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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hop-Frog: A Story of Reversals

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


As a rule of thumb, a writer introduces his or her story’s protagonist before the antagonist makes an appearance. One reason for doing so is that people respond most strongly to the person they meet first, especially if the individual seems to be a decent sort of a soul, as protagonists, even self-conflicted ones, usually are, just as readers tend to most remember whatever they read first. After all, since the story is the story of the main character, it makes sense to introduce the protagonist first, before any other character takes the stage (or the page). Another reason for introducing the main character first is to establish clarity. Introducing the protagonist first makes it clear to the reader, from the outset, whose story is being read or told. Occasionally, however, this rule is violated, as is the case in “Hop-Frog,” Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of humiliation and revenge.

Poe starts his story by introducing its antagonist, or villain, a nameless, sadistic king who delights in abusing his fool, Hop-Frog. An example of the monarch’s cruelty is the jester’s nickname. His “seven ministers,” aware of his delight in unkindness, in an apparent attempt to curry favor with their liege, named the jester “Hop-Frog” to make fun of his peculiar style of locomotion: “it was conferred upon him, by general consent of the seven ministers, on account of his inability to walk as other men do. In fact, Hop-Frog could only get along by a sort of interjectional gait -- something between a leap and a wriggle -- a movement that afforded illimitable amusement, and of course consolation, to the king.” Such a problem would elicit pity and sympathy from a nobler person, but the king is obviously well pleased with the wittiness of his ministers’ naming the fool’s for the effect of his unfortunate disability.

The king also enjoys tormenting Hop-Frog directly. The dwarf and a fellow citizen, Tripetta, also a dwarf, were abducted from their homeland and given, as if they were but things, rather than people, “as presents to the king, by one of his ever-victorious generals.” Aware that Hop-Frog misses the friends he was forced to leave behind and aware, furthermore, that the fool is unable to drink wine without suffering from near madness as a result, the king directs him to drink to in the honor of his “absent friends.” When the wine and the thought of his “absent friends” has the effect upon Hop-Frog that the king has anticipated, the king thinks the jester’s grief and miserable state of intoxication amusing: “It happened to be the poor dwarf's birthday, and the command to drink to his 'absent friends' forced the tears to his eyes. Many large, bitter drops fell into the goblet as he took it, humbly, from the hand of the tyrant.” The king responds with cruel laughter: "'Ah! ha! ha! ha!' roared the latter, as the dwarf reluctantly drained the beaker. 'See what a glass of good wine can do! Why, your eyes are shining already!'"

The king’s malice is also seen in his abusive treatment of Tripetta. When she intercedes with the king on the behalf of Tripetta, upon whom the monarch seeks to force still more wine, the king “pushed her violently from him, and threw the contents of the brimming goblet in her face.”

The vulgarity of the king and his sycophantic courtiers, vis-à-vis the grace Hop-Frog and Tripetta, is a second reversal in the story. Not only has Poe introduced the villainous king before he’s introduced the heroic fool, but he has also traded the stereotypical natures of these two characters, making the noble king vulgar and the low fool courteous. These reversals effect much of the story’s irony. Customarily, a reader would suppose the king, rather than a jester, to be the refined and cultured sophisticate. In fact, the comedy of the fool is often ribald and crude, involving the same sort of humiliating practical jokes, at times, as those that the king performs.

The king’s humiliation of Tripetta is the story’s inciting moment, for it is this act of outrage upon her that inspires Hop-Frog’s plan for revenge, as, ironically, he tells the intended victim: “just after your majesty had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face-- just after your majesty had done this. . . there came into my mind a capital diversion .” Thus, the king, in a sense, is undone by his own sadistic nature, for it is one of his acts of mindless cruelty that inspires Hop-Frog’s scheme to kill him in a fashion that is at once both spectacular and horrible.

