Thursday, February 28, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Mutants

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

A mutant results from a genetic mutation, which is an abrupt change in the structure of a chromosome’s or a gene’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that results in the organism’s acquisition of a new characteristic or trait. Most such mutations have no significant effect on the organism or, when they do have a major consequence, tend to be harmful or disastrous to the plant or animal. Mutations are hereditary, unlike those that result from changes to DNA that occur in as a result of developmental abnormalities or somatic mutations (genetic errors that occur during cell division). Blue lobsters, albinos, animals with extra digits, humans with tails (i. e. extended coccyxes), and fruit flies with antennae in place of legs are examples of mutants.

Beside genetic transcription errors, certain types of radiation can cause mutations, as can some chemicals and viruses. Some plants can transmit somatic mutations to their offspring, but animals, including humans, cannot. Evolutionary biologists explain the transfer of mutations in terms of whether or not they are beneficial to the survival of the species in which they occur. If they are beneficial, more and more mutants that have acquired the new trait will survive, passing the trait to their offspring.

Morphological mutations often produce visible changes, some of which could be dramatic, and DNA has hotspots, or points at which mutations are 100 times more likely to occur than they are likely to occur elsewhere.

A number of novels and movies in the horror genre attribute extraordinary powers and abilities (and, sometimes, monstrous appearances and behavior) to mutants. The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 (1985) features cannibal killers who attack a motorcycle racing team when they tale an ill-advised shortcut through the desert to the racetrack. In the 2006 remake of the original version, after seeing a distant light, National Guard soldiers split up to conduct a possible search-and-rescue mission near the deserted desert military base to which they were delivering equipment only to need to be rescued themselves from the mutant flesh-eating killers they encounter on the way. Mutant Man (1996) is a rip off of The Hills Have Eyes, with a family of inbred cannibal mutants attacking two women who set off with their children in a trailer to nowhere. Its DVD package bore the following ditty:

There's a creature that lives in the basement
Every night he rises anew
When pretty young girls come to visit
He turns them into beef stew

Inbred militant cannibals are the bad guys in Wrong Turn 2 (2007) as well, this time taking on reality TV show contestants. Mutants are zombies in Mutant (1984), the premise of which is that illegally dumped toxic waste transforms townspeople into mutated zombies who pursue the few of their neighbors who, having remained normal, become the zombie’s food supply.

Mutant sea monsters are the big scare in Humanoids from the Deep (1980). Products of an experiment gone awry, mutated bunnies (yes, bunnies) rampage in Night of the Lepus (1072). Them! tries to frighten its 1954 audience with giant mutated ants. Frankenfish (2004) features mutated fish, the products of a genetic engineering mishap. Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (2005) features mutated fish, the products of a genetic engineering mishap. Fly and human DNA are scrambled when a scientist tries to transport himself using his newly invented teleportation device, unaware that he has acquired a tiny hitchhiker (The Fly, 1985). Radioactive mosquitoes merge with a human scientist to create a mutated hybrid monster in Mansquito (2005). The Pack (1977) terrorizes moviegoers with mutated dogs, as does Rottweiler (2004). King Cobra (1999) and Trees 2: The Root of All Evil (2004) deal with mutated animal and plant villains, respectively, that were created through genetic mutations.

“Everyday Horrors: Mutants” is the first in 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.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Scream Queens

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Sarah Michelle Gellar, I Know What You Did Last Summer

Horror films, like those of any other genre, produce characters unique to their genre, one of which is the so-called scream queen. Horror movies have resulted in the births, so to speak, of quite a few such characters, some of whom became famous actresses in mainstream films.

A scream queen may play the role of the victim, or she may appear as the main character, but, whichever role is her forte, she must play the role (or, sometimes, both roles) in several horror movies before she is entitled to wear the crown of the scream queen. Among the better known scream queens of late and contemporary times are Fay Wray, Elsa Lanchester, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

As a type of the stock character known as the damsel in distress, the scream queen often motivates males to protect and defend her, usually bringing them to harm. As the protagonist, she often gains the audience’s sympathy, heightening the suspense that is caused by the monster’s stalking, attacking, and injuring (before usually killing) her. She is usually the movie’s most emotive character as well, exhibiting, by her facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal communication cues, how the audience should feel. In horror films, she will affect horror, of course, and terror, but she may also display such emotions as grief, remorse, romantic affection, love, and compassion. In some horror films, she is the monster’s romantic interest, covertly or overtly, as Fay Wray’s (and, later, Naomi Watts’) character, Ann Darrow, is to King Kong and as Julie Adams’ character, Kay Lawrence, is to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Some actresses, including Fay Wray, object to being labeled a “scream queen,” because they believe the term is patronizing and suggests limited acting ability. However, the fact that such a luminaries as Joan Crawford and Jaime Lee Curtis have had the label applied to them suggests that being designated as a “scream queen” does not necessarily imply such a limitation. Likewise, although many scream queens have appeared nude or partially nude in films, many others have not, so doffing one’s clothes is certainly not a prerequisite for the part.

Besides those already mentioned, among the better-known scream queens of the past and present are:
  • Julie Adams
  • Adrienne Barbeau
  • Drew Barrymore
  • Kate Beckinsale
  • Neve Campbell
  • Phoebe Cates
  • Courtney Cox
  • Joan Crawford
  • Elisha Cuthbert
  • Samantha Eggar
  • Jennifer Love Hewitt
  • Margot Kidder
  • Natasha Kinski
  • Elsa Lanchester
  • Mercedes McNab

Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein

The so-called final girl can be considered a specialized type of scream queen. The sole survivor, she alone is left to tell the tale as to what befell the other victims of the paranormal, otherworldly, or supernatural force or entity. Often, she ends the story as well by outwitting the villain and bringing his, her, or its reign of terror to an end. The final girl is a character in such movies as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Professor Carol J. Clover of the University of California, Berkeley, originated the term, if not the concept, in her 1992 study, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

Jennifer Love Hewitt, I Know What You Did Last Summer

Joss Whedon, the creator of the movie and television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer inverted the stereotype of the scream-queen-as-damsel-in-distress, making his protagonist the one to triumph over the monster. Although she retains her femininity, Buffy Summers is something of a phallic woman, the wooden stake that she carries on her person (usually in her purse) symbolizing masculine power. As a feminist icon, she is not merely the equal of any man in terms of her physical strength, stamina, and fighting prowess, but she is actually superior to men in all these ways (and to many males who are, like her, gifted with supernatural powers, such as demons, vampires, warlocks, werewolves, zombies, and male monsters in general). As such, it is she who is called upon to save the world, and she rescues both damsels and men in distress.

Fay Wray, King Kong

Horror Movie Remakes

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Janet Leigh, Psycho (1960)

An old joke plays upon the sameness of the names of the Empire State and its most prominent city: “New York, New York: the city so nice they named it twice.”

The Hollywood equivalent to the double entendre is the movie remake. In the horror genre, quite a few previous films have been resurrected, or remade, as they say in the trade:

  • Amityville Horror, The (1979 and 2005)
  • Black Christmas (1974 and 2006)
  • Blob, The (1958 and coming soon to a theater near you)
  • Day of the Dead (1985 and coming soon to a theater near you)
  • Fly, The (1958 and 1986)
  • Fog, The (1980 and 2005)
  • Godzilla (1954 and 1998)
  • Halloween (1978 and 2007)
  • Hills Have Eyes, The (1977 and 2006)
  • Hitcher, The (1986 and 2007)
  • House of Wax, The (1953 and 2006)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007)
  • Island of Dr. Moreau, The (1977 and 1996)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968, 1990, 2006)
  • Omen, The (1976 and 2006)
  • Psycho (1960 and 1998)
  • Ring 2, The (2005)
  • Stepford Wives, The (1975 and 2004)
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The (1974 and 2003)
  • Thing, The (1951 and 1982)
  • When a Stranger Calls (1979 and 2006)
  • Wicker Man, The (1973 and 2006).

