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Friday, January 4, 2008

The Horror of Time and Place

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman



The setting of a story is the time, the place, and the cultural milieu in which the narrative's action occurs, and, as such, a setting indicates what a given author (and his or her loyal readers) finds frightening or horrifying. A horror story that's set in the slums of a big city, for example, is apt to feature a monster altogether different from a horror story that's set in a rural area of patchwork farmland or in a small town. What frightens Stephen King, in Bangor, Maine, may not frighten Dean Koontz, in Newport Beach, California. Similarly, what concerns a writer at an earlier age may not concern him or her at a later age, as is clear in the career of Koontz, whose earlier fiction was all about monsters and whose later, more "mature," fiction is more and more about serial killers. His antagonists may be more mundane, but, for the same reason, they're also more believable. Likewise, with Stephen King: his earlier fiction concerned supernatural or paranormal villains who invade or attack small towns. His later fiction is, increasingly, about the interrelationships among adults, as in Bag of Bones and Lisey’s Story, or about one character's development and transformation, as in Rose Madder or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Lately, both Koontz and King have introduced religious themes in their work as well, most clearly, perhaps in The Taking (Koontz) and Desperation (King). In some cases, at least, their stories’ settings have changed to reflect these changes in their themes. Both have become farther ranging in their fiction, both literally and figuratively, or thematically.

Often, a horror story's setting is isolated. It's isolated for several reasons. First, a remote location intensifies the horror and the fear. A distant, lonely setting frames the action because it separates what is presented in the story from the ordinary events of the larger, mundane world, thereby accentuating them. An isolated setting focuses the reader's attention on what is happening here and nowhere else. At the hands (or word processor) of a skilled writer, such a setting can become downright claustrophobic. Second, a remote setting makes the characters in the story entirely responsible for their own actions. What they do will save them or damn them. They have to gain the knowledge and have the wits, the pluck, and the determination to rescue themselves, to destroy the monster, and to set things right. No one else is going to help them. No one else is going to save them. The remote setting leaves it up to them, and them alone, to save the day. Third, a remote setting isolates the story's characters from the rest of humanity--from culture and history and science and technology and medicine and food and everything else that society and civilization have developed over years and centuries of cooperative interaction. The characters have no recourse to, and no support from, the infrastructure, so to speak, of shared attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and values upon which their society and human civilization itself depend. They're returned to the "state of nature" that so troubles Thomas Hobbes (and Thomas Jefferson).

Of course, some horror fiction takes place in big cities, such as New York, which are far from being far from the maddening crowd. Such settings allow horror writers to identify and to delineate the horrors of such environments, and the monsters that attack the characters in such stories may represent some of the real-life problems that residents of metro- and megalopolises face every day: drug trafficking and addiction, prostitution and the spread of venereal disease, smog, criminal assault, rape, murder, and so forth. A vampire loose in the Big Apple may want to suck the citizenry's confidence in themselves and their fellow men and women as much as he or she wants to suck their lifeblood--in fact, such trust may be their lifeblood.

Anyone who's ever lived in a small town knows how much the residents tend to be, on one hand, nosy enough to keep their neighbors under pretty much constant and continuous surveillance while, on the other hand, exercising an apathy about them that is, in some ways, deeper and more prevalent than the indifference that city slickers are said to display toward one another. It is only those who've never dwelled in Bug Tussle or who are truly naive who might mistake small town residents' superficial friendliness for genuine affection and concern. No (true) story brings home this message more clearly, perhaps, than that of Ed Gein, the man upon whom Psycho's Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface, and Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill are based. A dependent personality who was brainwashed by his mother, a religious fanatic, to believe that women are evil seductresses intent upon ruining the lives of men and securing the eternal damnation of their souls, Gein was lost when his mother died, leaving him to fend for himself on the isolated farm on which he lived near Plainfield, Wisconsin. Despite several occasions during which Gein acted more than a little odd (saying, for example, that a missing woman wasn't really missing but was "hanging out" at his house--gutted like a deer, as it turns out), Gein's neighbors showed no real interest in him, despite his having lived in Plainfield most of his life. A theme becomes clear in watching or reading biographies of the man who murdered women and robbed female corpses from their graves, wearing their flesh and body parts as masks and costumes: his monstrosity was due, in part, to the apathy of the community in which he lived. (Such indifference has become a theme of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Dean Koontz.)

To determine what is considered horrible to people, consider the time and the place in which horror stories are set. The theme, often, will offer a clue as to what the people of such times, in such places, feared. There's a reason that King Kong, a gigantic gorilla discovered on an uncharted island that time forgot, terrifies New Yorkers, just as there's a reason that, of all the places on the planet that he could have attacked, Godzilla chose to assault Tokyo, Japan with his radioactive breath. There's a reason, too, that Freddy Kreuger attacks adolescent boys and girls in their sleep and that babysitters are often beset by stalkers. Likewise, scientific laboratories scared Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells, who lived during a time when scientists increasingly began to think that, through applied science--technology, in other words--they could become as gods, ruling the universe. High schools are places of horror for the ostracized and ignored, as Carrie shows us, and, yes, the hills have eyes.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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