Sunday, April 27, 2008
Note: In Graham’s Magazine (May, 18842, pp. 298-300, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) Twice-Told Tales, an anthology, published in 1837, which, among others, contains the following short stories: “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” “Wakefield,” “The Great Carbuncle,” “The Hollow if the Three Hills,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” and “The Ambitious Guest.” The tales were reprints of earlier publications. Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales follows.
We said a few hurried words about Mr. Hawthorne in our last number, with the design of speaking more fully in the present. We are still, however, pressed for room, and must necessarily discuss his volumes more briefly and more at random than their high merits deserve.
The book professes to be a collection of tales, yet is, in two respects, misnamed. These pieces are now in their third publication, and, of course, are thrice-told. Moreover, they are by no means all tales, either in the ordinary or in the legitimate understanding of the term. Many of them are pure essays, for example, "Sights from a Steeple," "Sunday; Home," "Little Annie's Ramble," "A Rill from the Town Pump," "The Toll-Gatherer's Day," "The Haunted Mind," "The Sister Years," "Snow-Flakes," "Night Sketches," and "Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore." We mention these matters chiefly on account of their discrepancy with that marked precision and finish by which the body of the work is distinguished.
Of the essays just named, we must be content to speak briefly. They are each and all beautiful, without being characterized by the polish and adaptation so visible in the tales proper. A painter would at once note their leading or predominant feature, and style it repose. There is no attempt at effect. All is quiet, thoughtful, subdued. Yet this repose may exist simultaneously with high originality of thought; and Mr. Hawthorne has demonstrated the fact. At every turn we meet with novel combinations; yet these combinations never surpass the limits of the quiet. We are soothed as we read; and withal is a calm astonishment that ideas so apparently obvious have never occurred or been presented to us before. Herein our author differs materially from Lamb or Hunt or Hazlitt--who, with vivid originality of manner and expression, have less of the true novelty of thought than is general supposed, and whose originality, at best, has an uneasy or meretricious quaintness, replete with startling effects unfounded in nature, and inducing trains of reflection which lead to no satisfactory result. The essays of Hawthorne have much of the character of Irving, with more of originality, and less of finish; while, compared with the Spectator, they have vast superiority at all points. The Spectator, Mr. Irving, and Mr. Hawthorne have in common that tranquil and subdued manner which we have chosen to denominate repose; but, the case of the two former, this repose is attained rather by the absence of novel combination, or of originality, than otherwise, and consists chiefly in the calm, quiet, unostentatious expression of commonplace thoughts, in an unambitious unadulterated Saxon. In them, by strong effort, we are made to conceive the absence of all. In the essays before us the absence of effort is too obvious to be mistaken, and a strong undercurrent of suggestion runs continuously beneath the upper stream of the tranquil thesis. In short, these effusions of Mr. Hawthorne are the product of a truly imaginative intellect, restrained, and in some measure repressed, by fastidiousness of taste, by constitutional melancholy and by indolence.
But it is of his tales that we desire principally to speak. The tale proper, in our opinion, affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose. Were we bidden to say how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers, we should answer, without hesitation--in the composition of a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour. Within this limit alone can the highest order of true poetry exist. We need only here say, upon this topic, that, in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting. We may continue the reading of a prose composition, from the very nature of prose itself, much longer than we can persevere, to any good purpose, in the perusal of a poem. This latter, if truly fulfilling the demands of the poetic sentiment, induces an exaltation of the soul which cannot be long sustained. All high excitements are necessarily transient. Thus a long poem is a paradox. And, without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about. Epics were the Spring of an imperfect sense of Art, and their reign is no more. A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort--without a certain duration or repetition of purpose--the soul is never deeply moved. There must be the water upon the rock. De Beranger has things--pungent and spirit-stirring--but, like all immassive bodies, they lack momentum, and thus fail to satisfy the Poetic Sentiment. They sparkle and excite, but, from want of continuity, fail deeply to impress. Extreme brevity will degenerate into epigrammatism; but the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable. In medio tutissimus ibis.
Were we called upon however to designate that class of composition which, next to such a poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius--should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion--we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale, as Mr. Hawthorne has here exemplified it. We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control. There are no external or extrinsic influences--resulting from weariness or interruption.
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents--he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.
We have said that the tale has a point of superiority even over the poem. In fact, while the rhythm of this latter is an essential aid in the development of the poem's highest idea--the idea of the Beautiful--the artificialities of this rhythm are an inseparable bar to the development of all points of thought or expression which have their basis in Truth. But Truth is often, and in very great degree, the aim of the tale. Some of the finest tales are tales of ratiocination. Thus the field of this species of composition, if not in so elevated a region on the mountain of Mind, is a table-land of far vaster extent than the domain of the mere poem. Its products are never so rich, but infinitely more numerous, and more appreciable by the mass of mankind. The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression--(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude of course, to rhythm. It may be added, here, par parenthese, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points. And here it will be seen how full of prejudice are the usual animadversions against those tales of effect many fine examples of which were found in the earlier numbers of Blackwood. The impressions produced were wrought in a legitimate sphere of action, and constituted a legitimate although sometimes an exaggerated interest. They were relished by every man of genius: although there were found many men of genius who condemned them without just ground. The true critic will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable.
We have very few American tales of real merit--we may say, indeed, none, with the exception of "The Tales of a Traveller" of Washington Irving, and these "Twice-Told Tales" of Mr. Hawthorne. Some of the pieces of Mr. John Neal abound in vigor and originality; but in general, his compositions of this class are excessively diffuse, extravagant, and indicative of an imperfect sentiment of Art. Articles at random are, now and then, met with in our periodicals which might be advantageously compared with the best effusions of the British Magazines; but, upon the whole, we are far behind our progenitors in this department of literature.
Of Mr. Hawthorne's Tales we would say, emphatically, that they belong to the highest region of Art--an Art subservient to genius of a very lofty order. We had supposed, with good reason for so supposing, that he had been thrust into his present position by one of the impudent cliques which beset our literature, and whose pretensions it is our full purpose to expose at the earliest opportunity; but we have been most agreeably mistaken. We Know of few compositions which the critic can more honestly commend then these Twice-Told Tales." As Americans, we feel proud of the book.
Mr. Hawthorne's distinctive trait is Invention, creation, imagination, originality--a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest. But the nature of originality, so far as regards its manifestation in letters, is but imperfectly understood. The inventive or original mind as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter. Mr. Hawthorne is original at all points.
It would be a matter of some difficulty to designate the best of these tales; we repeat that, without exception, they are beautiful. "Wakefield" is remarkable for the skill with which an old idea--a well-known incident--is worked up or discussed. A man of whims conceives the purpose of quitting his wife and residing incognito, for twenty years, in her immediate neighborhood. Something of this kind actually happened in London. The force of Mr. Hawthorne's tale lies m the analysis of the motives which must or might have impelled the husband to such folly, in the first instance, with the possible causes of his perseverance. Upon this thesis a sketch of singular power has been constructed.
"The Wedding Knell" is full of the boldest imagination--an imagination fully controlled by taste. The most captious critic could find no flaw in this production.
"The Minister's Black Veil" is a masterly composition of in which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye, (having reference to the "young lady") has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.
"Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" is vividly original and managed most dexterously.
"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is exceedingly well imagined, and executed with surpassing ability. The artist breathes in every line of it.
"The White Old Maid" is objectionable, even more than the "Minister's Black Veil," on the score of its mysticism Even with the thoughtful and analytic, there will be much trouble in penetrating its entire import.
"The Hollow of the Three Hills" we would quote in full, had we space;--not as evincing higher talent than any of the other pieces, but as affording an excellent example of the author s peculiar ability. The subject is common-place. A witch subjects the Distant and the Past to the view of a mourner. It has been the fashion to describe, in such cases, a mirror in which the images of the absent appear; or a cloud of smoke is made to arise, and thence the figures are gradually unfolded. Mr. Hawthorne has wonderfully heightened his effect by making the ear, in place of the eye, the medium by which the fantasy Is conveyed. The head of the mourner is enveloped m the cloak of the witch, and within its magic folds there arise sounds which have an all-sufficient intelligence. Throughout this article also, the artist is conspicuous--not more in positive than in negative merits. Not only is all done that should be done, but (what perhaps is an end with more difficulty attained) there is nothing done which should not be. Every word tells, and there is not a word which does not tell.
