Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Guide to Supernatural Fiction: A Review (Part I)

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In the “Preface” to his massive tome, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Everett E. Bleiler of Kent State University, examines approximately 7,200 stories, dating from 1800 to 1960, all of which he has read personally, over a quarter century. As a result, he sees both the mosaics--the individual narratives, drawn from myth, legend, fairy tales, pulp and popular fiction, classic literature, and other sources--and the big picture, the “folklore” of supernatural fiction, as he calls the whole. His massive volume not only identifies the various motifs, or recurring themes and topics of such fiction, offering detailed summaries of most of them, but it also provides insights into parallel treatments of these themes and topics.

Bleiler’s massive, painstaking analysis, synthesis, classification, division, and evaluation of so many thousands of stories from such a vast array of sources enables students, scholars, and writers of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and other forms of speculative fiction, both supernatural, or contranatural, and otherwise, to discern the variety of ways in which the same or similar themes have been treated across time by a diversity of authors. It also shows how the same author, writing about the same motif, treats and develops this motif in several different ways. The synopses of the stories enables readers and researchers, as well as writers, to get the gist, at least, of plots for stories that are out of print, and, as Bleiler points out, are unlikely, in most cases, ever to appear again in print. Using his Guide, interested parties can determine what types of characters appear again and again in such stories, compiling a list of the stock characters and the stereotypical characters that are common to the genre. It also permits its readers to discern patterns in settings, conflicts, and other elements of supernatural fiction.

Bleiler identifies three uses of supernatural literature: primary, secondary, and tertiary. According to his analysis, the primary purpose of supernatural fiction is to provide its readers with “thrills” while appealing to their interest in “supernatural motifs taken literally.” The secondary use of such literature is to serve “as a vehicle for something else: satire, analysis of social relations, probing of guilt and conscience,” and “a search for justice.” The tertiary use of this fiction is its “symbolisation of something otherwise perhaps on the edge of ineffability.”

Occasionally, Bleiler’s word choice seems odd and difficult to understand. For example, what does “supernatural motifs taken literally mean”? Does he intend to indicate, by such a phrase, that these motifs are normally regarded as being figurative or symbolic expressions? Other times, the author could have provided more explanations of some such phrases. What topics, for example, might, without the employment of symbolism be “on the edge of ineffability” and why? These occasionally awkward phrases are unfortunate, but, fortunately, they do not occur very often and, in general, Bleiler accomplishes an uncommon feat among intellectuals: his writing is mostly clear and comprehensible.

Supernatural fiction may use irony, may be symbolic, may be satirical, may be representational without also being symbolic (although it may also be symbolic), is dualistic, allowing the consideration of opposing points of view, is often speculative of other ways of life, is often transformational, and may be humorous. What is common to all these stories is the supernatural, or, as Bleiler prefers, the contranatural, by which he means “a consistent, often studied reversal of a mechanistic universe.”

In his summaries of the many stories he discusses in his Guide, Bleiler sometimes indicates when a particular narrative is ironic, symbolic, satirical, or performs another such duty in addition to their primary, secondary, and tertiary purposes. These pointers are helpful to readers, authors in particular, because they show, again, how various writers of a diverse body of supernatural fiction treat and develop these narrative adjuncts.

Discussing the relationship between stories’ meanings and their cultural contexts, an aspect of stories’ themes, Bleiler suggests that the meaning of a story is lost when the cultural context that informs the story are no longer known and understood. Moreover, the status of a book can change, for this reason, a satire bthecoming understood as an adventure story for adults and, then, later, as a children’s book. This was the fate of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, he maintains.

In the volume’s article concerning “The Phenomenology of Contranatural Fiction,” Bleiler argues that “modern supernatural fiction is ultimately concerned with the impersonal individual and with universals of existence in story abstractions that are sometimes very primitive.”

As mentioned in Chillers and Thrillers post, “Evil Is As Evil Does,” these themes are common in H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and, to a lesser degree, perhaps to the work of such contemporary writers as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Bentley Little. They also appear in the work of many mainstream authors, such as Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and many others.

He distinguishes between supernatural and contranatural fiction by observing that the former “dealt very largely with beings that were in some way superior to mortals or to living men,” whereas the latter is more concerned with “a world view that is in direct opposition to that of materialism,” and, he says, “My thesis is that modern fiction has erected a mirror world based on direct contradiction to what most of us believe, related through the strong principle of positive negation.” This perspective is discernible in the fiction’s “subject matter. . . man and the universe.” Contranatural fiction, Bleiler maintains, “cares little about man as a social being or as a lesson in biochemistry or psychology” and is “not always concerned with exact geography, with the orderly progression of time, or with the immutable law,” and “instead, things are added to, subtracted from, and modified away from reality.”

It is debatable, perhaps, as to whether “most of us believe” in a dualistic world of spirit and matter rather than a materialistic universe, as Bleiler contends. If anything, the opposite state of affairs seems to be the rule. However, it may be true that many continue, in the words of the FBI’s Special Agent Fox Mulder, to “want to believe” in a spiritual realm that is both immanent and transcendent to the natural world in which matter and energy, as interchangeable expressions of the same basic substance, hold sway, and, in that sense, emotionally rather than rationally, the dualistic world view of the “primitive” is still influential in modern and contemporary human life.

Additions result in an increase of human powers by assigning “a host of paranormal abilities,” to which “evolution can bring further changes.” Contranatural fiction is characterized by “worlds of if, magic lands, unrigorous futures. . . objects that contain manna in themselves” and “manipulative techniques like magic and wish.”

Subtractions, he says, “indicate limitations” such as “loss of personal essence, deprivation of powers, destruction of time and space, new principles of causality of more limited range than the old, and restrictions on man and the gods.” In general, he believes subtractions to be “less important” than additions, but both additions and subtractions to reality are “modifications of the mechanistic universe” which can be “most easily recognized and understood” as antitheses of “the basis of mechanism,” as represented by various statements:

  • Man is alone in the universe--there are supernatural beings.
  • Man is the most powerful force--there are gods.
  • The universe is amoral--there are forces concerned with morality, gods, demons, rewards, punishments.
  • The universe is an uncaring place--there are temptations, prayer, faith.
  • Death is final--there are ghosts, heavens, hells, reincarnation.
  • Change can be effected only by rational means--there is magic. . . .
  • Existence is material--there are fairies, vampires, little people of various sorts.
  • Essence is inalienable--there are transformations of various sorts, personality interchange, possession, breaking the rule of one man-one personality.
  • Reality is closed and separate from things imagined--there are solipsistic universes, entry into literary worlds, characters coming to life.
  • The animate and the inanimate are rigidly separated--life may be created, inanimate things may be brought to life.
  • Man’s senses have limitations--there are paranormal abilities, dream worlds, foreknowledge.
  • According to Bleiler, such additions, subtractions, and modifications to reality result from “psychological factors that lie behind” his “typological scheme--fear and hope, desire and despair, acceptance and wonder.”
  • Bleiler believes that, as human knowledge “expands,” so does “contra-knowledge,” and the latter expands more quickly and broadly than the former, since “it is possible to have more than one opposition to a basic idea.”

In Part Two of "The Guide to Supernatural Fiction: A Review," we’ll consider Bleiler’s six statements from which “countless stories can be generated.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Coffins

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Replica of Abraham Lincoln's Coffin

There’s no pleasant way to get rid of a dead body. Cremation, burial at sea, exposure to the elements and wild animals, burial in the earth, mummification--all these methods and others have been tried, but they all leave something, more or less, to be desired. If one opts for burial in the soil, rather than at sea, he or she will need a coffin, whether of pine or solid gold. Since most people do opt for burial in the soil, coffins are likely to remain everyday horrors. As such, they’re worthy of a post in this series.

Originally, the coffin was simply a simple pine box. Its purpose was simple, too: contain the corpse. Once buried, the coffin, if not the corpse, was soon forgotten. Now, it would be considered gauche, to say the very least, to bury a dearly departed in so simple (and cheap) a box. Nothing less than the finest mahogany, or even bronze, lined with satin or silk, will do. After all, the more expensive the coffin, the more its quality indicates the degree to which the loved one was loved.

Haraldskaer Woman's Coffin

Although many coffins are plain, some are fanciful, shaped like fish, bottles, or guitars, whereas others bear a glass cover that allows a glimpse of the body inside, such as that of the Haraldskaer woman on display in the Church of St. Nicolai in Vejle, Denmark or of S. P. Dinsmoor, the Civil War veteran who built a concrete Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas to showcase his political and religious beliefs.

S. P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, where his glass-covered cement coffin is displayed, Dinsmoor, inside, looking a bit mouldy

In the nineteenth century, Americans and others were terrified of being buried alive, as Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial” suggests, and coffins were equipped with alarms that could be sounded by the coffin’s occupant, in the event that he or she had been mistakenly buried alive. Modern coffins (often called “caskets”) are frequently equipped with features that are supposed to protect the body from bacteria, insects, temperature changes, and other threats, but none do so indefinitely and caskets with air-tight seals actually promote the decay of the body rather than retarding or preventing it. An airtight casket expedites the decomposition of the corpse by bacteria that thrive in an oxygen-free environment.

