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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.”

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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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