Ann Heche, Psycho (1998)

But, wait! There’s more! According to Variety, RKO’s Roseblood Movie Co. plans to remake (or, in some cases, has already remade) Lady Scarface (1941 and 2006), While the City Sleeps (1928, 1956, and coming soon to a theater near you), The Monkey’s Paw (1948, 2003, and 2008), The Seventh Victim (1943 and coming soon to a theater near you), Bedlam (1946 and coming soon to a theater near you), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Five Came Back (1939 and coming soon to a theater near you), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943 and scheduled for release [or is it re-release?] in 2009).

But wait! That’s not all! Other movies scheduled for makeovers include The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), and Near Dark (1987 and 2008).

Confronted with such a list, one may wonder, Why?

The answer is simple, but multi-faceted. Making a remake allows producers, directors, writers, actors, and others to make a movie without reinventing the wheel, so it’s relatively economical. In plot, setting, characters, theme, and other narrative elements, moviemakers are treading familiar ground when they’re remaking a movie that’s already appeared, in slightly different form, upon the silver screen.

There’s a built-in appeal for such movies, too. Obviously, in remaking a movie, filmmakers aren’t going to rip off a box office dud; they’re going to go for the gold, so they’re going to revive a popular has-been.

Moviegoers also like to compare the performances of the actors in the older versions of the film with the those of the players in the remake to see how the respective teams of actors interpreted their parts and played their roles, evaluating, in many cases, who did what better than another.

There’s the nostalgia factor to consider, too. People like revisiting the past and recalling significant moments, especially in their youth or during a time that (in retrospect, at least) seems more innocent and fun than present hard or lackluster times.

Then, too, if moviemakers remake old movies instead of making new movies (maybe we should call them movieremakers?), Hollywood doesn’t need as many writers, so writers’ strikes don’t matter as much, if at all.

Rob Zombie, who produced the Halloween remake, talked about the appeal and challenges of making a remake. When all else fails (or when all else has been said and done), one exploits the characters: “You've got a movie that has seven sequels, so you figure they've exploited this thing every which way you can,” he says. “You start fresh, and you focus on the one thing that's always most compelling to me: the characters.” More specifically, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, he “delves into the psychology of the franchise's iconic monster, prepubescent murderer-turned-bogeyman Michael Myers.” However, a word of caution applies in psychoanalyzing the monster, producer Bad Fuller, who has used the same tactic in remaking other horror movies, warns: “You don't want to humanize your monster too much, or the audience will feel sorry for him.” God forbid!

Fuller shares the considerations that led him to produce the remakes of Hitcher, The Amityville Horror, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: “"We thought ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was great for a remake," he says. “There was a whole generation not familiar with it. So there was brand recognition, but the expectations from the youth audience couldn't be that strong.” He’s done so well at the box office with such remakes that he’s planning to release remakes of Friday the 13th, Near Dark, and The Birds as well. (Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock is spinning in his grave at the prospect of someone redoing one of his classics.)

The San Francisco Examiner article also identifies some of the ways in which originals and remakes differ. The latter typically have better special effects; the causes behind the supernatural or paranormal situation or monster are sometimes changed, the remakes tend to build up the characters’ or the monster’s back story, and themes are given new twists. Occasionally, the remake is better than the original, as in the case of When a Stranger Calls: “The first movie was essentially a 15-minute babysitter-harassing sequence followed by more than an hour of digressions that had little to do with a stranger calling. The remake was 97 fast-paced minutes of that 15-minute sequence.”

The biggest reasons, though, for remaking successful movies? They’re proven box office successes and they’re easy to exploit.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Creating an Eerie Atmosphere and Tone

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Let’s begin with descriptions, by yours truly, of three Internet images.

But, first, a brief digression: The Internet provides a wealth of sketches, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other images to assist the writer in developing descriptions. All one needs--besides a computer, an Internet connection and a graphics browser--is an appropriate keyword. The pictures upon which the following descriptions are based resulted from a search using the keyword “eerie.” (In addition, such searches allow writers to learn more than they might have anticipated. For example, relatively few of the images in the “eerie” search were of interior locations; the vast majority were landscapes, which suggests that people tend to find the outdoors eerier than the indoors.)

Now, back to the issue at hand. Here are the descriptions:

The forest floor is lost to darkness. Against a hazy gray sky, black branches writhe like the tendrils of a monstrous, unseen beast, thickening in the distance to an impenetrable tangle that bars the fleeing youth’s way, inhibiting his escape and trapping him within the wilderness inhabited by the ravenous, bestial nightmare-creatures. Their howls are louder now; they are terribly close. (The image upon which this image is based can be viewed on Flickr.)

A snapping twig, a tumbled stone, the flight of a startled animal hidden in the brush--something had caught Drake’s attention, and he paused, turned, and looked back at the edge of the dark forest behind him, unaware of the birds that gathered above him, their wings forming truncated crosses against the leaden sky in which storm clouds gathered, dark and ominous, promising something terrible and fierce. (The image upon which this image is based can be viewed on Flickr.)

At the end of the hallway, a solitary brass lamp, itself half lost in darkness, was mounted upon the cracked and yellowing wall. Its two thin, up-thrust arms extended electric candles. Their tapered bulbs cast shadows, transforming the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light. Perhaps the dreaded deity was Lucifer himself, Emily thought. (The image upon which this image is based can be viewed on Flickr.)

To resume our digression (or, if you prefer, to digress yet again): It seems that many find the night sky and forests particularly eerie, as many Internet images show these features. If a writer needs a different type of eerie image, he or she can simply change the keyword, substituting a synonym for “eerie” or whatever the keyword is that one is using. One might try using “uncanny,” for example, or “bloodcurdling.” One may, instead, extend the keyword, by adding “room” to the original term, and changing “eerie,” for instance, to “eerie room.”

Now, back to the issue at hand.

The type of the place imagined is part of what makes an image (or a description) eerie. Shadows can also make a location eerie. Unexpected colors can transform a normally cheerful or neutral location into something sinister and chilling. Bathing a bedroom in crimson, a playroom in a ghastly green hue, or a basement in sepia can create a sense of doom and gloom. Inverting the colors of a photograph or drawing can also make something ordinary look extraordinary--and frightening. A dark figure in the corner of a room might go unnoticed the first time the chamber is scanned, so that, when it is seen on a second look, its presence startles and disturbs. A boarded up door--perhaps to a closet, a basement, or an attic--gives the viewer or the reader pause as well, for a barred entryway makes one wonder why the door is locked and what may lurk behind it. A locked door will almost always motivate a character to get inside the room beyond it--and, usually, come to a horrible end as a result. Heavy drapes are ominous, for they may hide other menaces. Mirrors are always potentially disturbing, for they may show reflections of things that one cannot otherwise see or, conversely, may not reflect otherwise visible persons, places, or things. Unexpected activity, especially if it’s weird and inappropriate--the water in an aquarium suddenly begins to froth and churn, an unplugged television set starts showing images of death and destruction, furniture begins to levitate--is also cause for alarm.

Let’s return to our descriptions and analyze why they’re written as they are and what (we hope) is eerie about the mood they create.

The forest floor is lost to darkness. Against a hazy gray sky, black branches writhe like the tendrils of a monstrous, unseen beast, thickening in the distance to an impenetrable tangle that bars the fleeing youth’s way, inhibiting his escape and trapping him within the wilderness inhabited by the ravenous, bestial nightmare-creatures. Their howls are louder now; they are terribly close.

In the United States, we learn to read books from left to right and from top to bottom. We will “read” any text the same way that we read a book (and, of course, anything can be a text). In this description, though, the writer (me) violates the normal way of reading an image, starting the reader at the bottom of the image (“The forest floor is lost to darkness”) and leading his or her eye upward, toward the sky (Against a hazy sky, branches writhe”). Images of darkness are among the first thoughts that this description puts into the reader’s mind: “darkness,” “gray,” “black.” Vision is further obscured by a “hazy. . . sky.”