In "Howe's Masquerade" we observe something which resembles a plagiarism--but which may he a very flattering coincidence of thought. We quote the passage in question.
"With a dark flush of wrath upon his brow they saw the general draw his sword and advance to meet the figure in the cloak before the latter had stepped one pace upon the floor.
" 'Villain, unmuff le yourself ' cried he, 'you pass no farther!'
"The figure, without blenching a hair's breadth from the sword which was pointed at his breast, made a solemn pause, and lowered the cape of the cloak from his face, yet not sufficiently for the spectators to catch a glimpse of it. But Sir William Howe had evidently seen enough. The sternness of his countenance gave place to a look of wild amazement, if not horror, while he recoiled several steps from the figure, and let fall his sword upon the floor."--See vol. 2, page 20.
The idea here is, that the figure in the cloak is the phantom or reduplication of Sir William Howe; but in an article called "William Wilson," one of the "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque," we have not only the same idea, but the same idea similarly presented in several respects. We quote two paragraphs, which our readers may compare with what has been already given. We have italicized, above, the immediate particulars of resemblance.
"The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangement at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, it appeared to me, now stood where none had been perceptible before: and as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced with a feeble and tottering gait to meet me.
"Thus it appeared I say, but was not. It was Wilson, who then stood before me in the agonies of dissolution. Not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of that face which was not even identically mine own. His mask and cloak lay where he had thrown them' upon the floor."--Vol. 2. p. 57.
Here it will be observed that, not only are the two general conceptions identical, but there are various points of similarity. In each case the figure seen is the wraith or duplication of the beholder. In each case the scene is a masquerade. In each case the figure is cloaked. In each, there is a quarrel -- that is to say, angry words pass between the parties. In each the beholder is enraged. In each the cloak and sword fall upon the floor. The "villain, unmuffle yourself," of Mr. H. is precisely paralleled by a passage at page 56 of "William Wilson."
In the way of objection we have scarcely a word to say of these tales. There is, perhaps, a somewhat too general or prevalent tone--a tone of melancholy and mysticism.. The subjects are insufficiently varied. There is not so much of versatility evinced as we might well be warranted in expecting from the high powers of Mr. Hawthorne. But beyond these trivial exceptions we have really none to make. The style is purity itself. Force abounds. High imagination gleams from every page. Mr. Hawthorne is a man of the truest genius. We only regret that the limits of our Magazine will not permit us to pay him that full tribute of commendation, which, under other circumstances, we should be so eager to pay.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
In previous posts, we have provided not only a justification for horror fiction but also several ideas as to its value beyond that of entertainment per se. This post discusses a similar, but broader, topic in an attempt to offer, if not the answer, at least an answer to the question of what is at the heart of fiction in general (and, consequently, of horror fiction in particular).
The answer--or an answer, at any rate--is mystery.
Mystery not in the sense that writers of mystery and detective fiction use it, but mystery in the sense that philosophers, theologians, and mystics use it. In this sense, mystery touches upon meaning and, if one sees teleology in the workings of the universe, probably, upon purpose, both of which (meaning and purpose) touch, in turn, upon value.
For some, life is invested with meaning by the creator, and this meaning is infinite and eternal. For others, life has no meaning but that which each individual imparts to his or her existence. For these folks--existentialists, for the most part--this meaning is not only finite and temporal, but it is also elusive. For others still--the absurdists, we may call them--life has no meaning. It is nothing more than a cosmic accident in which blind chance, rather than God’s will or personal choice, determines what becomes of all persons, places, and things.
Like any other genre of literature, horror is adaptable to any of these points of view, depending upon the writer’s worldview and that which his narrator adopts. Because it is so adaptable to even something as fundamental as one’s Weltanschauung, literature, horror fiction included, can address the widest array of natural, social, historical, psychological, philosophical, and theological considerations. There is room in the inn for all.
No single book, whether of science, sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, religion, or theology, can give a definitive answer to the great questions of human existence to which all will agree. Literature, however, is not this book or that book, but all books (and movies, too, for that matter). It is not only the stream of human consciousness, but the sea of knowledge and the mountaintops of wisdom and understanding as well--and the depths of the unconscious mind and the pathways to the stars. Literature is a telescope, a microscope, and a looking-glass, all in one. It is a catalogue of visions, complete with themes, or lessons, or morals.
In one story, a man may come to believe in God. In other, a man of God may lose his faith. A story may recount a knight in search of the Holy Grail, the chalice being a symbol for faith or, perhaps, for only the will to believe. A story may explain--or seek to explain--why there is no God or to show that the only gods that exist are the ones we make in our own images.
That’s what the mystery comes to, in the end. God is at the center, or, alternatively, nothing is at the center, of life. If God, he gives to existence the meaning he decrees it shall have. If nothing, either we impose meaning upon the world and upon ourselves or there is no meaning.
Horror fiction doesn’t solve the mystery of existence, nor does it demonstrate the purpose or value of life, any more than any other literary genre does. Thank God or goodness! For, if the mystery were solved, what would there be to write about? The wonder, the awe, the possibilities of existence would end. The stories would become The Story, advancing not another way of seeing or thinking or believing or hoping but simply another reiteration of the constant, unvarying refrain, and a refrain, beautiful and informative though it may be, is not a story.
How does the mystery of existence pertain, specifically, to horror fiction?
This genre addresses itself to the dark side of life, to evil and suffering, to what the Bible has called “the mystery of iniquity.” Evil is as mysterious, in its way, as life itself, for there seems to be no need for evil and no desire for it, among the normal and the sane, at least, and, yet, it exists; it persists. No one knows what to make of it. The ancients thought that it was either the result of ignorance or the result of merely negating the good. In other words, it was an act of the uneducated or it was a sin of omission. Evil was a passive phenomenon, in such conceptions, unable to do much by itself. History has since taught humanity a different lesson, not only with the holocaust, although the holocaust of itself might be a sufficient lesson--and is a sufficient lesson to those who are neither stupid nor of ill will toward others. Therefore, the question remains, Why is there such a thing as evil, and why does it persist?
Horror considers just such a mystery--“the mystery of iniquity”--and the great among its many authors have given, each his or her own, answer. None is definitive, but each is, as it were, a part of the gigantic jigsaw puzzle that is the heart of horror. In “Evil Is As Evil Does,” we mention the thoughts--or the conclusions--upon this matter of several masters of horror fiction. Is the search for the answer--or even an answer--to the question as to why evil exists itself a fruitful or a fruitless quest? The answer to this question must be answered by each individual, but we have suggested our own view concerning this question in the post “Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear.”
In this post, we are satisfied to conclude with just a syllogism, the validity of which is to be determined as you see fit:
All phenomena have a cause or causes.
Evil is a phenomenon.
Therefore, evil has a cause or causes.
In the movie Ed Gein, the protagonist (one can’t really call Ed a “hero”) disgusts everyone else at the table of the family who’s invited him to dinner by explaining the phenomenon known as slippage, which is, basically, the flaking or sloughing off of skin from the cadaver as a result of the unimpeded activity of bacteria on the skin.
Scientists don't generally have the same sort of first-hand experience as Ed had, so, to investigate the rate of decomposition under various circumstances, they operate body farms in a number of states. On such farms, corpses are buried in different types of soil or half buried or left fully exposed to the elements so as to demonstrate the time that it takes for various states of decay to occur. Insect infestation of the corpse (known as the “colonization” of the body) is also studied (a field, should you or your children or grandchildren be interested in joining its ranks) which is known as forensic etomology.
