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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Horror Art: Attraction and Captivation

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

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.

Art by Margaret Brundage

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.

Art by Virgil Finlay

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.

Art by Frank Frazetta

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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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