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, but changes her appearance to that of the accepted, though absent, lover of Christabel. Now ensues a courtship most distressing to Christabel, who feels--she knows not why--great disgust for her once favored knight.

This coldness is very painful to the Baron, who has no more conception than herself of the supernatural transformation. She at last yields to her father's entreaties, and consents to approach the altar with the hated suitor. The real lover, returning, enters at this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him in sign of her. . . [betrothal]. Thus defeated, the supernatural being Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle bell tolls, the mother's voice is heard, and, to the exceeding great joy of the parties, the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation and explanation between father and daughter.
Since Coleridge never ended the poem, it’s not possible to say how he would have developed its overall theme, but, of course, the idea that the Christabel’s true love is a knight whose arrival in the proverbial nick of time brings the lesbian lamia’s plans to wed Christabel to naught is fraught with difficulties, to say the least, and seems to support the patriarchal and heterosexual status quo, as horror typically does, both identifying the matriarchal and homosexual threats that Geraldine represents with the monstrous Other which is to be vanquished so that normal order may prevail and all may, once more, be right with the world. In this regard, as in equating lesbians to female vampires, Coleridge’s poem also sets the tone for many movies that take up this motif.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Christabel": The Prototypical Lesbian Vampire


She’s sweet and chaste and pure and innocent and sexy and girl-next-door and religious and probably blonde, and she’s named Christabel. She’s the victim.

Her dark half and lover is mysterious and sexually experienced and seductive and exotic and blasphemous and probably brunette, and she’s named Geraldine. She’s the prototypical lesbian vampire.

Reveler upon opium when he was not writing poetry or literary criticism (or dodging bill collectors), poor, but brilliant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, among other eerie poems, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan,” a narrative ditty about a lesbian vampire named Christabel. It has gotten relatively short shrift among publishers and is not as well known among the general public as other of the poet’s works. If one has encountered the poem at all, it was most likely during a class concerning poetry or English literature. It is a disturbing poem, and, since it involves a good deal of horror, terror, revulsion, and abnormality, it is a good subject for study by horror writers, professional and aspiring.

While praying beside an oak tree in the wee hours of the morning, Christabel encounters a strange stranger named Geraldine, who says men have abducted her from her home. Enchanted by Geraldine’s seductive beauty, Christabel, perhaps knowing a good thing when she sees it (she may even regard Geraldine as a response to her prayer), takes the stranger home with her, whereupon Christabel’s father, Sir Leoline, a baron, becoming infatuated with Geraldine, orders a celebratory parade to declare her rescue. Here, the poem (another of Cole ridge’s “fragments”) ends, although the poet is alleged to have intended to finish it according to this storyline, identified by Coleridge’s biographer, James Gilman:

Over the mountains, the Bard, as directed by Sir Leoline, hastes with his disciple; but in consequence of one of those inundations supposed to be common to this country, the spot only where the castle once stood is discovered--the edifice itself being washed away. He determines to return. Geraldine, being acquainted with all that is passing, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, vanishes. Reappearing, however, she awaits the return of the Bard, exciting in the meantime, by her wily arts, all the anger she could rouse in the Baron's breast, as well as that jealousy of which he is described to have been susceptible. The old Bard and the youth at length arrive, and therefore she can no longer personate the character of Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, but changes her appearance to that of the accepted, though absent, lover of Christabel. Now ensues a courtship most distressing to Christabel, who feels--she knows not why--great disgust for her once favored knight.

This coldness is very painful to the Baron, who has no more conception than herself of the supernatural transformation. She at last yields to her father's entreaties, and consents to approach the altar with the hated suitor. The real lover, returning, enters at this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him in sign of her. . . [betrothal]. Thus defeated, the supernatural being Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle bell tolls, the mother's voice is heard, and, to the exceeding great joy of the parties, the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation and explanation between father and daughter.

The verse is almost adolescent, or, as critics prefer to say, when addressing the work of a member of the literary canon, childlike:

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu--whit!-- Tu--whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,
Hath a toothless mastiff bitch;
From her kennel beneath the rock
She maketh answer to the clock,
Four for the quarters, and twelve for the hour;
Ever and aye, by shine and shower,
Sixteen short howls, not over loud;
Some say, she sees my lady's shroud.
Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.

Coleridge not-so-subtly plants some clues that Geraldine may be as monstrous as she is beautiful, for she refuses to thank the Virgin Mary for her rescue:

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court : right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the Lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine, I cannot speak for weariness.

Uh oh!

The fire likes her, too; it leaps in her presence, to show the reader, again, that there’s something odd about Geraldine:

They passed the hall, that echoes still,
Pass as lightly as you will!
The brands were flat, the brands were dying,
Amid their own white ashes lying;
But when the lady passed, there came
A tongue of light, a fit of flame;
And Christabel saw the lady's eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby. . . .

Smitten by her seductress, mesmerizing houseguest, Christabel assures Geraldine that Christabel’s father sleeps: “O softly tread, said Christabel,/ My father seldom sleepeth well.” Is Christabel’s caution a concern for her father’s rest or an invitation of sexual dalliance with Geraldine? Their destination, and they stealthy way in which they approach it, suggests that Christabel may not be as innocent and virtuous as she appears to be, for she leads her houseguest, with the utmost caution, to her bedroom, where she offers her a glass of wine that Christabel’s now-deceased mother (and, presently, her “guardian spirit”) made from wildflowers:

Sweet Christabel her feet doth bare,
And jealous of the listening air
They steal their way from stair to stair,
Now in glimmer, and now in gloom,
And now they pass the Baron's room,
As still as death, with stifled breath!
And now have reached her chamber door;
And now doth Geraldine press down
The rushes of the chamber floor. . . .

. . . O weary lady, Geraldine,
I pray you, drink this cordial wine!
It is a wine of virtuous powers;
My mother made it of wildflowers.

The next moment, her name having been mentioned, the spirit of Christabel’s mother appears, but only Geraldine can see the phantom, and she orders the ghost to leave.

O mother dear! that thou wert here!
I would, said Geraldine, she were!

But soon with altered voice, said she--
`Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.'
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
`Off, woman, off! this hour is mine--
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman. off! 'tis given to me.'

