Fascinating lists!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Abandoned Houses

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

When we were boys, my younger brother and I, roaming the neighborhood, or “exploring,” as we preferred to think of such meanderings, came across an abandoned house. Naturally, such an edifice requires investigation. After all, it may well be haunted.

In a way, as it turns out, perhaps it was haunted.

Let me explain.

The lawn--well, really there was no lawn, not in any real sense of the word. Instead, there were clumps of weeds and tall grass. By “tall,” I’m talking waist high--to a man, not a boy. Broken flagstones led toward the rickety, sagging porch, in the middle of which was the entrance door. Some of the windows had been broken out, no doubt by the neighborhood’s idle, adolescent artillerymen’s launching of gravel missiles. Some windows lacked shutters, and some had them. The ones that remained hung at an angle as often as not. What paint remained upon the exterior walls of the two-story clapboard house was peeling worse than a three-day-old sunburn.

With some trepidation, and exchanging glances every other step of the way, we approached the house.

It wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look inside, we assured ourselves. If we saw anything amiss--ghosts, for example--we could always trust to our Keds to save us.

We crossed the creaking porch to the door. It opened easily, without, as far as I recall, a screech or a groan, displaying empty rooms, bare floors, and walls in need of cleaning as much as paint. The floors were littered with shards of glass, torn fragments of yellowed newspapers, and empty bottles and cans. The place was spooky as hell, but, as far as we could tell, it wasn’t haunted.

We’d entered the house at its living room, it seemed, and, after a cursory examination of its littered floor, bare walls, and discolored ceiling, we entered a back hallway up from which ran a flight of stairs guarded by a handrail, some of the were missing, perhaps for a long, long time. The stairs were littered with similar debris--paint peelings and chips, newspaper, and empty containers. We followed the steps up, to the second floor. Its rooms were similar to the living room--bare, dirty, and littered with dust, trash, and discarded bottles and cans. None of the windows had curtains or drapes, and several of the panes of glass had been broken or cracked by stones thrown by boys who found courage more compatible with distance than with actual trespassing.

We’d seen most of the house, and our exploration of the abandoned domicile hadn’t rewarded us with so much as a broken picture frame or a smashed TV set. Still, we might as well see the rest of the place before we took our leave.

Descending the stairs, we opened a door upon a dark, steep set of wooden steps that led into the cool, dark interior of the house’s basement. There was no way we were going down there. We hastily closed the door and moved on.

Rounding a corner, we stepped into the horror of the kitchen.

What was horrific about it was the plate of still-steaming pork and beans, the red-tinged tines of the pitchfork leaning against the wall, beside the table, and the dead dog with the gaping wound in its side lying on the floor near the pitchfork. The steaming beans told us that someone was nearby--maybe the same someone who’d killed the dog. We looked at one another, and, without a word, reached the consensus that we should run for our lives, which we did.

We ran home and informed our mother of the canine death scene we’d left behind, but she wasn’t disposed to believe us, chalking up our story to boyhood imaginations run wild.

To this day, though, my brother and I recall our adventure in the abandoned house, except that, when we recite the adventure, we usually refer to the residence not as an abandoned abode, but as a haunted house.

Abandoned houses are eerie. They’re spooky. They look as if they might be haunted, even if they are not. Having given the matter some thought, I think I know at least one reason that they often appear to be sinister, if not, indeed, haunted. Symbolically, houses represent ourselves. Their material structure represent our bodies, and the various rooms, as a good dream dictionary indicates, are stand-ins for various aspects of our personalities. An abandoned body is a dead body. An abandoned house, as a symbol of the self, suggests that one’s self--one’s spirit or soul--is dead, and if aspects of the soul, as represented by the rooms of the house are bare, soiled, littered, and dilapidated, the corresponding aspects of ourselves are also empty, unclean, and decrepit--perhaps even mad.

An abandoned house is, or can be, a perfect setting for a horror story, because such a place, as a symbol of oneself, allows a writer to peer into the attic (the conscious mind), the basement (the subconscious mind), and any of the floors and rooms between, suggesting, through symbol, metaphor, and other means of figurative and indirect communication, various dreadful states of human and personal existence. In fact, such a place is the setting of one of my own stories, in which the protagonist, an intrepid explorer much like my younger brother and I were in our earlier incarnations who, unfortunately for him, comes to a much worse end than we did, learning too late that, while home may be where the heart is, this organ is better kept inside the chest cavity than upon the mantle piece. Other writers of horror, using the same type of setting, will have different lessons to teach, but, in the fiction of fear, most such instruction is apt to include considerable pain and loss.

Abandoned houses are best left untenanted--and unexplored.

"Abandoned Houses" is one of the posts in Chillers and Thrillers' ongoing series of "Everyday Horrors."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Julie Bell: "Hard Curves, Soft as Steel"

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to the existentialists among us, by themselves, neither objects nor people mean anything. We invest them, as we do the world itself, with whatever meaning we assign to them, even if this meaning changes from time to time and from place to place. Nature is our mask and costume, the many disguises we wear. We are protean, and our spirits possess all persons, places, and things. Although she's primarily a fantasy artist, former bodybuilder and present wife of fellow artist Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell sometimes includes the grotesque, the monstrous, and the horrific in her work, showing her fans these possibilities within existence, human and otherwise.

Pertaining to the nature and role of women in such a context, what lessons may we glean from Bell’s art?

First, the women in her art are invariably glamorous and beautiful. They are often scantily clad or nude, a state of dress (or undress) which emphasizes their feminine attributes.

Second, Bell’s idea of womanhood is not maternal; she is not interested in depicting woman as Madonna. Woman, according to Bell, is not a worker, nor is she a servant. She is not here to cook, to clean, or to serve in a subservient position to men.

She is sometimes a warrior, incongruously attired in a bikini and armed with a sword (her true weapon, and her real armor, are her womanly charms); more often, she is a force of nature who is seen in the company of predatory beasts or birds of prey, such as snakes, hawks, or tigers, and she is unperturbed, even in the presence of monsters. At times, she is seen as having domesticated dragons or other grotesque beasts.

Third, Bell's woman embraces the otherness of the male and of male sexuality. In Bell’s art, the snake, a phallic symbol, has a terrible aspect to it (or its head, as the repository of its reptilian intelligence, does, at least). Nevertheless, the serpent is also often depicted as being not only without the armor of its scales, with an utterly smooth hide, but it is also depicted as golden (and, therefore, valuable, since gold suggests value). In its presence, Bell’s woman is not frightened, but is positively at ease with this symbol of masculine potency.

Bell’s femme fatales are at ease with nature, too. They’re able to bait their own hooks and to fish alone for their supper. They can be deadly. They can even be muscular, or buff, but they remain feminine and lovely, despite their hard bodies and their willingness to injure, destroy, or kill. They are, in a word, androgynous--physically, they are feminine, but spiritually, they are masculine--a man’s spirit (but with greater emotional sensitivity than is common among males) living, as it were, in women’s flesh. The titles of a pair of books concerning Bell’s art, Hard Curves and Soft as Steel, sum up the image that the artist’s work projects of womanhood. In the art of Vallejo and Frank Frazetta, men are often heroic figures whose daring deeds and fantastic feats include, more often than not, the rescue of a damsel in distress. In Bell’s work, such a woman rarely, if ever, exists. Women are well able to take care of themselves, thank you very much.

Sometimes, Bell’s woman is even merged with nature, as when she is portrayed as a bare-breasted female centaur or as a mermaid. In most of her work, men are absent altogether, but when a man is shown, Bell’s woman is his equal.

In fantasy art, Bell’s women anticipate the feminine heroes such as Alien’s Lieutenant Ripley, Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the slasher film’s last girl (the sole survivor who manages to defeat the monster after it has killed everyone else, males included).