According to the experts in this discipline, blowflies are the first to take an interest in the remains, arriving “within minutes of death.” Opportunists, these flies deposit their eggs in wounds and body orifices and cavities, including the dearly departed one’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Within three days, these eggs hatch into maggots, which feed upon the body’s banquet of “soft tissues.” Forensic etomologists use these insects as timepieces to determine the time of death, as “Forensic Etomology” points out:
Since each Calliphorid species has a characteristic temperature-dependent growth rate, the larvae can be regarded as a biological stopwatch that starts ticking shortly after the victim dies. Forensic entomologists learn to read this stopwatch by determining which insect species are present and how far they have progressed toward adulthood. With good records of ambient temperature, the post-mortem interval (time elapsed since death) can be calculated to within a few hours, even when death may have occurred 2-3 weeks previously.Moreover, although neither blowflies nor their maggoty offspring are likely to have graduated from the Harvard School of Medicine, they can also tell scientists a thing or two about wounds and toxicology and offer even detectives a clue or two about whether the body was ambulatory--hopefully not under its own power--after its demise:
In addition to post-mortem interval, fly larvae can also reveal other important information about a crime:
- Wounds--blow fly larvae cannot penetrate undamaged skin. An infestation inside the chest or abdomen would suggest the possibility of a bullet hole or a stab wound.
- Movement--Since local conditions (e.g. sun or shade, urban or rural) affect which species will colonize a corpse, it may be possible to determine whether or not a body has been moved since its death.
- Toxicology--drugs or toxins from a corpse may be detectable in fly larvae even after the body tissues are too decomposed for standard toxicological tests (“Forensic Etomology”).
As the body continues to decompose, it puts on a spread for other insects with different, if not more discerning palates: “As a body continues to decay, it goes through successive stages of decomposition. Each stage is associated with a distinctive type of insect fauna.”
The body bloats from the gases that build up inside it as a result of the bacteria that are feasting upon its “moribund tissues,” until the maggots, penetrating “body cavities. . . release the gas,” in three to five days, after which “maggots, flies, ants, and carrion beetles are abundant.” Once they have stripped most of the flesh from the bones, slippage is no longer a problem, as decay really sets in, and, although “the insect fauna becomes fewer in number but there is greater species diversity: carpet beetles, ants, skipper flies, and mites are common,” at least until the body dries and “becomes skeleton zed,” after which only “ants an mites” remain as tenants, residing in the bones for another two to three years.
Other factors, such as temperature, weather, humidity, and quicklime (if it happens to be present) speed or slow the rate of decay, but, in general, on the average, for those of you who are writing a horror story or a detective story, here’s a handy, of not dandy, timeline chronicling the stages (fresh, putrefaction, black putrefaction, butyric fermentation, and skeletonization) and time intervals of decay (“Decomposition“):
- Fresh: the body cools to room temperature, allowing bacteria to digest carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. Insects are first attracted to the remains
(“Decomposition”). Within a few hours of death, rigor mortis sets in, lasting about four days (Bellows).(First few days after death) “Decomposition”).
- Putrefaction: the body turns green as bacteria break down hemoglobin. Gases expel urine, other liquids, and feces from the body, and the mouth, lips, and tongue swell (Decomposition”). The abdomen and groin also swell (Bellows). The veins marbleize, red streaks along the vessels being succeeded by green streaks as bacteria cause the blood to hemolyze (“Decomposition”). Slippage occurs, and “over several days the spongy brain will liquefy and leak from the ears and mouth, while blisters form on the skin which eventually evolve into large, peeling sheets. Often the skin from the hand will slough off in one piece, an effect known as gloving” (Bellows). The green color darkens to brown. (First 10 days after death) (“Decomposition”).
- Black putrefaction: if “post-mortem flatulence” isn’t sufficient to release the gases inside the cadaver, the body cavity ruptures, releasing pent-up gases, and the corpse darkens further. Insects colonize the corpse (Bellows). This stage ends when the bones become apparent. (10 to 20 days after death) (“Decomposition”).
- Butyric fermentation: the body mummifies, drying out and loses its odor as adipocerous, or “grave wax,” a cheesy substance forms on the body. Insect activity has disposed of the internal organs (“Decomposition”).
- Skeletalization: this final period of decomposition may last years (“Decomposition”).
Bellows, Allan. "The Remains of Doctor Bass." Damn Interesting 290102007 260042008 http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=924.
"Decomposition." Wikipedia. 2008. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 26 Apr 2008.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decomposition
Meyer, John R.. "Forensic Entomology." General Entomology. 210012007. North Carolina State University. 26 Apr 2008 http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/course/ent425/text01/forensic.html.
“Everyday Horrors: Forensic Etomology and Putrefaction” is part of the series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.
Monday, April 21, 2008
One of the arguments for God’s existence is the teleological argument (also known as the argument from design), which claims that the intricate design evident in the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic levels, is proof that an omniscient and omnipotent God has created the universe. In other words, the order, purpose, and design that is obvious in nature shows that the universe is of a divine origin. This argument holds that the complexity, interrelatedness, and purposefulness of the universe could not have occurred as a result of chance or accident.
Among the counterarguments to the teleological argument is one that is known as “the problem of evil.” Observation shows that some incidents or conditions serve no discernable benefit but, instead, cause apparently unnecessary suffering. Examples are the suffering of animals, an infant with a birth defect, a toddler struck with cancer, an adult blinded or deafened or disfigured as a result of a natural catastrophe such as a fire, an earthquake, or a tornado. The problem of evil challenges the idea that a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God has created the universe, for if he knows all and can do anything, how could he, if he is also loving, permit such evils as suffering animals, birth defects, diseases, and natural catastrophes?
Horror fiction is a means of exploring this philosophical problem. Although, like philosophy and theology, this genre of literature does not offer any definitive answer to the question, it does suggest some partial answers and is a concrete way of demonstrating, or dramatizing, these answers.
As we pointed out in another post, “Evil Is As Evil Does,” various writers in the horror genre have attributed evil to various origins, Nathaniel Hawthorne ascribing it to sin; Edgar Allan Poe, to passion coupled with madness; H. P. Lovecraft, to cosmic indifference to humanity; Dean Koontz, to humanity’s indifference to humanity; Stephen King, to threats to the local community; and Bentley Little, to bureaucratic and administrative indifference to individuals.
Some of these writers see evil as a consequence of individuals’ exercise of free will, whether individually or collectively (sins of commission), in part, at least, whereas others see evil as an effect of indifference, either by humanity to humanity (a sin of omission) or by virtue of humanity’s existence within a universe that is indifferent to it.
Of these writers, Lovecraft seems closest in his analysis of evil to the view of the universe that is implicit in the problem of evil. Lovecraft was an atheist. Had he been religious, he might have been, at most, a pantheist or a Deist. His understanding of a morally indifferent universe, however, would not have permitted him to be a Christian--or, at least, not in the traditional sense. For him, the idea of a personal, loving God who is active in human affairs would have been philosophically untenable. If free will is disallowed as the cause of all human suffering, one must admit culpability at the divine level, if one believes in a personal God. Either God is not loving (or he is actually sadistic), or he is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Otherwise, the existence of evil seems inexplicable.
Other corollaries also follow. For example, the teleological aspect of creation becomes potentially problematic. If God is too limited in either knowledge or power, or if he is not a God of love, there is no guarantee that the story of life, or the unfolding of the universe, so to speak, will work out as he has anticipated. Things may get out of hand.
Before Christianity, pagan religion posited a power above and beyond, or transcendent to, the gods. Even Zeus or Jupiter or Odin was subject to the power of the Moirae, the Parcae, or the Norns (that is, the Fates). To paraphrase Alexander Pope, the gods proposed, but the Fates disposed. It was only in Judaism and Christianity that God’s will became what is the equivalent of fate, and predestination entered the logic of theology. In Lovecraft’s world view, fate is equivalent not with God’s will but with blind chance. The universe is a great roll of the dice, and any notion of purpose or meaning is merely an illusion. The universe is indifferent to humanity.
Religious thinkers have offered refutations of the problem of evil, arguing that suffering builds character, that suffering is a result of the exercise of free will (making wrong choices), that suffering is a consequence of knowledge, and that evil happens when individuals do not act in accordance with natural laws.