Invoking her authority to be alone with Christabel, Geraldine enforces her right, not wanting to be bothered by her enchanted hostess’ mother’s spirit hanging about like a spectral chaperone. Once the ghost has departed, Geraldine wastes no time in further seducing Christabel. She instructs Christabel to “unrobe” herself and to get into bed. Christabel does as she’s directed, obviously still under Geraldine’s spell. Unable to sleep, she studies Geraldine’s beautiful face and form, and the young hostess’ voyeurism is rewarded by a glimpse of Geraldine’s breast, which elicits a cry from the poem’s narrator for divine protection for Christabel:

But now unrobe yourself; for I
Must pray, ere yet in bed I lie.'

Quoth Christabel, So let it be!
And as the lady bade, did she.
Her gentle limbs did she undress
And lay down in her loveliness.

But through her brain of weal and woe
So many thoughts moved to and fro,
That vain it were her lids to close;
So half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did recline
To look at the lady Geraldine.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom, and half her side--
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

Her charms having worked their magic, Geraldine, after a moment’s confused hesitation (probably included to make the meter work), gets into bed with Christabel, wherein they stretch out alongside one another, lay in one another’s arms, and, presumably, experience greater intimacies than those that a mere embrace may provide:

Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly as one defied
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden's side!--
And in her arms the maid she took. . . .!

At last, the mesmerizing Geraldine explains the magic of her enchanted “bosom” to her victim:

And with low voice and doleful look
These words did say :
`In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!

So ends the first part of the poem, in which the princess Christabel, having befriended a strange, abducted woman, Geraldine, whom she’d met while she’d been praying in the woods near her father’s castle, shelters her for the night, only to be seduced by her houseguest’s beauty and to be spellbound by her magic breasts.

Despite the adolescent versification and the clumsy plot, the poem does have a certain seductive and mesmerizing effect upon the reader, drawing him or her into the magic of Geraldine’s enchanted “bosom” and suggesting that the poor, chaste Christabel, despite the narrator’s continued pleas for her protection, is, both sexually and otherwise, her houseguest’s victim:

It was a lovely sight to see
The lady Christabel, when she
Was praying at the old oak tree.
Amid the jaggéd shadows
Of mossy leafless boughs,
Kneeling in the moonlight,
To make her gentle vows.

Her slender palms together prest,
Heaving sometimes on her breast;
Her face resigned to bliss or bale--
Her face, oh call it fair not pale,
And both blue eyes more bright than clear.
Each about to have a tear.:

With open eyes (ah, woe is me!)
Asleep, and dreaming fearfully,
Fearfully dreaming, yet, I wis,
Dreaming that alone, which is--
O sorrow and shame! Can this be she,
The lady, who knelt at the old oak tree?
And lo! the worker of these harms,
That holds the maiden in her arms,
Seems to slumber still and mild,
As a mother with her child.

A star hath set, a star hath risen,
O Geraldine! since arms of thine
Have been the lovely lady's prison.
O Geraldine! one hour was thine--
Thou'st had thy will! By tairn and rill,
The night-birds all that hour were still.
But now they are jubilant anew,
From cliff and tower, tu--whoo! tu--whoo!
Tu--whoo! tu--whoo! from wood and fell!

And see! the lady Christabel
Gathers herself from out her trance;
Her limbs relax, her countenance
Grows sad and soft; the smooth thin lids
Close o'er her eyes; and tears she sheds--
Large tears that leave the lashes bright!
And oft the while she seems to smile
As infants at a sudden light!

Yea, she doth smile, and she doth weep,
Like a youthful hermitess,
Beauteous in a wilderness,
Who, praying always, prays in sleep.
And, if she move unquietly,
Perchance, 'tis but the blood so free
Comes back and tingles in her feet.
No doubt, she hath a vision sweet.
What if her guardian spirit 'twere,
What if she knew her mother near?
But this she knows, in joys and woes,
That saints will aid if men will call :
For the blue sky bends over all!.

No wonder lesbian and feminist critics regard this fragmented poem as one of the great ones of world lit.

The lesbian vampire has since become a staple of erotic horror, appearing in many legitimate, if “R”-rated, films, including:

Eternal (2004): Detective Raymond Pope’s search for his missing wife leads him to the estate of a wealthy woman, Elizabeth Kane, who may be the latest incarnation of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the vampire who bathed in virgins’ blood.

Lost for a Vampire (1971): A writer researching a book visits an all-girls’ boarding school inhabited by lesbian vampire students.

Vampyros Lesbos (1971): In Turkey, American lawyer Linda Westinghouse’s dreams about being harassed and seduced by a dark-haired lesbian vampire beauty come true.

Les Frissons des Vampires (1970): Honeymooning couples are victimized by a castle of lesbian vampires.

Vampyres (1974): A lesbian couple lures innocent passersby to their deaths, one of the seductresses finally falling prey to a woman she seduces.

The Velvet Vampire (1971): A vampire woman comes out of the desert to seduce a hippie couple.

The Vampire Lovers (1970): The first of a trilogy of films about lesbian vampires, this one recreates, more or less faithfully, Sheridan LeFanu’s novel, Camilla. The lesbian is rival against a man for the affections of a woman whom both desire. He wins.

Blood and Roses (1960): A dead vampire’s spirit lives again by possessing Camilla, who narrates the tale.

Daughters of Darkness (1971): A honeymooning couple encounters Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who seduces the bride.

The Hunger (1983): Miriam Blaylock seduces scientist Sarah Roberts.