Her message--and the message of Ripley, Xena, Buffy, and the last girl--seems clear. The new feminine icon is still curvy, sexy, glamorous, and lovely, but her spirit is more masculine than feminine (as gender is understood in traditional, or sexist, terms). Having forged her own independence as an individual, woman, Bell’s art insists, is entitled to become all things that males have always been: adventurers, explorers, hunters, fishers, rescuers, scouts, warriors, and, in short, heroes--or, rather, heroines. They have developed a protean nature, if not a protean form. After all, despite all the traditionally male attributes of spirit, heart, and mind, Bell’s woman remains quintessentially feminine. Contemporary horror, like contemporary fantasy art, suggests that there is a little more “man” in today’s woman, but this increased masculinity does not equate with a decrease in femininity, as it is represented physically. There is the outer woman and the inner woman, and the two need not be the same.

A Note on Bell's husband and fellow artist, Boris Vallejo:

Peruvian artist Boris Vallejo, who often signs his work simply “Boris,” draws and paints art that is similar in theme and execution to that of his wife and model, Julie Bell, and to the work of their fellow fantasy artist, Frank Frazetta. Much of Vallejo's work, in other words, is of a fantastic or an erotic nature (sometimes both), although, at times, it touches upon the supernatural and the horrific as well.

After emigrating to the United States in 1964, Vallejo became well known for his illustrations of Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, and Doc Savage, successes which led to further commercial art assignments, critical acclaim, and a wide following of fans. His work includes many movie posters, advertising such motion pictures as Barbarella (1968), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), and many others.

Frazetta: Work That Is Beautiful Even When Horrific

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Artists are imaginative people. Most of us are, but few of us, unless we are artists ourselves, are as imaginative as those who make their livings by exercising--and, in the case of those artists who illustrate horror fiction, perhaps exorcising--their imaginations on a regular, if not routine, basis. In previous posts, we have considered the art of Rene Magritte (a superb surrealist), H. R. Giger (whose biomechanical art was accomplished with airbrushes), and the pen-and-ink illustrations of such Weird Tales artists as Margaret Brundage and Virgil Finlay. In this post, we turn our gaze upon Frank Frazetta, a pioneer in, and master of, contemporary fantasy, science fiction, and (occasionally) horror art.

The purpose of cover art, we argue, is to sell the magazines upon which it appears. For the male adolescents who made up most of the readership of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines devoted to horror, scantily clad or nude women, often in perilous situations, accounted for a lot of the images that appeared on the covers. Occasionally--especially when technique outweighed theme--such masters as Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, and Julie Bell departed from imperiled, half-naked maidens to depict other themes. Sometimes, a sexual--or a sexualized--undercurrent remained--but the direct appeal of this type of art was the physical and martial prowess of the hero, depicted as a sinewy, usually lone, adventurer who represented a law unto himself and just happened--most of the time, at least--to fight on the side of right. In other words, he was fantasy and horror’s answer to the knight in not-so-shining armor (who later was transfigured into the Western’s laconic sheriff or gunfighter).

If the nude or semi-nude damsel in distress represented the type of woman whom the adolescent male (or those adolescent males who read Weird Tales and its ilk, at any rate) wanted to meet, if not necessarily take home to mom, the barbarian as lone-wolf avenger and righter of wrongs represented this reader’s alter ego, the man whom he would like to be or, perhaps, to become. In Frazetta’s artwork, the two archetypical characters--imperiled damsel and anti-heroic rescuer--often were depicted together. In fact, there were often several nude or half-naked damsels in distress, all at the same time, for the hero (or anti-hero) (frequently, a barbarian) to rescue.

When Frazetta’s paintings weren’t suggesting to boys that real men rescue women (who, it seems, had a penchant for imperiling themselves), they created a mood that is consistent with mystery, if not always horror. A case in point is his painting, The Moon’s Rapture, the title of which is obviously a pun upon the use of “moon” as a slang term for the buttocks. In the painting, there are two moons--one lunar, the other anatomical. It goes without saying which of the two is the source of the adolescent male’s “rapture.”

The painting is interesting for more than its subject matter, however, as it demonstrates several features common to Frazetta’s artwork in general. A full moon, not featureless--shaded patches in green, purple, orange, and gray suggest craters--appears in a blue-gray sky, its upper hemisphere veiled, as it were, by the mossy branches of a great tree. The back of the female figure’s head overlaps the bottom arc of the moon, and her right arm is raised as she clutches one of the tree’s branches to support herself as she stares, presumably enraptured, at the moon. Nude, she stands upon one of the thick, serpentine boughs of the tree, one of her ankles crossed over the other, her left arm at her side.

Except for the moss-covered, mostly brown and gray limbs in the painting’s lower foreground, the muted blue-gray sky, and the dappled colors that signify the moon’s craters, the only other color in the painting is that of the female’s figure, which, since she is naked, is more extensive than it would be were she clothed. The effect of the darkness across the top of the painting, down its right edge, at its left edge, and at its bottom is to frame the female figure, drawing the viewer’s attention to her body and, since her buttocks are projected back, toward the viewer, as it were, as a result of her stance, focusing the viewer’s concentration upon her derriere. The title’s play on words, The Moon’s Rapture, is hard to miss. As the female figure is enraptured by the moon upon which she gazes, the viewer--likely to me male, since Frazetta illustrated the covers of magazines purchased largely by adolescent males--is enraptured by her own “moon.” This painting associates women and femininity with nature in general and with the moon in particular, as do many myths, legends, and literary traditions. Archetypes serve the painter’s purpose, giving the images a depth that they might not have otherwise, showing women to be forces as enchanting to men as the beauty and mystery of the natural order is, or can be, to women.

The Barbarian is typical of Frazetta’s depiction of the lone wolf who fends for himself, seeking vengeance or, more rarely, justice for others (usually an imperiled woman). Lean and mean, the barbarian stands, muscles bulging, his left hand resting upon the hilt of his unsheathed sword, which has penetrated the hill underfoot. His garb is slight, but exhibits his machismo. Pirate fashion, he wears earrings and sports a necklace that appears to have been fashioned of animal fangs or claws. His chest and abdominal muscles are as individually distinct as if they were sculpted from flesh instead of marble, and the wide, leather wristband and matching belt are both decorated with metal studs. An ornate scabbard hangs, empty, at his waist, from which dangles the lengths of a chain. On his right forearm, he wears a simple bracelet. He also wears boots with large cuffs. At first, because of the fiery yellow background against which he, an imposing, dark-haired, sun-darkened figure, stands, and the darkness of the mound upon which he is, as it were, rooted by his sword, it is not apparent that the hill is built not of soil alone but also of the body parts--an arm and a skull are visible--and a battleaxe--of enemies he has vanquished.

The fiery yellow sky behind him has an almost subliminal quality as well. After discerning the body parts in the hill, skulls, a castle upon a mountainside, vague suggestions of tree branches, and a bird--an eagle or maybe even a phoenix--emerge, as it were, from the wavering flames, representing, perhaps, the memories of the barbarian and the souls of the dead or both.

At the barbarian’s feet, her flesh of a hue similar to that of the fiery yellow sky, and looking as if she herself is emerging from the hill, a woman, nude but for the armbands that adorn her left biceps, rests her head against the barbarian’s left calf. Has she been rescued from the hands of the dead who lie beneath the victor’s feet? It seems that she is the only spoil of battle that he has seen fit to spare and, therefore, the only one that he regards as having any value. What is important in the barbarian’s world, Frazetta’s portrait of this pagan warrior suggests, is his physical and martial prowess, his memories of vanquished foes (or, it may be, his possession of their spirits), and women (albeit as little more than sex objects that may be acquired as possessions, or as part of the victors’ spoils of battle).