Among models offered by most casket manufacturers are the 20-gauge steel coffin with or without an airtight gasket; a 16-gauge steel coffin; a stainless-steel coffin; a solid copper coffin, which may or may not attract grave robbers bent upon collecting the metal for resale; a solid bronze coffin ; and hardwood coffins of poplar, oak, maple, cherry, mahogany, and pine. There are also extra-large caskets and Jewish caskets, the male versions of which, presumably, are circumcised. The best value among one supplier’s metal coffins is the Hamilton DCM01, regularly selling at $1,395, but discounted for who-knows-how-long, at a mere $795. It’s a 20-gauge steel coffin, without the airtight seal (what does one expect for a paltry $795?), of sliver color, and has a white crepe interior. The company’s best value in wood coffins is the Montgomery DCTH50, which normally costs $2,195 but is discounted to $1,395. It has a hardwood mahogany finish on the outside and a white crepe interior. The supplier offers a quick course on how to select a coffin, Caskets 101. The course begins with some basic (one might say self-evident) information, and, in bold font, states the disclaimer, “No caskets or vaults protect human remains from decomposition, no matter how much you spend.” Instead, the purpose of the coffin is to serve as “a vehicle to place a loved one in for a ceremony and an interment.” The decomposition of the corpse, Caskets 101 stresses, is “inevitable,” no matter how much or how little one spends on the body's “vehicle.” The course also offers this interesting tidbit, in case student-customers are wondering: “Besides steel caskets, there are copper and bronze caskets. These caskets are measured by the ounce, meaning a 32 Oz. Bronze casket contains 32 ounces of bronze for every square foot of casket.” The purpose of the sealer is to prevent air and water from disturbing the loved one’s eternal rest, but “there is no guarantee that this won’t ever happen.” The course concludes by suggesting the economy of buying directly from a wholesaler: “funeral homes tend to triple the cost of their caskets and sometimes a lot more, we just mark ours up one time. . . . funeral homes can succeed with high markups because most people still buy their caskets from them.”

Many vampire stories, including Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot and Joss Whedon‘s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feature coffins, as do stories populated with zombies. In The Amityville Horror, George Lutz graciously, if rather oddly, builds coffins for the members of his family. In Homecoming, the war dead rise from their flag-draped coffins to vote. The movie Ed Gein starts with the title character robbing a grave, and, real-life ghoul that he was, Gein actually did rob quite a few graves, both in Plainfield, Wisconsin and in Spirit Land Cemetery, a few miles to the north of his hometown.

As Homecoming suggests, the Veterans Administration will supply an American flag to the next-of-kin of any honorably discharged serviceman or woman, and, incidentally, now allows the Wicca symbol on military headstones. (Other approved emblems include a large variety of Christian crosses, the Buddhist wheel of righteousness, the Jewish Star of David, the angel Moroni, the arrow-and-teepee emblem of the Native American Church of North America, the atheist atom, the Muslim crescent and star, the Hindu religious emblem, and various others.)

At a recent trade show, China introduced the world to a paper coffin, which resembles hardwood, and can be decorated with paintings. It can be easily cremated or buried, and has been used in China for years.

Coffins are also available for pet animals. Some are rectangular pine boxes; others are hardwood miniature versions of adult humans’ coffins, complete with handles on either ides for pallbearers’ use.

“Everyday Horrors: Coffins” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Concerning The Descent (2205), it behooves one to ask who is descending and into what, precisely, the characters are descending. The “who” is a team of nubile young women, and the “what” is an underground cavern. Symbolically, a cavern represents the womb, and an underground world suggests the interiority of the person, an interiority that is not normally seen or surveyed--the unconscious mind. The idea of descending, of “going down,” also has, perhaps, a vaguely sexual--and, in the context of an all-female cast, a homosexual, or lesbian--connotation. Women are going down together, inside a giant womb symbol, just as they are undertaking an exploration of their unconscious mind.

Women often regard one another as rivals rather than as friends--or so it is said, at any rate. The Descent builds upon this idea of same-sex rivalry. Although they do encounter strange, fetus-like creatures, they discover, as their relatively superficial friendships falter, that they actually have more to fear from one another than from the monsters as they become as much their own enemies as the adversaries of the beasts that stalk them.

The cast of characters ranges across the spectrum of social roles available to contemporary women, and the women’s varied nationalities and ethnicities suggest that this movie is about all women everywhere, rather than just the five who actually make up the expedition’s party. Juno is the intrepid adventuress; Sarah, a Brit, is the wife and mother; the British Beth, her friend, is her confidante; and the European sisters, Rebecca and Sam (note the masculine name), are, respectively, the timid female and the competent professional woman. The only man in any of the women’s lives, Sarah’s husband, Paul, a role-reversed Mr. Mom who tends to their daughter, Jessica, is out of the picture, as is the child: father and daughter were killed in a car accident following a rafting adventure in which Sarah and her girlfriends participated.

Juno, the movie suggests, may be bisexual, for, just before their spelunking expedition begins, she and her team are joined by the reckless and obviously butch Holly, Juno’s friend. Wife-and-mother Sarah and her best friend, Beth, harbor resentment toward Juno, who abandoned them the previous year. Her abandonment of her friends haunts Juno’s dreams, and it is obvious that she feels guilty about her actions.

These dreams also set up the shifting themes of the character’s waking (conscious) and sleeping (unconscious) lives, heralding their descent into their unconscious, where they will confront their deepest, most secret fears, as embodied by the strange fetus-creatures who will hunt them.

The contours of the cave they explore resemble the shape of the womb. Wide at the entrance (vagina), it narrows toward the middle (cervix), and then opens again, into another wider space (uterus, or womb). As the women negotiate their way through the womb-cave, Sarah, the wife and mother, gets stuck and, suffering from claustrophobia, panics. As subtext, her becoming trapped seems to represent pregnancy, which causes a woman to get “stuck,” physically and, to some extent, both emotionally and socially, if not vocationally, as well, for nine months in a process that, for many, epitomizes femininity. Beth, her best friend, plays the role of the midwife, delivering Sarah, but the birth process represented by Beth’s freeing Sarah from the cave’s narrowed passageway goes awry: the womb-cave collapses, burying the women inside a womb-become-a-tomb. Their gender, especially as it is involved in pregnancy, has not only trapped them, but it has also, in fact, buried them alive.

Juno announces that she has duped her friends. In pretending that they would be exploring an already-charted cavern while taking them to an unexplored cave instead, she has betrayed her fellow women. Femininity, represented by the charted cavern, was once familiar and non-threatening, but, now, as represented by an unknown cave, it has become an alien, unknown, and possibly hazardous region. Juno has risked their lives along with her own to realize her ambition to have a cave named for her as a sort of shortcut to a symbolic or surrogate motherhood.

Juno seeks a new way by which women can generate and produce, if not reproduce, except that the way is not new. It is the age-old technological-masculine substitute for women’s natural ability to reproduce life through the feminine-exclusive means of pregnancy and childbirth, as men seek to create material artifacts through technological-masculine means in imitation of, and compensation for, women’s natural-feminine ability to have children. Juno seems to want to usurp these technological-masculine means by asserting her will over the other women and over the womb-cave to which she has brought them for this purpose. In the process, she has endangered the lives of both herself and the other members of the party, ostensibly her friends but really her rivals. None of them sees the other danger--the drooling mouth, a sort of vagina dentata--that appears, briefly, in the foreground of the scene. Playing the role of the midwife a second time, Beth points a way out of the womb-cave: art, in the form of a mural painted by Native Americans (Roseau’s “noble savages”), shows the trapped women a way out of their predicament, depicting a second exit from the womb-cave.

As they continue their descent, Holly, thinking she sees sunlight, rushes along the cavern, heedless of Juno’s command to slow down, and falls, breaking a leg. Lesbianism, with a patina of machismo, as an alternative means of satisfying one’s sexual desires, is crippled, and it hinders women in their explorations of themselves as individuals and of their femininity as women. As the sisterhood tends to their injured comrade, the traditional wife-and mother, Sarah, wanders off, on her own, encountering one of the womb-cave’s misshapen, aborted-fetus-like monsters, which seem to represent her (and her companions’) forsaking of traditional and biological maternal roles. The creatures are an army, it seems, of outraged fetuses or, perhaps, could-have-been fetuses, who were aborted by virtue of the women’s decision to renounce their baby-making capability in favor of pursuing the more traditionally masculine role of explorer. Things quickly go from bad to worse.

The lesbian has been crippled, but now she is killed by one of the creatures, and her ostensible lover, Juno, the leader of the women’s group, struggles with the murderous monster for the remains of the slain woman. The monster, as an aborted fetus, perhaps, represents the traditional role of women or, at least, its outcome, but it is a role that has been thwarted by the women’s will--their choice--to engage in spelunking.

By using a tool--a pickaxe, representing an artifact of the technological-masculine order--Juno scars the fetus-monster’s face, but it drags Holly’s body off as a second monster attacks Juno. The women’s leader manages to kill her attacker, with the man-made pickaxe, but she also mortally wounds the timid member of their sisterhood, the wife-and-mother’s best friend, Beth. In denying one’s femininity, an alpha woman like Juno, it appears, can have a negative, even a fatal, effect on the lives of lesser (read, more traditional) women. Feminism, especially in its extreme form, may not be good for all ladies. As Beth begs Juno to help her, Juno, as if confirming the prophetic nature of her earlier nightmares, abandons Beth to her fate. Sarah dreams of her daughter, but, this time, Jessica has the face of one of the aborted-fetus-monsters, the imagery establishing the thematic connection between children (or would-be children) and their abandonment (or abortion).