One into which it was harder for some critics to sink their teeth into is Lesbian Vampire Killers (to be released in 2009), a comedy in which men seek to rescue their women from a gang of lesbian vampires who have victimized a small Welsh town.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Some Thoughts on Horror

If a man harbors any sort of fear, it makes him landlord to a ghost. -- Lloyd Douglas


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Where there is no imagination, there is no horror. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Perfect order is the forerunner of perfect horror. -- Carlos Fuentes
Jennifer Love Hewitt

I'd never watch a horror film, but after I found out I was going to be in one, I watched, like, four of them, including The Shining. I was terrified--I couldn't sleep for days. But I wanted to get myself used to things I was going to see on the set. -- Jennifer Love Hewitt

Eric Hoffer

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you. -- Eric Hoffer

There is a sacred horror about everything grand. It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling. -- Victor Hugo

Terror. . . often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment: that things are in the unmaking. -- Stephen King

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music. -- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Acting is like a Halloween mask that you put on. -- River Phoenix

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ -- Eleanor Roosevelt

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth--more than ruin, more even than death. -- Bertrand Russell

Civilization is hideously fragile [and] there's not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish. -- C. P. Snow

He's not stupid; he's possessed by a retarded ghost. --Unknown

One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses. -- Robin Wood

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fallacious Horrors

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, an ad hoc hypothesis “is one created to explain facts that seem to refute one’s theory.” As an example of this hypothesis, the lexicographer of doubt states, “For example, ESP researchers have been known to blame the hostile thoughts of onlookers for unconsciously influencing pointer readings on sensitive instruments. The hostile vibes, they say, made it impossible for them to duplicate a positive ESP experiment.”
A nice bit of pseudo-logic, to be sure, but this one, reported in the same article, is even more unseemly and amusing:
Ad hoc hypotheses are common in defense of the pseudoscientific theory known as biorhythm theory. For example, there are very many people who do not fit the predicted patterns of biorhythm theory. Rather than accept this fact as refuting evidence of the theory, a new category of people is created: the arhythmic. In short, whenever the theory does not seem to work, the contrary evidence is systematically discounted.
The true believer, a stereotypical horror story character--one who believes in all manner of strange events for no other reason than that he wants to believe--often uses the ad hoc hypothesis in reverse. Instead of seeking to explain away facts that refute his theories, the true believer uses them to refute more commonly accepted (i. e., scientific) explanations for various phenomena and effects. For example, a scientific observer might argue that a person discovered his car keys in an unexpected place because he’d forgotten that he’d placed them in this location earlier in the day. The true believer would argue, instead, that the keys’ being found in an unexpected location proves that the house is haunted, for it was the ghosts who haunt the house who’d moved the keys to the new location.

Other examples of fallacious reasoning that can benefit writers of horror fiction include communal reinforcement, selective thinking, subjective validation, testimonial evidence (anecdotal evidence), and wishful thinking. The Skeptic’s Dictionary defines and exemplifies these and many other fallacies as well, but, of course, it is up to the writer of horror fiction to apply them to his or her--or to his or her characters’--thinking in the service of his or her storylines.

Another good source for skeptical wisdom is James Randi Educational Foundation’s An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What’s So Scary About. . . .

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Too often, writers write the way people too often speak: without thinking or, more specifically, without planning. They hope for inspiration as they put pen to paper or (more typically fingertips to keyboard). However, a bit of forethought could go a long way, in horror writing or in the writing of any other genre of fiction. By brainstorming as to what’s so scary about a potential or chosen setting, the horror writer is better able to capitalize upon features of the locale that are uniquely or especially eerie, frightening, or repulsive. Here are a few key settings for horror stories. The aspiring horror writer can add more of his or her own and update the list as new elements of the horrible and the terrible occur to him or her concerning such places.


Attic

It is seldom visited, and its contents, to some extent, are apt to be forgotten; therefore, the attic is more or less unfamiliar and may house dangers, such as bats, rats, spiders, rabid squirrels, or human intruders.

It is unlit or dimly lit and full of shadows in which dangers may lurk or be concealed.

Its contents may be old or unused and may, therefore, represent mementos of death.

It is not spacious, and it lacks headroom, making one feel trapped.

Depending upon the weather, it could be hot, humid, musty, or damp.

It could smell of mold decay (if the body of an animal that has died in the attic’s walls or elsewhere has begun to rot).

Because of the boxes, crates, and other containers it often contains, the attic features many potential hiding places from which one may be ambushed.

It may lack continuous flooring, which impedes movement and escape.

Its being little visited and kept locked suggests that the attic is a “forbidden” place.

It seems unnaturally quiet.

Noises, lights, and smells, in a closed or locked attic suggests that something is amiss (i. e., that the attic is occupied by an animal, a human intruder, or a ghost, perhaps).

The ladder or the narrow, steep flight of steps leading to the attic suggests the unusual character of the attic.

It is isolated from the rest of the house and, therefore, from the rest of the family.

Its floorboards and hinges may creak.

It is likely to be unfurnished, undecorated, and unadorned; it may be unfinished as well, suggesting a place that has been abandoned and lacks the typical comforts of home.

Note: Flowers in the Attic is set, in large part, in an attic.

Basement

Many of the eerie elements associated with an attic are also associated with a basement, making a basement scary for the same reasons that an attic may be frightening. In addition, these other eerie elements are often specifically associated with a basement:

The knowledge that, in descending a ladder or a flight of steps, one is going underground (where things are often buried) enhances the uneasiness one may feel
in entering a basement.

Its windows, if any, are apt to be small, perhaps mere vertical slits, which obscures one’s vision to the outside world and makes escape impossible.

It may contain a furnace, the fiery grate or interior of which, in the otherwise relative darkness, may appear eerie or even hellish.

Its cupboards, if any, may contain unusual odds and ends or “secrets” that are better left unknown.

Its walls may be stained or discolored or in disrepair.

Note: The movie The People Under the Stairs is set mostly in a family’s basement.

Crawlspace

Many of the eerie elements associated with an attic are also associated with a basement, making a basement scary for the same reasons that an attic may be frightening. In addition, these other eerie elements are often specifically associated with a basement:

It is even more cramped and inspires claustrophobia even more than an attic or a
basement, reducing movement to a slow, even potentially painful, crawl.

It is dirty and may be stuffy or musty.

Its pipes, joists, beams, and other obstructions impede movement and/or escape.

Animal carcasses could be present or their bones may be scattered inside the crawlspace. (John Wayne Gacy buried the bodies of many of his victims in his house’s crawlspace, and a lesbian stalker lived in her victim’s crawlspace.)

Tunnels from the crawlspace could lead elsewhere.

Note: As its title implies, the movie Crawlspace featured this setting.

Hotel

It is large, both in space and in the number of rooms, allowing multiple possibilities of ambush, for being trapped, or for having one’s escape cut off.

It is full of strangers, some or all of whom may be hostile or untrustworthy.

As a guest, one is in a dependent role.

Others have keys to one’s room or suite.

It could be haunted.

It operates on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis, even while one is asleep and, therefore, vulnerable).

