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Monday, March 10, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Plants

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Plants are our friends. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to breathe--or eat. Only they can convert carbon dioxide and water into chemical energy (sugars and starch) using ultraviolet energy (sunlight). Without them, all animal, including human, life would die. Actually, without them, there would be no life to live or die.

Plants themselves, in fact, are food. Their ripened ovaries are hard to beat when one craves a sweet and succulent treat. Plants are also the source of hundreds of products that we sometimes take for granted, but, without which, we wouldn’t live nearly as well as we’re accustomed to do: paper, lumber, fabrics, fuel, medicines, plastics, dyes, soaps, paints, shampoos, perfumes, and a host of others. Without plants, men wouldn’t be able to bribe women into forgiving them or put them in the mood for romance with the gift of a dozen roses or a bouquet of flowers, either, and, of course, gardens would be rather colorless affairs.

So, what’s so horrible about plants?

Like people, many are good eggs, but, to torture a metaphor, there are a few bad apples among them as well. In most cases, the horrible plants are poisonous. Some are horrible for other reasons, though.

Let’s start with the poisonous ones. According to Live Science, the “Top 10 Poisonous Plants,” in descending order, are:

10. Narcissus
9. Rhododendron
8. Ficus
7. Oleander
6. Chrysanthemum
5. Anthurium
4. Lily-of-the-valley
3. Hydrangea
2. Foxglove
1. Wisteria

In no particular order, for pets, these are the five deadliest plants:

  • Azalea
  • Castor bean plant
  • Lily
  • Oleander
  • Sago palm

The stinging tree is an interesting plant. Indigenous to tropical rainforests, it has thick, hair-like structures on its leaves and stems that, when brushed against, deliver a painful sting. The tips of the leaves and stems penetrate the skin, in which they break off, releasing a poisonous irritant, the effect of which may last for months. There’s no antidote. However, stick insects, weevils, chrisom lid beetles, and even opossums enjoy the taste of them.

In horror fiction, plants can be dangerous--or even deadly--even when they’re not poisonous. In Dean Koontz’s The Taking, demons use a hellish fungus to help to prepare the earth for conquest. In Stephen King’s “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verril” segment of Creepshow, an extraterrestrial fertilizer, delivered by the courtesy of a meteorite, causes an alien fungus to overrun everything--and everyone--in its past, Jordy Verril (played by King himself) included. In Seed People, alien seeds turn humans into zombies. The campy Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) has mutated tomatoes turning into mad killers.

As “Man-eating Plants”points out out, no carnivorous plant is large enough to threaten humans. These plants’ largest victim, according to this article, was a rat that, dead, was found, partially digested, inside a pitcher plant. However, “Man-eating Plants” suggests that the legends of such plants as the one in Little Shop of Horrors might have been inspired by an actual plant, the Amorphophallus titanum, or corpse flower, which is definitely not recommended for milady’s (or yours) bridal bouquet:

Amorphophallus titanum, which is said to be the biggest, smelliest flower in the world, looks like something that could eat a human being. When it blooms it can reach at height over nine feet in height and smells like a mixture of rotting flesh and excrement. . . .

. . . Although the Amorphophallus titanum looks a lot like you would imagine a man-eating plant to look like, and it even smells like somebody is dead inside, it is not carnivorous.

As horrible as man-eating plants might be (were they to exist), intelligent plants might be even more appalling. For a long time, scientists maintained that animals are not able to reason, and philosophers have always excluded them from such abilities, defining humans alone as “thinking reeds” or res cogitans. If animals were to be denied anything more than sentience, plants certainly weren’t likely to be considered potential Nobel laureates any time soon.

However, this bias may be changing. If Professor Stefano Mancuso has anything to say about the issue, it may not be long before plants are his tenured colleagues. He operates the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV) near Florence, Italy, where he hopes to demonstrate that plants are not only intelligent, but are also capable of solving problems. According to Mancuso, “If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us. Not only are they ‘smart’ in how they grow, adapt and thrive, [but] they [also] do it without neuroses. Intelligence isn't only about having a brain.”

According to “Smarty Plants: Inside the World’s Only Plant-Intelligence Lab,” the laboratory is exploring a variety of research topics: “In addition to studies on the effects of music on vineyards, the center's researchers have also published papers on gravity sensing, plant synapses and long-distance signal transmission in trees.”

Plants have been found to be able to distinguish between siblings and strangers, and, perhaps as xenophobic as people, among them, sap apparently is thicker than water. According to Live Science’s “Plants Recognize Siblings”: “Plants can recognize when they are potted with their siblings or with strangers. . . . When strangers share a pot, they develop a competitive streak, but siblings are more considerate of each other.”

In science fiction, plants have demonstrated intelligence for years. As far back as Dante and Virgil, humans dreamed of communing with greenery. However, the desirability of doing so, at least as far as William Hope Hodgson is concerned, might be questionable. In “The Lands of Lonesomeness” chapter of his novel, The Boats of Glen Caring, “evil trees are prone to wrap their branches round the unwary traveller,” and “human souls are somehow sucked into the trees and then beckon for more to join them.”

Intelligent plants also betray evil designs on humans in Murray Leinster’s “Proxima Centauri,” Clark Ashton Smith’s “Seedling of Mars,” and Raymond Z. Gallun’s “Seeds of the Dusk.” Bizarre, threatening plants also appear in H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”

Until the discovery of the euglena, scientists believed that there was a hard and fast differences between plants and animals. The main difference was that the former could photosynthesize, while the latter could not. The discovery of the euglena changed this view. Like animals, they can move under their own power, by means of a flailing flagellum, engulf and ingest food using a “phagotrophic. . . apparatus,” “sense light using a red pigmented eyespot,” and change color to match their red or green environment. The euglena also has chloroplasts that enable it to do what only plants can do--photosynthesize. So is it a plant or an animal? Neither--and both. It’s a euglena!

Swamp Thing could be the lowly euglena, writ large. He’s a humanoid vegetable or, if one prefers, a vegetative humanoid, who lives in a swamp and, in the 1982 movie named for him, dated Adrienne Barbeau (a. k. a. Alice Cable).

There’s something else eerie about plants. They’re quiet. They loom. They seem to wait, if not to lurk. They appear to be biding their time, awaiting their chance. To do what? We don’t want to know. What may go on inside those leafy branches and green stems? We don’t even want to guess. Plants are so different from us that, in their majestic, grand silence and their seeming indifference to us, they seem, at times, as when the wind is in the treetops, to whisper of plans that may be not as cool and green and comforting as their stoic postures suggest they are.

If science fiction and horror stories featuring plant-monsters teach us anything worthwhile, it’s to listen to Mom and eat our vegetables--before they eat us!

“Everyday Horrors: Plants” 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.

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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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