Part of the appeal of Frazetta’s work is that it is often based upon these archetypal, if sexist, images of the masculine and the feminine, suggesting that men are loners who wage war with one another, with beasts, and with the occasional monster, exhibiting their strength, stamina, and fighting skills, and, to the notion that, to the victor, go the spoils, including ubiquitous half-naked damsels in distress. In other words, his depictions of men and women fit the idealized, if adolescent, ideas of the sexes that are typical of the readers of the types of magazines upon the covers of which Frazetta’s work was apt to appear. The rest of the appeal of the artist’s illustrations and paintings lies in the superb talent and the accomplished technique with which Frazetta draws and paints. Even when he depicts horror, the result is, in its own peculiar way, a thing of beauty.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Certain Slant of Light

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Audiences who watched An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, or even earlier werewolf movies were treated (if such a word may be rightly used in such a context) to the sights (and sounds) of men and women being transformed into wolves--or, rather, bipedal werewolves. The shapes of their skulls changed radically, noses elongating into snouts; mouths enlarging into gaping maws full of sharp, jagged teeth; and ears popping up from their heads. The pupils in their eyes became vertical slits inside yellow irises. Their bodies bulked up like those of athletes on steroids, hands and feet stretching into long paws, tails sprouting from their backs, and fur covering every square inch of their bodies. It wasn’t a pretty sight. In fact, it was pretty appalling.

Other, equally horrific transformations have also been captured on celluloid. In The Fly, a scientist inventing a teleportation device that disassembles one’s molecules at Point A to reassemble them, at light speed, at Point B, is transformed into a fly when one of these insects’ DNA is accidentally mixed with the scientist’s own genetic material, just as the teleportation process gets underway. In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien pods replicate people, producing doppelgangers left and right, which is bad enough in itself--who needs two Paris Hiltons or Lindsay Lohans?--but it’s even worse when a man and his dog are merged during one such transformation, resulting in a truly bizarre creature consisting of a dog’s body with his master’s head--and face.

Even before horror (and science fiction), there were such transformations, of course. Quite a few of them took place in ancient myths. Ovid wrote of many in his poem, Metamorphoses, in which a statue becomes a woman, girls pursued by would-be rapists are turned into trees, and people are changed into such animals as magpies, deer, a bear, a wolf, and spiders. Even in the Bible, a few such metamorphoses occur, as when God turns Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt or Moses (and pharaoh’s magicians) transform sticks into serpents.

In reality, metamorphoses also occur. Women, becoming pregnant, for example, change shape rather drastically over a relatively short period of time. Living bodies become corpses. Men sometimes develop womanly breasts (a condition known as gynecomastia) and may even lactate, whereas a few women grow mustaches, beards, and thicker-than-usual body hair. Before science could explain such apparently miraculous occurrences, myth-makers made up myths to account for such extraordinary, unusual, or extreme transformations. Today, writers in such genres as fantasy, horror, and science fiction continue to do so, creating monstrosities that, one may suppose, would warm the hearts of editors and publishers at DC and Marvel Comics.

Before science, the world was full of divinities and demons, and, often, it was the activity of such spirits that caused the wonders of the world, including the metamorphoses through which rocks, plants, animals, and people sometimes went. In “The Growth of Explanatory Transformation Myth,” Professor Andrew Dickson White lists several of the many ways in which myth was used to explain--or to explain away--the oddities and seeming wonders of the world, such as “mountains, rocks, and boulders seemingly misplaced.” Many of these were the missiles, he says, of warring gods. In the Middle East, Christian or Muslim religion explains the odd appearance or unlikely locations of these natural objects, just as, in Asia, Buddhism accounts for the strange rock formations and “in Teutonic lands, as a rule, wherever a strange rock or stone is found, there will be found a myth or a legend, heathen or Christian, to account for it.”

Of course, more than just the appearance and location of rocks and mountains--or of even the lay of the land in general--is explained by etiological (explanatory) myths, and the explanations deal with the “why” as well as the “how” of things, answering such fundamental questions as why people die, why people have skins of various colors, why animals have certain features, why this ruler rules, or why this rite is practiced.

The College of Siskiyous (yes, it does exist; it’s a community college in Weed, California (yes, it does sound like a joke), near Mt. Shasta) offers a (a rather oddly written) summary of the role of the etiological myth, differentiating it, at the same time, from science’s similar role in explaining the whys and wherefores of the world:

While science might [?] say the sky is blue due to excited nitrogen and refractive dust particles, myth is more likely to explain [that] the blue is due to a giant bird’s blue feathers or the cold breath of an ancient god.
The same site challenges visitors to create their own etiological myth, offering several examples and these useful guidelines:

Your etiological narrative can be either a myth or a folktale. It can recount the creation of a well-known geographical feature (Mt Shasta, Lake Tahoe), specific animal traits (why dogs bark, why ants work together), taboos (why incest is wrong), customs (why people are buried underground). Please be descriptive. You may use dialogue, figurative language, or any other rhetorical device you wish. Try to imagine you are a member of an ancient culture, a pre-scientific culture, and myth is your vehicle of explanation. Indicate in the title whether your narrative is an etiological myth or an etiological folktale.
Writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror may want to employ a similar strategy in creating fantasy worlds, scientific marvels, or monsters. Forget the scientific explanation as to how and why something is what it is or does what it does. Instead, recapture the spirit, so to speak, of our ancient ancestors, looking at the world anew, or see it as young children see it, fresh and vivid. Ask yourself, How? Ask yourself, Why? (a child’s favorite question, as every parent knows). Be creative. As a result, you’re apt to infuse your fiction with excitement, glamour, chills, and thrills.

At Chillers and Thrillers, we don’t denigrate science. In fact, we appreciate and admire it. Besides, since many horror stories involve mad scientists and their attempts to transform, if not dominate, the world, we find the principles and theories of the sciences to be very useful. Nevertheless, from a mystical point of view, such as was common among pre-scientific societies, science seems to have demystified the world, depleting it of its deities and its demons, as Edgar Allan Poe observes in his “Sonnet--To Science” (written when he was but a lad of twenty years):

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise?
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

In “Intimations of Immortality,” William Wordsworth laments a similar loss of the magic and mystery of nature, as it appears through the eyes of a child, capturing, at the same time, a sense of the very “glory” the passing of which he mourns:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth. . . .

As long as we persist in seeing a snake only as science defines it--as “a legless reptile of the sub-order Serpentes with a long, thin body and a fork-shaped tongue,” (Allwords.com)--rather than as Emily Dickinson’s “narrow fellow in the grass” or D. H. Lawrence’s “king,” it shall never appear to us with the vividness--or the sheer presence--as Dickinson’s serpent:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,--did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Nor shall we see this “legless reptile” as Lawrence saw it:

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,

And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

All good fiction, whatever its genre, immerses its readers in the world, in sensory perceptions, in experience, bringing to life again that which was dead, and presenting to the attention that which is taken for granted, forgotten, or ignored. Intensity of presence, like the quality of mystery, is a hallmark of superior writing, especially in regard to imaginative prose or poetry.

However, as we have said before, horror is horror, not romance (or, for that matter, fantasy or science fiction or any other genre, although horror fiction may contain elements of any of these, and other, types of literature). Horror fiction has its own bent, its own interest, its own passionate concern. For horror, this focus is the dreadful, the horrific, the appalling. Horror fiction is, first and foremost, after all, the fiction of fear. It is fear that is the “certain slant of light” with which horror fiction is concerned, to borrow a phrase from another of Dickinson’s poems, one that has a peculiar suitability to chillers and thrillers:

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons--
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes--

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings are--

None may teach it--Any--
'Tis the Seal Despair--
An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air--
When it comes, the Landscape listens--
Shadows--hold their breath--
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death--

We discuss this “Heavenly Hurt” to which Dickinson alludes in a more detailed, if less poetic, fashion in “Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear,” our blog’s inaugural post:

Horror fiction provides us with a way of exercising and of exorcising our inner demons, but it also reminds us that life is short, and it suggests to us that we should be grateful to be alive, that we should appreciate what we have, and that we should take nothing for granted--not life, limb, mind, health, loved ones, or anything else. Horror fiction is a literary memento mori, or reminder of death.