One could get stuck in an elevator, between floors.

Who knows what extra ingredients could be added to a drink in the hotel’s cocktail lounge or to a meal served in the hotel’s restaurant or delivered by room service?

One or more of its employees could be replaced by imposters.

Any weakness in its security could be exploited.

Its surveillance cameras are watching guests all the time, everywhere.

It could be isolated; even when it is not, it is a self-contained and relatively self-sufficient world unto itself (a total institution) of great resources.

It can feature fountains or statues in its lobby and courtyards or grounds.

It can harbor strange sights and sounds (and smells).

Its floor plans could be like a mazes, and, behind each door, a possible threat could wait to ambush a guest.

Power may fail.

Fog or other atmospheric or meteorological effects may occur.

Insects, animals, or humans may intrude.

Note: Stephen King’s short story “1408” takes place in a hotel, as does the movie, 1408, based upon it; King’s novel (and the movie based upon it), The Shining also takes place in a hotel.

Mansion

Many of the eerie elements associated with a hotel are also associated with a mansion, making a mansion scary for the same reasons that a hotel may be frightening. In addition, these other eerie elements are often specifically associated with a mansion:

Things look different in the dark than they do in the light.

It is isolated behind walls and iron gates, obscured by trees and other vegetation.

Its ornamentation and decoration may be odd (demon doorknockers, gargoyles,
bizarre statues or portraits).

It is associated with an ancestry and heirs (in other words, the house has a past, as it were, which may be filled with guilty secrets).

Its library may contain forbidden books.

“What are they doing in the Hyacinth House?” What, indeed!

It may have an evil-looking façade or aura (as does the House of Usher, the
Amityville house, and Ed Gein’s house).

Its grounds may contain the family’s private cemetery.

It can be personified (“if these walls could only talk!”).

Almost by definition, abandoned houses are scary (they suggest the fragility of life, or relationships, of stability, and a person, too, as a former resident, may be fragile, unstable, or abandoned.)

It could be really haunted or it could become “haunted” (e. g., as a Halloween fund-raiser), attracting real ghosts or demons.

Its various rooms symbolize various aspects of the personality, as dream dictionaries indicate.

An ascent can become a descent.

What was left behind in an abandoned mansion (a mirror, a birdcage, a cabinet, an organ) could be demonic.

Abandoned and in a state of disrepair, it is apt to be unsafe because of weak floors or stairs or crumbling ceilings or walls.

Note: Many horror stories, both in print and on film, including The Amityville Horror, Rose Red, ‘Salem’s Lot, Psycho, and The Haunting of Hill House being but a few of the better known among them, are set, in full or in large part, in mansions.

Island

It is remote and inaccessible.

It may be inhabited by “savages” and/or strange and dangerous plants and animals.

It is at the “mercy” of the sea.

It may contain caverns, mountains, or forests that are habitats for unusual, or even bizarre, and threatening menaces of a vegetative, animal, or human nature.

It may have an odd shape (Skull Island) that is frightening in itself.

It may have been used for nefarious purposes.

It may be volcanic.

It may suggest an alternative evolutionary origin.

Note: The Island of Dr. Moreau, King Kong, Jurassic Park, and many other novels and movies take place upon islands.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Music Hath Alarms To Evoke The Savage Beast

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


As we saw, in an earlier post, the lyrics to The Doors’ songs can be suggestive of horror stories. We imagined, based upon the following words, to “L‘america,” the coming of apparently “friendly strangers”--perhaps aliens disguised as humans--to a small town for the purpose of abducting the village’s women so that the abductors might ravish them, thereby perpetuating a hybrid version of their own race, the men of the town seeking, in vain, to prevent the women’s abductions and rape:

Friendly strangers came to town
All the people put them down
But the women loved their ways
Come again some other day
Like the gentle rain
Like the gentle rain that falls. . . .

The lyrics to the band’s song “The End,” with their obviously Freudian undertone, could easily be the basis of a horror story in which a killer kills because of unresolved Oedipal feelings:
The killer awoke before dawn
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on the down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived
And then he
Paid a visit to his brother
And then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
Father. Yes, son? I want to kill you
Mother, I want to [epithet deleted] you
Oooh, all last night. . . .


Couldn’t the following words, from “Riders on the Storm,” have inspired a movie like The Hitcher or even Flannery O‘Connor’s short story, “A Good man Is Hard To Find”?

There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirming like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
Give this man a ride
Sweet family will die
In fact, as Songfacts explains, “‘killer on the road’ is a reference to a screenplay” that Jim Morrison “wrote called The Hitchhiker (An American Pastoral),” in which he “was going to play the part of a hitchhiker who goes on a murder spree.”

The words to songs like these stir the creative juices in writers, especially horror writers, because they are evocative and because they touch upon macabre subject matter. At the same time, they are vague or ambiguous, open-ended enough to allow one to place his or her own interpretations upon their possible meanings and to develop even a single block of verse or an entire song’s body of lyrics into not merely one, but several, possible plots. As Morrison said, concerning “The End,“ the song’s meaning “could be almost anything you want it to be” (Songfacts).

The Doors’ songs are especially rich in evoking images of horror that could be developed into complete stories, but other bands’ songs also can inspire horror story ideas. Take this line, for example, from The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”:
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye. . . .
As Songfacts indicates, John Lennon, who wrote this particular song, said he penned these lyrics to vex scholars who might attempt explications of the song’s lyrics, some lines of which, by Lennon’s own admission, were inspired by his ingestion of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). (As Songfacts indicates, there are many other sources for the lines of this song as well.)
If Stephen King’s Desperation starts to get creepy with a family’s spotting of a dead cat nailed to a highway sign, where might King be led by such an image as The Beatles have created? Such images can lead any writer of horror down a similar highway.