Neither the argument from design nor the problem of evil is convincing to everyone, and the debate that is based upon the issues these arguments expound is likely to continue to engage both the faithful and the agnostic or atheist. Meanwhile, such writers as those we’ve mentioned (and many others whom we did not cite) will continue to explore both sides of the question. In the process, they will offer more ideas in defense of teleology and more ideas against teleology. In the process, the readers of horror fiction will continue to better understand and appreciate both the possibility of purposeful events and of the meaning, if any, of evil and human suffering.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
A magazine artist’s task is to sell the magazine. The primary sense is vision, followed either by touch or hearing, and, of course, visual arts appeal to sight. Their images attract and captivate. There are many reasons that they do so, such as the artist’s use of intensity, color, shape, size, line, space, and a host of other principles and techniques. Not one of the least of these techniques--and the subject of this post--is the artist’s use of the incongruous, the incompatible, the inconsistent, the inappropriate, the absurd, the odd, the strange, the bizarre, the mismatched, the contradictory, the abnormal, the peculiar, the unusual, the anomalous, the fantastic, the irregular, the atypical, the uncharacteristic, the improbable, the unusual, and, of course, the horrible.
In an earlier post, “The Horror of the Incongruous,” we suggested that one of the reasons that horror fiction appeals to readers is that it represents a catalogue of the damned--of phenomena and incidents that fall outside the known, the understood, and the accepted.
We like our world to be neat and tidy. Therefore, we create categories, labeling them according to their contents, and thus, in a neat and tidy manner, classify and divide our world. This classification and division of our collective human experience we (rather arrogantly) call “reality.” Anything that doesn’t fit our schema is damned as “illusory” or “fantastic.” (In The Book of the Damned, Charles Fort explains the way in which data that don’t fit the neat and tidy schema of the sciences is “damned” by their practitioners.) If we designate the categories of human experience “the applecart of reality,” horror fiction, we may say, upsets this applecart. It makes us suppose, as Hamlet was bold enough to assert, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in. . . [our] philosophy.”
We like to think that we know it all, because omniscience puts us in control of our lives and our destinies, enabling us to be the masters of our own fate. Horror fiction, by acquainting us with shadows, suggests that we are not yet fully the illuminati we long to be. Therefore, we are not as fully in control as we would like to be. We are dependent upon forces and powers--and--perhaps, beings--unknown as well as known that are far stronger than we. What’s worse, according to horror fiction, not all of these forces and entities are benign and benevolent; some are hostile and lethal. In short, the bogeyman is real, and he’s far more powerful than you and me--and he’s not only after us, as Stephen King has reminded his fans, but he’s gaining on us.
Since horror fiction pops the balloon of human pomposity, it’s iconoclastic (and, one might add, realistic).
But wait a minute. I thought this post was about horror art, you might be thinking. Well, literature is art, of course, but, by “art,” perhaps you were thinking visual art--drawings, paintings, and the like.
So was I.
However, to talk about visual art that depicts horror themes and images (in order, let us remember, to sell horror fiction), one must first understand what is at the root of all evil (or, at least, horror’s dramatization of evil and its consequences and how such evil may, at times, at least, be vanquished--for a time, at least). In horror fiction, the wickedness, like the horror that it produces, often derives from this uneasy sense that all may not be as neat and tidy with the world as we thought and that “reality” may not be itself all that real.
What attracts--what appeals to--one person may not attract or appeal to another, for we all have out own interests and tastes. Therefore, this post can address only certain art that has attracted and appealed to its author, yours truly. In discussing those artists’ work that I do address, I have chosen from among illustrators and painters who have worked largely, if not exclusively, in the horror genre or who have illustrated mostly the fiction of horror writers, and I have excluded computer graphics in an old-fashioned preference for pen and ink or oils.
Specifically (in this post, at least), I am considering Margaret Brundage and Virgil Finlay. (The art of Rene Magritte and H. R. Giger is considered in other posts.) Alas, even with such a small sample, I am considering only one work by each. Otherwise, this post would be a book unto itself.
Okay, Margaret Brundage, then.
Her work features scantily clad women threatened by hideous monsters--a staple theme of early horror fiction in which scantily clad women were deemed irresistible not only to all red-blooded men but also to all monsters, regardless of the color of their blood. (Think The Creature from the Black Lagoon or King Kong or even Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.)
Author L. Sprague de Camp summarizes her work’s theme as depicting “naked heroines being tortured, raped, and disemboweled,” and Forrest J. Ackerman describes her art as portraying “titillating pulchrinudes” of “naked ladies being sacrificed, semi-clad heroines being menaced by all manner of monstrous beings.”
In cover after cover of Weird Tales, Brundage reiterated this theme, seldom painting much else. In her artwork, men don’t have to compete merely with other men for the captivating women whom Brundage depicts, but they must also compete with such monstrous rivals as black gods (or their oversize idols, at any rate), shadow people, witches, and decapitated skulls. A woman’s virginity, in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s and 1950’s, was a commodity that needed to be protected from and defended against the various monsters (symbolic of rapists and lesbian seductresses) who threatened it, Brundage’s art implies, offering, at the same time, both a chance for a bit of voyeuristic ogling and sexual fantasies that stopped just short, presumably, of the rape that the images imagined as real threats, allowing virtuous adolescent readers--who tended, by far, to be males--to become the champions of these ladies in distress.
Every boy (and even a few lesbian seductresses) might be a potential rapist, her art suggested, but they can also choose to be a Sir Galahad and protect and defend a lady’s virtue. If they chose the former course, the result would be horrible, indeed, but, if they chose the latter course, the result would be chivalrous. Sex was no more horrible, in itself, than temptation; the horror lay in the choice that a boy made in relation to sex and the temptation that scantily clad women posed. The adolescent reader of the Weird Tales that Brundage illustrated could be saint or sinner or, in the parlance of horror fiction, the hero or the monster. As with so many other choices that confront a boy, the decision that he makes with regard to sexual temptations is an intersection of sorts, between good and evil, right and wrong, heroism and horror.
Next, Virgil Finlay.
His art is executed in clear, fine lines and with sharp contrasts between light and dark shapes and spaces. He also devotes much space to stippling and crosshatching to add shades, shadows, and borders. His art, much of which adorned the cover of Weird Tales, contains more than a few scantily clad, or even nude, feminine figures. However, his women are not potential rape victims. Instead, they are enchanting enchantresses or sexy sorceresses or mystical maidens. More varied than Brundage’s art, Finlay’s work is known more for his technique than for its theme. It is the quality of his work that attracts the eye more than its theme per se, although, since he often illustrated horror, many of his pieces depict images typical of the genre: disembodied eyes, fantastic landscapes, skeletal or demonic figures, skulls, giants, sword and sorcery themes, mystical and magical phenomena, scantily clad women, and blood and gore--just what the largely male adolescent readers of Weird Tales enjoyed.
Theme and technique in the service of metaphor is a good, albeit basic, description, if not definition, of art, visual, literary, and otherwise. In some artists’ work, such as that of Brundage, theme is dominant over technique, whereas, in other artists’ work, such as that of Finlay, theme is second to technique. A literary parallel is H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, which tend to emphasize theme over technique, as opposed to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, which emphasizes technique over theme. As both Brundage’s and Lovecraft’s work, on one hand, and Finlay’s and Poe’s, on the other hand, indicate, both theme and technique are sufficient, even of themselves, to attract and captivate an audience’s interest. On occasion, as in the art of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, or Julie Bell (or Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, or William Faulkner), both theme and technique both attract and captivate--rather like Dracula’s daughter or the sirens of old.
