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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Horror By the Slice: “The Lurking Fear”

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to some critics, H. P. Lovecraft is the twentieth century’s leading horror writer and a transitional figure between the late, or neo-, Gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and the more recent horror fiction of Stephen King and other contemporary writers in the genre. There is no doubt that Lovecraft has had an influence upon the genre and that his techniques for creating chills and thrills are used by the many horror writers who have followed him. These same techniques can assist any author in creating similarly tales of terror. Therefore, in this post, we will examine the methods of his madness.

For those who are unacquainted with the story, a summary is in order:

“The Lurking Fear” is divided into four parts:

  • “The Shadow on the Chimney”
  • “A Passer in the Storm”
  • “What the Red Glare Meant”
  • “The Horror in the Eyes”

With “thunder in the air,” the protagonist-narrator, a sort of nineteenth-century ghost hunter, accompanied by two strapping men, George Bennett and William Tobey, ascends Tempest Mountain, the scene of a “catastrophe,” to visit a deserted, reportedly haunted mansion. He says he wishes he’d invited reporters to join him, as then others would share his secret knowledge and it could have been they, not he, who tells the story of the fear he discovered lurking there. No animals live on the mountaintop, and “the ancient lightning-scarred trees” appear “unnaturally large and twisted.” After parking his automobile, the trio make their way through the forbidding forest, the protagonist recalling the myths and legends that have accumulated over the years concerning the Martense family, the mansion’s ghosts, and a demon that is said to abduct “lone wayfarers after dark.”

According to one story, villagers abandoned their homes one night, complaining of having sensed a catastrophe involving the sudden deaths of many squatters in a nearby village.

The next morning, a search party finds evidence that many of the squatters were attacked by the fangs and claws of some nameless monster: “Of a possible seventy-five natives who had inhabited this spot, not one living specimen was visible. The disordered earth was covered with blood and human debris bespeaking too vividly the ravages of demon teeth and talons; yet no visible trail led away from the carnage.” Local residents “quickly connected the horror with the Martense mansion,” despite its three-mile distance from the scene. A thorough investigation of the house and its environs, however, turn up nothing, and, after three weeks, the reporters on the scene disperse, leaving the protagonist alone to investigate the possibility that “thunder called the death-demon out of some secret place.”

The men take up their vigil in the bedroom of Jan Martense, sharing a “four-poster bedstead,” which they drag “from another room” and place “laterally against the window.” They’ve hung three rope-ladders from the ledge outside the room, in case the demon appears inside the house and will use the stairs to escape if it should appear from without the house. All the men are armed, and two sleep in shifts, while the third keeps watch.

After his watch, the protagonist falls asleep, has “apocalyptic visions,” which awaken him, and he realizes that one of his companions, Bennett, is gone, “God alone knew whither.” His gaze is fixed upon the bedroom’s fireplace. A terrific bolt of lightning lights the room and the surrounding countryside, awakening the frightened Tobey, who starts “up suddenly,” casting his shadow upon the “chimney above the fireplace,” but the shadow is a hideous and monstrous one that terrifies the ghost hunter: “the shadow on that chimney was not that of George Bennett or of any other human creature, but a blasphemous abnormality from hell's nethermost craters; a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp and no pen even partly describe.” The next instant, the protagonist discovers, he is “alone in the accursed mansion, shivering and gibbering. George Bennett and William Tobey” leave “no trace, not even of a struggle” and are “never heard of again.”

In part two of the story, the protagonist awakens in his “hotel room in Lefferts Corner,” unaware of how he managed to escape the mansion and drive down the mountaintop and ignorant as to whether Bennett and Tobey also managed to get away and, if so, where they might have gone. He is convinced of the reality of the experience he’s had, however, and of the reality of the demon he’s encountered, for, its lying of one of his limbs--”a heavy arm or foreleg”--upon his ‘chest” proved its “organic” nature.

The protagonist, determined to return to the mansion, enlists the aid of a reporter he’d met, Arthur Munroe, and they discover an “ancestral diary” that sheds light upon some of the Martense family’s exploits.

Accompanied by a few local men, the protagonist and Munroe attempt to ascend the mountaintop again, but are stalled by a torrential downpour. The men wait out the storm inside a shack, barring the door. They have no light but their “pocket lamps” and occasional bolts of lightning. When the storm passes, the protagonist unbars the door, and awakens Munroe, but, he finds, Munroe is not asleep: “For Arthur Munroe was dead. And on what remained of his chewed and gouged head there was no longer a face.”

