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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Leftover Plots, Part III

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

As a result of considering “leftover plots” or plot-seeds or springboards or whatever we choose to call narrative motifs that occur in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we identified several additional storylines that could have been used in the series or (better yet, for us) that we ourselves, with some revision regarding characters, setting, and other narrative elements, could employ to write horror stories (or even novels) ourselves:
  • An imprisoned character can escape, causing more mischief or even a little death and destruction before being killed or imprisoned again.
  • Things that give rise to new organisms or liberate forces or entities, such as eggs, seeds, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, melting icebergs, shifting tectonic plates, earthbound meteors, and the like, can introduce new characters, including such worthy adversaries as hideous, horrible monsters.
  • Problematic characters, such as a naïve, incompetent, or foolish follower or sidekick can create havoc and endanger lives.
  • Physical objects, or artifacts, can function as inciting moments that spark a chain of narrative incidents, setting the rest of the story in motion.
We also learned some important factual matters pertaining to this technique:

  • Ideas cannot be copyrighted, so they are fair game as inspirations for plots.
  • The specific and unique ways in which ideas are developed can be, and often are, copyrighted. Using the characters, settings, and other elements of such treatments could constitute plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
  • Ideas must be given an original treatment in which characters, settings, and other elements are new, not derivative.
We learned, further, in the second post in this series, that several Buffy plots deal with xenophobia, or the fear of strangers and that, to enhance the mystique of the stranger, the series’ writers used such techniques--okay, they can be called “tricks,” if one prefers to think of them in this way--as these:

  • A possible threat. (Is the mysterious Angel stalking Buffy?)
  • Romantic intrigue AND star-crossed love. (Buffy no sooner meets Angel than they’ve become a couple, but, since he is, as she soon learns, a vampire, and she’s the slayer, theirs will be star-crossed, to say the least.)
  • Juxtapositions. The past (as represented by print-bound books) and the present (as represented by computers and cyberspace) meet, and they don’t get along all that well. Good (Buffy) and evil (Angel and the other vampires) represent two moral extremes. The natural, everyday world of Sunnydale and its citizens’ mundane lives are set against the supernatural world of their vampire foes. Life, as it is lived by Buffy and her friends, is contrasted with the life-in-death state in which the vampires exist, a hedonistic world of the senses and of passions that are cut off from such roots as love and compassion.
  • Similarity of themes. Buffy often explores a theme from several perspectives. For example, Willow, whose love for Xander remains unrequited because of his love for Buffy, which is also unrequited because Buffy loves Angel, leaves Willow lonely, as does Marcie’s neglect by her peers. In each instance, the characters’ loneliness leads them to foolish actions. In Willow’s case, she is saved by her friends, to whose circle she returns. Marcie, having no friends, becomes a ward of the state, so to speak, after Buffy rescues Cordelia and defeats Marcie. Although it may not cure one’s loneliness altogether, friendship, such thematic treatments suggest, is the tie that not only binds but also saves one from a perfunctory, institutional existence as a ward of, and a servant to, the state.
  • Animation of inanimate objects. This is a motif that is popular in fantasy fiction, including the horror and the science fiction genres. The animation of inanimate objects, whether through magical or technological means, is a subtype of the artifact plot device, in which an object, whether a ring (Lord of the Rings), a crystal (The Dark Crystal), or even a spaceship (Rendezvous with Rama) or some other object is the artifact.
  • Trauma’s consequences. As child abuse, spousal abuse, torture, combat and other mistreatment or crisis situations have shown, trauma has long-, if not life-long, consequences and can cause recurring nightmares, acts of violence, and other disturbed behavior.
  • Duty’s duty. Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons which reason does not know.” So has duty. Even when there is no logically defensible reason to do so, the claim of duty often holds, especially when altruism, or even self-sacrifice, are directed at protecting others, more helpless than oneself, about whom one cares. Buffy dies that others may live, and, in doing so, she underscores the supreme values of brotherly love, courage, and that pesky pest, duty.

In this post, we’re going to consider how strong supporting characters can suggest plots that could be developed further in additional stories, or, in the case of Angel, even an entire additional series of stories.

One of the many strengths of the Buffy series is its writers’ development of strong characters who are not only individualized and sympathetic, but who also seem like actual people instead of merely a collection of so many personality traits that behave in a predictable fashion. These characters are springboards to action and, since many recur (and others could recur) in later episodes, they represent springboards (or possible springboards) to additional plots.