Not only can song lyrics inspire horror stories, but, in some cases, the opposite is also true: horror stories have also occasioned songs. An example? The title of The Jam’s song, “The Dreams of Children,” was inspired, Songfacts explains, by Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” in which the villainous Candyman “kills to preserve his reputation, so he can haunt ‘The Dreams of Children,’” and the song itself was inspired, in part, by The Beatles’ “Revolver”:
Prior to writing the song Paul Weller had been listening to his favourite album, The Beatles “Revolver.” Weller recalls in the book 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, “After we'd finished recording the album Setting Sons, I asked the engineer if he could record the album backwards and put it on cassette. When I listened to it there was one piece of vocal that I really liked and wrote "The Dreams Of Children" around it.”
Musicians tell us that music is an expression of emotion; as the name by which the genre is known indicates, so is horror fiction. The emotion, horror (or one of its close relatives, such as anxiety, fear, or revulsion), is evoked by many of the same images and sentiments that music with a macabre theme expresses. Therefore, music and fiction, including horror fiction, are natural complements to one another, at times, at least, and the writer should not overlook the millions of possibilities for inspiration that exist in music. (In fact, Stephen King often listens to rock and roll as he writes his novels, and many of his books contain excerpts of song lyrics or acknowledgments to various musical artist’s works.)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Write What You Know (But What Does That Mean?), Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, we considered the lives of Hans Christian Andersen and H. G. Wells as examples of authors who “write what they know,” or, in other words, inform their fiction with their actual experiences--and especially a pivotal experience, a turning point--in their lives. The same is true of many other--perhaps, most other--writers, the West Coast Stephen King, Dean Koontz, as well.

In fact, Koontz is a classic case.

Koontz grew up in abject poverty, the son of an abusive alcoholic who, the writer says, taught him everything about how not to be a man. Later in life, when his father was in a serious decline in his health, Koontz not only let him live with him, but also took care of him, not, he says, because he loved him or felt any sense of duty to him, but for his own sake. Koontz never wanted to become the man his father was.

His cruel, sometimes violent, and neglectful father seems to be the basis of many of his novels’ antagonists, not a few of whom demonstrate the behavior of the true sociopath and have no socially redeeming qualities. Most are narcissistic, and some are delusional, imagining themselves to be godlike figures who are above the law.


Like Koontz himself, many of his protagonists have suffered abuse as children, coming from seriously dysfunctional homes or backgrounds, but, again like Koontz, they are financially successful, resolute, compassionate, and sometimes altruistic. They are almost always willing to help a damsel in distress, just as, perhaps, Koontz, as a boy, longed to come to the aid of his mother, who suffered much violence from her husband in order to protect her son. The heroines in Koontz’s novels are invariably of the same mold, and several are single mothers who persevere against poverty and other limitations to bring up their children as best they can. To some extent, they mat even be surrogates for the young Koontz.

Dan Simmons, author of horror and science fiction novels worth reading, also uses his own personal experience to inform his writing. His adult career was spent in elementary education. According to his website, he “grew up in various cities and small towns in the Midwest, including Brimfield, Illinois, which was the source for his fictional ‘Elm Haven,’” the setting of his 1991 horror novel Summer of Night, which features a group of preteens who, one may assume, are much like their real-life counterparts who Simmons knew as his friends during his childhood in Brimfield. Much of the novel’s action takes place in Old Central School, a combination junior-senior high school that is in its last year. Once the current class graduates, the school is scheduled for retirement.


Many of the persons, places, and things featured in his novel had actual counterparts in the 1960’s Brimfield in which Simmons grew up. His younger brother seems to have been the model for Lawrence Stewart, and two of his boyhood friends appear to have inspired Kevin Grumbacher, Dale Stewart, Mike O‘Rourke, and Jim Harlen. Old Central School’s true-life counterpart was Brimfield School, across the street from Dan and Wayne’s (Dales’ and Lawrence’s’) house. The community’s Old Settlers’ Day is featured, somewhat altered, in Summer, as is the Saturday evening free shows that were featured in the city’s downtown bandstand park. His science fiction novels use Simmons’ extensive knowledge of romantic poetry and mythology.


Although he was not a horror novelist, another writer who wrote what he knew is playwright J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. In his case, his personal experience provided more a theme than a formula for his work. According to Wikipedia, Barrie “was a small child” who “drew attention to himself with storytelling.” His mother’s most beloved son, David, died two days shy of age fourteen, while ice skating, a loss that “devastated” his mother, and “Barrie tried to fill David’s place in his attentions, even wearing his clothes”:
One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say “Is that you?” “I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to,” wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), “and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s not him, it’s just me.’” Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her.
To pass the time, Barrie imagined himself a pirate.


His early literary efforts, “two ‘Tommy’ novels,” Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1902) “were about a boy and a young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending [sic].” After writing several other plays, Barrie wrote Peter Pan, which George Bernard Shaw described as “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”

It is not difficult to see the parallels between Barrie’s childhood, during which he impersonated his dead (i. e., lost) brother in an effort to appease his mother’s grief, to gain her attention, and to satisfy his mother’s wish that “her dead [i. e., lost] son would remain a boy forever.”
Peter Pan is a play about a flying boy who, refusing to grow up. leads a group of other lost boys in various activities, including the fighting of pirates.
Like Andersen and Wells, Koontz, Simmons, and Barrie obviously “write (or wrote) what they know (or knew).”

Friday, November 28, 2008

Aphoristic Horror

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Aphorisms, as themes, can give rise to story ideas. Consider the possibilities with regard to such a maxim as “Be careful what you wish for.” This adage could well have been the basis of W. W. Jacobs’ classic tale of terror “The Monkey’s Paw” (see the column to the right), in which a mother wishes for something she believes she wants, even though it is likely to be horrifyingly monstrous. (The same proverb, incidentally, could have been the basis for Stephen King’s novel, Pet Semetary, a sort of expanded and updated version of Jacobs’ story.)

Could “Two heads are better than one” have inspired Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”?

When the antagonist is dealing agonizing death, the saying, “It’s better to give than to receive” certainly springs to mind as a basis for any number of horror stories, especially of the slasher variety.

Had the alien shape-shifting protagonist of a Ray Bradbury story hearkened to Polonius’ advice to Laertes, “To thine own self be true,” he wouldn’t have suffered the fatal fate that he did.

The cruel king and the courtiers upon whom Hop-Frog takes revenge in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Hop-Frog” would have done well to remember, if they had ever learned, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” because it was the king’s insult to the protagonist’s girlfriend Tripetta that initiated her lover’s plan to avenge her honor.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Borrowed Malice

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? -- Edgar Allan Poe
When it comes to fashion and beauty, women don’t explain themselves. Perhaps, their practices in these areas are sometimes inexplicable--to men, at least, for whom there seems no reason to pierce one’s earlobes merely to make of them fixtures from which to dangle or otherwise display bright baubles, any more than there appears to be a reason for them to mask themselves in cosmetics or to wear the sex organs of plants, otherwise known as flowers, in their hair.

