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Monday, May 26, 2008

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.

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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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