Traditionally, regardless of the king’s character or the morality of his deeds, if he orders the execution of one of his subjects, for any (or no) reason, the subject would be killed, no questions asked. In “Hop-Frog,” however, it is the fool who, in another reversal, becomes the executioner of both the king himself and his toadying courtiers. What’s more, Hop-Frog not only accomplishes his vengeance of Tripetta’s honor with impunity, thereby further humiliating the monarch and his noble friends, since he escapes punishment for having, in essence, assassinated his and Tripetta’s tormentors. Each of these reversals heightens the story’s irony.

Hop-Frog’s revenge is extremely violent and horrible. Had Poe not prepared the reader to accept this act as just, albeit appalling, the reader’s sympathy for the crippled dwarf and his beloved Tripetta would likely not withstand the gruesome deaths that he causes the king and his courtiers to suffer. Instead, the immolation of the nobles would have been regarded, in all likelihood, as being too extreme and it would suggest that it is Hop-Frog who is the true monster, rather than his adversary, the king’s own cruelty notwithstanding.

The reader accepts the justice of Hop-Frog’s execution of his tormentors for several reasons. First, the odds are against Hop-Frog. He is a mere court jester. His adversary is a monarch who enjoys absolute power. Readers support an underdog. Second, the king is cruel. He is, in other words, a sadist. Many times, he has abused Hop-Frog simply for his own amusement and, perhaps, to show off in front of his courtiers. He is not above insulting even someone as beautiful, kind, and harmless as Tripetta, although he must know that doing so will both hurt her and offend Hop-Frog. He has no regard for their feelings. Third, Hop-Frog outsmarts the powerful king, and readers favor one who, through the use of nothing more than his or her wits, can outsmart another, especially if the other occupies a position of far greater social status, authority, and power. If one such ordinary person can accomplish such a feat, perhaps others--the reader included--can do likewise. Certainly, many will have harbored fantasies of doing just such a thing. Fourth, Hop-Frog, like Tripetta, is a dwarf. He is literally smaller than the king, and, figuratively, he is a common person, one of the many little guys, so to speak, who comprise the ordinary person. Hop-Frog is physically weaker, too, than his larger tormentors. Nevertheless, he uses his brain to overcome their brawn, a feat that always gains admiration and respect among those in similar circumstances. Fifth, Hop-Frog is crippled. His severe handicap, the object of the king’s scorn and ridicule, make him ill-matched to take on the king. Nevertheless, the intrepid dwarf does so--and wins. Sixth, Hop-Frog is shown to be a sensitive and caring person. He loves Tripetta, and, when she is insulted, he is also hurt, and he vows revenge, even at the risk of his life. Perhaps the reader would not overlook Hop-Frog’s murder of the king and his courtiers in a such a horrible manner if only one of these conditions or characteristics mitigated against the horror of the deed, but there are at least six extenuating facts, as enumerated herein. Together, they seem to be warrant enough for the reader to ignore the stupendous horror of the dwarf’s immolation of his live victims.

Other horror stories often include a reversal, usually in the form of the surprise, O. Henry-type ending. A good example is “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs and “The Red Room” by H. G. Wells, both of which have been posted in Chillers and Thrillers. In these stories, the plot suggests a certain type of ending as likely, or even as seemingly inevitable, but then surprises the reader with the substitution of a different ending but one that is, nevertheless, logical and satisfying. For example, in Wells’ story, (which, incidentally, is a clear precursor to Stephen King’s story, “1048”) a skeptic stays overnight in an allegedly haunted room. Despite his doubt as to the reality of the supernatural, he experiences increasingly frightening incidents until, bursting from the room, he strikes the doorframe. He turns, confused, and reels into various furniture until he knocks himself unconscious. The reader is led to assume that the room truly is haunted, and then Wells offers what, in effect, is a punch line of sorts: the room is haunted by the fear of those who, believing the chamber to be haunted, occupy the place: “Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms.” The Others, a horror film, also has such a twist: the residents of a haunted house turn out to be the ghosts, just as the apparent ghosts turn out to be the house’s human inhabitants. Such reversals are still marginally effective, if rather overdone, but stories such as “Hop-Frog” are rare in their sophisticated employment of plot reversals, and such stories are correspondingly enriched

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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