There is no reason per se. An effect, however, is accomplished by such bizarre affectations. This effect might be called “borrowed beauty”: by associating oneself with loveliness, whether by the beautification derived from the use of cosmetics, the ornamentation that results from the employment of jewelry, or the decoration that ensues from the wearing of fashion, women borrow from these accoutrements the beauty inherent in eye shadows, eyeliners, mascara, powders, lipsticks, and blush; in diamonds and rubies and pearls; and in clothing cut of floral prints, polka dots, stripes, and fabrics ranging from cotton to satin and silk. As anyone knows who’s visited a site such as Petite Fashion or Paula D Jewelry, there are virtually endless means by which women may embellish and enhance their own natural charms.

Like fashion designers and other artists, photographers know and use this technique, lending beauty to their beautiful models by associating them with things that are in themselves beautiful. The next time one peruses a photograph, especially if it is a “glamour shot,” he or she should give some thought to the scenery of the setting, including the colors, the props, and the model’s costume, including her makeup, jewelry, and whatever clothing, if any, she is wearing, remembering that nothing in the photograph is present by accident; all is there by design, to enhance the “glamour” of the model, which is to say, to embellish her own natural charms by associating them--and her--with objects that are, in and of themselves, beautiful.

Let’s look at an example of such a portrait. In glamour shots, the emphasis of the photograph is, of course, upon the model, and anything and everything else, although minimal in number or amount, is there to enhance her appeal. In the case of Playboy Playmates’ photographs, the background and props are often associated with opulence and luxury as well as with the model’s own beauty, so as to reflect the lifestyle of the Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, if not the typical Playboy subscriber himself: many such portraits are shot indoors, in richly appointed mansions, often in the houses’ bedrooms. (We have tried to use as family friendly a picture as possible, which required some research on our part, but no sacrifice is too great to provide excellence in the service of Chillers and Thriller’s noble enterprise.) Meet Tiffany, an artificial blonde of undeniable and, one might say, full-blown beauty.


Her facial features are enhanced by lighting and by perfectly applied makeup. (No doubt, a bit of airbrushing was employed as well.) Her matching bra and thong panties are pale yellow and printed with vaguely floral patterns that sometimes resemble confetti as much as flowers, imparting to her both borrowed beauty and the sense that she has a carefree and fun-loving frame of mind. The pale yellow color of her unmentionables complements her hair color and may thus be understood to be “accessories” to her own beauty rather than items of apparel per se.

She is a party girl, the photograph suggests, and she is accessible (the clasp of her bra is in the front, rather than in the back, an aid to male lovers intent upon demonstrating their love for, if not of, her.) As is often the case with regard to Playboy’s models, Tiffany is in a bedroom that is richly appointed, as one can readily discern by the great fleur-de-lis, or stylized lily, carvings of the enormous bed’s oversize headboard (the bedposts are replicas of Greek columns, as one can see in the second photograph); the elegant lampshade; the silk-and-satin pillows; and the comforter embroidered in golden thread. It could be that Tiffany herself is a woman of wealth, or she might be only the playmate of a man of means. In either case, the photograph suggests, as a party girl, she is a real treasure.


The beauty and elegance of her surroundings lend their qualities to the model, enhancing her natural charms by suggesting that she shares the attributes of the props with which she is associated, which is probably not actually the case, since Playboy is known to seek its photographic subjects from all walks of life, but particularly from middle-class backgrounds, wanting to feature a wholesome-looking, but sexy, sort of fantasy girl next door.

Horror artists and writers can, and do, accomplish an effect similar to that of glamour photographers. By associating their characters, whether they are victims, monsters, heroes, or others, with horrific props and inserting them, so to speak, into “brooding atmospheres,” they enhance the horrific effects of their illustrations or descriptions, imparting to them a “borrowed malice,” as it were.

In the opening paragraph of his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe associates a mansion with a human being, or, more specifically, with a human face, in his use of the twice-repeated phrase “eye-like windows,” but his description of the house also associates the edifice with such negative emotions as “melancholy,” “a sense of insufferable gloom,” “an utter depression of soul,” and an “iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought.” The countryside in which the estate is laid is characterized as “singularly dreary,” and the house is described as being equipped with “bleak walls” and “vacant eye-like windows.” Even the landscaping of the grounds is unrelieved by beauty and is, in fact, associated with images of death and decay: there are nothing more than “a few rank sedges” and “a few white trunks of decayed trees,” which are “gray” and “ghastly,” and the reader wonders, at the very outset of the story, whether the atmosphere is truly this horrific or whether it is the narrator--or even the house itself, casting a spell, as it were, upon the narrator--that makes the property seem so appalling:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was; but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium--the bitter lapse into every-day life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.


Poe’s description of Usher’s dwelling is the prototypical picture of the haunted house, and other artists, both literary and visual, have followed his lead, as can be seen both by the house that Psycho’s Norman Bates calls home and the domicile that houses the Amityville horrors (notice its “vacant, eyelike windows”).


The aspiring writer, whether of romance or horror, does well to remember and to employ the same tactics that artists as diverse as glamour photographers and masters of the macabre use, albeit for vastly different purposes, to enhance, in the former’s case, the beauty of a beautiful model and, in the latter’s case, to embellish the horror of the horrific subject: associate the character with beauty to make her more beautiful still or with the grotesque to make him even more bizarre and horrible. Whether by borrowed beauty or borrowed malice, a character can be made to seem all the lovelier or more malevolent, as the case may be.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Secondary Antagonists

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Some stories have a main antagonist and one or more lesser, secondary antagonists. The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was well known for having a Big Bad and a little bad each season except for the first, which was really more like a partial season, since it was comprised of only a dozen episodes. The Big Bad was the villain for the whole season, whereas the little bad was a villain for only a few episodes. The little bad was introduced before the Big Bad, often with several other villains following his or her debut, so as to keep viewers off-balance in discerning which of the several villains might turn out to be the Big Bad. Here’s the way the bads shake out for seasons two through six:

Other works of horror fiction also sometimes employ secondary antagonists.
Stephen King’s novel Carrie’s primary antagonist is Carrie White’s mother; the secondary anatomists are her high school’s bullies. It It, another King novel, the antagonist, a protean shape shifter able to take the form of anyone’s worst fear, is, in effect, its own secondary antagonists while, at the same time, is the novel’s primary antagonist as well.