In part three of the story, the protagonist digs up the body of Jan Martense, whose grave is located in one of the more inhospitable sites of the forbidding landscape, for he has now become convinced that the demonic shadow he saw the night he’d kept vigil within Jan Martense’s bedroom is not corporeal, after all, but a “wolf-fanged ghost that rode the midnight lightning” and that the ghost is that of the occupant of Jan Martense’s grave. As he digs at the grave, the protagonist recalls the history of the Martense mansion that he’s learned from the “ancestral diary.” It was built in 1670 by a reclusive Dutchman, Gerrit Martense, whose equally reclusive progeny soon “deteriorated,” restricting their travels to the local area and marrying the “menial class about the estate,” thereby populating the locality with the squatters who’d recently come to ruin.

Jonathan Gifford, “an Albany friend of Jan Martense,” was disturbed when their correspondence broke off abruptly. Journeying to the Martense mansion, he was told by the “sullen, odd-eyed Martenses” who resided there that Jan was killed by a stroke of lightning. They showed Gifford his unmarked grave, but he was suspicious and returned to dig up the plot. When he did so, his suspicions were confirmed, because the body’s skull was “crushed cruelly as if by savage blows.” Although no crime could be proven, when the story was reported, the Martenses were ostracized and dark legends about them and their house began to accumulate. After 1810, the house was deserted.

When the protagonist finds that Jan Martenses’ coffin contains nothing more than “dust and nitre,” he “irrationally” continues to dig, falling through the bottom of the grave, into a tunnel beneath the burial site. The underground passage extends in two directions, and the protagonist chooses the one that leads toward the Martense mansion. After he crawls for an hour through the narrow confines of the tunnel, it ascends, revealing two “baleful” eyes of a clawed monster that digs its way past the terrified intruder, summoned to the surface by the sound of thunder. The protagonist manages to claw his way to the surface and finds he has emerged “in a familiar spot. . . on the southwest corner of the mountain.” He sees a red glare in the distance. Two days later, he learns “what the red glare meant”: the monster had attacked a squatters’ cabin, and the squatters had set the cabin ablaze with the monster inside: “In a hamlet twenty miles away an orgy of fear had followed the bolt which brought me above ground, and a nameless thing had dropped from an overhanging tree into a weak-roofed cabin. It had done a deed, but the squatters had fired the cabin in a frenzy before it could escape. It had been doing that deed at the very moment the earth caved in on the thing with the claw and eyes.”

In part four of the story, the protagonist returns to the underground passage, but it has caved in. He also visits the site of the monster’s attack, but finds only the bones of its victim. Despite having been struck by lightning, the monster seems to have escaped unharmed. He next inspects the now-deserted hamlet that the monster had previously attacked, killing seventy-five squatters. He discovers that the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region” are like “tentacles” radiating from the Martense mansion. Thinking that the mounds and hummocks resemble “molehills,” the protagonist digs into one of them, discovering within “a tunnel or burrow just like the one through which” he “had crawled on the other demoniac night.” He returns to the mansion, seeking the “core and centre of that malignant universe of mounds,” excavating the cellar of the house, before discovering this “core and centre” to be the chimney in Jan Martense’s bedroom, at the base of which, outside the house, the protagonist’s excavations have brought him. A wind blows out his candle, leaving him in utter darkness. He seeks cover “behind a dense clump of vegetation,” and, as thunder booms, he wonders what monster it shall summon or whether “anything [is] left for [the thunder]. . . to call.” He witnesses not one, but thousands, of shapeless shapes that, ultimately, take the form or deformed monkeys:

The thing came abruptly and unannounced; a demon, ratlike scurrying from pits remote and unimaginable, a hellish panting and stifled grunting, and then from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life--a loathsome night spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress--streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death.

God knows how many there were--there must have been thousands. To see the stream of them in that faint intermittent lightning was shocking. When they had thinned out enough to be glimpsed as separate organisms, I saw that they were dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes--monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe.