Symbolically, “down” is associated with immanence, and “up” is linked to transcendence. Men and women live upon the earth; gods, upon mountaintops or in the sky (and demons, like the dead, exist under the earth). Normally, in times of trouble, religious people appeal to God for help, but the “hazy gray sky” is like a veil between this world and heaven. If there is a God, his presence is cut off, as it were, by the “hazy gray sky,” just as the “impenetrable tangle” of tree branches “bars the. . . way, inhibiting. . . escape.” There is no help to be had from on high.

The same sentence (sentence two) personifies the forest, comparing the trees’ branches to “the tendrils of a monstrous, unseen beast.” At the same time, however, the woods is also likened to a prison or a cage; its “black branches“ thicken “in the distance to an impenetrable tangle that bars the fleeing youth’s way, inhibiting his escape and trapping him.” The woods is alive; it is capable of exercising a will which, to the “youth” is hostile in its intent. The forest seeks to cut off his escape and to trap him, and it hopes to do so for a reason, so that its inhabitants, “ravenous, bestial nightmare-creatures” can catch and devour their prey.

The image upon which this description is based does not include any human figures. The “youth” is invented and added to the scene that the image depicts. The addition of the youth brings human interest to the description of the wilderness, as the woods are seen from his point of view. It is, in fact, he who makes the forest eerie, because, apart from human perception and sensibility, a woods, no matter how dark and foggy, is still merely a woods. To paraphrase a philosophical koan, If there’s no one there to see a dark and hazy forest, there is no dark and hazy forest. (“To be is to be perceived.”) There are no animals in the image upon which the description is based, either. Their addition adds to the description’s eeriness as well, for their presence transforms a merely potentially frightening scene into a truly menacing one. As the trapped youth seeks to escape his predatory pursuers, he fast loses ground. The writer allows the reader to hear what the youth hears, leaving both with the bestial creatures’ “howls,” which are “louder now” and “terribly close.” Finally, the whole paragraph is written in the simple present tense to lend as much immediacy to the action as possible.

Now, let’s consider the second description:

A snapping twig, a tumbled stone, the flight of a startled animal hidden in the brush--something had caught Drake’s attention, and he paused, turned, and looked back at the edge of the dark forest behind him, unaware of the birds that gathered above him, their wings forming truncated crosses against the leaden sky in which storm clouds gathered, dark and ominous, promising something terrible and fierce.

This one gets the reader immediately inside the character’s head, as the reader hears what Drake just heard: “a snapping twig, a tumbled stone, the flight of a startled animal hidden in the brush.” The character isn’t sure what caused the sound, but, whatever it was, it has startled him, as it might have startled an “animal hidden in the brush.” If the sound he’s heard was that of a frightened animal, the animal’s bolting from the cover of the brush suggests that Drake may also be about to flee. His senses are heightened: something has “caught his attention,” and he has “paused, turned, and looked back at the edge of the dark forest behind him.” Obviously, he hopes to hear something else, more definite and identifiable. Most people have adopted just this attitude on occasion, and the reader will be able to understand easily what Drake feels--anxiety, tension, curiosity mingled with fear. He is poised in a flight-of-fight attitude, a rush of adrenaline only a heartbeat away.

Ironically, his attention is so focused on “the edge of the dark forest behind him” that he is “unaware of the birds that gathered above him.” The real threat, the reader may think, is likely to come from above, not from behind, him, and is likely, therefore, to arrive unseen, blindsiding him. The birds are ominous. They’re black--a color associated with evil and death--and their wings resemble crosses, but “truncated,” or shortened, crosses. The cross is a Christian symbol, associated with the passion and the sacrifice of Christ, but it is here “truncated,” or curtailed. The sky is heavy and gray--“leaden”--and storm clouds gather in it, like the birds, “dark and ominous, promising something terrible and fierce.” Storms often represent energy and violent emotion, such as rage. They are associated, in the description, with blackbirds, which are often symbolic of misfortune and death, as is the “bird of ill omen” in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.” This paragraph uses the simple past tense because this tense allows the writer to establish an immediate link between what the character, Drake, has just perceived and the reader’s own imaginary hearing of the same sound as Drake tries to identify what’s caused the noise. As Drake tries to identify the source of the sound, focusing upon “the dark forest behind him,” and fails to see the birds in the stormy sky above him, the reader may get the feeling that the character is being set up by something, as the disturbing, but possibly irrelevant, sound seems to have distracted Drake from the true threat at hand.
Let’s consider the remaining description:

At the end of the hallway, a solitary brass lamp, itself half lost in darkness, was mounted upon the cracked and yellowing wall. Its two thin, up-thrust arms extended electric candles. Their tapered bulbs cast shadows, transforming the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light. Perhaps the dreaded deity was Lucifer himself, Emily thought.

Normally, light is reassuring, but the light cast by this lamp seems anything but comforting or encouraging. It is insufficient, for one thing, “itself half lost in darkness.” What it does manage to illuminate--“the cracked and yellowing wall” and shadows that transform “the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light”--are certainly not inspiring sights. The “up-thrust arms” seem to indicate some degree of resistance to the darkness, but they could also signify nothing more than a merely defensive posture. Ironically, the bulbs cast “shadows” rather than light, and these shadows seem to have a magical, or even a demonic, character: they transform “the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light,” whom the character in the scene equates with “the dreaded deity. . . Lucifer himself,” the light-bearing angel that, in Christianity, became Satan after rebelling against God and being cast into hell.

In the first and third descriptions, a character has been added to the scenes depicted in the Internet images. In both cases, as well as in the case of the image in which a human figure is shown, that of the birds in the sky above the youth, the writer has capitalized upon the characters by using them as perceptual, emotional, rational, and narrative focal points. In addition, these characters’ situations could be given thematic significance. These descriptions create an eerie atmosphere and tone, thrusting the reader into the story, and, at the same time, accomplish several other purposes, as mentioned. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but, judging by the word count of this post, a description can be worth, on the average, at least 733 words each.

Everyday Horrors: Gangs

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Occasionally, as in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, by Jimmy Breslin, gangs are treated with humor. (The police and the New York and Chicago branches of La Cosa Nostra also refer to the midwest and east coast gangs' Los Angeles counterparts as the “Mickey Mouse Mafia.”) Most of the time, though, they’re treated with respect and fear. Although most people don’t think of the Mafia as a gang, considering them, instead, to be members of “organized crime,” they are, of course, a gang--or several loosely associated gangs, actually--by definition. The Hell’s Angels, like other so-called motorcycle clubs, are also gangs. Any organization, big or small (except the IRS and the federal government in general), that uses illegal methods, including extortion, intimidation, violence, and weapons, to effect compliance from victims for any reason is a gang.

According to The Mafia Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, by Carl Sifakis, one of the most violent gangs was the Westies, who lived in, terrorized, and controlled New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. When a Mafia loan shark, Ruby Stein, visited their neighborhood to collect some debts, the Westies murdered him and took over his collections. One member of the gang, Patrick (“Paddy”) Dugan, found this enterprise so lucrative that he continued to rob loan sharks even after the Westies had aligned themselves with the Gambino crime family. His fellow gang members overlooked his peccadilloes in this regard, as did Carlo Gambino, the godfather for whom, ostensibly, the Westies now worked as hired hit men. When Paddy killed a friend of the Westies’ leader, Jimmy Coonan, however, he’d finally gone too far, and Dugan himself was murdered. His body was cut into small pieces and distributed over a large part of the city, a piece here and a piece there, except for his fingers, which Coonan kept in a bag, along with those of the gang’s other victims, to intimidate people and to frustrate the police’s identification of the dead. The Westies had liked Paddy, however, and they honored his life with a wake. They took his decapitated head with them to a tavern, set it atop the bar, and plied it with drinks, even lighting a cigarette for what was left of their friend, placing it between his lips so Paddy--or his head, at least--could enjoy a last smoke. It was only when Coonan met John Gotti, who’d murdered Gambino so that he could take over the crime family that the previous godfather had led, that the Westies’ leader met “a grease ball tougher than we are.”

Given the record of such gangs (and those of many others), it’s no wonder that gangs have appeared as bad guys in several horror stories (mostly TV series or movies, rather than novels).