Dan Simmons’ novel, Summer of Night, has a primary antagonist, and several secondary antagonists: the dead man walking (an eerily silent World War I doughboy’s ghost, huge worms with serrated teeth, a rendering company’s truck spooky driver, and others.

On occasion, a secondary antagonist will work independently of the primary antagonist, whereas, in other instances, he, she, or they will support the primary antagonist, often as a henchman or sidekick, as Spike and Drusilla serve and support Angel in Buffy; as Fritz (often erroneously called “Igor”) assists Dr. Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein, the 1931 film version of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus; and as Dr. Montgomery aids and abets the criminal “research” that vivisectionist Dr. Moreau performs upon a deserted jungle island in H. G. Wells’ classic 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The use of a secondary antagonist can heighten a story’s suspense, complicate its plot (even becoming the basis or bases for an additional subplot or additional subplots), and can multiply and enrich the story’s theme.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Unworthy Books

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon refuses to let his four earliest books be published because they are unworthy of him; as he explains on his website:
I always hear about writers who've written four books that end up in a drawer, and their fifth book is the one that gets published. The first book I ever wrote was published, flaws and all. For better or worse, I was allowed to learn to write in public. I think those books are simply early efforts. You have to take them as they are. I don't think they're very deep or anything; I think they're okay, but they simply represent where I was at that particular time.
(At least he’s honest. Dean Koontz has a different approach; he rewrites his earlier stinkers and foists them upon the public again, usually with a different cover so they appear, to the unwary or the forgetful, to be new novels rather than recycled trash.)

The books of which McCammon is too ashamed to let see the light of day ever again are Baal (1978), Bethany’s Sin (1980), The Night Boat (1980), and They Thirst (1981). A summary of them is sufficient, perhaps, to indicate the soundness of his judgment in this matter:


Baal:

A woman is ravished. . . and to her a child is born. . . unleashing an unimaginable evil upon the world! And they call him BAAL in the orphanage, where he leads the children on a rampage of violence...in California, where he appears as the head of a deadly Manson-like cult...in Kuwait, where crazed millions heed his call to murder and orgy. They call him BAAL in the Arctic's hellish wasteland, where he is tracked by the only three men with a will to stop him: Zark, the shaman; Virga, the aging professor of theology; and Michael, the powerful, mysterious stranger (from the back cover of the Avon paperback edition of Baal).



Bethany’s Sin:

Even God stays away from the village of BETHANY'S SIN. For Evan Reid, his wife Kay, and their small daughter Laurie, the beautiful house in the small village was too good a bargain to pass up. Bethany's Sin was a weird name, but the village was quaint and far from the noise and pollution of the city. But Bethany's Sin was too quiet. There were no sounds at all...almost as if the night had been frightened into silence. Evan began to notice that there were very few men in the village, and that most of them were crippled. And then there was the sound of galloping horses. Women on horses. Riding in the night. Soon he would learn their superhuman secret. And soon he would watch in terror as first his wife, then his daughter, entered their sinister cabal. An ancient evil rejoiced in Bethany's Sin. A horror that happened only at night. . . and only to men (from the back cover of the Avon paperback edition of Bethany's Sin).




The Night Boat:

From the living hell of her watery grave she rises again. . . THE NIGHT BOAT. Deep under the calm water of a Caribbean lagoon, salvage diver David Moore discovers a sunken Nazi U-boat entombed in the sand. A mysterious relic from the last war. Slowly, the U-boat rises from the depths laden with a long-dead crew, cancerous with rot, mummified for eternity. Or so Moore thought. UNTIL HE HEARD THE DEEP HOLLOW BOOM OF SOMETHING HAMMERING WITH FEVERISH INTENSITY. . . . SOMETHING DESPERATELY TRYING TO GET OUT! Beneath the waves she will seduce the living and devour the dead...THE NIGHT BOAT (from the back cover of the British Sphere paperback edition of The Night Boat).



They Thirst:
A MASS MURDER. A DISAPPEARANCE. A CEMETERY RANSACKED. It looked like another ordinary day in Los Angeles. Then night came. . . . Evil as old as the centuries has descended upon the City of Angels--it comes as a kiss from the terrifying but seductive immortals. Slowly at first, then by the legions, the ravenous undead choke Los Angeles with bloodthirsty determination---and the hordes of monstrous victims steadily mount each night. High above glitter city a deadly contest begins. In the decaying castle of a long-dead screen idol, the few remaining human survivors prepare to face the Prince of Evil and his satanic disciples. Whilst the very forces of nature are called into play, isolating the city from the rest of the world and leaving it at the mercy of the blood-hungry vultures of the night. . . . THEY THIRST. Theirs is a lust that can never be satisfied (from the back cover of the British Sphere paperback edition of They Thirst).

When the blurbs are better than the novels they promote and the covers all look pretty much alike, it’s not a good sign; it may be evidence, however, of McCammon’s wisdom in “retiring” such tripe and in deciding to turn his attention and talents, such as they are, to “writing novels that” are “not as easily categorized,” to employ the explanation that his webmaster supplies for the master’s newfound aversion to the genre on which he cut his authorial teeth. Like Dean Koontz, and, more recently, Stephen King, McCammon seems intent upon putting distance between himself as a serious artist and the fecal matter that first bore his name in the cesspool of horror fiction. To be taken seriously as a writer, one must not write humor or horror, it seems. Even the few who occasionally beat the odds and enter the illustrious and glorious, gilt-edged canon of Western Literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe, are sometimes said to be only “three-fifths. . . genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” as James Russell Lowe (now largely forgotten) remarked concerning the still-remembered Poe.

Horror writers are not frequently considered great writers because, well, the field, fertile though it may be, seldom attracts the most sober, talented, and brilliant authors, except, besides Poe (and yours truly, of course), a few who have made an occasional foray into the cemeteries of darkness, such as Charles Dickens (“The Signal-man”), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), William Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily”), and Mark Twain (“Cannibalism in the Cars,” “A Ghost Story,” and “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”).

