Fascinating lists!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Contemporary Horror Fiction Bookshelf

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In other posts, we have dropped the names of several of the horror genre’s greatest authors, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and H. P. Lovecraft. In addition, in his 10-part series concerning “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft himself lists many additional big names among the masters of the genre. What’s missing is a roster of the names of horror fiction’s contemporary masters. This post fills this gap on the horror fiction bookshelf by naming the names of many of those who are missing in action, so to speak.

A word or two of explanation is in order, though, for those who are new to this type of reading. First, contemporary horror fiction tends, more so, in many cases, than its predecessors, to mix various other genres with its own, so that science fiction, fantasy, detective, adventure, folklore, myth, legend, and even romance and Western elements become part and parcel of the bogeyman stories. That’s quite a literary stew, but anyone who follows any literary genre long enough will find that, along the way, whatever path it takes, it will include, from time to time, not only elements from other types of fiction, but also a good many themes and topics from such academic disciplines as theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, geography, geology, anthropology, archaeology, biology, botany, zoology, astronomy, history, art, and a host of others. Fiction’s value lies, largely, in fact, in its capacity to impinge upon all these territories, bringing together in dramatic or narrative form, the whole experience of humanity. Horror fiction is no exception. For this reason, expect to find, in the works of the authors whose works belong to the contemporary horror fiction bookshelf many of these other literary genres and academic disciplines. Second, even a list of contemporary horror fiction won’t likely to be exhaustive. This one certainly won’t be. Rather, it offers a roster of many of the names of writers who are writing today whose names would show up on almost anyone’s list of such authors. Once one becomes a fan of horror fiction, he or she will no doubt find additional writers to add to his or her own contemporary horror fiction bookshelf. The names in this post are a start, and a good and reliable one at that. (The works listed are novels; short stories, although, in some cases, they are numerous, are not included in the list.) As with all writers, some of their works are better than others; I have indicated the ones I found to be superior in red font.

Stephen King: Bag of Bones, Black House, Blaze (written as Richard Bachman), Carrie, Cell, Christine, The Colorado Kid (detective, rather than horror), Cujo, Cycle of the Werewolf (illustrated), The Dark Half, The Dark Tower series (seven novels), The Dead Zone, Desperation (companion novel to The Regulators), Dolores Claiborne, Dreamcatcher, Duma Key, The Eyes of the Dragon, Firestarter, From a Buick 8, Gerald’s Game, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Green Mile, Insomnia, It, Lisey’s Story, The Long Walk, Misery, Needful Things, Pet Semetary, The Plant, Rage, The Regulators (companion novel to Desperation), Roadwork (written as Richard Bachman), Rose Madder, The Running Man (written as Richard Bachman), ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Talisman (written with Peter Straub), Thinner (written as Richard Bachman), Tommyknockers. (King’s official website).

Dean Koontz: Odd Hours, The Good Guy, Brother Odd, The Husband, Forever Odd, Frankenstein (three-book series; two have been written to date), Velocity, Life Expectancy, The Taking, Odd Thomas, The Face, By the Light of the Moon, One Door Away from Heaven, From the Corner of His Eye, False Memory, Seize the Night, Fear Nothing, Sole Survivor, Tick Tock, Intensity, Icebound, Strange Highways, Dark Rivers of the Heart, Winter Moon, Mr. Murder, Hideaway, Cold Fire, The Servants of Twilight, Shadowfires, The Bad Place, Midnight, Lightning, Watchers, Twilight Eyes, The Mask, Whispers, The Funhouse, The Voice of Night, The Key to Midnight, The Vision, Face of Fear, Night Chills, Invasion, Dragonfly. (Koontz has also written a number of science fiction novels, the genre with which he started his career. He wrote some of these novels and others under various pen names: David Axton, Brian Coffey, Deanna Dwyer, K. R. Dwyer, John Hill, Leigh Nichols, Anthony North, Richard Paige, Owen West, Aaron Wolfe, and Leonard Chris. Although Koontz denies it, some researchers contend that, much to his current regret and dismay, under the Leonard Chris pen name, Koontz wrote a 1970 erotic potboiler, Hung, and, according to Stu Weaver, Koontz may also have written “13 other erotica titles under as many as 5 other pseudonyms.”). Koontz and his dog Trixie maintain a website.

Bentley Little: The Academy, The Vanishing, The Burning, Dispatch, The Resort, The Policy, The Return, The Association, The Walking, The Town, The Ignored, The House, The Store, Dominion, University, The Summoning, Death Instinct (written as Phillip Emmons), The Mailman, The Revelation. Little does not maintain a website.

Robert McCammon: The Queen of Bedlam, Speaks the Nightbird, Gone South, Boy’s Life, Blue World, MINE, The Wolf’s Hour, Stinger, Swan Song, Usher’s Passing, Mystery Walk, They Thirst, The Night Boat, Bethany’s Sin, Baal. (McCammon’s official website is robertmccammon.com).

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: Relic, Reliquary, Cabinet of Curiosities, Still Life with Crows, Brimstone, Dance of Death, Book of the Dead, Wheel of Darkness, Mount Dragon, Riptide, Thunderhead, The Ice Limit. (Both Preston and Child have also written both novels and non-fiction separately, under their own individual bylines--Child has written Death Match and Deep Storm; Preston has written Monster of Florence, Blasphemy, Tyrannosaur Canyon, The Codex, Cities of Gold, Ribbons of Time, The Royal Road, Jennie, and Dinosaurs in the Attic). The authors maintain a joint website, located at Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child).

James Rollins: Amazonia, Deep Fathom, Excavation, Subterranean, Ice Hunt, Sandstorm, Map of Bones, Black Order, The Last Oracle. (Rollins maintains a website at jamesrollins.com).

Dan Simmons: Carrion Comfort, Song of Kali, Summer of Night, Children of the Night, Fires of Eden, A Winter’s Haunting. (Simmons, who also writes science fiction, thrillers, and mainstream novels, maintains an official website at dansimmons.com).

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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