An early film with the unenviable title I Was a Teenage Vampire brings Dracula’s teenage son to America, where he feeds off the Vandals, a street gang, before coming to an untimely end from a severe case of sunburn as he flees on a motorcycle to the safety of his grave in the local cemetery, but is caught by the rays of the rising sun as his bike crashes into the cemetery’s gates. The Vandals reappear in another movie with the unfortunate title The Teenage Frankenstein Meets the Teenage Werewolf. (At least the studios knew how to market their products to a targeted audience!) In a previous film The Teenage Werewolf, a mad scientist-cum-hypnotist transformed Tony Rivers into a werewolf, but the teen wolf died in a fall. In this sequel, he’s back, a revenant risen from his grave, and he joins the Vandals. The gang attack a hunchback, Gregore Frankenstein, who happens to be a descendant of the original monster maker. Having acquired the remains of his ancestor’s creature, which he keeps in a woods, Gregore revives the monster, and it attacks the Vandals. In the ensuing fight between monster and werewolf, a forest fire is ignited, which consumes the monster while the werewolf escapes to the safety of a river. (See? We told you that teenagers and young adults are dangerous!)

In “Becoming,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an outlaw motorcycle gang of vampires arrives in Sunnydale to party and terrorize the local citizenry, having heard that the slayer herself has been slain. (Unknown to them, Buffy’s friend, Willow Rosenberg, a powerful witch, has brought the dead slayer back to life).

A street gang of vampires also stars as the villainous protagonists of The Lost Boys, one of whose members, Michael Emerson, attracted to the gang’s sole female member, Star, drinks blood, which he thinks is wine and is himself transformed into one of the undead. A novel by the same title was written by Craig Shaw Gardner for release with the film. The movie was part horror, part comedy, as its tagline indicates: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire.”

In Gangs of the Dead, rival Los Angeles street gangs join forces with one another--and the police--to fight off an army of zombies born, so to speak, of an extraterrestrial virus that arrives courtesy of a meteorite. President Ronald Reagan once observed that the threat of war by an extraterrestrial species would unite the warring nations of the earth against a common threat. For street gangs, an army of dead men walking seems to work, too.

“Everyday Horrors: Gangs” is the first in 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.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Plagues

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

When most people think of the plague, they are likely to think of the bubonic plague, or “Black Death” that decimated the populations of medieval Europe and other parts of the world. Caused by bacteria carried by infected rats and the fleas who regarded their rodent hosts as moveable feasts, the plague killed as many as 30,000,000 Europeans, or about a third of that continent’s population, in the 13th century. About 550 years later, the same disease killed about 12,000,000 Chinese. Although the plague continues to kill men, women, and children today, its death toll has been greatly reduced, there having been a mere 2,118 fatalities in 2003. A handful of individuals in the United States succumb to the disease each year, but “there has not been a case of person-to-person infection. . . since 1924.”

Usually, the plague attacks the lymph nodes, causing flu-like symptoms within three to seven days, including “fever, headache, chills, weakness, and swollen tender lymph glands,” or buboes (“hence the name bubonic”). Today, the plague is treated with antibiotics.

In addition to rats, “many other rodent species, for instance, prairie dogs, wood rats, chipmunks, and other ground squirrels and their fleas,” also “suffer plague outbreaks and some of these occasionally serve as sources of human infection.” In addition,

Deer mice and voles are thought to maintain the disease in animal populations but are less important as sources of human infection. Other less frequent sources of infection include wild rabbits, and wild carnivores that pick up their infections from wild rodent outbreaks. Domestic cats (and sometimes dogs) are readily infected by fleas or from eating infected wild rodents. Cats may serve as a source of infection to persons exposed to them. Pets may also bring plague-infected fleas into the home.
According to a source that the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, does not bother to cite:

The bacteria multiply inside the flea, sticking together to form a plug that blocks its stomach and causes it to begin to starve. The flea then voraciously bites a host and continues to feed, even though it cannot quell its hunger, and consequently the flea vomits blood tainted with the bacteria back into the bite wound. The bubonic plague bacterium then infects a new victim, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.
In The Decameron, Boccaccio provides an account of the plague; even a small excerpt of his narrative conveys something of the horror of the black death:

. . . in men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavoccioli. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. And as the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they shewed themselves.

There are other plagues besides the Black Death, a famous series of which were the 10 plagues described in Exodus.

  1. Water turned to blood
  2. Sky raining frogs
  3. Lice
  4. Flies
  5. Diseased livestock
  6. Boils
  7. Rain of hail and fire
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness
  10. Deaths of firstborn sons

Professor Roger Wotton of the University College of London identifies several natural events that might have caused the Biblical floods:

A large storm may have caused the rivers of blood with heavy rain on the dry, baked soil of Egypt causing sediment-rich underlying soils and rocks to flow from tributaries into the Nile, which could also explain the killing of fish.

The fiery hail as described in the Bible could have been large hail and ball lightning that often followed dramatic storms, as could the darkening of skies.

The lice plague could be explained through the sudden mass hatching of lice after rainfall that followed hot and dry weather and the plague of frogs was explained by the emergence of spadefoot toads from hiding places in damp undersoil following a large rain.

The described biblical swarms of flies may have been clouds of biting midges which could have been seen as pestilence that killed cattle and caused boils on humans.

Both the Black Death and the Biblical plagues have inspired both horror novels and films, including Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Stephen King’s The Stand, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and The Reaping, among others:

Swan Song:

On the edge of a barren Kansas landscape, an ex-wrestler called Black Frankenstein hears the cry. . . . . "Protect the Child!"--In the wasteland of New York City, a bag lady clutches a strange glass ring and feels magic coursing through her--within an Idaho mountain, a survivalist compound lies in ruins, and a young boy learns how to kill.

In a wasteland born of nuclear rage, in a world of mutant animals and marauding armies, the last people on earth are now the first. Three bands of survivors journey toward destiny--drawn into the final struggle between annihilation and life!

They have survived the unsurvivable. Now the ultimate terror begins.

The Stand:

One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that--in the ensuing weeks--wipes out most of the world's population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas.

The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil.


Four lifelong friends gather in the woods of western Maine for their annual hunting trip. When they were young, they were bound together forever by an act of bravery involving a fifth friend, whose influence has given these men special powers. Their trip is disrupted when a stranger, disoriented and delirious, wanders into camp, muttering about light in the sky. Before long, the friends find themselves pitted against an alien invasion and must draw on their old friend's strength once again to fight for their lives.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes:

Dr. Anton Phibes, a mad doctor (his Ph.D is in music!). . .was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident while racing to see his wife in the hospital, where she was undergoing unsuccessful surgery that left her dead. . . .

Set in 1925, the plot follows the mad musician as he kills off the surgical team behind the failed operation, using grimly imaginative methods (bees, rats, bats) inspired by the Old Testament plagues Moses called down upon Egypt (it seems Phibes also studied theology while getting his musical degree). . . .

The Reaping:

Investigative scholar Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) is a debunker of modern "miracles," bringing scientific light to superstition and fraud. But events in tiny Haven, Louisiana, defy even her expertise. There, the 10 Biblical Plagues seem to be reoccurring. And the more she seeks answers, the more she questions her own beliefs.

Not to be outdone (or left behind) by the masters of horror, several science fiction novelists and scriptwriters have also based stories upon the idea of plagues, one of which arrives from outer space (Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain), and another of which resulted from a disease caused by biological warfare. The victims undergo bizarre mutations that transform them into vampire-like creatures. The Omega Man is a military scientist who’d injected himself with an experimental vaccine against the disease. It’s up to him to try to save the world.

“Everyday Horrors: Plagues” is the first in 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: The Atomic Bomb

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

When we see or hear the word “bikini,” we tend to think of--well, not death and destruction, certainly. However, it was upon the Bikini atoll, in the Pacific Ocean, that the first several nuclear bombs were tested. After detonating the bomb, the U. S. government relocated natives back to the atoll, from which they’d been evacuated, but the levels of radioactivity within their bodies suggested that they should be relocated again, so they were moved to Kili island, where they remain, wards of the federal government.