As if crippling and then killing the renegade woman-lesbian were not enough for the outraged, vengeful fetus-monsters, the creatures fall upon Holly’s corpse, consuming it, as Sarah, rescued by Juno, flees. The women discover that the creatures are blind and rely upon their heightened sense of hearing to hunt their prey.

The masculine-named Sam is embracing her sister, the distraught, timid girly girl, Rebecca; however Sam, emasculated with fear at the sight of a monster, is unable to protect or to defend her sister, and it is up to heroic Juno, armed with the man-made pickaxe, once again, to save a damsel in distress.

In her retreat from the feeding pit in which the monsters are devouring the remains of the lesbian, Sarah encounters Beth, telling her friend how Juno had abandoned her, and Sarah fulfills Beth’s request that she kill her to put her out of her misery. The wife-mother has killed her midwife, but, it appears, not soon enough, for a child-like monster attacks Sarah, forcing her to kill (abort) the fetus-creature. Nature, through its exercise of the biological imperative, reasserts its will, as another fetus-monster --the slain creature’s mother (or the mother role itself, which has been thwarted by Sarah’s murder of the child)--attacks Sarah.

In fending off the female monster’s attack, Sarah falls into a pool of (menstrual?) blood, where the female monster (maternal instinct) pins her. Using a sharp bone fragment (symbolic, it seems, of the death instinct, which, in Freudian psychology, is opposed to eros, the life instinct), Sarah kills the monster, but its mate, the male of the species, then attacks her. She manages to kill it with the bone fragment as well.

Sam and Rebecca are next to be dispatched by the monsters, before the creatures force Juno to jump into a pit of water. After killing a creature lurking in the water, Juno climbs the side of pit, but loses her grip and slides back into the crater. Sarah, appearing above, grabs her, hauling her out of the depression. It’s obvious from her expression that she scorns Juno for having abandoned Beth to her fate. However, her contempt is forgotten for the moment when they are again attacked by the fetus-creatures. They kill their attackers, and, when Juno is distracted by additional creatures, Sarah stabs Juno in the leg, abandoning her to her fate, as Juno had earlier abandoned Beth.

As the monsters descend upon Juno, Sarah flees, escapes through an exit in the cave, and drives off--or so she thinks. As Juno’s bloodied corpse appears beside her in the car’s passenger seat, she realizes that she is merely daydreaming; her escape was just an illusion, and the exit she thought she’d seen was nothing. She’s fled into a dead-end arm (a Fallopian tube) of the cavern. She thinks of her daughter, who offers her birthday cake. The monsters--fetus-like creatures representing, perhaps, her abandonment of her role as a mother--are heard, descending upon her, as the film ends.

The Descent may be regarded as a repudiation of extreme feminism’s demand that women, to become authentic individuals, abandon the roles of mother and wife, forsaking family and even the childbearing role that nature and biology, no less than society, have assigned to them. This is the lesson that the women learn, too late, from their exploration of their unconscious minds that is represented by the cave, which also doubles as the ultimate symbol of femininity, the womb itself.

Everyday Horrors: Crawlspaces

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Not every house has one, but, for those that do, the crawlspace can be a source of anxiety, or even fear. In some cases, it may be a font of pure, unadulterated terror. Not quite a basement--in fact, not really even part of the house--the crawlspace, as its name implies, makes one crawl, belly down, and vulnerable, in a close, confined space. Already, just thinking about such a situation, causes the hackles to rise. Maybe it’s not necessary, one thinks, to thaw the frozen water pipe under the house or to investigate the strange scratching, clawing sound that seems, when one is seated in the cozy comfort of one’s well-lighted living room, to come from down there.

One of the most frightening aspects of the crawlspace has already been cited--it requires that one crawl, belly down, vulnerable, in a close, confined space in which standing or, in many cases, even sitting, is impossible. The crawlspace is dimly lit, too, by only the flashlight that one has in hand (or mouth), and, dropped--or, perhaps, snatched away--the bulb could shatter, leaving one in utter darkness, with over a ton of house above one, the residence become, perhaps, a tomb. Another disturbing aspect of the crawlspace is that, often, it offers only one way out--the small square or rectangular opening through which one entered. To escape, should escape become necessary, one would have to go back the way that he or she came--and what if the thing--the animal or creature, or monster--is behind one? It’s a safe bet, in a horror story, at least, that whatever’s in the crawlspace with the character will be not only far stronger than he or she, but also much nimbler and sprier. It will be able to dash and dart around inside the narrow space, so that, regardless of the direction a retreating homeowner (or maintenance worker) takes, the thing would already be there, cutting off the escape route.

And, as TV game show barkers are fond of barking, “That’s not all!” Like the basement, the crawlspace has cthuluian associations. Psychologically, it is connected to the Freudian id or the Jungian unconscious, individual and, possibly, collective. In the depths of this underground world, so to speak, there be monsters--the uncivilized, impulses of our animal ancestry, bestial and untamed--and dead bodies--the dark, sometimes sinister thoughts, desires, emotions, temptations, and experiences we have rejected and “buried,” more or less alive and kicking. And, as Xander Harris tells Buffy Summers, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's “Dead Man’s Party” episode, one “can’t just bury things,” because “they’ll come right back to get you.”

The ground upon which one lies, the vulnerable belly exposed to whatever may lie beneath, is a thin skin between the everyday world of the normal and the ordinary, governed by conscience, reason, cultural traditions, laws, and social mores and a hidden, subterranean world of the unknown, the untamed, the uncivilized, and the alien, where anything may lie in wait, albeit, whatever form the buried bodies take, they will almost certainly be hideous, repulsive, and hostile rather than beautiful, attractive, and friendly. At any moment, whatever lurks below may penetrate this thin layer between sanity and madness, reason and absurdity, love and fear, hope and despair. Cut off from family, friends, and society, one is trapped, alone in the dark, in the confines of a space as close and inescapable as the grave. It would be ironic for a residence to be transformed into a tomb, but fate loves irony, and this same transformation has occurred not merely once, but several times.

The lowly crawlspace (sorry, but I couldn’t resist!) has appeared, as a major player, in several movies (and in one of my own short stories). One such film is Crawlspace, which was released in 1986. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) offers a succinct summary of the plot: “A man who runs an apartment house for women is the demented son of a Nazi surgeon who has the house equipped with secret passageways, hidden rooms and torture and murder devices.”

A crawlspace also played a significant role in another movie of the same title, released in 1972. In this one, a homeless youth takes up residence in the crawlspace of a lonely, childless couple who befriended him. When he makes enemies by destroying a store, local residents avenge themselves upon the disturbed youth and the parents whom he’s adopted.

In yet another Crawlspace movie, released in 2000 as part of Pendulum Pictures’ Mental Maniacs DVD set, a sadistic kidnapper, wearing what might be a mask of human flesh, torments first one, and then another, man whom he traps in the crawlspace beneath his house. The second is Mike, who awakens “to find that he is trapped with no way out. A 'phone rings and the games begin. The captor calls himself ‘The Director’ and he claims to be directing a reality show in which Mike's life is at stake. If Mike is alive after three days of mayhem, he will be set free.”

In the horror films to date, crawlspaces have been interpreted primarily as metaphors for helplessness and have been subsumed under the labels of the slasher film, in which a crazed serial killer stalks and slashes nubile teens, and the splatter film, which focuses upon blood, guts, and gore, both of which are sometimes called “torture porn” by critics who find little, if any, socially redeeming value in their exploitation of bloodlust and its effects. The most disturbing aspect of the crawlspace, however--and the one that qualifies it for inclusion as an “Everyday Horror”--is the simple fact that many houses--perhaps yours--feature one of these twilight zones in which the near and dear connect with the distant and the feared.

“Everyday Horrors: Crawlspaces” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured on Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Tombstones

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In Tombstone, Arizona’s boot hill cemetery, a headstone bears this epitaph:

Here lies Lester Moore.
He took four slugs from a .44,
No Les
No More.

Frontier towns seemed to enjoy macabre humor--or, perhaps, it was only their undertakers who did. In a graveyard in another such town, an epitaph reads:

Here lies a man named Zeke,
Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.

An executed sheep stealer’s stone comments:

Here lies the body of
Thomas Kemp
Who lived by wool
And died by hemp.

Of course, people of other times and places also liked such doggerel on theirs (or others’) markers, as these examples attest:

Stranger, tread
This ground with gravity:
Dentist Brown
Is filling his last cavity.

I put my wife beneath this stone
For her repose and my own.

Humorous epitaphs such as these (and there are many others, which apply to those who have departed from every walk of life) may be a form of black humor--wit and its product, witticisms, by which we express absurdity (it seems absurd that we should be born only to die)--or of gallows humor--wit and its byproducts, witticisms, by which we make fun of death and other dire conditions or situations--a sort of verbal whistling in the dark as we pass the cemetery at night.