Once again, the protagonist manages to escape, after shooting the last of the fiends, and he arranges to destroy the mansion, dynamiting it, and to “stop up all the discoverable mound-burrows.” However, he remains anxious, wondering whether, the world over, “analogous phenomena” may not also exist. Even “a well or subway entrance” now makes him tremble, he concludes, and he is forever haunted by the memory of the visage of the monster he saw after shooting it, which turns out to have been one of the Martense family members:

What I saw in the glow of flashlight after I shot the unspeakable straggling object was so simple that almost a minute elapsed before I understood and went delirious. The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life. It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.

Note: "The Lurking Fear" may be downloaded, FREE. Here's the link.

Now that we have pinned the specimen upon the board, let’s “murder to dissect.”

Stories told in parts or chapters are not new. However, Lovecraft’s “Lurking Fear” is a lesson in how to make such narrative segments, which, in the genre of horror, might be called “slices of horror,” maintain mystery and heighten suspense by presenting seemingly unrelated, bizarre incidents which, at story’s end, are unified in an explanation that accounts for these incidents and the relationships among them.

In the first part of the story, Lovecraft hints at several possible identities for his story’s antagonist or--he is not clear even as to their number--antagonists. The villain could be a ghost, a demon, or some sort of monster with fangs and claws. He is ambiguous as to the creature’s origin as well. Local residents believe that it is associated with the Martense mansion atop Tempest Mountain. However, the narrator of the story, who is also the narrative’s protagonist, suggests that it may be linked to the weather--particularly, to the thunder. (The mansion and the weather, in fact, may themselves be connected in some way, as the house’s location, atop a mountain that takes its very name from a storm, or “tempest,” suggests.) Lovecraft’s multiplication of these possibilities is only one instance of such multiplications to be found in “The Lurking Fear.” On one occasion, the protagonist is certain that the creature is “organic,” or corporeal, but, later, he is just as sure that it is incorporeal. Obviously, it cannot be both, so which is it, tangible or intangible?

Another way by which Lovecraft multiplies possibilities (and therefore promotes ambiguity) in his tale is by suggesting several possibilities as to the creature’s point of origin. It is said to dwell in “some secret place.” Is it located in the house, in Jan Martense’s grave, in an underground tunnel, in the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region,” or elsewhere? Indeed, at times, it seems to drop out of the sky. Is it of an aerial nature? Neither the protagonist nor his companions, George Bennett and William Tobey, staying overnight in the mansion, know whether to expect the ghost, the demon, or the clawed monster to attack them from within or from without the house, so they are careful to suspend three rope-ladders from the ledge on the wall outside the room, one for each of them, in the event that the monster’s assault is from outside rather from inside the house. When the creature abducts Bennett and Tobey, it’s as if the men simply ceased to exist: they are simply gone, leaving “no trace, not even of a struggle,” and are “never heard of again.” Repeatedly, the reader wonders just what sort of threat it is that the protagonist faces. There are clues aplenty as to its possible identity, but none of them add up. All is confused and ambiguous. Therefore, and thereby, the story’s horror is increased, and its terror mounts.

In part two of the story, determined, despite what has befallen George and William, to solve the mystery of the Martense mansion, the protagonist, enlisting the aid of a journalist, Arthur Munroe, and some local men, is returning to the mountaintop when the onset of a violent rainstorm forces them to seek shelter inside a rude shack. In the darkness therein, Munroe is killed, losing his face to the monster’s appetite. Earlier in the same part of the story, the protagonist asserted his conviction that their adversary is “organic,” because, he says, he felt it rest a limb upon his chest. Once again, however, Lovecraft leaves open alternatives as to the nature of the story’s antagonist. The sensation that the main character felt of something laying a limb upon his body and the gouging of Munroe’s head and the devouring of his face suggest an entity that is corporeal. However, the silence with which the monster comes and goes and its ability to get inside the locked hovel imply that it is incorporeal. Is it a ghost, a demon, a monster of fang and claw? A combination of such creatures? Something else entirely? Ambiguity--hence horror--reigns.