For those who might enjoy pursuing their own research of other artists who have been pleased to depict horrors imaginable, if not unimaginable, other artists who have made a comfortable living illustrating Weird Tales and other magazines or individual works within the genre include:
- Margaret Brundage
- Hugh Rankin
- Virgil Finlay
- J. K. Potter
- Frazier Irving
- Steven Stahlberg
- Hannes Bok
- Jason Beam
- J. Allan St. John
- C. C. Senf
- Lee Brown Coye
- Frank Frazetta
- Boris Vallejo
- Julie Bell
We may take up a few others in future posts.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s shortest short stories is “The Oval Portrait.” However, its brevity notwithstanding, it is a disturbing and horrific tale in which there is an undercurrent of what might be called psychic vampirism. For those who may be unacquainted with the story, a summary of it is in order:
In a tale so short and simple, a lesser artist than Poe might have had great difficulty in elevating the story to the level of art, but Poe, of course, is one of the great masters of the horror genre. Because of the subtlety with which he writes and because of his own knowledge of human nature, which was more than a little tinged with cynicism, he imparts to his tale an unexpected psychological richness. Much that the story conveys is left unsaid and must be inferred by those readers who are able, as it were, to read between the lines.
The story’s narrator, who is wounded, and his valet, Pedro, seek shelter within the apartment of an abandoned Gothic chateau situated “among the Appennines.” In the apartment, the narrator finds that the walls--and even the niches within the walls--are decorated with “a number of very spirited modern paintings” and, upon the pillow of the bed, he discovers a “small volume. . . which. . . criticize[s] and describe[s]” the paintings. For some reason--perhaps because of his “incipient delirium”--he takes a keen interest in the paintings.
After Pedro drops off to sleep, the narrator changes the position of the candelabrum so that its candlelight better illuminates the pages of his book, and, as a result, he discerns a painting in an alcove that had been previously lost in the room’s shadows. Bordered by an oval frame, the painting depicts the head and shoulders of “a young girl just ripening into womanhood.” Her “arms. . . bosom. . . and. . . hair” seem to dissolve into “the vague yet deep shadow” that represents the “background of the whole,” and the narrator, upon first glimpsing it, is startled, mistaking the picture for a disembodied head.
After returning the candelabrum to its original position, the narrator again consults his book, reading about the picture in the oval frame. According to this text, the young woman had been the wife of the “passionate, studious, austere” artist who, married to his art before he’d taken the young woman as his wife, painted her portrait. A happy person, she’d disliked only the art that kept her husband from her. When he’d asked to paint her portrait, however, she’d obediently sat for him, for days on end.
At last, the book declares, the artist finished his work, declaring it to be nothing less than “life itself!” and, turning to “regard his beloved,” he found that she was dead.
The wife is in the flower of womanhood, and has a carefree, loving, and happy heart. Her husband, however, seems to love his art--which is to say, himself, since his art is an expression of himself--more than he loves her. It is to her beauty that he is attracted more than to her, as a person. He views her as a fitting subject for his art, and asks her to model for him, despite her dislike of “the Art which was her rival” and her dread of “the pallet and the brushes. . . which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.” As he paints, spending all his time with the very “pallet and brushes” that she detests as her rivals for her husband’s affection, rather than with her (as other than a model), her health fails, and she becomes “daily more dispirited and weak.”
According to the book that “criticise[s] and describes[s] the paintings,” the color in the portrait’s cheek is obtained at the expense of her own lifeblood: “he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.” The last brushstroke with which his masterpiece is completed ends her life. Symbolically, his art represents his nature, which is as narcissistic as it is “passionate, studious,” and “austere.” Paradoxically, as an artist, he is a creator; at the same time, his creativity destroys the woman whom he claims to love. His passion for his work sucks the life from his bride. The artist is a psychic vampire who is willing to kill in order that his art may thrive. Artists are like Brahma and Shiva of the Hindu Trimurti, both a creator and a destroyer at once, and every work of art is a still life of sorts, a Vishnu, or preserver, created of the essence of the life (or lives) upon which the artist’s imagination has fed and, daily, continues to feed.
The theme of Poe’s story is reminiscent of that of a poem, “My Last Duchess,” by one of the author’s contemporaries, Robert Browning (1812-1889), although Poe’s story was written before Browning’s poem and there is no evidence that the two works have anything to do with one another:
That's my last duchess painted on the wall,It is more likely that these artists both understood the paradoxical creative-destructive duality of the artist. In Browning’s poem, a duke appreciates the portrait of his late wife more than he appreciated her (whom, the poem suggests, he may have killed), because it is both beautiful and passive. (The young wife in Poe’s story is also beautiful and obedient.) The women’s passivity or obedience allowed the artists to create beautiful portraits, although these qualities also allowed them to destroy the realities that these portraits represent. Therein, Poe suggests, lies the horror of art in general and of "The Oval Portrait" in particular.
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
In the four previous posts in this series, we deduced a number of principles, or rules, that apply, in general, to fiction that involves a haunted house. These rules can be used to create a haunted house in both printed and cinematic horror stories.
This post brings these rules together in a simple list that is likely to be handier and dandier than the separate lists in the previous posts. In writing about fiction, especially fiction that is often about supernatural or paranormal events, it’s a good thing to have one’s guidelines readily available.
These nine rules apply to the interior of the haunted residence:
- It should be spacious--the bigger, the better.
- It should house many rooms.
- A haunted house often symbolizes its resident’s state of mind.
- A haunted house is often associated with the resident’s past.
- A haunted house may be the portal to another dimension or to hell itself.
- To be, horrors must be perceived (even mysterious phenomena, whether paranormal or supernatural, must be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and/or touched).
- A haunted house will probably have an emotional effect upon its resident.
- The phenomena associated with a haunting should also be associated with the resident and with his or her mental states, moral failings, or personal experiences.
- A haunting may result from a condition or set of circumstances other than ghostly habitation (mental illness, practical joke, hoax).
- Relate the place with death and decay.
- Ensure that the estate is at least ten acres in size, remembering that the bigger the grounds, the better.
- Make the estate isolated, and surround it with a high wall or a forest.
- Associate the house with its resident (the story’s protagonist).
Have fun in creating your house of horrors!
The grounds upon which a haunted house stands (or crumbles) are also haunted. The land is unhallowed, or unholy, ground. As such, its vegetation is apt to be withered and sere. The grass, if any remains, is likely to be brown and scrubby. Shrubs will more than likely be shriveled or leafless. Trees will be grotesque, stunted trunks projectong a twisted tangle of bare branches. Flowers won’t do well. Rosebushes may bear thorns in abundance, but few or no blooms will appear to alleviate the gloom. The ground itself may be not only bare (and barren) but may also be lined and fissured with great, deep cracks. If there are any statues, they will be of strange figures. Some may be missing heads or limbs (or they may have extra heads and limbs). Others may bleed or weep blood. A figure may even moan or groan, perhaps due to a human soul imprisoned within the marble or granite stone. Hounds or other guard dogs may prowl the grounds. The entire estate is likely to be surrounded by a tall wall that is topped with a spiked, wrought-iron fence. Sometimes, instead of a wall, a thick forest hems in the estate. Wild animals live among the trees--wolves, wildcats, and worse--that keep guests at bay.
The estate may feature a family burial ground or a few gravesites. If so, the graves are likely to be marked with crumbling headstones or weather-stained crosses that may bear strange symbols and other bizarre inscriptions. A lake, or tarn, may be present, but it will be a lifeless body of water, uninhabited and unvisited by animals. The estate is likely to be isolated. Its residence and any other structures it contains will be the sole building or buildings for miles in any direction.
With as many features as we have cited, it’s obvious that the estate must be large, rather than small, especially if it is associated with a mansion or a castle. It shouldn’t be under ten acres, although it can be much bigger. There is apt to be rolling or drifting fog, white and thick enough to limit one’s vision and to conceal shapes within its gloom. Across the yard, at a distance, anyone who is unfortunate enough to trespass upon the estate will see the exterior of the haunted house, or its façade.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” brings many of these classical elements of the haunted estate together in his description, at the narrative’s outset, of the house and its grounds:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium--the bitter lapse into everyday life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
From these observations, we can deduce the following rules concerning the estate upon which a haunted house stands:
- Relate the place with death and decay.
- Ensure that the estate is at least ten acres in size, remembering that the bigger the grounds, the better.