However, headstones, gravestones, tombstones, or whatever one chooses to call them may have had a different purpose, originally. Notice that these words all have something in common--stone. They might have been used to hold the coffin down and prevent the escape of the corpse, should it, or its spirit, decide to return to haunt the living.

Since the beginning of human history, the living have feared the dead. A decaying corpse suggests, for some (and proves beyond all doubt, for others) that life may come to a bad end, that it is a tragedy rather than a comedy, and that it is absurd, even while lived, if it comes to naught in the end. The best thing to do is to hide the evidence of one’s mortality, and one way to do so is to bury the evidence--and, for good measure, to put a heavy object, such as a stone, atop it. This way, the cities of the living are segregated from the cities of the dead, and the denizens of each may keep company with their own kind.

The Veterans Administration recently approved the inscription of the Wicca five-sided star on deceased veterans' headstones. As one might suppose, the decision has generated quite a controversy.

In horror stories, the dead find the granite or marble stones erected upon their graves no impediment to their desire to rejoin the living. In horror movies, anything is possible, and ghosts, vampires, zombies, and all manner of other revenants, including a dead cat in Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Dead Man’s Party” episode, routinely return from the grave, whistle as we may when we pass the graveyard’s wrought-iron gates.

“Everyday Horrors: Tombstones” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

Everyday Horrors: Gargoyles

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Designed as rainspouts, gargoyles are grotesque, often demonic, figures. Their name derives from a French word, gargouille, meaning “gullet,” an onomatopoeia word derived in mimicry of the gargling sound that water makes in the throat. Frequently, rain washed through the figures’ throats and is poured away from the sides of the buildings--usually, cathedrals--upon which they are mounted. There are also chimeras, which are the same as gargoyles except that they fulfill a purely decorative purpose and do not carry rainwater. Architectural and religious features since ancient times, gargoyles were used in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, although most people associate gargoyles with medieval cathedrals. Notre Dame is a famous example. In the United States, the Washington National Cathedral, in the nation’s capitol, is festooned with the grotesque figures, one of which is a likeness of Darth Vader. Princeton’s and several other Ivy League universities’ buildings also include gargoyles as part of their architecture.

Historians vary in their interpretation as to the meaning of these odd figures. Some believe that they were intended to ward off evil, whereas others think that they may have been intended to remind the faithful of the fate of the unrepentant sinner. After all, they were never carved inside the church. They were always perched outside, under eaves or ledges, exiled, as it were, from the fellowship of the faithful, much as Cain’s descendent, Grendel, was exiled from the fellowship of Danish warriors. The gargoyle was an outcast, a pariah. As such, gargoyles could have symbolized damned souls, pressed into labor by God, despite their wickedness, and made to serve the church in their ignominious role as waterspouts.

According to an article concerning “The Gargoyles of Princeton University,” still another theory as to the meaning of gargoyles considered them to be the representations of evil spirits that had been overthrown by the Christian church. They were said to have frozen in stone as they fled from the church. Princeton’s gargoyles, this article explains, symbolize a variety of ideas. One, a blindfolded reader holding an open book in his hands, represents “opening the eyes of those who seek understanding and casting aside the obstructions of prejudice.” However, the article’s author adds, tongue in cheek, “symbolism aside, this figure evokes sympathy from anyone who has ever picked up a book and not understood a word of it.” Another gargoyle, a monkey with a camera, is said to represent “academic endeavor”: he is “playing with technology beyond his understanding,” but the use of which he may learn. Other gargoyles and chimeras on the university’s campus also have an educational spirit, so to speak, and include a flute player, a chained dragon, a football runner, Benjamin Franklin, a dinosaur head, a monkey clown, a literate ape, a man with an open mouth, a goblin with a shell, the head of a football player, the head of a soldier, and a couple taking a joy ride in their automobile.

Like many of the Princeton gargoyles, those who inhabit the exterior surfaces of the Washington Cathedral tend to be humorous rather than somber in spirit. Many represent technological marvels, such as the computer, the astronaut, and robots. Others are depictions of stylized animals, usually of the domesticated rather than the wild variety, or objects from popular culture. One of the more popular of these figures is the one that represents the Star Wars villain, Darth Vader, who was chosen in a nationwide contest, in 1980, in which schoolchildren competed to select designs for the church’s west towers. (Other winners were a raccoon, a girl with pigtails and braces, and a big-tooth man with an umbrella.) The National Cathedral provides a self-guided tour for those who are interested in spotting their gargoyles; one is advised to bring binoculars. The buildings in many cities beside Washington, D. C., also feature gargoyles. The grotesque figures can be seen peering down from ledges, arches, eaves, and other exterior building locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere.

Many of the gargoyles that decorate (?) the Cathedral of Notre Dame are animals. Others are human faces or heads. It may be that the gargoyles of Notre Dame and other Christian cathedrals were also tools of religious conversion. As “Historical Base for Gargoyles” points out, Pope Gregory encouraged St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, in Africa, to establish the Catholic faith among the local pagan people by substituting Christian for pagan images and icons, allowing the converts to adjust to their newfound faith slowly as they transferred their devotion to their own religious objects and convictions to those of the church: “"Destroy the idol. Purify the temples with holy water. Set relics there, and let them become temples of the true God. So the people will have no need to change their place of concourse, and, where of old they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them continue to resort on the day of the saint to where the Church is dedicated, and slay their beasts, no longer as a sacrifice but for social meal in honor of Him whom they now worship.” In addition, the images and statues, including the gargoyles, were the visual means of communicating theological truths to the illiterate laity. Times have changed, however, and even the fiercest of these grotesque creatures no longer frightens. In fact, the Notre Dame gargoyles are now available as coloring book images!

“Everyday Horrors: Gargoyles” is the first in a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured on Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bram Stoker Award Winners, 2006

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Named for Dracula’s creator, the Bram Stoker award has been presented annually since 1988 by the Horror Writers Association in recognition of “superior achievement” in the horror genre. The award is an eight-inch model of a whimsical haunted house designed by sculptor Steven Kirk. The door opens to disclose a miniature brass plaque bearing the title of the winning work and its author’s name. Award categories have changed over the years. Presently, these categories are:

  • Novel
  • First Novel
  • Short Fiction
  • Long Fiction
  • Fiction Collection
  • Poetry Collection
  • Anthology
  • Nonfiction.
On occasion, a writer may receive a lifetime achievement Stoker for his or her entire body of work, provided that the oeuvre has had a significant effect on the genre.

For 2006, these were the winners; the awards were presented March 30, 2007:

Novel: Lisey's Story by Stephen King

Lisey Landon, the widow of award-winning novelist Scott Landon, realizes, as she cleans her late husband’s study, that there's much she doesn’t know about his past, and, with the help of Dooley, an eccentric acquaintance, Lisey must figure out what she’s hidden from herself (and what Scott has planned for her) if she's to remain alive.

First Novel: Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Pine Deep, Pennsylvania, is a small town under attack from within and from without. The novel in which the small town is featured, although it comprises a self-contained story, is the first in a trilogy, which fans and fellow horror writers compare to Stephen King’s The Stand, Dean Koontz’s Whispers, and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. The book’s bad guys? A serial killer, a ghost, a pair of wicked mechanics, madness, greed, sexual repression, religious fanaticism, and fear. Ghost Road Blues’ sequels are Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising. Its author, 49-year-old Jonathan Maberry, maintains a MySpace site.

Long Fiction: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge

A scarecrow-like monster rises, like the Great Pumpkin, from a cornfield on Halloween to test the mettle of the boys who reside in the small town nearby.

Short Fiction: "Tested" by Lisa Morton

Fiction Collection: Destinations Unknown by Gary Braunbeck

Anthology: Retro Pulp Tales edited by Joe Lansdale and Mondo Zombie edited by John Skipp (tie)

Nonfiction: Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die by Michael Largo and Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Vision of Hell on Earth by Kim Paffenroth (tie)

Final Exits is a book of trivia concerning death and dying, replete with typographic errors and factual mistakes. Gospel of the Living Dead analyzes the symbolism and themes of George Romero’s zombie movies.

Poetry Collection: Shades Fantastic by Bruce Boston

Speciality Press Award: PS Publishing

Lifetime Achievement Award: Thomas Harris.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Solipsism, Claustrophobia, Vampires, and Zombies

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

As we age, the objects of our fear change. As children, we fear the dark. We fear monsters. We fear strangers. Later, we learn, as the Beatles sing,

What do I see when I turn out the lights?
I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.
There’s nothing in the dark that wasn’t there in the light, we learn. There’s nothing to fear, even if the jacket on the back of the chair looks, in the dim light, among the shadows, like a crouching troll. Monsters, we learn, are imaginary. There are far worse things--real things--to worry about. Disease. Sickness. Death. Strangers, we realize, are potential friends.