In the shadow of death, we appreciate and enjoy the fullness of life.No one ever wrote a horror story about a man who stubbed his toe or a woman who broke a nail. Horror fiction's themes are bigger; they're more important. They're as vast and profound as the most critically important and most highly valued of all things. Horror fiction, by threatening us with the loss of that which is really important, shows us what truly matters. As such, it's a guide, implicitly, to the good life.Horror fiction also shows us, sometimes, at least, that no matter how bad things are, we can survive our losses. We can regroup, individually or collectively, subjectively or objectively, and we can continue to fight the good fight.

It is this “slant of light” of which Dickinson writes, or something very much like it, to which H. P. Lovecraft refers in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”:
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird tories because they suit my inclination best--one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
In setting aside the explanations of science and delving, once more, into that deep reservoir of what science might characterize as superstition, but what others might call faith, and seeing the world anew, as our ancient ancestors did or as young children still do, we reconnect with the mystery (and the dread, or awe) of life, immersing ourselves in the experience of Rudolph Otto’s numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that inspires faith in powers “wholly other” than, and greater than, our own, some of which may be friendly and helpful and some of which may be fiends and monsters. The numinous is neither exclusively divine nor exclusively demonic; rather, it is a quality of the mind or of an experience, which, in the Bible (and in the work of Soren Kierkegaard), is sometimes described as one of “fear and trembling.” In The Idea of the Holy, Otto describes the numinous, in part, as:
The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its "profane," non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strongest excitments, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering (12-13).
As Otto defines the term, the numinous is awful (that is, it fills one with awe), overpowering, urgent, fascinating, and completely alien to human experience.

In our “Why Monsters? Why Metaphors?” post, we identified the use of the monstrous, or grotesque, as having a purpose similar to that which Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, each in his or her own way, seeks to accomplish in his or her respective fiction; it seeks to grasp, to seize, and to awaken one to the presence of the depth and mystery of existence. We might also characterize this purpose as being to recover a perception of the holy, or the numinous. We said that monsters are often used as metaphors in horror fiction because monsters “they have presence”:

What do I mean by “presence”? Walker Percy illustrates the idea well in his novel The Moviegoer. His protagonist, Binx Bolling, a soldier at this time in the story, has been injured in a battle. As he lies upon the battlefield, he catches sight of a dung beetle. Normally, he probably wouldn’t have seen the insect and, if he had, he wouldn’t have been likely to devote careful study to it. However, he is not operating under normal circumstances, and he is astonished to see the beetle, in all its glorious detail. It has presence for him; it has become visible. In doing so, it has shed the malaise of everydayness and become real. Here’s the way that Percy describes the scene:

. . . I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. . . . Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched there awoke within me an immense curiosity. I was onto something.

Later, a similar experience happens to Binx:

. . . This morning, as I got up, I dressed as usual and began as usual to put my belongings into my pockets: wallet, notebook. . . pencil, keys, handkerchief, slide rule. . . . They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues. . . . What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it. It is as invisible as his own hand. Once I saw it, however, the search became possible. . . .

We can all remember the times, usually as a child, during which we could lose ourselves in the contemplation of everyday objects such as a daisy or a drop of dew. We could see each grain of pollen, every glistening color of the rainbow that seemed to emanate from within the clear drop of early morning dew as it shimmered upon a green leaf. All the world was present in a grain of sand.Then, as we grew older, things changed--or we changed. Saddled with responsibilities and governed by social expectations and conventions, our priorities changed. Eventually, we changed. We no longer had time to appreciate, admire, and embrace the world around us. We became alienated from our environment and estranged from or surroundings. We took for granted the wonders and enchantments of nature. More and more, the world began to disappear as we took birds and brooks, sun and moon, mountains and beaches, and pine trees and breezes for granted. The malaise of everydayness spread until we were nearly blind and deaf to the world around us. Things and people alike began to lack presence. Occasionally, something happens, and we see again. We hear again. The world becomes present to us again, as the dung beetle became present for Binx. We recover the world or, perhaps, only a tiny portion of the world--maybe nothing more than a dung beetle. But it’s a start. If we can see an insect today, maybe someday we can see a forest or, looking into a looking-glass, even ourselves. Monsters make us sit up and take notice. They grab our attention. They have immediate and intense presence, even in a world devoid of detail and force. Like a snake, a monster’s hard to miss. Emily Dickinson suggests this quality when she describes a hiker crossing a serpent’s path. . . . The monster, likewise, is noticeable, immediately. That’s one reason that horror writers employ the monstrous. Monsters have presence. They’re bold font, italics, exclamation points, underlining.

Flannery O’Connor, asked why her fiction contains so many grotesque characters--physically, emotionally, or spiritually deformed characters (monsters, of a sort, really)--implied that she wrote for a “hostile audience“ and explained that, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”

In “Creating Mood in Horror Fiction,”our review of Bram Stoker’s short story, “Dracula’s Guest,” we showed how a great writer in the horror genre creates a sense of the numinous by the way that he describes the various incidents which occur in the narrative and his protagonist’s experiences and perceptions. The techniques that Stoker uses to accomplish this feat are many and varied, as we point out in our review, but we want to recall a couple that seem especially relevant to our present discussion:

. . . The coachman’s account of the abandoned village gives the Englishman a definite destination, and he undertakes a hike into the valley, in search of the site of the deserted town. From a distance, the valley seemed enchanting, pleasant, and inviting, but, as he enters the basin, its appearance changes--or seems to change--becoming “desolation itself.” He pauses to rest, and the cold winter’s night and the gathering of high storm clouds cause him to realize that a blizzard is approaching. As he resumes his trek, the countryside appears “more picturesque,” and he becomes lost to time as he enjoys the “charm of [its] beauty” until, at length, “deepening twilight” turns his thoughts to finding his way back “home.” Stoker adds a discordant note to the “picaresque” scene, as, again, the Englishman hears the sound of a wolf. In this description of the woods, as in others to come, Stoker masterfully suggests that there may be some unseen power, acting behind the scenes, to manipulate and control the protagonist’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Readers are apt to get a strong impression that the valley, including its woods, is truly enchanted--that is, magical--and that the environment has cast a spell upon the traveler, seeming now desolate, now charming, and making him forget both himself and the time of day as he hikes farther and farther on his way to his “unholy” destination, Walpurgis Night fast approaching.

Earlier in the story, the coachman predicted the advent of a snowstorm, and the gathering clouds support Johann’s forecast. Now, when a blizzard begins, the storm seems natural enough. Indeed, it is expected. At the same time, however, because of the way that Stoker has described the woodland valley, readers are apt to wonder whether the occult power that seems to control the landscape may also be controlling the weather, for the blizzard begins at a most convenient moment, just as the traveler glimpses, through the trees, what appears to be a building and thinks that he has likely discovered the long-abandoned village that has become the object of his quest. This possibility is strengthened by the chorus of wolves’ howls he hears at this same moment and by the way in which the cypress trees form an “alley” that leads to the site. The storm, the wolves, and the “alley” of cypresses all seem to conspire, as it were, to guide and direct the Englishman to the same location. The sense that nature itself is being manipulated and controlled by an unseen power is strong, as is the sense that this same power (or another) is secretly observing the Englishman. These techniques increase the story’s suspense by multiplying the power of the narrative’s unseen protagonist, for whoever or whatever can control nature must be not only supernatural but also extremely powerful. The fact that the adversary is unseen is unnerving as well, because, obviously, one cannot defend oneself against an enemy that he or she cannot see. The invisibility of the adversary also lends it a certain majesty, suggesting, again, that it is beyond human ken. However, Stoker also leaves open the narrow possibility--and the possibility seems to become narrower all the time--that perhaps all is normal, except for the Englishman himself. Perhaps the protagonist merely believes that these incidents have a greater significance than they actually have. So far, there has been no definitive reason to suspect that the apparently supernatural force operating behind the scenes is supernatural or, in fact, that it exists at all. . . .