- Make the estate isolated, and surround it with a high wall or a forest.
- Associate the house with its resident (the story’s protagonist). (Note Poe's "eyelike windows.")
Friday, April 18, 2008
One expects strange things to happen in a haunted house because, well, it’s haunted. Ghosts aren’t like us. They’re spirits. Of the departed. By all accounts, mythical, religious, literary, and otherwise, there’s a world of difference between the quick and the dead. Therefore, ghosts should be expected to do the unexpected, to behave in a bizarre manner, and to be frightening, if not terrifying. Many choose to set up housekeeping in a house, rather than in, say, a house trailer or a flophouse. Consequently, the house, haunted, may also be expected to do the unexpected, to behave in a bizarre manner, and to be frightening, if not terrifying. In other words, if a house is truly haunted, one is entitled to expect to see (and, often, to hear, smell, taste, and feel) signs and symptoms of is condition. A home may be where the heart it, but a haunted home is where the horror is.
Anyone who has ever read a story or seen a movie about a haunted house (which is to say virtually everyone) knows some of the things that happen in such a place. Let’s consider these phenomena in relation to the senses by which they are perceived:
Walls or ceilings (or both) drip blood. Bathroom faucets pour blood. Black slime oozes from the walls. Walls bulge. Floors rear or buckle. Stairs flatten to form long, steep ramps. Mirrors exhibit horrific images. Furniture or dishes move by themselves, and are sometimes thrown across kitchens, dining rooms, or other chambers. Appliances turn off and on by themselves. The press of a hidden lever reveals a hidden room. Trapdoors drop into basements or water-filled wells. Oil paintings depict ghastly scenes, and the eyes of the subjects of portraits seem to follow the observer wherever he or she goes. Flies or wasps or insects may swarm within the house. Horrifying messages, written in blood, may appear on walls or other surfaces. The house’s floor plan may change overnight or even more abruptly. Doors may open upon other dimensions or even hell itself. And, of course, sooner or later, the ghosts themselves--or something even worse--will make a grand entrance.
Strange noises are heard in the attic or basement. Doors slam shut. Mysterious footsteps are heard in vacant rooms or hallways. Doors may open or close of their own accord. Shadows may be cast by invisible forms or figures. Pets may behave strangely--cats may hiss or dogs may bark or growl for no apparent reason or may run from something that only they seem able to sense. Moans, groans, cries, or voices may be heard when no one is there or music may be heard when there is no musical instrument in the house.
Familiar foods may taste bitter, sour, or disgusting. Things that do not have a flavor may develop flavors--nasty ones, of course.
The stench of decaying flesh or some other particularly disgusting smell may waft through the house.
A heavy, oppressive feeling of dread seems to cling to the house or to a specific location within the house. Cold spots appear in unlikely places. Residents may feel as if they are under constant visual surveillance by an unseen observer. Residents may even feel as if someone--or something--has touched them. Something--or someone--may bear down upon or sit atop one’s body as he or she sleeps or rests in bed. Residents may undergo physical or sexual assault by invisible assailants.
Remember, House = Self
In general, it’s a good idea to associate such phenomena with the main character of the story. Since it is he or she who will see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch most of these phenomena, they should be related to him or her in some manner. Perhaps the phenomena are really signs and symptoms of a mental illness with which the protagonist is “haunted” rather than clues that the house in which this character resides is haunted. Maybe he or she needs a psychiatrist rather than a ghost buster.
The phenomena could have a moral significance. Maybe the sights, sounds, and other perceptions of strange and horrific incidents represent feelings of guilt and sorrow concerning past or present misdeeds that “haunt” the protagonist.
An elaborate prank, a practical joke, or a more sinister hoax could be the cause of the haunting, as in the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which a house is made to appear to be haunted in an effort to drive the protagonist mad so that her relatives can have her committed to a mental institution and inherit her estate. A bed-and-breakfast inn might be rigged to appear to be haunted in order to generate publicity.
Houses become haunted--or are said to become haunted--after famous people live (or die) in them. If your story features such a house, obviously the manner in which it is haunted, and the identity of its ghost or ghosts, should relate to the celebrity in question. One might expect a piano to play in Liberace’s house, for example, were it to be haunted, and maybe, in Charlton Heston’s abode, the actor still clutches a rifle in his “cold, dead hands.” Remember the metaphor that equates a house to the self of the person who resides there. A haunted house should be symptomatic of the haunted soul who lives within the distressed domicile.
In this post, we deduced these additional rules for haunting a house:
- To be, horrors must be perceived (even mysterious phenomena, whether paranormal or supernatural, must be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and/or touched).
- A haunted house will probably have an emotional effect upon its resident.
- The phenomena associated with a haunting should also be associated with the resident and with his or her mental states, moral failings, or personal experiences.
- A haunting may result from a condition or set of circumstances other than ghostly habitation (mental illness, practical joke, hoax).
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
In the previous post, we considered two rules concerning how to haunt a house:
- Make it spacious--the bigger, the better.
- Fill it with rooms.
If ever a home was a reflection of its resident, Gein’s house certainly indicated his mental state. The house was a veritable garbage dump. The floors were littered and strewn with old magazines and newspapers, and boxes stood in precarious stacks along the walls and among piles of assorted materials that should have been discarded but weren’t. Among the rubbish were the trophies, consisting of human body parts, that Gein collected from the female corpses he robbed from the cemetery in his hometown, Plainfield, Wisconsin, and from Spirit Land, a graveyard located a few miles to the north. One box contained a bag, inside which, police found, was a mask that had once been the face of Mary Hogan, the owner and operator of a tavern that Gein had once frequented. The walls of some rooms were decorated with other such masks, and Gein ate soup from bowls he’d fashioned from the upper halves of human skulls. He also kept a torso, or mammary, vest; a collection of women’s noses; female genitals; and a belt made of women’s nipples.
After his mother died, Gein, who was a momma’s boy, missed her so much that the psychiatrist who examined the killer after his arrest concluded that Gein collected cadavers and female body parts in an attempt to fill the loss of female companionship that ensued his mother’s death and burial. In some ways, he was thought to be trying to bring home a bride (or parts thereof) or, perhaps, his dearly departed mother. Gein also kept part of the farmhouse he inherited upon his mother’s demise sealed off from the rest of the residence as a sort of shrine to his mother’s memory.
From Gein’s example, we see that haunted houses may be cluttered, and that the clutter may include some grisly, ghastly artifacts--perhaps human body parts--and that the resident of such a house might keep a door locked or even part of the house sealed off, either as a shrine or for some other purpose (hiding a body, an insane relative, or a secret of some sort, perhaps). In A Winter’s Haunting (2002), Dan Simmons’ sequel to Summer of Night (1991), the protagonist, Dale Stewart, keeps the upper floors of the house he rents--it belonged to a childhood friend who was murdered, years ago--sealed off from the lower floor, where he resides. Likewise, there’s a locked attic in The Skeleton Key (2005). After hearing voices from inside the locked room, the movie’s protagonist, Caroline Ellis, becomes curious. When she finally manages a look inside, she finds evidence that maybe demons do cause illness, and, in fact, maybe the invalid she’s been hired to care for may be a victim of dark magic. We all know what’s said about curiosity and the cats it lures. Other horror stories, both in print and on film, make use of the locked room motif as well.
Other novels suggest other approaches.
Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, suggests that it may be the individual within a house, rather than the house itself, who is haunted or (depending upon one’s reading of her story) that a haunted house may, in turn, haunt its residents. This novel, like Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and many lesser narratives, drives home the relationship--indeed, the interrelationship--between resident and residence. A home is a reflection of its owners or occupants. The disorderly state of Gein’s house reflected the disordered (confused) state of his mind, because normal people not only do not live among filth and clutter, but they also do not reside among human body parts and eat out of human skulls. Often, ghost stories are symbolic of past sins, of guilt, and of remorse or of past trauma and its continuing, present-day effects.
