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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.

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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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