This ambiguity is further complicated in the third part of the tale, when the protagonist, now supposing the monster may be a ghost, rather than an “organic” entity, visits the grave of Jan Martense. After digging up and discarding the coffin within the grave, he digs farther down, and falls through the bottom of the grave, into a tunnel, wherein he encounters the adversary. Previously, all he’d seen of it was its shadow, which he described as “a blasphemous abnormality from hell’s nethermost craters; a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp and no pen even partly describe.” Now, the monster is described as having eyes that glisten and glow “with a baneful and unmistakable effulgence,” as bearing a claw, and as moving “with Cyclopean rage” as it tears “through the soil above that damnable pit,” the tunnel in which the protagonist encounters it. Later, hearing of the monster’s attack upon a squatters’ cabin, the description that the squatters give is, again, of a “nameless thing” with a “claw and eyes.” Much of the hideous appearance of the creature is supplied by the reader’s imagination, rather than by Lovecraft’s description of it, and the monstrosity of the entity is thereby magnified, since it is a rare occasion during which words, even of the most skillful author, can match the apparitions that one’s imagination can conjure out of fear. Lovecraft’s description is accomplished in the same manner as he creates, maintains, and heightens the mystery and the suspense of the story itself: he portrays it piecemeal, describing only this feature or that feature of its overall appearance and leaves much of the monster in the dark, so to speak. At the same time, by having previously supplied the reader with an array of possibilities as to the nature of the antagonist (ghost, demon, monster with fangs and claws), he has provided some possibilities from which the reader may piece together the rest of the entity, which is likely to be some conglomeration of these alternatives. Later, Lovecraft’s protagonist will offer readers yet another description, different than those that he has supplied already.

Part four of the story links the mountaintop mansion to the surrounding countryside in which the “nameless thing’s” attacks occur. When the protagonist, visiting the site at which the seventy-five squatters had been killed by the monster a few days before, he discovers “odd mounds and hummocks of the region” which are like “tentacles” radiating from the Martense mansion. He digs into the side of one of these mounds, finding a tunnel that he follows back to the house, intent upon finding its origin, and, outside the mansion, near its chimney, he locates a hole, out of which rushes not one, by thousands, of the monsters he hunts, looking, again, different both from the shadow that the protagonist saw on the chimney inside Jan Martense’s bedroom and the eyes and claw he saw inside the tunnel. At first, the fiendish creature seems to have no specific shape: “from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life--a loathsome night spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress--streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death.” However, after the protagonist shoots one of the things, he sees that it does have an appearance similar to that of a familiar creature. It resembles an ape or a gorilla, but one that is terribly deformed: “The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life.” The fiendish creature is, the protagonist realizes, with almost palatable horror, a descendant of the Martenses themselves: “It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.”

The mystery of the monster is solved, but the reader must fit together the pieces of the puzzle that Lovecraft’s protagonist-narrator has provided, piecemeal, throughout the story, resolving apparent discrepancies and contradictions for him- or herself, which makes the story more intriguing than it might have been had the author done this work on the reader’s behalf. In doing so, the reader is apt to conclude, from the story’s hints at incest and cannibalism and the once-wealthy family’s descent into poverty before they’d abandoned the house that, as a result of incestuous intermarriages over generations, the family’s descendants have mutated into a starving, cannibalistic clan who are dependent upon human flesh for their sustenance and have, therefore, dug the “tentacles” of tunnels as a means of stalking the squatters and other inhabitants of the surrounding countryside, whom the mutants kill and feed upon. Perhaps the storms enrage them. Certainly, at times, the storms provide the cover of darkness, except during intermittent flashes of lightning, and they are violent enough to require that people seek shelter indoors, where they are trapped. Appearing abruptly from their hidden tunnels, the mutated cannibals seem, at various times to various victims, to be ghosts or demons or monsters most notable for their bright eyes and hideous claws.

Lovecraft, however, leaves it to his readers to figure out the mystery of the horror that his protagonist, as narrator, has described, and, although Lovecraft has provided all the necessary clues, he has done so not only in a piecemeal fashion, but also in a manner that seems to be ambiguous and even contradictory, multiplying possible alternatives and explanations instead of eliminating them, which complicates and enriches the elements of horror and terror while, at the same time, making it more difficult for the reader to solve the mystery. When his protagonist suggests a resolution, it accounts for the many bizarre incidents, and, in that sense, satisfies the logic but, at the same time, does not alleviate the story’s horror and, in fact, may elevate it. In the hands of a lesser writer, a narrative of this sort, might have proved overwhelming, but Lovecraft is one of the great names in the genre, and, in “The Lurking Fear” (despite the inferior art on the cover of the anthology that contains this narrative “and other stories”), he has written another tour de force.

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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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