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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.

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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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