Like shape shifters, our fears change. They transform themselves. They metamorphose, becoming different, becoming other. Often, even when they’ve changes, they are still in mask and costume, impersonating our deeper, truer fears. Take the fear of close spaces. In “The Premature Burial,” Poe describes the terror of one who, thought to be dead, awakens inside his coffin, having been buried alive:

Fearful indeed the suspicion--but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs--the stifling fumes of the damp earth--the clinging to the death garments--the rigid embrace of the narrow house--the blackness of the absolute Night--the silence like a sea that overwhelms--the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm--these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed--that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead--these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth--we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated. What I have now to tell, is of my own actual knowledge--of my own positive and personal experience.
Terrifying, indeed, would it be to find oneself in the situation that Poe describes! It is such “premature burials,” historians suspect, that gave rise to the legends of vampires. Awakening within the narrow, close confines of a buried coffin, the panicked person would rip and tear at the lining or the bare wood of his or her confines, possibly turning over, if there were room enough for such an action to be accomplished, all the time wild with terror and horror, screaming in unheard anguish until there was no more air to gasp and stillness and silence put a merciful end to the victim’s horrific struggles and desperate pleas. Later, should the coffin be exhumed for some reason, the corpse within, now on its stomach, rather than on its back, and the casket itself disheveled and scratched, would seem to prove that the dead was not dead, but, rather, is one of the undying, one of the undead.

As terrible as claustrophobia is, there is something worse, perhaps. What if no one existed but oneself? What if all the world were but aspects of oneself, as are the artifacts of one’s dream? The existence of inanimate objects, of plants and animals, of other persons, of the universe itself cannot be proven, after all; rather, all things other than the experience of one’s own mind at work is all that one can know directly. The existence of everything else is merely inferred. Inferences can be misleading. They can be false. They can be illusory. The mirage on the highway seems to exist, until a car, traveling toward it, gets close. Then, it seems to vanish. In fact, it was never really there at all, perhaps, any more than is a rainbow or a dream. Psychologists believe that infants are natural solipsists, believing that they alone feel and think.

It may seem delightful to have a tropical island all to oneself, and, perhaps, for a while, it would be. What would it be like, though, after a week, a month, a year, or a decade? What would it be like to be alone in the world? The solipsist knows, or would know, were this philosophical position tenable for long in the thoughts of a person both mature and sane.

Even if solipsism is untenable to the vast majority of people, its possibility, even as but the topic of argument and debate, suggests the extremes to which people can go in challenging common-sense realism and, indeed, common sense itself. Some, standing upon the precipice of solipsistic madness, fall over the brink and into the abyss. But for the grace of God (or, perhaps, only chance), there go we as well. Claustrophobia may represent more than a fear of close spaces and of being trapped physically. It could symbolize the fear of being trapped inside oneself. There are various ways to be imprisoned within oneself. Solipsism is only one, and the unlikeliest one of all. Other, more probable alternatives to psychological imprisonment are the large number of mental disorders and even inarticulateness. If we cannot speak, if we are unintelligible or inarticulate or incoherent, we cannot make ourselves known. Therefore, we are trapped within the circle of our own thoughts and within the sphere of our own emotions. Our minds and hearts become the coffins in which we are buried alive. This, in fact, is the theme of Sherwood Anderson's novel, Winesburg, Ohio, which is, while not a horror story per se, full of moments of horror.

In horror fiction, we use cramped spaces--narrow hallways, tunnels, cages, cells, and the like--to symbolize such fears. We also employ the zombie, a creature much like us but slow-witted and slow-moving, shambling, stumbling, and unable to speak or think. Dead men walking, the zombies are we, as the solipsists of our fears.

The Appeal of the Esoteric

Copyright 2008 by Gray L. Pullman

Your fingers weave quick minarets,
Speaking secret alphabets

--Doors, “Ship of Fools”

Everyone likes secrets. We all want to know them, harbor them, divulge them. Secrets make us powerful. They put us, and not others, “in the know.” They generate curiosity, envy, fear, and a host of other, not always subtle or decent, emotions. They also make us holy, in the literal sense of the word, which is “set apart.” Secrets set us apart from others. Secrets make us stand out. They make us special, in our own minds if not in the minds of others. This is the appeal of the esoteric--or part of it.

But in horror fiction, the esoteric takes on another dimension as well. In horror fiction, the esoteric is dangerous. It threatens. It could harm or even kill. It is, therefore, in some sense, evil. The esoteric is blasphemous or heretical or treasonous, and it--and its devotees--must be put down, must be put to the stake, if necessary; they must be crushed that we may stand; they must be slain that we may live. The esoteric separates those who know, the initiates and the masters or adepts, from those who want to know, the uninitiated, the ignorant, the unenlightened.

The esoteric has been with us always. In Judaism, the Cabbalists claimed secret knowledge. They alone, they said, understood the true, the mystical, the actual meanings of the Hebrew scriptures. In Christianity, mystics and others also claimed to know what others of the faith did not know. The Gnostics crippled, and nearly killed, the early church by insisting that only they knew the secrets of the Gospels and, therefore, how to be saved from death and damnation. Even Jesus, in the Gospels, says that the knowledge of some scriptures are hidden and may be revealed only to those he elects to know and understand them. Some have ears, but they may not hear, and some have eyes but they may not see.

Throughout the Middle Ages, secret societies organized around esoteric doctrines and texts; many, perhaps in altered forms, are with us still: the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Although many may laugh at the absurdity of such secret orders, others are curious about them, or envy their members, or are afraid of them. They fear their secret alphabets, their hidden texts, their clandestine meetings, their strange symbols and rites and rituals. In many cases, outsiders, peering in, see Satan in their midst and conclude that these cults are composed of devil worshipers.

When one examines many of the esoteric texts of secret societies, one finds not so much doctrines to fear as teachings that amuse. It is difficult to read many of these sects’ secret writings without smiling or even laughing out loud. For example, “The Esoteric Philosophy Homepage” offers its visitors a perplexing welter of strange ideas, half-baked notions, and assorted trivia, perhaps with a few lotions and potions thrown into the pot--or cauldron--for good measure, offering tips on such seemingly profound matters as:

  • “Esotericism: Energy in the Universe” (something conventional physicists will want to read, no doubt)
  • “The Nature of Consciousness” (answers to age-old questions about which psychologists admit continued confusion)
  • “Education in the New Age” (for staid professors, perhaps, who still labor under the influences of Benjamin Bloom, John Dewey, and their ilk)
  • “Esoteric Healing” (for physicians who’ve yet to heal themselves)
  • “Esoteric Laws” (for lawyers to argue about)
  • “The Process of Evolution” (for neo-Darwinists)
  • “The Nature of Illusion” (for the David Copperfields among us)
  • “Reincarnation, Karma, and Past Lives” (written, perhaps, by Shirley McLaine)
  • “The Christ and the Buddha” (for two-thirds or so of the planet’s faithful)--

and dozens of more articles concerning claptrap and nonsense. The site truly offers something for everyone--and that, it seems, is another appeal of the esoteric. It’s all things to all people. As the Freemasons say, one’s faith doesn’t really matter among lodge members; anyone of any religious background, or none, may be a member of the Craft. The esoteric is something like the child (or puppet) in the Pinocchio song:

When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

However, such fulfillment is available only to the members of the cult, the sect, the inner circle, the secret society. To others--namely, the world at large--the opposite conditions apply: ignorance, disappointment, failure, despair, death, and destruction.

As one might suspect, horror fiction makes good use of secret societies.

A hooded figure scurrying about dark, subterranean chambers among shifting shadows in pursuit of God-only-knows-what are frightening because, well, they’re nameless, they’re faceless, and theyre hip to God-only-knows-what dark secrets and may, who knows?, be hell-bent on taking over the world. Often, their haunts are the dungeons of medieval castles, catacombs, caverns by the sea, or mountaintop retreats, protected and remote, situated, at times, upon unhallowed ground whereupon even angels fear to tread.

In most cases, cults, sects, and secret societies don’t really threaten society (as far as we know, anyway) (although Germany has outlawed Scientology), but, occasionally, as in the cases of the Jim Jones mass suicide at Jonestown, Ghana, the FBI’s murder of the Branch Davidians in the massacre at Waco, Texas, and the Heaven’s Gate members’ mass suicide in San Diego, California, such secret orders do do harm, albeit mostly to themselves--to date, at least. They have proven that they can be dangerous, even deadly. By not being open about who they are, what they believe, and what they are about, secret societies perpetuate the mystique that makes them feel special and unique, a self-appointed elect.

As long as the devotees of such organizations skulk about among rats and bats and cats, or whatever it is that they do skulk about among (the imagination is one’s only limit when one considers secret societies and their doings), they will appeal to outsiders and to horror fiction, which, more often than not, is concerned with the plight or the perspective, or both, of the outsider. Their mystery is their appeal, and their secrecy makes them mysterious. They have a secret, and they won’t tell. We want to know what they know, to know their secrets. It’s as simple, and complex, as that.

Poe and King: Two Unlikely Beauties

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Since the term “aesthetics” is generally used in relation to beauty, it may strike one as odd, or even bizarre, to see it associated with horror. A word of explanation is in order.

Structure has beauty. Unity has beauty. Coherence has beauty. Harmony and balance have beauty. A work, even if it treats of the horrifying and the terrifying, is beautiful if it exhibits these qualities. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems show these attributes. Therefore, such narratives as The Raven, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of the Amontillado,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” are beautiful. They are works of art. Each word, each image, each figure of speech, and each part of the whole, in each case, builds toward a single effect--fear. Poe means to frighten his readers, and he carefully plots every incident of his story’s action to do just this. In his theory, outlined in “The Philosophy of Composition,” every word has a place in the bigger scheme of things, and every word must be in its place. The fact that his name remains in lights a century after his death is a measure of his success.