By using similar techniques, we argued, in “Horror By the Slice,” our review of “The Lurking Fear,” Lovecraft also succeeds in creating the impression of a mysterious, unseen power operating, as it were, behind the scenes, or, in other words, he likewise captures a sense of the numinous:

In the first part of the story, Lovecraft hints at several possible identities for his story’s antagonist or--he is not clear even as to their number--antagonists. The villain could be a ghost, a demon, or some sort of monster with fangs and claws. He is ambiguous as to the creature’s origin as well. Local residents believe that it is associated with the Martense mansion atop Tempest Mountain. However, the narrator of the story, who is also the narrative’s protagonist, suggests that it may be linked to the weather--particularly, to the thunder. (The mansion and the weather, in fact, may themselves be connected in some way, as the house’s location, atop a mountain that takes its very name from a storm, or “tempest,” suggests.) Lovecraft’s multiplication of these possibilities is only one instance of such multiplications to be found in “The Lurking Fear.” On one occasion, the protagonist is certain that the creature is “organic,” or corporeal, but, later, he is just as sure that it is incorporeal. Obviously, it cannot be both, so which is it, tangible or intangible?

Another way by which Lovecraft multiplies possibilities (and therefore promotes ambiguity) in his tale is by suggesting several possibilities as to the creature’s point of origin. It is said to dwell in “some secret place.” Is it located in the house, in Jan Martense’s grave, in an underground tunnel, in the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region,” or elsewhere? Indeed, at times, it seems to drop out of the sky. Is it of an aerial nature? Neither the protagonist nor his companions, George Bennett and William Tobey, staying overnight in the mansion, know whether to expect the ghost, the demon, or the clawed monster to attack them from within or from without the house, so they are careful to suspend three rope-ladders from the ledge on the wall outside the room, one for each of them, in the event that the monster’s assault is from outside rather from inside the house. When the creature abducts Bennett and Tobey, it’s as if the men simply ceased to exist: they are simply gone, leaving “no trace, not even of a struggle,” and are “never heard of again.” Repeatedly, the reader wonders just what sort of threat it is that the protagonist faces. There are clues aplenty as to its possible identity, but none of them add up. All is confused and ambiguous. Therefore, and thereby, the story’s horror is increased, and its terror mounts.

As do Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, James Rollins, and other masters of the horror genre, past and present, Lovecraft both captures the sense of the numinous described by Otto and suggests the “Heavenly Hurt” spoken of by Dickinson--two characteristics that are, as much as the madness, monsters, mayhem, and terror, the hallmarks of horror fiction, representing “the certain slant of light” that illuminates the interests of its writers, readers, critics, and aficionados. In the pages (or upon the screen) of horror fiction, we are in the presence, often, of a “wholly other” force that is overpowering, urgent, and fascinating. Of course, it also happens, more often than not, to be destructive and deadly. It may be a horrible fate to encounter a demon after all, and, as Jonathan Edwards (and, less directly, Stephen King), warns us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," to be sure.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Threat Recognition: Keeping It Real

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Most of us, if we survive our childhoods--no easy task, often--develop the ability to distinguish threatening situations, plants, animals, and other people from their non-threatening counterparts. How do we manage to do such a feat, within seconds or less, as often as necessary (except during naps)? Most people would probably attribute this ability to “instinct,” and, certainly, instinct (whatever is meant by this word) could have be one way--maybe the only way--by which this feat is accomplished. However, it seems reasonable that there may be something more to it than just the action of a genetic automatic target-recognition sixth sense or gut feeling. In this post, we offer a few additional possibilities, leaving it to the psychologists to determine whether any of these ideas seem worth the time and trouble of writing a multi-million-dollar grant proposal. (If it is, and the proposal is successful, remember who made the whole thing possible!)

Predators, scientists tell us, whether they (the predators, not the scientists) are lions, tigers, bears, or your Aunt Matilda, have binocular vision, with their eyes facing forward to look straight ahead, rather than having sideways-oriented oracular organs as do, for example, wildebeests, impalas, deer, and Uncle Henry. Doesn’t it seem possible--or even probable--that, over the centuries prey might come to understand that if the eyes face forward, danger threatens?

Likewise, anything that’s bigger than oneself, whether oneself is a shrimp, a slug, a sparrow, a bunny rabbit, or Cousin Bertha, is likely to be able to kill one and should be, at least until proper introductions are made and a chaperone armed with a 12-gauge shotgun is present, avoided.

Speed, too, may be a red flag, even though many prey animals are fairly fleet-footed themselves. There’s probably a reason that snakes are lightning quick and cheetahs run as fast as a lot of Mustangs--over a short distance, anyway. A fast animal, especially if it’s also relatively large, like a lion or a bear or a shark, ought to be avoided. Likewise, anything that just looks weird or scary, such as a snake or a puffer fish, should generally be kept at bay.

Most plants look harmless (although the Venus flytrap’s pretty scary looking, with all those thorny--or toothy--things along the edges of their leaves). Prey animals can learn something from them and their bright-colored animal friends (or foes), too, though. Some plants, like some animals, mimic dangerous cousins (and, sometimes, grandparents). Bright colors, scientists tell us (possibly as a result of a little too much experimentation) often indicate poison, in both plants and animals, and some harmless ones imitate the dangerous ones by assuming the deadly varieties’ coloration. Anything that’s imitated--female impersonators, for instance--are best avoided.

Persons, places, or things that move--things that move?--Sure, we’re talking horror, right?--in numbers (killer bees, a school of piranhas, a pack or wolves or hyenas, a graveyard full of zombies--should, it goes without saying, be avoided, evaded, and otherwise eluded. (Remember The Birds?)

Sen. John McCain, a Republican in name only (RINO)

Anything that has something you don’t have--armor-quality skin, fangs, claws, spines, quills, thorns, rabies, or whatever--is also a no-no when it comes to even casual dating. Avoid these creatures; they are armed and dangerous.

By knowing what constitutes a potential threat, horror writers can lend verisimilitude to their stories by describing threats in reference to the features that may, to the plants and animals that have learned, as the victims of such bullies, what clues to look for, which, again, includes straight-ahead binocular vision, large size, fast speed, Technicolor apparel, a pack mentality, or some sort of organic weapon.

If the threat’s not human or animal or vegetable--if it’s some kind of machine, for example--a website such as that of Federation of American Scientists (listed among our “Recommended Sites” at the bottom of this column) can shed more light than heat, we hope, upon threat-recognition as it applies to enemy aircraft, artillery, poisons, and other weapons systems, at least.

In other words, you’re pretty safe with roses and daises--unless you’re allergic to pollen or there are killer bees about.

Remember, knowing what constitutes a threat--or the appearance of one--helps you to keep it real as a writer. Who knows? It may even save a life.

Note: The photographs that appear in this post are from the U.S. Government Photos and Graphics website. (In other words, you paid for them.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tag! You’re It!

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Occupy the seats. These three words summarize the box office imperative of movie theaters across the country. Since motion picture studios are in business to make money and, in their industry, making money is based upon selling tickets, movies, to be, must be perceived. To entice potential audience members, trailers or previews of movies are shown. Another tactic, besides advertising in general and the movie poster in particular, is the use of the movie tagline.

