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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Nature of the Beast

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu

Adam Smith points out, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that, President Bill Clinton’s claim to “feel your pain” notwithstanding, people can know only their own feelings. To the extent that an individual empathizes and sympathizes with another, he or she does so only vicariously, by imaginatively putting him- or herself in the other’s place. The ability to identify with other people, only if imaginatively, creates a sense of community as a “fellow-feeling” develops, which allows people to regard others as their kith and kin. Occasionally (and usually to their regret) people project their own feelings onto animals, including bears, gorillas, and lions, regarding them as their fellows as well. Something of such a fellow-feeling between humans and animals may be evident in the half-human, half-animal hybrid creatures of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Indian mythologies.

When an animal attacks, without warning, as wild animals are wont to do, people who have invested the animals with personalities similar to their own are sometimes at a loss to account for the beasts’ apparent betrayal. Other times, such individuals make an attempt to psychoanalyze the animal, as a female diver did after the whale she was petting, gripping her leg in its mouth, dove to a depth of approximately fifty feet before releasing her, and, short on oxygen, she barely made it back to the surface of the water. The whale, she believed, was annoyed at her for her invading its personal space. In past times, animals have even been condemned and executed for the “crimes” they committed against individuals, and in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab stalks the great white whale that bit off his leg.

It may be that people prefer anthropomorphism to the truth that animals are not people and, therefore, do not aspire, believe, doubt, feel, imagine, or think as people do. Although animals are definitely sentient and may be capable of limited cognition, including the ability to experience emotions to a degree, they are obviously not as sophisticated as even a young child in their ability to engage in complex, prolonged cognitive processes. Most animals do not have opposable thumbs, of course, which is a serious handicap, no doubt, in using (or even manufacturing) tools, but there are many other obstacles to their creation, maintaining, and developing art, science, and the other accoutrements of culture. No matter how fond one may be of one’s goldfish, hamster, guinea pig, rat, snake, canary, cat, dog, pot-bellied pig, or horse, the animal is not going to write a symphony to rival one by Johann Sebastian Bach, devise an invention to rival Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb, or put one of their own on the moon.

Animals are not human. By nature--even by definition--they are other-than-human, the closest approximation that we have to the extraterrestrial biological entities of science fiction and horror, as alien as the great gelatinous mass of The Blob or H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. We cannot put ourselves in their places, because they are not the same as we; they are not our equals in consciousness, memory, cognition, imagination, emotion, or any other mental process. In short, they are as William Butler Yeats describes the “rough beast” that, in “The Second Coming,” “slouches. . . towards Bethlehem to be born,” its “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun.” Anyone who has ever studied the eye of a rattlesnake, an eagle, or a tiger knows the gaze that Yeats describes. It is unnerving precisely because of its inhumanity. The eyes, for men and women, may be “mirrors of the soul,” but animals have no souls to mirror, which is the very reason that their “blank and pitiless” stare is horrible and terrifying to us. Their gaze proves, to the intuition, if not to reason, that the animal is other-than-human and that it may be dangerous. There is no “fellow-feeling” between a man or a woman and a serpent, a hawk, or a lion for the simple reason that there cannot be. Therefore, beasts are dreadful.

Poets know this, as Yeats’ description of his poem’s “rough beast” shows. Emily Dickinson knows, too, the alien nature of the animal, as her poem about the “narrow fellow in the grass” whose presence leaves her “zero at the bone” shows. D. H. Lawrence also knows the alien nature of the serpent, as his poem, “The Snake,” indicates. Steve Irwin believed that he knew animals, although he was never sentimental enough to suppose that they feel as he felt or think as he thought. He loved the beasts of the field and the forest, the air and the sea, but, the moment he was careless, he paid with his life, a stingray’s barb through his heart, and Roy, of the Las Vegas magic act billed as “Sigfried and Roy,” was mauled by the white tiger that the duo used in their act, despite his love for the great cat.

It is the otherness of animals' nature that compels horror writers to use them--or parts of them, such as their fangs, their claws, their scales, their wings, their impervious hides, to describe monsters. By assigning animal characteristics to human beings, such writers reverse the process of which Smith writes, causing readers to alienate themselves from the monster who is too unlike them, fanged and clawed as these monsters are, to allow identification and sympathy. There can be no fondness, no fellow-feeling, no trust between the human and the other-than-human, because whatever is inaccessible to the imagination is beyond empathy. This is true despite the fact that some people--the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers and Adolph Hitlers and Saddam Husseins among us--are worse than any lion, tiger, or bear, oh, my. Therefore, in science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, readers may continue to expect such monsters as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the ape-like mutants of “The Lurking Fear,” the gigantic spider of It and The Lord of the Rings, and the human-animal-alien hybrids of the thousands of horror stories, in print and on film, that have been are, and are to come.

Since the days of Job, when God asked his loyal servant whether he’d considered Leviathan and his ways, such has been the nature of the beast.

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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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