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Monday, February 4, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Giant Animals

copyright 2008 by Gray L. Pullman

Animals can be affectionate, loyal, and companionable. They can be amusing, amazing, and beautiful. They can work hard on our behalf, and even help to rescue people stranded in the wilderness or fight off would-be attackers, robbers, rapists, and murderers. Well, maybe not goldfish so much. On the other hand, they can also be cunning, ferocious, wild, dangerous, and deadly. Unless one of the friendly sort is going to end up first going mad and then going for the throat, however, as Cujo does, or become a victim of the monster, whatever it is, it’s not likely to be of much use to the horror writer, unless the author happens to be Dean Koontz, and loves dogs more than he does Greta (his wife). California has passed a law, it seems, that anyone who lives in Newport Beach, is a novelist, has a golden retriever, and is married to a woman named Greta who willingly takes second place to the dog must include at least one canine character in every novel he writes, and the dog must be above reproach, even if his or her master is not. For others who write in the genre, the fierce and ferocious--and, often, the biggest--animal is more likely to earn a spot in the story’s cast of characters.

In horror fiction, as in (from some men’s standpoint, but seldom women’s) breasts, generally, the bigger, the better. In another post, concerning “The Underbelly of the Bug-eyed Monster Movie,” we’ve already discussed some movies that feature big, bug-eyed monsters (hence the title of that particular post). Quite a few movies, especially in the past, featured such villains, as some do today, and novels, of course, and short stories (and some narrative poems, such as Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and Beowulf) too, for that matter) feature giant animals as their monsters of choice. One of the ones that started it all, as far as novels are concerned, is H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods, in which a mad scientist develops a food additive that’s even better--way better, in fact--than Wonder Bread in developing strong bones and bodies or whatever Wonder Bread develops. The formula’s even better than Ovaltine!

Stories like these usually relied upon the past (dinosaurs), undiscovered countries or lands of the lost (dinosaurs) or mad scientists (giant experimental plants and animals), atomic radiation (giant plants and animals) or extraterrestrial visitations (alien animals) instead of central casting to supply these threats. However, they needn’t have gone to such trouble or looked so far. Nature, right here and right now, supplies writers with real-life giant animals. True, some are more frightening than others, but, if one is, like Stephen King, willing to gross out if he can’t scare a reader, what some of these giants may lack in the fright department they compensate for in the disgusting department.

Here are a few of the more repulsive, sometimes frightening alternatives Mother Nature has in stock at the moment:

  • Camel spiders
  • Giant catfish
  • Giant rats
  • Goliath beetles
  • Goliath frogs

Camel spiders anesthetize people and then eat them alive. That’s what some American veterans returning from duty in Iraq, the home of the infamous spiders, claimed, anyway--who’d escaped such a fate--but that was an exaggerated contention in several ways. First, the camel spider isn’t really a spider at all. It’s a solpudgid, which is an arachnid, all right, just not one of the spider family. (Other non-spider arachnids include scorpions, mites, ticks, and Peter Parker.) As a solpudgid, the misnamed camel spider has no venom with which to poison (or even anesthetize) anyone, nor does it have a system by which it could deliver such a toxin, even if it had one to deliver. Still, the camel spider looks diabolical, even deadly, and, in horror fiction, appearances go a long way. The writer can always make up the facts as he or she goes along. If the author wants anesthetizing, or even poisoning, spiders, the author can and will have them. A good writer, especially a writer of horror fiction, never lets the facts get in the way of a good monster.

It might seem that the bewhiskered catfish would make an unlikely horror monster. If there wasn’t at least a glimmer of evil in its lidless, cold eyes, though, do you think it would have come to the attention of so august a body as the National Geographic Society, the same group who showed bare-breasted African women to the innocent schoolboys of 1950 America? Just look at this sucker! It’s nine feet long, and, according to The Society, as its members in good standing are allowed to call it, this fish is “as big as a grizzly bear,” and “tipped the scales at 646 pounds.” This variety of potential cat food is one of “the species known as the Mekong giant catfish.” Put a few teeth inside it, and it could be the next piranha, super-sized.