Therefore, many ghost stories connect with past events, and the incidents that occur within haunted houses represent such sins, such guilt, and such trauma. In The Others, the mother keeps her house dark because her children suffer from photophobia, a fear of light. Her concern with keeping them in the dark represents her love for them, but the darkness of the house also represents her ignorance of--and her refusal to see--the truth about her past. She has killed her children, and they, like her, are the ghosts who actually haunt the house in which they reside, not the residents of the house whom she imagines are its ghosts.
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, college students transform a fraternity house into a haunted house as a setting for a Halloween party. The partygoers become more than amorous, all but having sex in front of one another. Buffy stays in bed with her boyfriend, Riley Finn, from the time they arrive until their friends rescue them. When the partygoers touch a wall, they experience an orgasm, and playing a game of spin-the-bottle becomes the occasion for more than a friendly kiss between players. Buffy’s mentor and friends discover that the house is haunted by the souls of adolescents who’d lived in the house under the stern and disapproving tyranny of a foster mother who feared and hated sex and severely punished her charges when, at the onset of puberty, they began to experiment with sex, murdering at least one boy by drowning him in her bathtub. The dead child--or, perhaps, children--having been abused, now, as ghosts, become the abusers.
The furniture and décor in a haunted house also often reflect the resident’s state of mind. Bizarre images in a mirror which are seen only by one character suggest that these images are not real. Rather, they are likely to be but the contents of his or her own mind, projected onto his or her environment--the looking glass sees within, rather than reflecting that which truly exists. Therefore, only the one who sees such images can perceive them. The mirror mirrors his or her own thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. If a character ascends a staircase (or, for that matter, descends one), what type of revelation does he or she experience as a result? What happens at the top or the bottom of the stairs is indicative of what this character believes, feels, or thinks, and it is likely to be either transcendent or reductive in nature, depending upon whether the stairs lead upward or downward. An ascent into the attic is apt to represent an elevation to consciousness and knowledge; a descent into the basement is likely to symbolize a decline into the subconscious and the unknown.
When a locked room or a shut-off part of the house is part of a haunted house, the secret it contains will probably be the heart of the narrative’s mystery and, most likely, it will represent a great truth about the haunted character’s nature, behavior, goal, past, or present. Unlocked, the door may admit the resident to madness--or to revelation. The secret within the locked or sealed-off room or suite may deliver or destroy.
H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” show that basements can be portals, as it were, to other, darker places, such as subterranean cities or dwellings in which cannibalistic mutants reside. His example reminds us that haunted houses often contain secret passageways, hidden rooms, and trapdoors to subterranean chambers or tunnels that allow villains to come and go in secret or to conduct clandestine operations. Sometimes, dungeons are accessed through trapdoors, wherein sadists torture, dismember, and kill victims. Such portals may even be gateways to another dimension or to hell itself, as in William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderlands and Bentley Little’s The House.
From this consideration of how to haunt a house, we may deduce three additional rules:
- A haunted house often symbolizes its resident’s state of mind.
- A haunted house is often associated with the resident’s past.
- A haunted house may be the portal to another dimension or to hell itself.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Ed Gein's house, a haunted residence if ever there was one!
Think of the haunted house stories and novels you’ve read and of the haunted house movies you’ve seen. Most have specific elements in common. In considering how to haunt the house in your story, novel, or movie script, you’ll want to learn from your predecessors as to what they (and their readers or viewers) found particularly effective. Then, you’ll want to emulate them, but by adding to, rather than simply copying, the conventions they employed.
Even a nodding familiarity with the haunted house as a horror story setting suggests that such a domicile needs to be spacious--the roomier, the better. In Gothic horror, from which contemporary horror fiction in large part originates, the original haunted house was a castle or a manor house. Often, it was of several stories, including an attic and a basement.
When castles and palaces became untenable in horror fiction (which, today, anyway, is written, after all, for the masses, not for the fortunate few), authors employed mansions and--in the case, at least, of Stephen King, hotels (The Shining, “1408”)--and, in the case of Bentley Little, both mansions (The House) and a resort (The Resort) (2004). King (and others) has even haunted entire towns, albeit not necessarily with ghosts per se: in Desperation (1996) and its companion volume, The Regulators (1996), the demon Tak haunts a Nevada mining town and a suburban community, respectively, and, in ‘Salem’s Lot, a vampire is the culprit who disturbs residents and brings down property values, whereas, in It, the haunt is a protean shape shifter.
The point is (and, yes, there is a point) that haunted houses must be big, spacious dwellings. Cottages and bungalows need not apply, nor should efficiencies, garden apartments, or small condos.
The Psycho house
Houses have to be palatial for a couple of reasons. First, if the ghost pops up in the same location all the time, he, she, or it soon becomes predictable, and a ghost whose actions are predictable isn’t all that scary. In addition, it’s pretty easily avoided unless, perhaps, it’s haunting the domicile’s one and only bathroom’s commode (an unlikely point of interest for even ghosts, it would seem). A ghost that has the run of the house--especially a palatial abode--can pop up unexpectedly, since he, she, or it is not restricted to one or two rooms. The resident is as likely to see the ghost in the basement as in the attic, in a closet, in a mirror at the end of the entrance hall, or on the staircase between floors.
Various rooms also allow it to do various things, all of which could (and should) be fairly horrific. In It, after building suspense for beaucoup pages, King lets his readers walk downstairs with one of his characters, and, entering the dark and clammy subterranean chamber to feed the furnace, the character, and readers along with him, sees, in its flooded interior, the bloated corpse of the character’s brother as it floats past among other debris when there’s no way in hell that the boy’s body (or the debris) should be there. The result? Readers, like the character in the scene, are horrified--and terrified. This scene wouldn’t play out as well in the pantry, the linen closet, or the attic.
Likewise butcher’s knives and meat cleavers, available in the kitchen, make frightful props for ghosts (especially poltergeists) to wield, and a bedroom pillow makes a handy smothering device in hostile ghostly hands. Foods in pantries can include nasty surprises--maggots are only one of the many things that squirm to mind. Anything can crawl out from under a bed or spring from a closet, and God only knows what sights may be seen in hallway mirrors. A drowned person’s ghost may appear in the shower (An American Haunting) or in the bathtub (The Shining).
A spacious house has space enough to house many rooms, and each room, as a good (or even a not-so-good) dream dictionary makes clear, is often symbolic of a particular aspect of the self. As Dream Moods’ “Online Guide to Dream Interpretation” points out:
To see a house in your dream, [sic] represents your own soul and self. Specific rooms in the house indicate a specific aspect of your psyche. In general, the attic represents your intellect, the basement represents the unconscious. . . .To ascertain what each room represents in the iconography of dreamland, simply look up each room; “Online Guide to Dream Interpretation” will offer specific suggestions, and, as a writer, you make the connections between the character’s inner emotional or mental state and the room (and the condition of the room):
Dream Moods’ dictionary indicates that various parts of the house and the condition in which these parts appear also represent aspects of the dreamer’s (or the haunted character’s) self:
To dream that you are in a basement, [sic] symbolizes your unconscious mind and intuition. The appearance of the basement is an indication of your unconscious state of mind and level of satisfaction.
To dream that the basement is in disarray and messy, [sic] signifies. . . confusion . . . which you need to sort out. It may also represent your perceived faults and shortcomings.
There are plenty of other entries (and punctuation errors) in the dictionary that suggest ways in which the rooms of a haunted house may be used to symbolize the haunted character’s (or other characters’) states of mind. Make a list of the rooms, the parts of a house, and even the furniture and other accoutrements of a residence, and look them up in this or another dream dictionary or a dictionary of symbols to see what such places and things have tended to suggest and symbolize concerning human minds and behavior. Your fiction can capitalize on such leads by using appropriate rooms to suggest specific characteristics and states of mind with respect to your characters, including the ghosts themselves.
To see a roof in your dream, [sic] symbolizes a barrier between two states of consciousness. It represents a protection of your consciousness, mentality, and beliefs. It is an overview of how you see yourself and who you think you are.