In horror fiction, Poe remains the master of masters. In our time, Stephen King is often held up as, well, the king of the horror genre. It’s doubtful that even King himself would claim to be of the same rank as Poe as a literary artist, though, however popular and prolific in output King may be. In fact, he refers to himself as the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” Can it be said, though, that King has an aesthetics of horror? Maybe.

If we regard Aristotle as correct in his judgment that plot is the most important element of narrative, we may charge King with having an aesthetic. King knows how to tell a story, creating and maintaining suspense alongside pace and throwing a curve to his readers at just the right moment to keep them guessing (and reading). If Aristotle was right, King, in plotting his novels, might be said to create things of lasting beauty.

If, in striving for effect, Poe created whole new literary genres, King, in plotting his tales, recreated at least one--the horror genre. He took age-old, moldering themes, such as the vampire, and reenergized them. In bringing the parasitic bloodsuckers from Europe’s Gothic landscapes and installing them in small-town 'Salem's Lot, King not only gave them a local, and an American, home, but he also modernized them, making them, in a willing-suspension-of-disbelief-kind-of-way, believable and, therefore, frightening. King knows that home is not where one hangs one’s hat, but, rather, where one’s heart is, and, by making old world horrors at home in small-town America, he shocked and terrified and repulsed his countrymen, here and now. He also revolutionized the horror genre, which is no small feat in itself.

Home is Eden, King knows, and, so, he brought the serpent back into the garden. He did it by plotting his novels to demonstrate something simple but vital: what threatens one’s local community, one’s hometown, or one’s neighborhood, threatens oneself. That’s what’s scary nowadays, whether the threat takes the form of ancient vampires and werewolves or contemporary shape shifters and extraterrestrial entities beyond human ken.

Of course, some believe that Aristotle is mistaken about plot’s being the most important narrative element, pointing, instead, to character. The creation of memorable and significant literary personages who embody a great and lasting insight into humanity, as Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, or even Scarlett O’Hara, does, is, these critics argue, what counts as great literary art. One Huckleberry Finn or Carrie White is worth any number of plots, they say.

If their point of view is true, King stands, on less certain ground in having developed a horror aesthetic, for, in fact, character doesn’t depend upon horror; stories of all types are peopled, as it were, with characters, many of high artistic quality. Many of Charles Dickens’ novels have little to do with horror as a genre that is represented by Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, King, and the like, but his characters certainly are giants among their peers or, in many cases, hey are peerless.

For many, Henry James solved the problem of plot, raised, on one hand, by Aristotle and of character, raised, on the other hand, by the philosopher’s critics, asserting that the two are but flip sides of the same coin. Action (the incidents of which comprise the plot) represents character, James suggested, just as character determines action. To put it in simpler terms, one is what one does, and what one does is what one is. An alcoholic, for example, is someone who drinks to excess, and someone who drinks to excess is an alcoholic. If James is right, in plotting the action of his novels, King is representing his characters, and his characters, in turn, determine what will happen in his books.

Action, one may quibble, is not the same as plot. Action is what happens; plot is how and why it happens. Action is what a character does; plot is how and why he or she does it. E. M. Forrester (I believe) distinguished between the two with a simple example--or two simple examples, actually. This is an example of action, he said:
The queen died. Then, the king died.

This is an example of plot, he said:

The queen died. Then, the king died of grief.

The addition of the two words “of grief” explain how and why the king died. In the first instance, there is no necessary connection between the incident of the queen’s death and that of the king’s demise. The two incidents are related strictly through chronological sequence: one happens before the other. In the second instance, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two incidents: the king’s grief, which was caused by the queen’s death, effects his own demise. A plot is a series of causally related incidents, each of which is cause by its antecedent and, in turn, causes its successor to occur.

In King’s fiction, bizarre, horrifying incidents (actions) occur with great regularity, but they don’t occur in a vacuum. They are related by a chain of cause and effect. Moreover, these plots happen in relation to a specific type of character--the man, woman, or child who lives in small-town, modern-day America. In tying together plots that involve strange incidents with today’s small-town residents, King unites past with present, old world with new world, tradition with innovation, childhood with adulthood, monsters with contemporary fears and anxieties. This marriage, whether made in heaven or in the other place, has a structure, a unity, a coherence, a harmony, and a balance that is beautiful to see--and to read. It seems safe to say that King’s horror fiction has an aesthetic; it’s just not lik, e Poe’s.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Role of the Back Story

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In a horror story, the back story must explain the cause, motive, or reason for the uncanny incidents that have been occurring in the narrative. To be satisfying, the explanation must be plausible. It must be feasible. It must be believable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be impossible. Let me explain.

In Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking, a series of bizarre incidents begins when Molly Sloan, one of the novel’s two protagonists, unable to sleep, goes downstairs to work on a manuscript in progress and sees wolves huddled on her front porch. Other animals, some of which would ordinarily be prey to their predatory companions, flee together from what the Molly supposes must be a common enemy. What could be so threatening to wild animals, including wolves, she wonders, as to cause them to flee in panic, putting aside their innate enmity toward one another?

A strange, silver rain with an unusual scent falls, and an eerie fungus grows upon every surface, including plants, trees, buildings, and even human beings, as a thick fog cuts people off from one another, reducing visibility to near zero.

Molly and her husband Neil gather with other townspeople in a local tavern, trying to understand what is happening and what can be done about their situation. Strange objects, resembling spaceships, loom overhead, and residents of the town feel as if, bathed in lights from these ships, they are known thoroughly, from the inside out. Another, more personal marvel also occurs as Molly, who has been unable to conceive for years, becomes pregnant. The townspeople conclude that the earth has been invaded by an advance team of aliens whose purpose is to reverse-terraform the planet to make its atmosphere suitable for their kind.

Mirrors in the tavern show images of the deaths of those who have sought shelter there, and Molly and Neil flee, pursued by strange creatures as the seek children whose parents have abandoned then. Strangely, a dog guides them on their mission.

By morning, the uncanny rain has stopped, and the fungus, along with the corpses of those who have been killed by monstrous beings, are gone, The dazed remnants of the town’s citizenry begin to rebuild, acting as if nothing unusual has happened.

Such is the plot of the story proper. As is typical of horror stories, much of the novel’s suspense derives from the succession of increasingly bizarre incidents that destroys civilization and its comforting traditions and customs, creates dangerous situations, and moves toward an inevitable catastrophe that threatens to obliterate life itself. All along the way, even as the reader enjoys the panic, terror, and chaos, he or she wonders what has caused these bizarre incidents. The answer is the back story.

Cleverly, Koontz provides an explanation early in the course of the story proper, attributing the bizarre incidents to an advance party of extraterrestrials who, by reverse-terraforming the earth, prepares the planet for the main party of invaders who are yet to come. His explanation is a red herring that allows his real explanation for the mystery of the bizarre incidents to surprise his readers.

His novel’s epilogue provides the back story, as readers learn that the town is not under attack by aliens from another world, after all. Recalling a message that she’d heard (and to which Koontz has made his readers privy as well) the crew aboard a space station transmit at the outset of the attack, before they were killed and the station was destroyed, Molly is able to translate the strange words of the message, after writing it phonetically in sand: “Yimaman see noygel, see refacull, see nod a bah, see naytoss, retee fo sellos” means “My name is Legion, is Lucifer, is Abbadon, is Satan, Eater of Souls.” She and Neil realize that the Rapture has occurred. God has taken the souls of the blessed, leaving behind the rest, and the strange rain has brought a flood upon the planet similar to the one that occurred in the time of Noah. Once again, humanity has become too wicked to continue its existence, and the judgment of God has fallen. Molly tells her husband that she will write a book for her as-yet-unborn child, so that he or she will know how the world ended and why they were spared.

In the story proper, Koontz, while intentionally misleading his readers as to the true cause of the strange incidents that are occurring, also prepared them to accept the actual cause. In telephoning a family member, Molly and Neil learned that the relative, a Christian, attributes the strange rain and the other bizarre incidents to God’s work in ending the world, rather than to some other cause. Therefore, in a sense, both Molly and Neil were tipped off to the actual cause, but Koontz includes their conversation only briefly, letting the readers assume that the relative simply believes something that he finds comforting or is even, perhaps, simply a misguided religious fanatic whose explanation of events can be dismissed. In fact, in the end, it turns out to be true. Thus, the final and “true” explanation of the events that have transpired is not something the reader hears for the first time at the end of the story; he or she has been clued in early on.

Other writers are not as adept at developing a back story that, within the terms of the story’ internal logic, is plausible, feasible, and believable even if, in another world, such as our own, it would not necessarily be possible. Bentley Little is a good example of a horror writer whose back stories often disappoint because they do not explain the novel’s bizarre events in a manner that his readers find to be satisfactory. As a result, many of his readers find his otherwise-entertaining plots to be ultimately unsatisfying.