A tagline is a short, sometimes witty, slogan that focuses readers’ attention upon specific features of the film--often its storyline. As we will see, though, a well-written tagline can intimate much more than simply the basic plot of its film. Since Chillers and Thrillers is concerned with the theory and practice of writing horror fiction, we’ll consider the taglines for movies in this genre. Makes sense, right?

Some taglines suggest the identities of the protagonist and the antagonist and intimate the nature of the basic conflict between them. Of course, the antagonist is going to be in some way horrific, as is the struggle that takes place between the two main characters--we’re talking horror, after all, not romance--and, no, they’re not the same thing (not always, or necessarily, at any rate). Here’s an example:

His mind is her prison (The Cell).
This tagline suggests that the antagonist is likely to be a stalker. The tagline tells us that he is a male, and his prisoner is a female. His thoughts about the protagonist somehow imprison her. Apparently, he is obsessed with her. He is likely to have stalked her. Whether he has, in fact, kidnapped her is unspecified, but possible--even likely.

This tagline is effective. In only five words, it identifies the type of protagonist (a victim) and antagonist (a stalker or a kidnapper) and the nature of the struggle between them. It also raises a few tantalizing questions.

If she has been adducted, where is she being held captive (other than in his mind)? If “his mind is her prison,” is he a control freak and, perhaps, a sadist? If she is literally a captive, will she escape? If so, how? If not, why not? Does her captor kill her? In what manner, and why? Is torture involved?

The title of the movie, The Cell, constitutes an effective play on words, for a cell can be a compartment in a jail or prison, but it is also the tiny, constituent structure of body organs, including the brain. “Mind” and “brain,” while not necessarily synonymous (depending upon one’s worldview), are often used more or less interchangeably. Therefore, the play on words links the mental state of the antagonist and the physical prison in which the antagonist is likely to be incarcerated, reinforcing the tagline’s message, “His mind is her prison.”

The next tagline lacks a context (until one reads the title of the movie to which the tagline refers):
Bigger. Smarter. Faster. Meaner. (Deep Blue Sea)
What’s “bigger, smarter, faster, and meaner”? We aren’t told. Therefore, we’re free to imagine what these adjectives refer to. They could refer to a machine, to a new species resulting from bioengineering or eugenics, or to a robot or cyborg assassin. In fact, it’s a maritime threat, and the comparative forms of the adjectives in the tagline compare it, favorably, against the great white shark that appeared as the monster in Jaws. This tagline, in alluding to a previous movie, appeals to the fans of the Steven Spielberg film, but suggests that the movie to which it refers, Deep Blue Sea, will be even more chilling and thrilling than Jaws was. “If you liked Jaws,” it suggests, “you’ll love Deep Blue Sea.” After all, this movie, like its monster, will be “bigger, smarter, faster, and meaner” than Jaws.

We can get out of most difficulties by using a variety of Freudian defense mechanisms or even simpler techniques such as lying, rationalizing, excusing, and blaming others (not that any of these tactics is justifiable or recommended). In fact, an aphorism suggests that there are but two things that one cannot avoid: death and taxes. This tagline offers a similar observation:
Death doesn’t take “no” for an answer (Final Destination).
Death is unavoidable; it “doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Therefore, the grave is our “final destination,” as the title of the movie, in the context supplied to it by its tagline, suggests. Of course, the tagline also suggests that we’re in imminent danger: death has asked us to join him (or it), and he (or it) is awaiting our answer--which had better be “yes,” since “Death doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Is there a fate worse than death? Hamlet thought so:

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the
rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. . . .

Many others, both fictional and living, believe the same thing, more or less, and are afraid that there may very well be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in. . . [their] philosophy,” including, perhaps, hell. The fear of damnation, which still beats within the breasts of many, is the wellspring of terror upon which the following tagline depends for its gush of dread, implying that, as great as it may be to lose one’s life, the loss of one’s eternal soul is unimaginably worse:
You have nothing to lose but your soul (Lost Souls)

The next tagline refers to a game, and a common metaphor compares life to a game:

The game is far from over (Along Came a Spider)
Other types of games may spring to mind, too, such as the rather sadistic “game of cat and mouse,” wherein a predator amuses itself by tormenting its prey. If the game in question is life--and life, perhaps, spent in misery, as the victim of a sadist who amuses himself by tormenting his victim--and “the game is far from over,” a sense of horror asserts itself readily enough.

(We were much more frightened when we thought that the tagline might refer to Hillary Clinton’s winning the White House! After all, she’s always assuring us--or herself, perhaps--that the Democratic primary, a game if ever there was one, “is far from over.”)

Like most taglines, this one lacks a context--until the title of the movie with which it is associated is read. Along Came a Spider is taken from the “Little Miss Muffet” nursery rhyme:

Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Therefore, this tagline comprises a literary allusion. After describing a picture of innocence and everyday comfort (a little girl, dining), the tagline introduces a threat--the spider, an unwelcome intruder, which violates the heroine’s personal space, sitting “down beside her,” and frightens her. The tagline also suggests that the nursery rhyme has some bearing upon the movie’s plot, theme or, perhaps, its protagonist or antagonist (or both). If we haven’t yet seen the film, we may not be sure of the exact nature of the significance the nursery rhyme has in regard to the film, but we can be pretty certain that, whatever it is, it will be horrendous, and that it will involve the frightening intrusion of a threat upon an innocent. (In fact, the allusion is a bit more tenuous than we might anticipate; the movie turns out to be more of a thriller than a chiller, the Little Miss Muffet of which is a congressman’s daughter who is abducted from a private school by the kidnapper, or “spider.”)

It seems that, everyday, we seek to impose our wills upon others or others attempt to impose their wills upon us. We seek constantly to make others do our bidding or to take upon themselves our likeness, just as others seek to do the same with regard to us. Sometimes, we acquiesce willingly. Other times, we allow ourselves to be used or changed or manipulated or controlled only under protest and duress. The next tagline suggests that the latter is likely to be the case in regard to those who may now be less than perfect (according to someone else’s standards) but need not worry, for, after all, they are about to undergo a metamorphosis, most likely against their will:
It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect. You will be (Disturbing Behavior).
Sure enough, the movie involves a plot by townspeople to transform their rebellious teens into perfect citizens. (Ironically, what’s “disturbing” about the teens’ behavior is that it’s literally too good to be true.)

Personification (the attribution of human characteristics or behaviors to animals or inanimate objects) is not uncommon in taglines, and this one makes use of this literary device, assigning “appetite” to the “night,” and transforming the darkness at day’s end, therefore, into something that is like to be beastly or monstrous (for, again, we’re talking horror movies here, not romances):

The night has an appetite (The Forsaken).
Most likely, the veterans of horror movie madness will think, this movie, The Forsaken (short, perhaps for The Godforsaken), deals with something on the order of vampires or werewolves. (In fact, the film’s antagonists are the undead.)

Mothers, God bless them, are more full of cautionary tales and aphorisms than the Bible. With their children’s best interests and welfare always at heart, they have a wise word for every occasion. They also have some verbal pearls to cast even when there is nothing particular about an upcoming event. These all-purpose pearls, of course, tend to be more general in scope than the occasion-specific gems. Here’s one of the more inclusive Mom Maxims:
Be careful who you trust (The Glass House).
Pretty sound advice, even if it’s a tad general--especially in a horror movie. Some people, we learn, are not worthy of our trust. The movie’s title calls to mind another aphorism: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” meaning that the pot is ill-advised to call the kettle black, since it takes one to know one or something like that. In this movie, the glass house, however, turns out to be the home of the Glasses, Terrence and Erin, who are the former Malibu neighbors of two siblings whose parents are killed in a car crash. After their parents’ deaths, the children, Ruby and Rhett Baker, are taken in by the Glasses, who treat them well--at first. Ruby then finds some evidence that suggests that the Glasses, motivated by the chance to get their greedy hands on their new wards’ four-million-dollar trust fund, may have been responsible for her parents’ deaths. The Glasses are not as transparent as they seem; they have some dark secrets. Once again, Mom’s Maxims prove to be right on the money. (An alternate tagline for this movie is “It’s time to kick some Glass.”)