To dream that you are on a roof, [sic] symbolizes boundless success. If you fall off the roof, [sic] suggests that you do not have a firm grip and solid foundation on your advanced position.
To dream that the roof is leaking, [sic] represents distractions, annoyances, and unwanted influences in your life. It may also indicate that new information will dawn on you. Alternatively, it may suggest that something is finally getting through to you.
Perhaps someone is imposing and intruding their thoughts and opinions on you.
To dream that the roof is falling in, [sic] indicates that you high ideals are crashing down on you. Perhaps you are unable to live up to your own high expectations.
Another source worth checking out is Fantasy and Science Fiction's Dictionary of Symbolism, which offers this entry concerning “house”:
Just like the city, the TEMPLE, the palace, and the MOUNTAIN, the house is one of the centers of the world. It is a sacred place, and it is an image of the universe. It parallels the sheltering aspect of the Great Mother, and it is the center of civilization. In Jungian psychology, what happens inside a house happens inside ourselves. Freudian psychology associates the house with the WOMAN, in a sexual sense; a house is undoubtedly a feminine symbol. Shelter and security are words commonly used surrounding house. [It] has a correspondence with the universe, [with] the roof as heaven, the windows as deities and the body as the earth. [It is] the repository of all wisdom.One is also advised to study Edgar Allan Poe’s masterful use of a house, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), to represent the emotional and mental states of his protagonist, Roderick Usher.
Other haunted house stories (listed chronologically) you’ll want to read are:
- Castle of Otranto, The (1764), by Horace Walpole: Conrad Manfred’s decision to divorce and remarry causes horrifying events to occur within his family’s castle.
- Mysteries of Udolpho, The (1794), by Ann Radcliffe: After the death of her father, Emily St. Aubert moves in with her aunt, who marries Montoni; the women go to Udolpho to live, and Emily is separated from her suitor, Valancourt, as Montoni seeks to force Emily’s aunt to sign over the estate which Emily would otherwise inherit.
- Haunted and the Haunters, The (1857), by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Mesmerism and magnetism combine with alchemy and Rosicrucian mysticism as the protagonist seeks immortality.
- “Red Room, The” (1894), by H. G. Wells: A skeptic discovers that an allegedly haunted room really is haunted, but not by ghosts.
- Turn of the Screw, The (1898), by Henry James: Is the governess seeing ghosts or is something even more horrible happening to her (and the children in her charge)?
- House on the Borderland, The (1908), by William Hope Hodgson: Two men investigate a house that seems linked to an identical dwelling in the very pit of hell.
- “Rats in the Walls, The” (1924), by H. P. Lovecraft: Investigating the sound of rats in the walls of his ancestral estate, the protagonist discovers that his family lived in a subterranean city, feeding upon their fellow humans.
- Stir of Echoes, A (1958), by Richard Matheson: This novel inspired the movie of the same title.
- Haunting of Hill House, The (1959), by Shirley Jackson: Psychics investigate an allegedly haunted house, and one of them, Eleanor, is possessed by the supernatural entity they encounter there.
- Hell House (1971), by Richard Matheson: A millionaire hires psychics to explore the possibility of life after death.
- Shining, The (1977), by Stephen King: An alcoholic writer’s descent into madness ends on a bad note when he takes on the duties of caretaker during a hotel’s off season.
- “1408” (1999) by Stephen King: A skeptical writer learns the errors of his ways after he stays in a hotel room that is supposedly haunted.
- House, The (1997), by Bentley Little: Five strangers discover they all grew up in an identical house situated on the gateway between this world and another, far darker place.
These movies, featuring haunted houses, are also worth a peek, preferably between one’s fingers:
- Uninvited, The (1944): A couple buys a haunted house.
- Ghost Ship (1952, 2002): A salvage crew, towing a lost passenger ship to harbor, finds it is haunted.
- House on Haunted Hill, The (1958, 1999): Partygoers will receive a cash reward, if they can survive a night in a haunted house.
- House That Dripped Blood, The (1970): A Scotland yard investigator investigates mysterious disappearances related to a vacant house.
- Amityville Horror, The (1979, 2005): In this movie, based upon an actual hoax, newlyweds move into a house in which a murder was committed.
- Changeling, The (1980): A man’s isolated country estate is haunted by a ghost.
- Shining, The (1980): An alcoholic writer’s descent into madness ends on a bad note when he takes on the duties of caretaker during a hotel’s off season.
- Poltergeist (1982): Ghosts haunt a family in their new house.
- Sixth Sense, The (1999): Cole, a boy who sees ghosts, helps a depressed child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe. Coincidence?
- Stir of Echoes, A (1999): A hypnotized skeptic, Tom Witzky, begins to see a ghost, which leads to the solution to a murder.
- What Lies Beneath (2000): A woman starts seeing things--and hearing things--or does she?
- Others, The (2001): The residents of a house turn out to be the ghosts who haunt the residence.
- Rose Red (2002): Psychics investigate an allegedly haunted house.
- Grudge, The (2004): A ghost, born of a grudge, haunts a nurse who cares for a housebound invalid.
- Skeleton Key, The (2005): A hospice worker decides to risk it all on what lies behind a locked attic door.
- American Haunting, An (2006): A girl’s father has a split personality, one of which she mistakes for an evil ghost.
- 1408 (2007): A skeptical writer learns the errors of his ways after he stays in a hotel room that is supposedly haunted.
In this post, we learned two rules about how to haunt a house. The first rule in haunting a house is to make the residence a big house (but not necessarily a prison). The second rule is to make sure that your haunted house houses many rooms, or, as many writers would say, chambers, each of which is an appropriate and handy opportunity to present a different ghost or a different aspect of the same ghost (or the protagonist’s own inner ghosts).
In our next post, before going outside, we’ll examine another rule or two concerning how to haunt a house.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Whatever happened to the killer bees rhat were supposed to exterminate the human race?
Immigrants from South America, killer bees are descendents of 26 queen bees from Tanzania. The original queens were imported from Africa in 1956. The queens bred with honeybees and with other honeybees from southern Africa by--yes, a scientist (whether he’s mad is up to you to determine)--biologist Warwick E. Kerr. From their hive in San Paulo State (southeast Brazil), near Rio Claro, the killer bees were migrating north, mating with local drones.
They look like ordinary bees, but they are more aggressive than their European peers, the Africanized honeybees, which are more commonly known as killer bees, swarm more readily, relocate as a colony when food becomes scarce, requires more territorial space, and attacks in greater numbers when threatened. In a word, killer bees tend to be much more hostile than their European counterparts. They will chase a person up to a quarter of a mile. To date, killer bees have killed 1,000 people.
It takes a lot of beestings to kill a person. The record number survived (so far) is 2,000. Ouch!
Since leaving Brazil, the killer bees have migrated into southern Argentina, South, and Central America. They also immigrated to the United States, having been detected in southern Texas, southern New Mexico, southern Arizona, southern Nevada, and the extreme southeastern corner of California. They are also in parts of Florida and are said to be extending into southern Louisiana and Arkansas as well. Scientists predict that the bees will eventually spread as far north as San Francisco and the Chesapeake Bay before cold climate conditions stop their advance.
Experts point out that some Africanized bees are gentle, which gives them hope that, by breeding the gentler with the more aggressive killer bees, the hostile bees can be domesticated.
Killer bees have appeared (as the bad guys) in Arthur Herzog’s novel The Swarm (the basis of an Irwin Allen film) and such made-for-TV movies as The Savage Bees and Out of the Sky.
According to IMDb, The Swarm features “a huge swarm of deadly African bees [that] spreads terror over American cities by killing thousands of people” and, in, in The Savage Bees, the annual Mardi Gras celebration is brought to a halt when a swarm of African killer bees escape from a foreign freighter. Neither movie did well at the box office.
In a third bee-theme “B” movie, The Bees, “corporate smuggling of South American killer bees into the United States results in huge swarms terrorizing the northern hemisphere,” IMDb points out. It didn’t cause much of a swarm at the box office, either, alas.
“Everyday Horrors: Killer Bees” is one in a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.
Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?
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
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.
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.
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