It was a Bikini atoll test that awakened the Japanese monster Godzilla. However, the U. S. was involved in far more sinister activities than those precipitated by the awakening of the fictitious Godzilla.

One of these activities was Project 4.1, a medical experiment that the government conducted in secret upon Marshall Island residents who had been exposed to radioactive fallout as a result of the government’s Castle Bravo nuclear test, which took place upon the Bikini atoll. The experiment, which began within a week of the Castle Bravo test, was known, officially, as “Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma radiation due to Fall-Out from High Yield Weapons.” (The powers of many of the Marvel Comics characters, including the Hulk and Spider-man, are results of radioactive experiments. Perhaps Stan Lee knew more than he’s saying?)

The Department of Energy stated the threefold purpose of the project: “(1) evaluate the severity of radiation injury to the human beings exposed, (2) provide for all necessary medical care, and (3) conduct a scientific study of radiation injuries to human beings.” The study showed significant effects from the Marshallese’s exposure to the radioactive fallout, including hair loss, skin damage (“raw, weeping lesions”), miscarriages, stillbirths, cancer, and neoplasms.

As bad as the fate of the test site’s human guinea pigs was, that of the Japanese at Nagasaki and Hiroshima were even worse. Those victims of the atomic bombs designated as Little Boy (which took out Hiroshima on August 6, 1945) and Fat Man (which took out Nagasaki on August 9, 1946), who survived the attack experienced severe burns, radiation sickness, and a variety of diseases, including cancer. As many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki were killed by the explosion of the bomb. The cities themselves were leveled, with only a few, burned-out structures remaining. Had Japan not surrendered, ending World War II, the U. S. had planned to drop several more atomic bombs on the island nation, as more of the weapons were in production and were expected to be completed during the next few months.

The atomic bomb was the product of the Manhattan Project, headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, many B horror films were made that featured monsters (often Bug-eyed Monsters) created by the effects of the atomic bomb or radiation in general, including:

  • Amazing Colossal Man, The
  • Attack of the Giant Leeches
  • Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The
  • Bride of the Monster
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon, The
  • Damnation Alley
  • Day the Earth Caught Fire, The
  • Day the earth Ended, The
  • Fiend without a Face
  • Godzilla
  • Hills Have Eyes, The
  • Incredible Shrinking Man, The
  • It Came from Beneath the Sea
  • Killer Shrews, The
  • Omega Man, The
  • Rocket Ship X-M
  • Them!
Even more novels, more science fiction than horror per se, resulted from plots involving atomic bombs or radiation:
  • Airship Nine
  • Alas, Babylon
  • Amnesia Moon
  • Arc Light
  • Ashes Series
  • Brother in the Land
  • Canticle for Leibowitz, A
  • Children of the Dust
  • Chrysalids, The
  • Commander-1
  • Dark Tower Saga, The
  • Dark December by Alfred Coppel
  • Dark Mirrors
  • Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles, The
  • Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomn
  • Domain
  • Doomday Wing
  • Down to a Sunless Sea
  • Dune
  • Earthwreck!
  • End of the World, The
  • Farnham's Freehold
  • Gate to Women's Country, The
  • Hostage
  • Last Children of Schewenborn, The
  • Last Ship, The
  • Level 7
  • Light's Out
  • Long Mynd, The
  • Malevil
  • Not This August
  • On the Beach
  • Outward Urge, The
  • Postman, The
  • Red Alert
  • Resurrection Day
  • Riddley Walker
  • Pre-Empt
  • Pulling Through
  • School for Atheists, The
  • Seventh Day, The
  • Small Armageddon, A
  • Solution T-25
  • Swan Song
  • Systemic Shock
  • Road, The
  • This Is the Way the World Ends
  • This Time Tomorrow
  • Tomorrow!
  • Triton Ultimatum, The
  • Warday
  • When the Wind Blows
  • Wild Shore, The
  • World Set Free , The
  • World Next Door, The
  • Worldwar
  • Z for Zachariah
  • Zone, The

However, when one considers the U. S. government’s irresponsible testing and use of human guinea pigs, to say nothing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the films featuring monsters pale in comparison to the horrors unleashed by the feds. It’s as is, in seizing the power of God, humanity has become not divine, but demonic, a destroyer rather than a creator.

More horrible yet may be the proliferation of atomic weapons around the world. According to the Federation of American Scientists, these nations have nuclear weapons capabilities:

  • China
  • France
  • India
  • Israel
  • North Korea
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

“Everyday Horrors: The Atomic Bomb” is the first in 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.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Identifying Elements of the Horrific

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

What constitutes the horrific? While the answer to this question may depend to some degree upon the individual and may vary from one person to another, most people would agree that some features are horrific in general by their very nature. As an aspiring horror writer, one should be familiar with these elements. This post will consider some of things that most people believe to be horrific.

Anything that is subterranean or submarine is frightening: basements, caves, crawlspaces, hell, mines, the ocean bottom or river bottoms, submarine vessels, and tunnels. We know not where (and to what) they might lead. They are paths to mysterious regions that are yet unexplored and uncharted, where there may be monsters. Were we to follow their lead, we might become irretrievably lost. We might die of hunger and thirst and exposure, alone and far from friends, family, and the culture and civilization which, in large part, give meaning to our lives. Even our corpses might be lost, remaining unburied and, worse, unmarked and unremembered. It might be as if we'd never lived at all.

Anything that is close is frightening: narrow spaces of all kinds, many of which overlap with the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph: basements, caves, crawlspaces, submarines, and tunnels. To this list, in “Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe added the grave itself, as a place of absolute confinement, in the case of one who has been buried alive. We might add engines of torture in which the victim is confined, such as the iron maiden or walls that press in upon one, as they do in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” We might also add cages, cells, dungeons, and collapsed mines.

That which is of a hideous appearance alarms. Deformities and birth defects and mutations top the list in this category, but those whose faces have been destroyed by acid, disease, or fire are also ghastly and unsettling to those whose own countenances, if not lovely or handsome, are at least of normal appearance. The deformed body is as horrific as the misshapen face, as pitiful stories of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Elephant Man attest.

Mementos mori frighten us because of what they are: reminders of our own looming deaths. The skull and the skeleton spring to mind as such reminders, but so also are catacombs, cemeteries, coffins, graves, headstones, morgues, mortuaries, tombs, and worms. As John Donne shows us, even the pealing of a bell can recall to us our imminent demise: we need not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you and me.

Vast spaces can be intimidating, as cornfields, deserts, forests, icebergs, jungles, mountains, oceans, pastures, planets, and outer space suggest. Many of these places are also isolated, which cuts characters off from society and culture and the defenses that each provides against both brutish nature and the animal nature within humanity. However, smaller places, such as total installations (boarding schools, camps, colleges and universities, forts, hotels, military installations, nursing homes, outposts, prisons, research facilities, resorts, or even trains) can also be remote and, therefore, can be not only lonely but also cut off from the larger world and its comforts, resources, and protections.

Some animals’ appearance is repulsive. Most amphibians and reptiles are, by nature as well as by their looks, abhorrent to many. God himself used a plague of frogs against ancient Egypt in his campaign to force pharaoh to release Moses and the Israelites from bondage. Insects are, likewise, revolting to many, as are worms and many other creepy crawlies. Some contend that amphibians and reptiles (and their eggs and spawn, especially) remind us of sex; others say they are mementos mori.

Wild animals, especially when their strength and abilities are magnified by conferring gigantic size upon them, frighten most people. Think of what the world would be like if it were still populated by dinosaurs and one was as likely to encounter a tyrannosaur as a hamburger at the golden arches.

Wildernesses are frightening, because they tend to be remote. Moreover, most such places are not only inhospitable in themselves, but they are also likely to be home to wild animals that will attack and, quite possibly, eat humans who, for whatever reason, trespass upon their domain. In addition to deserts, forests, islands jungles, mountains, and underwater environments, wildernesses may include the arctic, the Antarctic, hidden valleys, lost worlds, and swamps. Some may also offer dangers peculiar to themselves, such as animals that were thought to have become extinct but have somehow managed to survive in a remote area, pools of quicksand, or tribes of headhunting cannibals.