The genre is helped by the astute, well-read, well-educated, and thoughtful reader (a species rapidly approaching extinction, alas!) who can bring to bear upon these slight narratives the world of his or her own knowledge, experience, interests, and more-or-less well-cultivated tastes. Robert Block could learn from H. P. Lovecraft the same way that Lovecraft could learn from Poe--because all of these masters of the form had in themselves the capacity to be taught and to gain skills.


Some were formally instructed; others were not, but all were autodidactic and interested in the darker and hidden aspects of their lives and those of others, past, present, and, mayhap, future as well. Because of who they were and what they had inside themselves, they were able to create masterpieces of horror fiction, the genre to which their own inner demons drew them. They would have been just as likely to have been able to write so-called mainstream, or literary, novels and short stories had their hearts and minds and souls been in it. Fortunately, for the horror aficionado, these authors’ hearts and minds and souls were in horror instead.


Until such as a Hawthorne, a Poe, or a Lovecraft appears again in this “goodly realm of gold,” we shall have to be content with the Koontzes and the McCammons. At least, unlike the former, the latter cares enough about himself and his work to be properly ashamed of the worst of it and refuses to foist it off upon the public again in a supposedly new and improved edition.


Others, like King, follow a middle road, rewriting the same tired stories again and again, calling Christine, for example, From a Buick 8 the second time around, or simply recycling the tales of terror that others have told, as King does with his retelling of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House as Rose Red or H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room” as “1408.” At least, King “borrows” from the masters and, when he regurgitates previous stories, they have the semblance of something new, if not improved, rather than being slightly edited re-releases of previously released--well, you can supply your own epithet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Motivation as Explanation

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In earlier posts, we have considered the nature of evil as various horror writers have defined it. Some have seen evil as sinful; others as indifference on a cosmic, worldly, or local level; and still others as destructive of one’s local community.

These considerations of evil can be considered as being metaphysical. They deal with the very nature, or character, of evil. They delve into the heart and the soul, as it were, of wickedness, seeking to penetrate the depths of the mystery of iniquity.

More than many genres, horror cries out--one might say, given the nature of the genre, screams--for an explanation of evil on such a level. Moreover, horror fiction, to work at all, must also offer an explanation for the particular evil--the specific monster or other adversary--that threatens the protagonist of a particular tale. The very mechanics of the horror story demand this of its authors, and those who fail to supply such an explanation or whose explanation is not all that explanatory or plausible within the context of the story in which it is offered tend to perturb their readers.
Elsewhere, we laid bare the bones of the horror story’s skeleton, or formula:
  1. A series of bizarre incidents occurs.
  2. The protagonist discovers the cause of these incidents.
  3. The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to put an end to these incidents.
The second stage of the narrative is our topic in this post, for the cause of the bizarre incidents in a particular story is the antagonist’s motivation, and this motivation is the explanation, on the immediate and narrative, if not the metaphysical and universal, level, for the evil that occurs, although, often, the former is a consequence or, at least, a parallel, of the latter. An example of these two levels? In Christianity, the nature of evil is pride (“pride goeth before a fall,” as Satan learns), whereas Satan’s individual and personal motive in corrupting humanity is his blasphemous attempt “to be like the most high God”:
How art thou fallen, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit (Isaiah 14: 12-15).
Likewise, the apostle Peter, although he protests that he would never betray Jesus, even if his loyalty to the Messiah should cost him his own life, betrays Jesus, an act which stems from the greater love that he had for himself than that which he had for God (a sort of pride), but is, more immediately, directed at the saving of his own life, in the here and now.
This chart shows some of the explanations that are provided for the series of bizarre incidents that unfold in several well-known horror stories; again, as the motives of specific antagonists within particular narratives, they are causes in the immediate sense and within the contexts of the stories themselves, not in a universal and cosmic sense, as definitions of the very nature of evil itself:


These example could be multiplied ad infinitum, but the point is that, in the horror story that accommodates itself to the formula we identified, the antagonist’s motive is the explanation for the horror--the series of bizarre incidents that unfold in the first part of the tale, whatever the ultimate, metaphysical nature of evil itself may be.

Therefore, the horror writer’s first task is to determine what the antagonist’s motive shall be, to identify, in other words, what the antagonist wants and hopes to accomplish. Having done so, the author withholds this explanation for the bizarre incidents that occur in the story until the middle of the tale, wherein, discerning or learning the antagonist’s motivation (i. e., the cause of the evil events that are taking place), the protagonist is equipped to put an end to these incidents (and, possibly, the monster that is causing them). It’s extremely doubtful that the protagonist will ever but an end to the nature of evil, to sin, or pride, or indifference, or threats to the local community, or whatever this nature may be.

Despite the chaos, there must be order. Despite the madness, there must be a method. Despite the bizarre series of incidents, there must be a motive to the monster’s behavior which causes these incidents. Writers who do not provide a plausible motive for the bizarre series of incidents that result from their antagonists’ actions do not fare well with readers and critics, and otherwise good, or even superior, novels suffer as a result of such failures as well. Although Stephen King’s motives usually suffice to make his villains’ actions believable, he drops the ball in a big way with It, and Bentley Little, despite having written nearly a dozen novels and many short stories, has yet to pick up the ball or, perhaps, even to notice that it exists. The effect, upon It, is to all but ruin a potential masterpiece of the genre. The effect, upon Little’s reputation, of not yet his career, is sustained disappointment and, most likely, eventual oblivion.

Some motives that horror writers have used to explain the bizarre incidents that unfold in the first parts of their stories include:

  • Demonic possession in an attempt to bring about a person’s damnation
  • An alien’s mission (for example, conquest or mating with a man or a woman)
  • Vengeance upon a wrongdoer
  • Eruptions of a past or future events into the present
  • Pollution
  • Humans’ encroachment upon a monster’s habitat
  • An effort to steal or control dwindling food or other resources
  • Behavioral control or modification
  • Recruitment or testing
  • Eugenics
  • Efforts to survive a plague or the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust
  • Genocide
  • Punishment, individual or wholesale
  • Colonization
  • Commerce
  • War

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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