The next tagline speaks for itself:

What’s eating you? (Jeepers Creepers)
It doesn’t, really, of course. It’s only a rhetorical question, after all. Isn’t it? As it turns out, it can be taken literally: in the film, a pair of siblings, Darry and Patricia Jenner, on their way home through an isolated stretch of countryside during spring break, encounter a cannibalistic creature known as The Creeper. (The “What’s” part of the question suggests, on a figurative level, that there’s something the matter, emotionally, perhaps, with the person being eaten, as it were. On the literal level, the same part of the question implies that the identity of the devourer is unknown, perhaps mysterious or even monstrous, as though one were really asking “What in hell is eating you?”)

The movie’s title derives from part of a 1938 jazz song:

Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?
Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those eyes?
Gosh, all get up! How’d they get so lit up?
Gosh, all get up! How’d they get that size?
Golly gee! When you turn those heaters on, woe is me!
Got to get my cheaters on. Jeepers Creepers,
Where’d you get those peepers? Oh, those weepers!
How they hypnotize! Where’d you get those eyes?
Where’d you get those eyes? Where’d you get those eyes?
The tagline for Jeepers Creepers II maintains the allusion to eating, but defines the moviegoer as the monster’s food: “He can taste your fear.”

Shamelessly, the tagline for The Fly--in which fly DNA gets scrambled with the human DNA of a mad scientist who, having too much time on his hands, is working out the kinks of a teleportation device that disassembles matter and reassembles it elsewhere--tells the potential audience just how they should feel while whiling away the hours in front of the screen showing this movie:

Be afraid. Be very afraid (The Fly).

The next tagline identifies the setting--a place far more remote than the locales in which the action of most horror movies takes place--and suggests that something dreadful is going to take place therein, something that would make its victims scream:

In space, no one can hear you scream (Alien).
Why do people scream when they’re afraid? “Duh! Because they’re afraid!” is the obvious answer, but, according to evolutionary biologists there’s another, somewhat more profound reason for this unseemly behavior. Screaming is the human equivalent of an air-raid siren, a car alarm, or an emergency vehicle siren: to annoy the hell out of everyone who hears it’s incessant, screeching wail. No, really, the purpose is to alert, to alarm, to warn, to get others’ attention. It’s a cry for help. The fact that “in space, no one can hear you scream” adds another layer to the distress of the victim, heightening the horror of the injured party’s fate, because screaming, as an attention-getter, is of no avail: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

There are many, many other taglines, and we may analyze a few more in other posts, but, for now, let’s consider what these slogan-like ad pitches teach us about writing horror:
  • They describe a basic situation that lacks a context, the context being provided by the title of the film for which the tagline is a pitch, making a sort of game out of the two elements (title and tagline).
  • They pique our interest by identifying the main characters (protagonist and antagonist) and suggesting the nature of the conflict between them.
  • They include plays on words that associate literal with figurative meanings, relating physical actions to emotional states.
  • They allude to similar films, suggesting that they are better (read scarier) than their competitors.
  • They confront their audience with a powerful, apparently unstoppable foe.
  • They personify non-human threats.
  • They place characters in nearly impossible situations that are likely to get them dismembered or killed (or both).

An opening paragraph in a short story, the first chapter of a novel, or the first fifteen minutes or so of a movie that accomplishes one of these feats is likely to hook its reader or viewer, too.

The aspiring writer isn’t--or shouldn’t be--too proud to beg, borrow, or steal--well, not steal, maybe--effective techniques wherever he or she may find them, including the lowly motion picture tagline. Nothing succeeds like success, after all, and, yes, sometimes “brevity” certainly is “the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare’s Polonius advised.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Fictional Stories as Thought Experiments

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to James Robert Brown’s article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, thought experiments are “devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.” (This definition makes fiction itself a grand and complex thought experiment, we may argue.) Among the more famous of such experiments are “Newton’s bucket, Maxwell’s demon, Einstein’s elevator, Heisenberg’s gamma-ray microscope, and Shrodinger’s cat”:

Schrödinger's cat. . . does not show that quantum theory (as interpreted by Bohr) is internally inconsistent. Rather it shows that it is conflict with some very powerful common sense beliefs we have about macro-sized objects such as cats. The bizarreness of superpositions in the atomic world is worrisome enough, says Schrödinger, but when it implies that same bizarreness at an everyday level, it is intolerable. . . . Einstein's elevator showed that light will bend in a gravitational field; Maxwell's demon showed that entropy could be decreased. . . . Newton's bucket showed that space is a thing in its own right; Parfit's splitting persons showed that survival is a more important notion than identity when considering personhood (“Thought Experiments”).

Thought experiments are just as important to philosophy, Brown observes, as they have proven to be to science: “Much of ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind is based firmly on the results of thought experiments,” and, to illustrate his observation, he identifies several of the more important philosophical thought experiments: “Thompson's violinist, Searle's Chinese room, Putnam's twin earth, Parfit's people who split like an amoeba.” (We might add the example of the philosophical zombie, discussed in a previous post, as well.)

Describing an early thought experiment, which appears in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Brown identifies three “common features of thought experiments”: “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens.”

Like special effects, thought experiments can be conducted even when actual conditions or moral considerations make an actual experiment impossible or objectionable.

Occasionally, thought experiments might help to revolutionize scientific theory as well, according to Thomas Kuhn: “a well-conceived thought experiment can bring on a crisis or at least create an anomaly in the reigning theory and so contribute to paradigm change” (Brown). For additional benefits from, and some objections that scientists and philosophers have advanced concerning the use of thought experiments, those which were conducted by the likes of Newton and Einstein notwithstanding, check out Brown’s article (liked above).

We suggest that, before science, there were also thought experiments, called fiction (or, before fiction was recognized as invented rather than of an inspired or an empirical origin), as myths, folktales, and legends. Ancient Greek (and Egyptian and Norse) myths were of special significance in establishing the ways by which storytellers and their audiences (pretty much all of any society of the time) understood, thought about, and interpreted themselves and the world around them. Such stories, from time to time, also sought to investigate the possibilities of human existence and of nature. At such times as these, the myths became what we could call narrative or dramatic thought experiments. Even today, stories, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres, continue to pose and conduct thought experiments about all aspects of human existence and nature itself. Horror fiction also conducts such experiments on occasion (as the popularity of the mad scientist, for example, suggests).

Brown’s analysis of Lucretius’ thought experiment led him to posit three features characteristic of all thought experiments: “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens.” The what-if mode of envisioning stories (an abbreviated way of saying “What might happen if”), common, once again, to fantasy and science fiction (and to alternate history stories) virtually demands such an approach, at least at times, but horror fiction and literature in other genres can do so, too. In horror fiction, we might ask, “What if a chemical compound could, when ingested, cause abnormally large growth in the animals that had consumed it?” The result of this visualization of a specific situation, carried out by the telling of the tale, might be H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, in which the result is shown to be an imminent war between the haves (the “Children of the Food” and the have-nots (the “Pygmies”) to determine whether growth shall win out over the non-growth of the status quo.

