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Friday, January 18, 2008

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.

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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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