For example, The Resort, like most of Little’s novels, has an interesting premise, and he does his usual excellent job of creating and maintaining suspense, generating and sustaining an eerie mood, and introducing one astonishing and bizarre incident after another, prompting his readers to want to know what is causing these fantastic events. Lowell and Rachel Thurman and their children visit a fabulous resort, the Reata, that caters to its guests’ every whim. Soon, visitors begin to disappear. Long, loud parties take place in supposedly vacant rooms. The Thurmans’ sons believe there’s a corpse below the swimming pool’s artificial waterfall. Couples engage in perverted sexual behavior. During a trek along a nature trail, the Thurmans’ sons depart from the path and find an older version of the modern resort, where guests participate in depraved sexual activities. As the boys near the resort, its guests vanish. Finally, during a game in which the resort’s guests are forced to participate, players are maimed or killed. The Thurmans try to flee, but their car won’t work and, unable to recruit a mechanic or a tow truck driver who’s willing to make the long trip to the remote resort, the family is stranded among the resort’s mad employees and insane guests. It appears that whatever befell the earlier resort is now happening to the present one.

The novel never explains what causes the madcap behavior of the Reata’s employees and guests. Instead, Little merely suggests that their antics may be related, somehow, to the older resort and to the greed of an early land grabber. Without a plausible, feasible, and believable explanation for the strange activities and events that the story has presented, the reader feels cheated, and what could have been a satisfying and enjoyable read feels more like a con game in which the reader, having spent both time and money for the privilege of being diverted and amused, is the novel’s true victim.

How can writers prevent such disappointment?

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe, explaining how he write The Raven, provides a way to avoid such unsatisfying outcomes to one’s stories. Start at the end, Poe advises, determining the effect one wants to create. (In horror fiction, the effect, is, of course, horror.) Then, plot the best way to get there, planning the series of incidents that will make up a realistic, logical, and believable series of connected incidents.

This approach is known as the “working backward heuristic.” By adopting this strategy, a writer can, hopefully, avoid the pitfall of writing an otherwise-satisfying story that nevertheless fails due to a disappointing, or even non-existent, explanation for it’s plot’s strange series of incidents. Based on the determination of the effect he wishes to create, Poe then decides what the narrative poem’s length, “impression,” tone, “keynote,” logic, topic, relationships between characters, topic, rationale, denouement, and theme should be, working out each part in relation to the preceding and the following parts and to the poem as a whole. As a result, his poem has a logical and necessary unity and coherence, with one part leading inexorably into, and supporting, the next. A horror writer may not need to work out the details of his or her plot in the exact manner that Poe does with regard to the storyline of The Raven, but starting with a plausible, feasible, and believable explanation for the incidents of the story’s action, at least, will ensure a logical or causal chain of relationships among these incidents and, therefore, a unity and coherence that is both credible and satisfying to readers.

Describing Horrific Scenes

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror stories call for horrific scenes. In literary works, description is the chief (usually, the only) means of delivering the goods (although some novels and short stories are illustrated--Stephen King’s The Silver Bullet, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, comes to mind). In movies, photographs, usually, nowadays, enhanced by special effects, illustrate the plot.

“I paint what I see,” Charles Addams once said, tongue in cheek, concerning his cartoons of the bizarre antics of The Addams Family, which, appearing in The New Yorker and elsewhere, launched a television series and several movies. One of Norman Rockwell’s own tongue-in-cheek paintings shows him at his easel, painting a self-portrait from his likeness in a mirror, with photographs for reference pinned to the edge of his canvas. The horror writer has only to toggle from his or her word processor screen to an open Internet browser or consult a book beside the computer to accomplish the same feat.

In fact, most artists, if not all, do sketch or paint from live models or props, and, especially with the availability of cameras, digital and otherwise, stock photographs, and millions of Internet image galleries, there’s no reason that the writer cannot create descriptions the same way, basing them upon what he or she sees in such photographs.

Consulting a visual image in creating a written description won’t worsen one’s verbal imagery; doing so will enhance the result. Likewise, since no two people are the same, even in what they perceive or how they convey their perceptions, no two descriptions will be identical, either. Originality remains intact.

Let’s try our hand at this approach. Here’s an example of a description that’s based upon a photograph:

The young woman would have been pretty, even beautiful, except for one thing. Her full head of luxuriant, curly black hair framed her face like a halo, and, although her eyebrows were thicker than the current fashion dictated, they seemed appropriate, arching her eyes. Her face, roughly an oval, was smooth, the skin flawless and pale as marble, except for the deep dimple that ran the length of each cheek. Her neck was long and graceful. The upside-down crosses she wore as earrings were disconcerting, but one didn’t notice them immediately. The focal point was her mouth. Her rather thin red lips were stretched wide, showing gums as well as teeth-- and the blood that overflowed her mouth, streaming over her chin.

Here’s the photograph, which appears as part of the film Night of the Demons:

Here’s another example:

The blonde could have been pretty. Perhaps she was once. She was not pretty now, though, not with the disheveled hair, not with the deep frown lines in her brow and around her mouth, not with the yellow eyes and the elliptical pupils, and, most of all, not with the impossibly large, open mouth in which appeared a ring of jagged fangs instead of teeth.

Here is the image upon which the description is based, which appears as part of the same film, Night of the Demons:

Even when a photograph doesn’t shock with blood and gore or bizarre imagery, it is more immediate and dramatic than words. For example, this description does the job; it’s interesting, and it sets the mood:

Her head was back, looking as if she’d retracted it, turtle-like, and the reason for her abrupt retreat was clear: her arched eyebrows, wide, staring eyes, and gaping, yet down-turned mouth and compressed chin signaled her terror.

And, now, the image, again from Night of the Demons:

For filmmakers, the reverse process can, and does, work, too. They often create visual images from verbal descriptions. We don’t have a picture of the blood and gore that Shakespeare puts into words in Titus Andronicus, his ghastliest and goriest play, but we can imagine how such a description would translate to the screen, helped along with special effects and, possibly, computer-generated imagery. There’s this, for example:

Away with him, and make a fire straight,
And with our swords upon a pile of wood
Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consumed.

And this:

See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites, Alarbus' limbs are lopped,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.

Ours is a multimedia world, and there’s no reason that we shouldn’t make the most of it. Models and props have enhanced painters’ and illustrators’ work for centuries, and many writers have long based their descriptions on landscapes and people they’ve seen and heard in person. There’s no reason that authors shouldn’t use the work of artists and photographers, in all their media, electronic and otherwise, to enhance their descriptions. The result will be a richer, more realistic, and detailed representation of the life about which they are writing and the horrors that they are recounting.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Monsters Within

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Most of us think of monsters as external threats which take familiar forms: bats and cats and dogs and frogs; vampires and werewolves; witches and zombies; and nameless, faceless things that go bump in the night. These are the creatures of which many of us first think when we recall the monsters that send shivers down our spines. There are others, though, of a whole different kind. Internal monsters. They may be visible or not, objective or not, but, whatever form, if any, they take, they have this in common: they are the monsters within.

Some inner demons are mental states, conditions, or disorders that the rest of us (who don’t suffer from them) label as “abnormal” or “aberrant.” Psychology textbooks are full of the names, symptoms, and supposed treatments of these states and conditions and disorders. We classify, categorize, and divide them, adding some, subtracting others, and voting on which should be included or excluded from this or that particular edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM:

  • Developmental disorders

  • Disruptive behavior disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Gender identity disorders

  • Tic disorders

  • Elimination disorders

  • Speech disorders

  • Disorders of infancy, childhood, or adolescence

  • Dementias

  • Psychoactive substance-induced organic mental disorders

  • Organic mental disorders

  • Psychoactive substance use disorders

  • Schizophrenia

  • Delusional (paranoid) disorders

  • Psychotic disorders

  • Mood disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Somatoform disorders

  • Dissociative disorders

  • Sexual disorders

  • Sleep disorders

  • Factitious disorders

  • Impulse control disorders

  • Adjustment disorders

  • Personality disorders

While the more cynical among us claim that the DSM represents, more than anything, the psychiatric and psychological professions’ attempts to maintain and extend their own self-interests, it seems difficult to deny that at least some of these states, conditions, and disorders have an objective or factual basis. Some people--Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind--are hard to get along with, no doubt about it, and their problems seem to be self-generated, to come, whether organic or otherwise, from within. Even when they speak of an “entity” who directs them, as Bundy did, or a voice that speaks to them, as David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) contended, most of us are reluctant to let these killers off on the grounds that the devil made them do it. We insist that they take responsibility for their actions. We incarcerate them, treat them, and/or kill them.

We also write about them and make movies about them. Some of these books and films are fictional, some are biographical, and some are a hybrid of the two. Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories and poems, such as “The Cask of the Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” that had, at the bases of their plots, “madness and sin”; Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs are based, in part, upon the exploits of Ed Gein; The Stranger Beside Me is inspired by Bundy; and In Cold Blood details, in a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional manner, the murders of a Kansas farm family by Perry Smith and his fellow sociopath-partner, Dick Hickock

Psychology started out as the study of the soul or mind. In more materialistic times, the discipline, losing its soul or mind, became a study of human behavior and its motives. Along the way, its practitioners discovered that pretty much whatever can go wrong with the soul or the mind or human behavior and its motives or whatever psychiatrists and psychologists claim, at any time or another, to study will, at some point, with some people, go wrong.