Angel, who is also known (particularly when he’s in his evil-vampire, as opposed to his vampire-with-a-soul mode) as Angelus, is a strong character because he suffers and because he switches back and forth between his evil-vampire and his vampire-with-a-soul modes, thereby complexifying both the series’ action and his relationships with other characters, especially Buffy. A lazy and irresponsible youth, Angel wants to see the world, and when a beautiful young noblewoman offers him the opportunity to do so, he accepts, whereupon, transforming into a vampire, she bites him, sucking his blood before, cutting herself across the breast, she shares her own vital fluid with him. He becomes a vampire, losing his soul. With no conscience to inhibit his actions, he kills his parents and his younger sister before psychologically tormenting a young woman named Drusilla by killing her family and, on the night she’s to take vows to become a nun, transforming her into one of the undead, causing her, at last, to lose her sanity as well as her soul. As Angel tells Buffy, for over two hundred years, he has committed one terrible deed after another, “with a song in my heart.” To punish him for killing one of their daughters, a gypsy tribe’s sorceress curses Angel by restoring his soul, and he feels tremendous remorse for the many unconscionable deeds he’s committed. He also falls in love with Buffy. Because of this love, and because he hopes to redeem himself, Angel assists her in defeating demons, vampires, and the other creatures of darkness who come crawling out of the Hellmouth each week. However, the curse is later lifted (before being restored), so that he goes back and forth between good and evil, now a friend, now an enemy, who is both a blessing and a curse to Buffy and her friends, reaching a low point in his murder of Buffy’s mentor’s girlfriend, Jenny Calendar. Angel was such a rich and complex character that he became the protagonist on his own series, Angel, in a spin off from Buffy.

Beautiful Cordelia Chase is the snobby rich girl and a natural foil to Buffy. Concerned, always, with image and the latest fashion, Cordelia appears shallow and facile, but, like the other characters in the series, she turns out to be full of surprises. Initially, she detests Xander Harris, a member of Buffy’s circle of friends, as a gauche, unsophisticated zero. Despite his good looks, hilarious sense of humor, and fearlessness, Cordelia avoids him like the plague, not wanting to be seen in his presence. When, stalked by an assassin with supernatural powers, they are trapped in Buffy’s basement, facing a common threat, and their apparent mutual hatred is revealed to mask a reciprocal attraction, as yet another argument between them ends in a passionate kiss that ignites a sizzling relationship--at least until Xander cozies up to Willow Rosenberg. Cordelia is not an entirely sympathetic character, but, because of her audacious arrogance, her spunk, her sarcastic sense of humor, her extreme sense of entitlement, and her in-your-face narcissism, she’s a character whom viewers loved to hate. Later, after her father is imprisoned for income tax evasion, leaving his family much less well off financially, and Cordelia is reduced to working for her spending money, her character softens, and she becomes more likeable. Although she isn’t a sympathetic enough character, even then, to carry her own series, she does leave Sunnydale, moving to Los Angeles, to seek an acting career in order to be a supporting character in the new Angel series.

Willow, Buffy’s confidante, is a witch whose powers develop over the span of the Buffy series until, in the fifth season, she has become a force with which to be reckoned. A shy, retiring, somewhat naive wallflower early in the series, she has a crush on Xander (who has a yen for Buffy, who likes Angel). Later, she discovers that she prefers her own sex and has a relationship with Tara Maclay that ends when Tara is killed by Buffy’s enemies. Thereafter, Willow has a relationship with a “potential slayer,” Kennedy. Between lesbian lovers, Willow has a relationship with Oz, a guitarist in a local band, Dingoes Ate My Baby, who becomes a werewolf when his infant werewolf cousin, Jordy, bites him. Unable to control his transformation, and fearing for Willow’s safety, Oz leaves Sunnydale to seek a cure for his condition. In his absence, Willow, now enrolled in college, meets Tara, discovering her lesbian proclivities. Willow, a sweet personality, is also a rich, complex character and, because of her witchcraft, could have been successful as a protagonist of her own series, were Charmed, a series about young adult witches not already on the air.