Unhampered by modern science’s knowledge of natural laws, Greek myths (as well as those of other ancient nations) asked what-if questions with the abandonment that can result only from the naiveté of the abysmally ignorant:

  • What if a person (or maybe a demon) could assume whatever shape it chose, for as long as it chose to do so?
  • What if a person were of gigantic size and had a single eye in the middle of his forehead?
  • What if a creature were half-man and half-horse?What if a creature were half-woman and half-fish?
  • What if a horse, having wings, could fly?
  • What if men and women lived forever and could rule over various aspects of nature?
  • What if one man had the strength of twenty men?
  • What if women could fight as good as--no, better than--men?
  • What if a woman had a baby after being raped by the devil?
  • What if God mated with a mortal woman?
  • What if a house were haunted by a vengeful ghost?

Horror fiction asks similar (or, indeed, on occasion, identical) questions, but with an emphasis on the horrific:
  • What if a person (or maybe a demon) could assume whatever shape it chose, for as long as it chose to do so? (It)
  • What if a demon could animate a corpse? (Dracula)
  • What if the spirits of the dead exist in some shadowy manner and can interact with humans? (The Turn of the Screw)
  • What if a scientist could cause a body constructed of parts from corpses to live again? (Frankenstein)
  • What if a man could change into a wolf and back again into a man? (The Howling)
  • What if a woman, raped by the devil, gave birth to a son? (Rosemary’s Baby)
  • What if a child abuser, torched by his victims’ parents, returned as a vengeful bogeyman? (Nightmare on Elm Street) \
  • What if an extraterrestrial female came to earth, seeking a mate? (Species)
  • What if vampires came to a small town in modern America? (‘Salem’s Lot)
  • What if a modern-day Cinderella with telekinetic powers had a terrible time at the ball? (Carrie)
  • What if myths were based upon true incidents or creatures? (Dominion)
  • What if the earth were invaded by a Martian military force (The War of the Worlds)
  • What if a scientist tried to create an intelligent, hybrid human-animal species? (The Island of Dr. Moreau)
  • What if a brain could survive inside a decapitated head on life-support? (The Brain That Wouldn’t Die)
  • What if an extraterrestrial creature, trapped in a block of ice, were thawed out by a group of scientists operating an arctic research laboratory? (The Thing)

These and countless other what-if questions allow writers to envision a situation that is improbable or impossible in nature or because of moral concerns, carry out a thought experiment (writing or reading the resulting story), and see what happens. Different genres appeal to different concerns and respond to different issues:

  • Adventure appeals to the desire to escape and to explore new worlds.
  • Detective and mystery stories appeal to the desire to solve a puzzle and to see that justice is served.
  • Fantasy appeals to the desire for experience wonder and awe.
  • Horror appeals to the desire to survive against seemingly impossible odds and to endure great losses and suffering.
  • Science fiction appeals to one’s innate curiosity about the world and the desire to discern the realities behind appearances.
  • Romance appeals to the desire to meet and marry Mr. Right.
  • Westerns appeal to the desire for law, order, and justice, especially for the underdog.

Each genre of fiction is apt to pose imaginary (and imaginative) situations that, peculiarly appropriate to their own purposes, allow writers and readers to “carry out an operation” and “see what happens” with regard to the genres’ own special interests and concerns. As much as the myths, legends, and folktales of yesteryear, contemporary fiction, including horror stories, remains a vast and complex series of never-ending thought experiments that can draw upon not only science and philosophy but also theology, art, and all other cultural realms and practical aspects of human existence.

Source cited

Brown, James Robert. "Thought Experiments.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Going Through the Motions, or The Physics of Fiction

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Viewing a subject from an unfamiliar or little-used perspective renews one’s own appreciation and understanding of the matter, making the familiar appear strange and new again. In The Physics of Superheroes, Professor James Kakalios, himself a physicist, provides such a vantage point as he applies the principles of physics to the powers of costumed crime fighters with superhuman abilities in order to explain why they could perform the feats they routinely perform (or, in some cases, why they could not perform such deeds), given the willing suspension of disbelief that is required to accept the premise that these characters can perform such exploits to begin with, the “miracle exception” that represents “the one thing you have to buy into to make the superhero plausible” and that allows “the rest that follows” to “be consistent with science” (15). The various superheroes whose mighty deeds Kakalios considers comprise a true who’s who list of caped crusaders (and a few super villains), including Superman, Spider-man, Flash, and Ant-man (in “Section 1” of his book, concerning “Mechanics”) and Flash, The Atom, the X-Men, Superman, Electro, Superboy, Magneto, Iron Man, and others (in "Section 2" of his book, concerning "Energy--Heat and Light.") It’s an interesting book for bookworms like Peter Parker and geeks of all ages.

We’re interested in the book for reasons of our own, though, which pertain to the theory and practice of writing horror fiction. The principles that Kakalios uses to explain the actions of the superheroes and villains in DC and Marvel Comics also explain how, if not always exactly why, horror fiction chills and thrills its readers, offering a fresh way of seeing the effects of dramatic structure and plotting.

In the first section of The Physics of Superheroes, Kakalios reminds his readers of the “three laws of motion” laid down by Sir Isaac Newton:
  1. An object at rest remains at rest, or if moving remains moving in a straight line if no external forces act upon it.
  2. If an external force is applied, the object’s motion will change in either magnitude or direction, and the rate of change of the motion (its acceleration) when multiplied by the object’s mass is equal to the applied force.
  3. For every force applied to an object there is an equal and opposite force exerted back by the object (24-25).

Let’s apply these laws of motion to the horror story plot (or, for that matter, any other type of plot).

According to Gustav Freytag, an incident in the story’s plot sets everything that follows it into motion. This incident, called the inciting moment, is like a spark that starts a fire or, in terms of Newton’s laws of motion, it is the external force that changes the plot-as-object’s motion, causing it to take a new direction. Were it not for the inciting moment, the plot would continue forward, in a straight line, so to speak, rather than changing direction as it begins its upward climb which commences what Freytag calls the plot’s rising action.

The third law of motion is also useful as a means of envisioning what writers, literary critics, and readers call conflict, for it is the “force applied” by the protagonist to the antagonist, or “object,” countered by the “equal and opposite force exerted back” by the antagonist that balances the story’s action (at least until the turning point, a second inciting moment of sorts, which intervenes to set the plot off in a new, downward direction, as it were, Freytag’s falling action.

As Kakalios points out, the second law of motion (“If an external force is applied, the object’s motion will change in either magnitude or direction, and the rate of change of the motion (its acceleration) when multiplied by the object’s mass is equal to the applied force”) can be represented by the mathematical formula F = ma, wherein F = force, m = mass, and a = acceleration (25). (Acceleration differs from velocity, Kakalios reminds his readers. The former refers to the change in speed over time, whereas the latter refers to the change in speed over distance [30].) Mass is simply a measure of how many atoms make up an object. A piece of plastic is made up of relatively few atoms, whereas lead is comprised of many more atoms, packed, as it were, in an equal amount of space. The more atoms-per-space (mass) and the greater the rate of acceleration, the more force results. In terms of story plotting, we mentally replace atoms with narrative incidents (or, in description, perhaps with action verbs and shorter sentences). The more incidents, action verbs, and sentences we “pack” into a passage, the greater its force, or narrative effect, upon the reader. It seems that Edgar Allan Poe has something similar to this concept, minus the physical laws of motion, in mind, when he argues, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” that a shorter story, especially one that can be read in “a single sitting,” without interruption, has a greater effect upon its readers than a longer story which is, in effect, simply a series of shorter stories told successively and related to one another through cause and effect. To make a story more horrifying, speed up the action (writing action verb-packed short sentences in a rapid-fire series of narrative incidents); to slow the pace and the story’s effect (horror), slow down the same process.

It seems that, understood figuratively, Newton’s laws of motion apply to plotting horror fiction (and other literary genres) as much as they do to physical and mechanical motion.

Source cited

Kakalios, James. The Physics of Superheroes. New York: Gotham Books, 2005.

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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