Africa’s Goliath frog grows to a length of thirteen inches and can weigh as many as seven pounds!

Its yuck factor is correspondingly great for anyone who has frog fear, which, as it turns out, may be more people, male and female, than one thinks. It can’t quite leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it can cover a distance of twenty feet in a single jump. It can live for fifteen years, so it’s capable of revenge, like Grendel’s mother. It lives in Africa, or, more specifically, Cameron’s Sanaga basin. People eat it, rather than the other way around (so who’s the real monsters?) or is sold to a zoo, where, usually, it doesn't do well. However, no self-respecting horror story writer would let a frog of this size go to waste as a potential peril to humankind. No way! Instead, like the non-poisonous, non-carnivorous, non-spider camel spiders, in horror fiction, these babies are going to be depicted as venomous, flesh-eating monsters that, having reproduced faster than their normal rate, for some reason having to do with human stupidity and/or greed, are now threats to humans, unable to subsist any longer on lesser animals such as the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and elephant.

Would a story featuring three-foot-long rats be scary? Duh! Stories involving rats only the size of puppies are frightening; a film or a novel featuring rats the size of Garfield or Odie would be terrifying (bigger generally is scarier). There’s just one thing wrong with such a scenario. Nobody would buy the existence of a rat that big, right? Wrong. The ones in H. G. Wells’ novel, The Food of the Gods, were even bigger, and, besides, there really are three-foot-long rats, just not in your neighborhood--at least, not yet. Of course, there’s no reason that a character in a horror story couldn’t legally (or illegally) import some from New Guinea’s Foja Mountains or they couldn’t be procured by a zoo (or even created in a scientific lab). According to Smithsonian Institution scientist Kristofer Helgen, “"The giant rat,” which weighs up to three pounds, “is about five times the size of a typical city rat," and has no fear of humans.

Another giant among us is the Goliath beetle, which measures about five inches (huge for a bug). It also lives in Africa, and eats human flesh. (Not really. They eat tree sap and fruit in the wild or cat food or dog food in captivity.) They sound like helicopters when they fly, because their bodies are heavily armored. They don’t bother people, but, because humans are naturally squeamish concerning creepy crawlies, they could, especially if they could be induced to swarm for the camera, be pretty good monsters. A writer would probably want to mutate them, though, so they could be transformed into carnivores. That way, they could prefer people meat to Tender Vittles or Kimbles ’n Bits.

Many people would have thought that giant animals, with a few exceptions, such as whales, elephants, and ostriches, are a thing of the past--the distant, prehistoric past--when dinosaurs roamed the planet. The discovery of new giants among us suggests that this is not true. Over four hundred new species have been discovered on Borneo alone since 1996, and Madagascar and South America, as well as the ocean, have yielded others. In King Kong, Carl Denham had to go to the uncharted (that is, imaginary) Skull Island to discover the lost world of the giant ape and surviving dinosaurs, but, with the dicovery of new species, including giants, seemingly every other day, horror writers may need to go no farther than Madagascar, the African continent, Japan, or South America to encounter real, living, breathing monstrosities. Who knows? There may even be one in your backyard, and it may be hungry.

Meanwhile, we can continue to turn to the pages of horror novels and science fiction stories to read about them or watch them wreck havoc on the big screen.

Update (3/21/08)

Over the past year, scientists, poking around in the world’s oceans and rain forests, have announced their discoveries of several new species of animals and of some giants among known species. Among the latest discoveries are giant macroptychaster starfish, measuring two feet across, which were located in New Zealand’s Antarctic Ocean. Other newly found giants include an 11-foot, 844-pound white shark, a 990-pound colossal squid, an Echizen jellyfish larger than a man, and a 23-pound lobster. Scientists aren’t the only ones to encounter these giants. On his farm near Eberswalde, Germany, Karl Szmolinsky breeds 20-pound giant rabbits, like the one he’s holding. More and more, the everyday world is catching up with the imaginary giant creatures of horror, fantasy, and science fiction literature. No doubt, some of these beasties will be tomorrow fiction’s featured creatures, although not, perhaps, the giant bunnies.

“Everyday Horrors: Giant Animals” is part of 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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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