Anyone who is not only a danger to him- or herself but is also a danger to others, whether intentionally, as Leatherface or Jason might be, or unintentionally, as many teenagers tend to be, are also people to fear. Some people, just by their attitude or behavior, seem to dare the monster to spindle, fold, and mutilate them, and, of course, any monster worth the name is going to be more than happy to oblige.

Instruments of torture and death are also frightful devices, to be avoided at all costs. The number of such devices is many, and they needn’t be listed. Suffice it to say, if something looks as of it could cause pain, suffering, and/or death, most likely it can and it should, therefore, be avoided.

Of course, in a horror story, none of these persons, place, or things should be avoided forever or even for very long; if they are, the story won’t be horrific or even suspenseful. Sooner or later, characters must suffer one or more of these fates before succumbing, at last, to a hideous and ugly death:
  • Abduction
  • Battery
  • Being bound or fettered
  • Being chased or stalked
  • Being eaten alive
  • Being hit over the head with a blunt object
  • Being flayed alive
  • Being lost
  • Being roasted or otherwise cooked alive
  • Being shot with a pistol or a rifle (or even a crossbow)
  • Being smashed by a falling boulder or other heavy object
  • Cannibalism
  • Disfigurement
  • Dislocation of joints
  • Drowning
  • Electrocution
  • Explosion
  • Gassing
  • Hanging
  • Immolation
  • Imprisonment
  • Isolation
  • Kidnapping
  • Live burial
  • Mauling
  • Mutilation
  • Poisoning
  • Sexual assault
  • Stabbing
  • Starvation
  • Strangulation
  • Suffocation
  • Torture

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Buffy and Kendra: They Just Slay Me!

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In the “What’s My Line, Part I” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season, Kendra Young debuts as a second slayer. Neither Buffy Summers, the “real slayer,” as her friend Willow Rosenberg calls her, nor Buffy’s Watcher, Rupert Giles, knows of Kendra’s existence before her Watcher, Sam Zabuto, sends her to Buffy’s hometown, aware that “a very dark power is about to rise in Sunnydale.” Kendra also appears in the second part of the episode and in a third episode. “Becoming, Part I,” of the same season. She’s a foil to Buffy, and, as such, she highlights Buffy’s traits, but, at the same time, reveals both Buffy’s flaws and foibles and her own, suggesting that neither is the ideal slayer and that neither of them is more effective in the slayer’s role than the other.

Buffy and Kendra are evenly matched in age, strength, stamina, agility, speed, and fighting prowess, and both are adept in the use of weapons, wooden stakes and otherwise (although Kendra has trouble with a crossbow, destroying “an evil lamp”). Otherwise, the two slayers couldn’t be less alike.

Kendra takes orders from her Watcher; Buffy prefers to do things her way. Kendra reads her Slayer’s Handbook and conducts her own research concerning vampires, demons, and other monsters. Buffy lets others do the book learning. Kendra evaluates others on the bases of her studies and what she has been taught. Buffy judges others on the bases of her own experience and beliefs. Kendra has no friends, is not allowed to date, and was taken from her family at such a young age that she doesn’t remember them other than as images in photographs. Buffy is surrounded by friends who call themselves “The Scooby Gang” or “The Scoobies,” lives with her mother, and has a vampire boyfriend, Angel. Kendra is serious and single-minded about her duties as a slayer, whereas Buffy seems to be casual about her slayer’s responsibilities. Kendra is rational, Buffy romantic. Kendra believes in taking a deliberate, rational, and logical approach to slaying. Buffy says her emotions are “total assets” that empower her. While Kendra defers to men, Buffy is a modern, liberated young woman. Kendra considers her calling to be a slayer a privilege and an honor as well as a duty, but Buffy would rather lead a “normal” life.

Which of them makes the more effective slayer? Concerning Kendra’s death at the hands of the mesmerizing vampire Drusilla, who orders Kendra to look into her eyes so that she can hypnotize her, Jana Riess contends, in What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, that Kendra’s willingness to follow orders without question leads to her death. However, as Kendra herself tells Buffy, when Buffy says “I don’t take orders; I do things my way,” “No wonder you died.” Buffy may act with autonomy and independence, but she is also headstrong at times and rash, and it may be argued that these traits led to her own death in her fight against The Master, at the end of the series’ first season. It seems that the show’s writers, in positing Buffy and Kendra as opposites, suggest that neither of them is the ideal, or more effective slayer, because each is too extreme and dogmatic, in her own way, insisting that hers is the better--indeed, the only true--way to discharge her duties as the slayer. The ideal slayer, the show implies, lies somewhere between these two extremes. Kendra is too dependent; Buffy, too self-reliant. Kendra is too academic; Buffy, too pragmatic. Kendra is too theoretical; Buffy, too empirical. Kendra is too staid and reserved; Buffy, too garrulous and affable. Kendra is insensitive; Buffy is oversensitive. Kendra is straightforward and honest; Buffy, although dutiful, pretends to be carefree. Kendra is too repressed; Buffy is too uninhibited. Kendra allows men to subjugate her; Buffy tends to be disrespectful and rude to men. Kendra is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her calling; Buffy is willing merely to do her duty. Neither is the ideal slayer, and neither is the more effective slayer, for each lacks balance. Both are too extreme in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

The writers intimate that the ideal slayer is the one who is self-reliant but also accepts assistance from others; participates in research rather than leaving it to others; has friends, including a boyfriend, if she likes, without letting her friendships interfere with her duties; understands that, as sacred as her calling as a slayer may be, it is no more hallowed than her family; uses both her learning and her own experience to evaluate situations and to judge others; takes her duties seriously and is not afraid to let others see how earnest she is about her role as a slayer; is neither overly repressed nor too unrestrained; interacts with men with respect but as an equal; and is willing to make sacrifices but also seeks to enjoy a personal life to the extent that it is possible to do so without shirking her responsibilities. Neither Kendra nor Buffy occupies the position between opposing extremes that Aristotle referred to as the “golden mean.” Therefore, they both show tremendous promise and potential, but neither is as effective a slayer as she could be were she the ideal slayer.

Since the ideal slayer doesn’t exist except as an ideal, one might conclude that both Buffy and Kendra are all that they can be--themselves--and, as such, are the most effective slayers that they can be. Kendra calls herself “the vampire slayer,” as does Buffy, and both are right: they are each a slayer and the most effective slayer that they, as themselves, with all their faults and strengths, can be. That’s all they have to offer. As it turns out, all they have to offer is both never sufficient and, at the same time, paradoxically, always enough.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ideas That Don’t Work

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

When major players in the horror (or any other) genre succeed, they do so on a Wimbledon, World Series, or Super Bowl level. However, when they fail, they also fail on a spectacular level. Most of the time, the Stephen Kings and the Dean Koontzes and the Robert McCammons and the Douglas Prestons and the Lincoln Childs succeed. Occasionally, they don’t. This post is going to look at, possibly with a wince and a cringe, a couple of the more monumental disappointments in horror fiction--at ideas that didn’t work.

If in no other way than sheer volume, Stephen King’s novel, It, is one of the true monuments of horror fiction. Vast in scope, it’s equally ambitious--some have contended that it’s maybe too ambitious. Published in 1986, the tome contains over 1,000 pages. It tells the story of a band of unlikely adolescent heroes, The Losers’ Club. In 1958, they rid their town, Derry, Maine, of an ancient evil that comes in the protean, ever-changing form of a shape shifter dubbed “It.” Often, It wears the face of a diabolical clown, Pennywise, but it also appears as a mummy, a werewolf, or whatever other monstrous shape most terrifies the boy or girl to whom it appears.