Even Buffy’s mentor, the Watcher Rupert Giles, is (or was, at one time) to receive a series of his own, possibly to be called Ripper. (The status of the show is unclear at the moment.) Dressed in button-down shirts, subdued neckties, and three-piece tweed suits, complete with handkerchief, wearing glasses, and taking tea in his office, the Sunnydale High School librarian (formerly of the British Museum), Giles is the stereotypical stoic, stiff-upper-lip, repressed Englishman--or so, at first, he appears. However, like most of the characters in Buffy, he has a complex back story that adds shades and nuances to his inner self. As a defiant and rebellious youth, Giles resisted his calling to become a member of the Watchers’ Council, which identifies, trains, counsels, and otherwise mentors slayers. As a university student, Giles became a warlock, joining a group of sorcerers (much as Willow, in college, joined a coven). They performed a ritual to summons a demon, which appeared, and has been stalking them, individually, ever since, killing them one by one. Giles blames himself for the deaths. It was partly as a result of the guilt he feels that he accepted his responsibilities as a Watcher, becoming Buffy’s mentor. After the Buffy series ended, its creator, Joss Whedon, spoke with the actor, Anthony Stewart Head, who played Giles, about reprising his role, but as a Watcher, but one who is now semi-retired, living again in England, and investigates paranormal and supernatural incidents. The series’ theme, Whedon said, would be loneliness, exploring how a man alone copes with life on his own. At present, the projected story is said to be still a possibility, although as a motion picture, rather than as a television series, to be aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

One more example suggests, again, how characters who are given a rich back story, solid development, and sophisticated treatment can be used to initiate, sustain, and further develop plots in an ongoing series of stories. In “Lie To Me,” an insecure, rather pitiful, young blonde who survives by becoming a hanger-on of others who appear, at least, to be abler than she is of meeting life’s responsibilities and challenges, joins a cult of wannabe vampires, calling herself, in this, her latest incarnation, Chanterelle. Buffy arrives to save the cult from becoming the feeding ground of real vampires, led by Spike, and Chanterelle shows up again in “Anne,” having moved to Los Angeles, where she is going by the name of Lily and is dating a young man named Ricky. Buffy has moved to Los Angeles after running away from home in Sunnydale, unable to cope with having to send Angel to hell. Despite having renounced her role as the slayer, Buffy assists Lily in trying to find Ricky, and, when Buffy’s life is endangered, Lily foregoes her milquetoast manner to shove a demon off a platform and save the day (and Buffy), thereby gaining autonomy and a modicum of confidence. Before returning to Sunnydale, Buffy allows Lily to take on another name--Buffy’s middle name, Anne--and lets her stay in the motel room that Buffy had rented for another few weeks. Chanterelle-Lily-Anne never appears in another Buffy episode, but she could have, had she returned to Sunnydale or Buffy visited Los Angeles again. Therefore, like many of the other characters in the series, Anne represents what could have been a catalyst for another Buffy plot.

A problem that many viewers and critics have concerning the series is that, despite the richness and complexity of many--even most--of its characters, the writers, particularly under the supervision of Marti Noxon, tended to become too melodramatic and to forego interesting and believable (within the terms of the show’s own mythos) dramatic situations and character development in favor of cheap, maudlin characterization and dramatic spectacle--in other words, to take the easy way out rather than to go for the throat. There’s no question that the series suffered after its third season, going steadily downhill thereafter, until its seventh and final year, when even many of its diehard fans had given up on the show. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s to always strive for the gold, never settling for just something--anything--to fill the airwaves. Unfortunately, under the inept direction of Noxon, who seems to be more a craftsman than an artist, well versed in all things metaphorical, symbolic, and tawdry without having a clearly defined idea of drama or even the simplest notions of what really makes people tick, the show suffered a long, slow, and painful demise when it could have ended on the same note of astonishment and success on which it started and which it maintained, more or less consistently, until Whedon made the fatal error of turning the show’s reins over to an unaccomplished horsewoman. Part of a storyteller’s art is knowing how much is enough and when to quit. (In fairness to Noxon, she is the author of some of the better episodes in the series. She is a better writer than she is a producer and, as such, another indication of the truth of the Peter Principle.)

Note: One of the intriguing things about Buffy is that many of its characters were recurring, if not regular, members of the cast. Some started out with small parts which developed into larger roles. Others, such as Amy Madison, and Giles’ fellow warlock from his college days, Ethan Rayne, remained fairly static, but reappeared when the plot required someone to get the narrative ball rolling. Indeed, several of the show’s female characters were played by actresses who’d auditioned for the part of the show’s protagonist but were not selected: Amy Madison (Elizabeth Anne Allen), Darla (Julie Benz), and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), and Danny Strong, who tried out for the role of Xander received the recurring role of Jonathan. Whedon made the most of all the actors’ talents, assigning lesser, but significant, parts to those who didn’t make the cut for the series’ main character or major supporting characters, thereby capitalizing upon the strong acting abilities of the runners-up, which isn’t often the case in television. As a result, lesser characters were played by skillful actors whose abilities were already known as a result of their having auditioned for other roles.

Having considered only a few of the lessons to be learned from a consideration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, we’ll revisit the topic of “Leftover Plots” in future installments.

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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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