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Friday, April 11, 2008

Everyday Horrors: The Police

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In more innocent times, parents taught their children that the police were their friends. Cops were good guys, who could be trusted. If one were ever to be in trouble, he or she was to run to an officer of the law (assuming that an officer was available, although, adults often joked, “there’s never a cop around when you need one”). In those days, only a few policemen were women--mostly crossing guards and meter maids. Police officers were respected, if not admired, or, at least, they seemed to be, and, among bakers, glazed doughnut-crazed cops were loved. Whenever the police appeared in films (other than as the Keystone Kops), they were cast as good guys who were brave and noble, living, like Superman, to enforce “truth, justice, and the American way,” if not always life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the interval between the 1950’s and the turn of the century, something happened. Cops lost their shine. The badge became a badge not of honor so much as of disgrace. Rather than receiving praise from the public that the police claimed to “protect and serve,” the blue knights became the recipients of doubt, fear, and disdain, especially among minorities, who complained of “police brutality” (a charge that has often been shown to be true in videotapes of brutal police beatings and of cops' unnecessary use of their favorite new weapon, the taser). Newspaper and television reports cited police corruption, detailing cases in which cops had been bribed or became extortionists, rapists, and even murderers. The police became criminals themselves. They were just another gang among gangs. The public no longer trusted and admired, or even respected, the police. Instead, they feared and loathed their supposed protectors, their alleged servants, their supposed defenders.

As the public’s confidence in the police waned, the police became “pigs,” and the ways in which they were portrayed in fiction changed as well. In science fiction and horror stories, as in mainstream literature, when the cops weren’t shown as incompetent or as victims themselves (as in The Terminator, in which a cyborg killer goes on a rampage inside a police precinct, slaughtering the officers and detectives on duty), the police were revealed as just another threat in the ever-growing cavalcade of monsters. They were seen, and portrayed, as fiends with badges, handcuffs, Mace--and guns. In Terminator 2, the villain, a new breed, as it were, of cyborg assassin known as a T-1000-series android, is a shape shifter among whose many disguises is that of a policeman. A cop-killer, the T-1000 assumes the identity of its victim, tracking down his target, John Connor, using the computer aboard the dead cop’s patrol car. The movie’s anti-police subtext is anything but subtle, showing the public’s fear and hatred of corrupt peace officers who use their badges and guns to perpetrate crimes against members of the very public they are sworn to protect and serve.

Not surprisingly, Stephen King’s novels sometimes depict police as everyday horrors. Like his fans, King knows the horror that can lurk behind the badge of a cop gone bad. In Rose Madder, the protagonist’s husband, Norman Daniels, is a brutal, sadistic cop who routinely beats his wife, Rose, within an inch of her life, even when she is pregnant with their child (causing her to have a miscarriage). Norman is, in fact, a misogynist, having been charged, recently, with assaulting a black woman, Wendy Yarrow. The internal affairs investigation has been as fuel to his fiery rage, which explodes in his near-fatal assault upon Rose. Her latest beating, for the “offense” of having accidentally spilled iced tea upon Norman, makes her again consider leaving him. She’s been the victim of his brutality for fourteen years. If anything, his mindless rage has become even worse, and she fears that if she continues to stay with him, she’s liable to be killed. If she isn’t killed, she might well wish she were dead if she suffers at his hands for another fourteen years. By then, she may be unrecognizable, she thinks. She finally flees, but Norman, adept at skip-tracing, soon locates her, and the story takes on a supernatural dimension that leads to a particularly violent and gruesome climax and a resolution that underscores the permanent damage that domestic violence, especially at the hands of a rogue cop, can have upon its victim’s life.

As bad as Norman Daniels is, he’s not King’s worst monster behind a badge. This distinction (so far) belongs to Desperation’s Collie Entragian, whose very surname is an anagram for “near giant.” The deputy sheriff of Desperation, Nevada, a small mining town along U. S. Highway 50, the “loneliest road in America,” Entragian makes a habit of stopping, kidnapping, torturing, and killing hapless motorists, using the highway as if it were a strand of spider’s web bringing victims into his jurisdiction. True to the experience of many a driver, the deputy uses one trumped-up charge after another to justify his many traffic stops. However, the arrested offenders are, in reality, his captives, and they soon discover that Entragian is a madman. (In reading one couple their Miranda rights, he reserves his “right” to kill them.) In fact, he’s worse even than a psychotic killer; he’s possessed by a parasitic demon named Tak who uses the police officer as his latest host. The device of having the deputy possessed by a demon allows King to depict the mindless violence of a policeman whose own soul has become corrupted by the power that society has bestowed upon him. This cop could care less about bribes and payoffs; he wants nothing less than the power to bludgeon, torture, and kill those who fall into his demonic hands. In this novel, the power of the police is absolute, and absolute power not only corrupts but kills in the most horrific ways imaginable. Again, the subtext is hard to miss: a police state is a terrible state of affairs, indeed, even in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Entragian--or Tak--is such a threat to society that God himself intervenes to put things right, just as the deity does, implicitly, in Thomas Jefferson’s call to revolution, in The Declaration of Independence.

Of course, the police are sometimes dependable, if perfunctory, characters in King’s fiction. In this dichotomy as dutiful, but unimaginative, defenders of the status quo on one hand and as vile and brutal criminals or worse on the other hand lies the true terror of the men (and, increasingly, the women) in blue. Daily news stories of out-of-control cops reinforce the ambiguity with which law-abiding folk view those whom they’ve trusted to protect and to serve them. It’s a horrible experience to know that the police officer who, today, saves a hostage from a psychotic drug addict with nothing left to lose may be the same one who, tomorrow, pulls over a female on a dark and deserted highway and rapes and kills her or who turns a blind eye to a mob killing.

Modern-day variants upon the Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde theme, police fare the same in other horror writers’ fiction. They’re both the good guy and the bad guy (sometimes at the same time). For example, in the novels of Dean Koontz, cops are sometimes competent and trustworthy, but they are, other times, corrupt and treacherous. When they’re neither the good guys nor the villains in his novels, they’re often simply ineffective, incompetent, and moronic. Velocity, The Husband, and The Good Guy are cases in point. Cops don’t generally fare well in such novels as Bentley Little’s The Store and The Ignored, either, where they’re cast as barely a blip on the Stanford-Binet I. Q. scale.

Even when the police aren’t stupid, bungling, or vicious and corrupt, they’re not good for much when it comes to matching wits--or tooth and fang--with the monsters of horror fiction. As the protagonist of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer says, “Cops can’t fight demons. I have to do it.” (Besides, as the town’s high school principal says, “The police in Sunnydale are deeply stupid.”)

In horror fiction, cops are often creepy--maybe it's because of their fetish for polyester and doughnuts.

“Everyday Horrors: The Police” 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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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