Flash forward. It’s now 1985, and the Losers are successful adults, living out their lives in various, far-flung cities. Only one of them, Mike Hanlon, Derry’s librarian, has remained behind. When it seems that It has returned to Derry, Hanlon alerts the others, who’d sworn to return to vanquish the monster again if it ever comes back. All of them do return, except Stan Uris, who commits suicide upon hearing the news that their old adversary has returned. The adults take on their childhood foe, vanquishing it again in the sewers beneath Derry--for the last time, they hope.

The story proper is suspenseful, action-packed, and chilling--just what readers want and expect from King. It might well have been his magnum opus but for three ideas that don’t work. One of these ideas is similar--in fact, identical--to a J. R. R. Tolkien idea that doesn’t work, and Tolkien’s idea doesn’t work for the same reason that King‘s doesn‘t work.

Tolkien’s massive trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is even longer, and far more complicated, that It. Although Tolkien’s tale is a fantasy, rather than a horror novel and it has moments of humor, it is, like It, an epic tale, and its tone remains elevated and noble throughout (except at one climactic moment), as befits an epic adventure. If not exactly elegant, the tone of King’s story is at least fairly serious, most of the way through, and would be sufficient except that, at the moment of the story’s climax, what has been a grand epic suddenly becomes a farce as the protagonists who have risked life and limb, both as adolescents and as adults, finally come face to face with the ancient evil that has haunted them since their childhood and has stalked society itself for centuries, and it turns out to be the same sort of corny, comic book monster that Tolkien, after the long and arduous journey that his band of heroes has undertaken, at great cost to their own physical and mental well being, presents to Frodo and Sam Gamgee: a giant spider. At these moments of climax, both King and Tolkien sorely disappoint their readers. Have they come so far, witnessing so much suffering, death, sacrifice, horror, and terror--and have they spent so many, many hours--to face, at the stories’ most emphatic moments, nothing more than an overblown arachnid? It’s ludicrous. And it’s a letdown.

A spider writ large is an idea that doesn’t work.

It’s not only disappointing, but it also makes the reader feel as if he or she has been cheated--and, worse yet, cheated after having read hundreds and hundreds of pages!

It would have been better to have left the big bad thing unseen or to have simply suggested its appearance than to have presented the reader with a spider as the embodiment of inexpressible horror. All that buildup has led to nothing more than a spider? We feel as if we’re Little Miss Muffet, and we wish we’d never sat down on our tuffets to read such claptrap.

We can forgive Tolkien, although not easily, because the rest of his epic is a true epic, in execution as well as in spirit. Although King has thrilled and chilled us at many turns and has, in the main, told an engrossing story, he didn’t stop with his stupid spider. He topped himself in reaching an even lower low. The spider’s age-old enemy is--drum roll, please!--a turtle.

It’s not just any turtle, though. It’s special.

In fact, it’s the creator of the entire cosmos. Countless ages ago, it seems that the reptile had a bad case of indigestion, causing it to regurgitate, and it vomited the universe from its upset tummy. As if even that‘s not enough for King, it’s implied that the turtle might have vomited forth several other universes as well. The spider-monster was a terrible idea, as is the turtle, but making them ancient enemies and having the universe result from a case of terrapin heaves is just too Kurt Vonnegut, especially for a horror novel that, up to now, at least--which is to say, for hundreds and hundreds of pages--has taken itself seriously and has given the reader every impression that he or she should also take the story seriously.

The result is that It becomes an ouroboros, putting not its foot in its mouth but another part of its anatomy. Tolkien’s tale, although damaged somewhat by the tacky, tacked-on spider-monster, retains its overall epic stature, because he doesn’t offer another idea that doesn’t work, letting ill enough alone. King’s It, which had such promise and could have been a great horror story, a masterpiece of the genre, is, instead, a massive, spectacular failure that ends as a parody of itself. King got into such a fix, perhaps, because he doesn’t know when to stop. The novel, in some critics’ opinions, is too long by half. In going for length, the author sacrifices quality, one bad idea being followed by a second and a third.

The spider-monster is an idea that doesn’t work.

The turtle-creator is an idea that doesn’t work.

The creation of the universe ex vomitus is an idea that doesn’t work.

Ultimately, therefore, It is a wannabe epic novel that doesn’t work.

It’s hard to believe that King's first novel, Carrie (1976), is of better narrative qualitythan It, which was penned relatively late in his career.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Sense of Horror

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Heard on The History Channel: “Why was Helen Keller a bad driver?” (long pause) “Because she was a woman.”

“We murder to dissect,” William Wordsworth observes, and, in “Sonnet: To Science,” Edgar Allan Poe pretty much agrees. Critics have been dissecting humor for a good many years now, and, as a result of their painstaking research, they’ve exposed much of the tissue--and, indeed, the viscera--of comedy. In short, they’ve gutted their subject so thoroughly that its pretty much a bloody mess. That’s fine, of course, with the horror buff.

As a result of their dissection of humor, critics now bandy about terms like “bathos” and “slapstick” and “irony.” They talk about “ambiguity” and “exaggeration” and “understatement” and “incongruity.” They pontificate about “timing,” and “nuance” and “setup.” They argue about “straight men” and “punch lines” and “context.” They quibble about the use and abuse of “language.” They use these learned words as if, in doing so, they’re talking a good deal of sense when, as often as not, perhaps, they’re talking nonsense. That’s also fine, of course, with the horror buff.

It’s not really that the critics are wrong in their assessments and the pronouncements that derive from them. It’s that they’re looking at humor from without, rather than from within. We can learn a great deal about things by taking an objective approach in our studies. Neil Armstrong is proof of that. However, despite the wealth of scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated since astrology became astronomy and alchemy transmuted itself into chemistry, we may say, with Soren Kierkegaard, that we ourselves are left over.

There’s a great deal of truth to be gleaned through observation and analysis, but there’s also some to be gained from introspection, from self-analysis, from one’s experience of his or her own subjectivity, and from the contents of his or her own consciousness. Women go to male gynecologists and obstetricians, but only the pregnant themselves can appreciate certain aspects of pregnancy and childbirth, because these aspects of the processes can be known only from within--from within the flesh and the soul. The same is true of humor.

Comedians know what’s funny, and they can explain, to some degree, why it’s funny. W. C. Fields attributed humor to a streak of cruelty, saying those who laughed most and hardest at his self-deprecating humor were the ones he’d turn to last, if at all, for help if he was in need, because their laughter at his misfortune, even if his suffering was staged, indicated that they were relatively sadistic. George Carlin declared that comedy is “distortion,” but he didn’t say how or why or what’s being distorted. Some of the comedian’s tricks of the trade, apparently, must remain tricks of the trade, just as magicians are loathe to let the public in on such secrets as how to saw a woman in half or how to make the Statue of Liberty disappear.

Carlin also said that he doesn’t try to make his audience think. “That would be the kiss of death” for him as a comedian, he maintains, but he does let them know that he’s thinking.

Sometimes comedians disagree as to what’s funny and what’s amusing. Most comedians think all is fair game for the comic, but Bill Cosby drew a line at profanity and encouraged Eddie Murphy to do likewise. Murphy didn’t, but his career as a comedian didn’t seem to suffer. Most comedians seem to agree, however, that some audiences are quicker than others and that they need to adjust their repertoire of material and their timing accordingly.

Are comedians born or made? Is a sense of humor a product of nature or nurture? This question is as old as comedy, with proponents of both sides arguing their cases ad infinitum. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes, meaning that it’s both genetic and environmental. Some people are born with an affinity for the amusing, the droll, the comic, and the witty, but they can learn from other funnymen and women, as Mark Twain learned from lesser comic writers he knew in his early, formative years, such as Artemis Ward, Alexander Macfarlane, and Josh Billings. No doubt, comedians are also inspired by the greats who have gone before them.

By now (or probably way before now), you’ve no doubt thought that (a) the title for this post is erroneous or (b) the idiot who’s writing this stuff forgot to take his Prozac or (c) both of the above. Isn’t this article supposed to be about “A Sense of Horror”? Then, why is it about humor?