Medical doctors have learned, likewise, that whatever can go wrong with the body often will do so, whether it is diabetes, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, jaundice, paralysis, or worse. These physical conditions and diseases are also real or potential demons within. For the purposes of horror fiction, however, as horrible as they are in reality, they must be dramatized. Therefore, a germ may be given an extraterrestrial origin, as in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, or a microbe may be created in the laboratory, most likely by a mad scientist. (In H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds, the microbe is this-worldly and brings about the deaths of the novel’s Martian invaders.)

Another way to glamorize germs is to strengthen them to the point that they represent the microscopic world’s equivalent of the comic book super villain. In other words, they are super-resistant. Ordinary antibiotics don’t work. The germ maybe mutates, almost by the split second, becoming ever more robust. As scientists learn more and more about microbes, representing one as being super virulent and resistant may become increasingly difficult. Fiction may be hard put to keep up with fact. For example, “The World’s Toughest Microbe” is “a bacterium first discovered in spoiled beef and believed sterilized by radiation turned out to be ‘Conan the Bacterium’ (aka Superbug)--the most radiation-resistant life form ever found. Deinococcus radiodurans is highly resistant to genotoxic chemicals, oxidative damage, high levels of ionizing and ultraviolet radiation, and desiccation; it can survive 3,000 times the radiation dose that is lethal to humans.”

Writers shouldn’t forget to exploit the human aspect of microbes. There’s fertile material for fiction in the amoral, immoral, and criminal behavior of people who deal with microscopic villains, after all. Perhaps the germs were mishandled, so an element of government incompetence or even corruption is introduced and the resulting story becomes as much a cautionary tale about ineptitude, laziness, greed, and the abuses of personal and political power as it does about the bug itself. Alternatively, maybe the story’s theme concerns negligence. Could the people we trust to look out for us be asleep at the switch rather than simply looking out for their own interests? Maybe the Centers for Disease Control needs a wakeup call. A number of movies are also based on the killer-microbe-from-space theme, including the film version of Crichton’s novel and The Omega Man.

Before long, there will probably be a germ that causes mental disorders or aberrant behavior (or both). Oops! Too late! Don’t we have this in Stephen King’s The Stand? Meanwhile, these writers’ treatment of not-so-sexy inner demons in a sexy manner offers tips as to how to jazz up these types of threats to make them more palatable, as it were, to readers.

Dramatize them: make the germs bigger and badder than those that routinely threaten human life.

Make them exotic: have them come from the rain forest, an uncharted island, the ocean floor, an abandoned spaceship (or a spaceship full of dead aliens), or another planet.

Relate them to human nature: Tie them in to something social, political, religious, or historical--basic human emotions such as greed and lust for power (or just lust) and fear are good.

Make them criticize something related to human beings, such as politics, folkways, mores, or customs.

The Underbelly of the Bug-Eyed Monster Movie

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The 1950’s and 1960’s horror movies, in particular, frequently featured what have come to be known as BEM’s: bug-eyed monsters.

Let’s list a few of these films and the threats they boasted before seeing what, if anything, these movies were really all about.

Them! (1954) focused on gigantic ants. They were mutants, spawned, as it were, by the radiation of atomic bomb tests, which transformed them into enormous, man-eating monsters. The insects established nests--one in New Mexico, another in a ship at sea, and a third in Los Angeles.

A giant octopus, a giant bird, and giant bees appear in Mysterious Island (1961). Giant rats--and a giant chicken--attack human-size humans in The Food of the Gods (1976). The title of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) gives away its decapitating antagonists’ identity, as does the title of Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). The Florida swamps are full of the bloodsuckers, and they’re hungry!

Those who’ve seen The Beginning of the End (1957) know that the monsters to watch out for are really giant locusts--except in Mexico, where The Black Scorpion (1957) and its kin, recently escaped from volcanoes, ruled.

A huge gila monster, an enormous gopher, and a particularly unattractive, one-eyed fianc√© (the Cyclops of the movie’s title) wreck havoc in The Cyclops (1957), whereas a colossal, deadly mantis makes its debut as a mega movie monster in The Deadly Mantis (1957).

We could go on. . . and on. . . and on, but, suffice it to say, many, many more bug-eyed monster movies debuted in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there have been a bevy more of them in the early years of the present decade, such as Arachnid (2001), in which, as the title implies, giant spiders are the culprits; Boa (2002), and its sequel, Boa vs. Python (2004); and Crocodile (2000), in which the croc attacks obnoxious teens. More interesting than simply listing such monsters, however, is asking (and attempting to answer) the question, Why? Why do such films exist? What do they represent? What’s going on behind or beneath these movies and their monsters?

One reason that animals are often the monsters of horror fiction, especially that of the big-eyed monster variety, is that we fear them, as Emily Dickinson’s poem about “a narrow fellow in the grass” clearly and dramatically indicates:

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

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
Of course, making something that we fear naturally hundreds or thousands of times its normal size makes it correspondingly fiercer and more fearsome.

Possibly, another, more important motive also accounts for our frantic, frenetic, frenzied concern for and obsession with the environment, with ecology, with the fate of the planet. Like the narrator of “When the Music’s Over,” a Doors’ song, we wonder:

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravished and plundered
And ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
In the side of the dawn
Tied her with fences
And dragged her down.
We--or some of us--have gone from believing, as Genesis assures us, that God gave us the earth and all its animals (and plants) to subject to our will to the belief that these creatures are not, and ought not to be, thought of as lesser animals but as our fellows. If that’s true--if there is no hierarchy of life forms, with us at the top and everything else below us, on one level or another, as the great chain of being concept held, and we are not the “crown of creation”--we’ve done an injustice to our animal (and plant) brothers and to “our fair sister” (or Mother), the Earth. Since animals are sharper of tooth and claw, move faster, and are far stronger than we, we may have cause to be troubled. Maybe we should be worried.

We have exercised “dominion over the earth” and all her inhabitants, commanding the sands of the shores to become the glass panes in our houses, automobiles, storefronts, and office buildings; ordering trees to become paper and wood and furniture; compelling ores to become the chasses of vehicles, tools, machines, and construction site skeletons. We have transformed animals into food and clothing and servants as well as companions. Some, we have put in cages or made to perform in circus acts for our own amusement. We have stripped them of their dignity, their nobility, their freedom.

Instead of considering them our fellows, as a “thou,” in the language of Martin Buber, we have regarded them as an “it,” alien and other, and have exploited them at every opportunity for our own advantage, convenience, and comfort, even using rats and monkeys and pigs as subjects of painful, often lethal research. Afterward, before discarding their cadavers, we have dissected and autopsied them. In some cases, we have not even waited until their deaths, but have, instead, performed vivisections on their live and functioning bodies.

In “The Tables Turned,“ William Wordsworth warns us, “We murder to dissect”:

Sweet is the lore that Nature brings,
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
D. H. Lawrence writes, in his poem, “The Snake,” of our tendency to regard the serpent as alien and other and to fear, rather than to honor, this fellow creature. The narrator of the poem, in obedience to the dictates of his education as a human being, drives the snake away. Then, he feels guilty, as though he has a “pettiness” to expiate:

. . . immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.
Part of the reason (blame?) for the state of affairs in which we find ourselves vis-√†-vis our no-longer animal friends may be science and technology. Both Wordsworth (“we murder to dissect”) and Edgar Allan Poe suggest that this is the case. In “Sonnet to Science,” Poe contends that humanity’s scientific approach to nature has had the consequence of demystifying the world and of reducing it from having been viewed as a place full of wonder and divinity to its being considered a mere object among other objects.

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. . . .
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
In the days preceding science’s objectification of the world, hunters regarded the beasts they slew for food and clothing as fellows and apologized for having killed them. Animals were regarded as having souls, like people, and to kill one of them was no light matter. Rules governed the hunt and the kill, and the animal was slain only when necessary and, always, in a humane fashion. Sometimes, their spirits were adopted as the tribe’s totems, and animal spirits could be guides to shamans. In the world that Poe describes, there is no reason to apologize to animals or to treat them in a respectful or humane manner, for they are merely organisms that compete with other organisms for their survival, and we happen to occupy the highest levels of both the evolutionary and the food chains. We are predators, and animals are our prey, not our fellows.

On one hand, in the dim recesses of our memory as a species, we may retain the pesky, half-remembered notion of our ancestors, that animals are our brothers and sisters, so to speak. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Native Americans, and many other so-called primitive peoples envisioned half-human, half-animal creatures, regarding the gulf between they themselves and their animal “others” to be not so vast as to be an altogether unbridgeable chasm or abyss. There were apologies, rites and rituals, totems, and interspecies communication. There was respect.

Now, there is only an uneasy feeling that, in ravishing and plundering “our fair sister,” we are committing dishonorable, perhaps even irreverent, deeds, and deeds for which, one day, as, in The Birds and a hundred other cautionary tales we are warned, we may be repaid; the animals may exact revenge. This uneasy quiet, this silent dread, may be, as much as fear itself, the underbelly of the bug-eyed monster movie. Could the Industrial Revolution, in its military aspect as part of the "military-industrial complex," and its transformation of our world, have been the scientific and technological parents who spawned the ecology movement and, perhaps, even Al Gore's global warming warnings?

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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