We’re used to the phrase “sense of humor,” but we don’t usually talk or hear about someone having a “sense of horror.” Nevertheless, just as musicians often have an ear for music and comedians can, in some sense of the word, “sense” humor, so, it may be argued, can horror writers discern the horrible in persons, places, and things that other people see as commonplace and everyday and not in the least horrible or even the least little bit unsettling. When Stephen King was asked what scares him, he replied, “Everything!”

If you read “Everyday Horrors: Cornfields,” you’ve seen how cornfields, to ordinary folk, are just cornfields. They’re mundane, ordinary, and commonplace. They’re vegetables. What’s scary about a crop of corn, for Pete’s sake, or even for Dave’s sake? It’s only after we recount how many horror stories, both in print and on film, are set, in full or in part, in cornfields that we think, Wow! Cornfields are scary! Of course, that’s because writers and filmmakers have shown us how and why cornfields are scary.

Nobody told them cornfields are scary, though. They knew it or they intuited it or they just felt the fear rolling out of those neatly spaced rows of corn that are knee high by the Fourth of July. Stephen King (Children of the Corn) and Dan Simmons (Summer of Night), Jonathan Maberry (Ghost Road Blues), Norman Partridge (Dark Harvest), and the makers of such movies as High Tension, Freddy vs. Jason: A Match Made in Hell, Hallowed Ground, The Silence of the Lambs, Scarecrow, Jeepers Creepers II, The Corn Stalker, I Walked with a Zombie, The Stand, Night of the Scarecrow, and Shallow Ground saw, and, seeing, knew that cornfields are inherently scary, despite their wholesome appearance, and, in their stories, they showed the rest of us the horror and the terror of these ranks of tall annual cereal grass with big ears.

So, is a sense of horror innate? Can it be learned? Like a sense of humor, it is likely both, and that’s a significant lesson for the aspiring horror writer.

Among the influences on his career as a writer, Stephen King lists authors as diverse as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, John D. MacDonald, Don Robertson, Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, John Fowles, Edgar Allan Poe, J. R. R. Tolkien, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Robert Browning (Dark Tower Series), Daphne du Maurier, and Alexandre Dumas. It’s quite a list. He’s taken something--an observation, a technique, an insight, a tip, an idea for a plot--from each and every one of them (and probably others as well, whom he’s forgotten to name). Each one of them has inspired him, just as they have each taught him how to be a better storyteller and, therefore, a better horror writer. Yes, writing, like comedy, can be learned.

But a sense of horror is also innate and, as such, it must also be nurtured from within. In looking, learn to see the horror implicit in the person, place, or thing that’s being seen. The post concerning “Everyday Horrors: Cornfields” does this (see the list of bullets), but after, not before, the fact. After horror writers suggested--in fact, showed--the horror of the corn, it was relatively easy to backtrack through the maize and determine what, exactly, is eerie and alarming about stand upon stand of 10- and 12-foot-tall annual cereal grass with big ears. The point, though, is to discern these qualities and features while one is observing the things themselves of which they are parts or effects.

So take a look at a German Shepherd, and see Cujo; a car, and see Christine; a dead cat, and see a twisted zombie child; a stranger’s arrival in town, and see an old-world vampire; an alcoholic writer, and see a man haunted, or even possessed, by the past.

Then, one’s sense of horror can prosper and grow until one is, like King and other masters of the macabre, afraid of “everything!”

Why did Ed Gein keep his house so warm? (long pause) So the furniture wouldn't get goose bumps.

Everyday Horrors: Teenagers and Young Adults

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Sarah Michelle Gellar, about to get hers in The Grudge

We speak of the “terrible two’s,” but, next to the teenage years, the two’s aren’t so terrible. Developmental psychologists, in fact, may mention the two’s, but they set aside a whole chapter--sometimes, a whole textbook--on the terrible teens. When it comes to horror and terror, no monster can compete against the raging hormones of youth!

In America, youth is eternal. At least, Americans want youth to last forever. Therefore, men refer to themselves as “boys” and women call themselves “girls” well past middle age. Often, their behavior matches their concepts of themselves as wild and crazy “young people.” The teenage years spill over into the senior years. Even when the body no longer permits all-night (or weeklong) drinking binges, dance marathons, clubbing, and the other activities associated with the party life, adults like to pretend they’re up to such larks. One way to do so is to watch movies starring teenagers and young adults involved in such activities. The slasher is a type of horror movie that provides such an opportunity, because its characters tend to be teenagers or young adults. Unfortunately, most of them, during the course of the drama, die horrible deaths. Still, a party can’t go on forever, even in the movies. One need not be glum, though; there are always books and television shows featuring young people in deadly, not to say compromising, situations!

Novels, TV series, and movies make the most of teen angst. They’re also not above (or below) making issues out of the hopes and fears of young adult life. Carrie, Christine, It, and a host of other Stephen King novels feature youngsters on a rampage. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Smallville, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch center upon the antics that pass for teenagers’ lives. Movies with teen or young adult protagonists (and antagonists) abound. Scream, Urban Legends, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and so many other horror movies star adolescents and twenty-somethings that Hollywood satirized its own over-reliance upon the subgenre, releasing Scary Movie and other parodies.

Hard to believe? Here are a few more horror movies, sequels excluded, that include fresh faces (and fresh meat):
  • Blair Witch Project, The
  • Blood Beach
  • Faculty, The
  • Final Destination
  • Final Stab
  • Friday the 13th
  • Halloween
  • Hitch
  • Hostel
  • I Was a Teenage Werewolf
  • In Crowd, The
  • Joy Ride
  • Nightmare on Elm Street, A
  • Pool, The
  • Prom Night
  • Soul Survivors
  • Valentine
  • Wrong Turn

The list could go on ad infinitum (or ad nauseum).

Teens and young adults make especially tantalizing victims because they’re ignorant, they’re arrogant, they’re brash, and they have a never-say-die mentality that denies their mortality. They think they’ll live forever. They think they’ll never die. They think they’re immortal. The monster or the madman begs to differ.

Besides the characteristics we just listed, teen and young adult characters are obnoxious for other reasons. They’re young. They’re relatively good looking (at least the ones in the TV series and movies tend to be). For anyone over forty, those are two unforgivable offenses that demand a sentence of death, preferably after extensive torture. It gets worse, though. Not only are the girls beautiful and the boys handsome, but they have way too much sex, even in a relatively permissive (and promiscuous) society like that of the United States.

The teenage characters shouldn’t be having any sex at all, nor should young adults before they’re married, adults cry, and those who write novels and script TV series and movies have conspired to ensure that anything more than a chaste peck on the cheek merits a horrible and, preferably, prolonged and excruciating death. (Some critics explain the death-ensues-sex theme of teen/young adult horror flicks as symbolizing the dangers of sex--pregnancy, STD’s, and the like--but it seems more likely that it derives from the jealousy of writers who write about such scenes rather than starring in their real-life equivalents.) If young folks are going to have sex, the writers of horror novels and films have decided, it’s going to cost them--dearly.

Therefore, it’s a requirement in slasher flicks that anyone under twenty who has sex (and many who are in their twenties, too, especially if they’re unmarried) must die a horrible death.

There’s also another reason that teens die. They’re rebellious. When Kendra suggests to Buffy Summers that they return to Buffy’s mentor for “orders,” Buffy tells her, “I don’t take orders. I do things my way,” which elicits a terse reply from Kendra: “No wonder you died.” (Buffy drowned in her encounter with a vampire king at the end of the TV series’ first season, but she was resuscitated by her friend, Xander Harris.)

From a guy’s perspective, there’s something good about teen and young adult horror TV series and movies: they give careers to comely cuties known as scream queens. Without trashy slasher flicks, there wouldn’t have been an Adrienne Barbeau, a Pamela Green, an Ingrid Pitt, a Linda Blair, a Natasha Kinski, an Yvette Mimmieux, a Jamie Lee Curtis, an Elisha Cuthbert, a Sarah Michelle Gellar, an Eliza Dushku, a Kate Beckinsale, a Mercedes McNab, and a host of others. If not for novels, there wouldn’t have been as many movies starring scream queens, either.

“Everyday Horrors: Teenagers and Young Adults” 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.

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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