Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Endings: How Would You Finish The Story?

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, “Beginnings: How Would You Finish the Story?,” we reminded you that a story, after presenting background information, begins with an inciting moment--an incident that sparks the action that follows (the story proper). Following this moment, the story’s conflict is complicated as increasingly difficult obstacles are thrown into the protagonist’s path until a turning point is reached and the story starts in the opposite direction, ending in a resolution (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy). Then, we provided summaries of the way that three well-known horror stories begin and invited you to create your own middles and endings for these stories, alternative to the actual ones that the writers of these stories wrote. We suggested that you then consult an Internet source to see how the actual stories developed their middles and endings. The stories are Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Stephen King’s Needful Things, and The Thing From Another World. In “Middles: How Would You Finish the Story?,” we summarized the ways in which the writers of these stories actually did develop the stories’ middle portions. In this post, we summarize how these writers ended their stories and offer a few comments concerning these endings. We invite you to consider how you might have ended them, reminding you that alternate endings actually are filmed for some motion pictures, which shows that there is more than one effective way to bring one’s narrative to a close.
Toward the end of the middle of Psycho, Marion Crane’s sister Lila has rented a room with Marion’s boyfriend, Sam, to investigate Marion’s disappearance, and, while Sam distracts Norman, Lila enters the fruit cellar in Norman’s house, which overlooks the motel, and discovers Norman’s secret: the mother with whom he converses--and argues--is actually a half-rotten, mummified corpse! After knocking Sam unconscious, Norman, wearing his mother’s clothes and wielding a knife and calling himself “Norma,” attacks Lila with a knife, but Sam, having recovered, saves Lila.
Let’s see how the writers ended their story:

The end of the story explains the bizarre incidents which have taken place in the middle of the story. After Sam disarms Norman, he is arrested. A psychiatrist, having examined Norman, explains that he has a split personality, and that the dominant one, that of his deceased mother, Norma, has taken over completely. Besides the murder of Marion and the detective who came to the Bates Motel in search of her, Norman is likely responsible for the murders of two additional missing women. His identity crisis began, the doctor says, ten years ago. Norman was already seriously disturbed. When his father died, he was left alone with only his mother. They two developed an unusually close relationship. When Norma met another man, Norman felt as if she had rejected him in favor of her newfound suitor. He reacted by killing them both. His guilt at having killed his mother caused him to resurrect her, first by stealing her body from its grave and using his knowledge of taxidermy to preserve it as much as possible and by transforming himself--or part of himself--into her. He also assumed that his mother was as jealous of him as she was of her. He forbade himself from becoming intimate with any other woman, and, when he was attracted to Marion, his mother killed her. Norman covered up his mother’s crime.

The film ends with Norma, thinking her private thoughts. She had no alternative, she tells herself, except to tell the truth about her son’s murder of the women and the
detective. She thinks that the police and psychiatrist may still suspect her of having killed the victims, so she intends to sit quietly, even after a fly lands on her nose. That way, they will see that she is incapable of hurting even a fly.

As she thinks these thoughts, her smile becomes the grin of his mother’s corpse and Marion’s car, containing Marion’s corpse and other incriminating evidence, is pulled from the swamp.

The ending neatly ties up the loose ends of the plot and explains the cause of the bizarre incidents that occurred during the middle of the story, maintaining the logic of the storyline and satisfying the audience’s curiosity as to what lies behind the chain of events they’ve witnessed. The psychiatrist’s explanation reassures the audience that reason can explain even the irrational and that sanity, therefore, is able to comprehend insanity. All may not be right with the world, but human rationality can at least explain, making the mysterious knowable. In addition, of course, justice triumphs, and Norma’s incarceration will protect society from her jealousy and rage. Norman himself is no longer a threat, for he has ceased to exist (in the framework of this story, at least--he makes a reappearance, supposedly cured, in subsequent sequels that Alfred Hitchcock, now deceased, did not direct).

Stephen King’s novel, Needful Things, ends with a showdown between Castle Rock’s sheriff, Alan Pangborn, and Leland Gaunt, the proprietor of the curiosity shop, Needful Things, whose wares have caused so much murder and mayhem:

In their final confrontation, Alan forces Leland to leave town, much as the frontier marshal often compels gunfighters to do, Leland’s car transforming itself into a nineteenth-century wagon, such as those that snake oil salesmen used in traveling from one Western town to another. On the side of the wagon, the cautionary declaration as that which was displayed in Leleand’s shop warns, “Caveat Emptor."

At the outset of the novel, a first-person narrator welcomed the reader, as a newcomer, to Castle Rock, Maine, drawing his or her attention to a new store, Needful Things. Now, far away from Castle Rock, Maine, in Junction City, Iowa, the narrator, again welcoming a new resident, points out a store that has just opened--Answered Prayers. Leland has apparently opened a new shop, in a new location, under a new name. One suspects, however, that he will conduct business as usual.:

The ends of stories are often the places in which their themes are made explicit or are given a more forceful suggestion. As we observed in the previous post, King says that this novel was inspired by the greed he saw in the behavior of televangelist Jim Bakker and his late ex-wife Tammy Faye Messner. In the end of his novel, he offers a remedy for such greed. Instead of an avaricious drive to secure for oneself those material goods that one considers “needful things” or “answered prayers,” one should value others, acting out of love, as the novel’s sheriff does in protecting society and caring for his girlfriend. In loving others and acting for the welfare of the community, King implies, one will have, as the sheriff tells Leland, all that he or she needs.

In the middle of The Thing From Another World, a scientist, Dr. Carrington, suggested that the vegetative humanoid creature they’d recovered from a block of ice near their arctic research laboratory was able to communicate with them. The Air Force personnel at the outpost disagreed. Having escaped from the greenhouse in which it had been trapped, the thing from another world, attacking the compound, now puts these conflicting theories to the test as the story comes to an end:

The scientists and airmen lured the creature into the facility’s generator shack, where they ambush it with high-voltage electricity. Twice, Dr. Carrington tries to save the creature. First, he turns of the electricity. When the current is restored, he rushes forward, trying to reason with the monster. The creature knocks him aside, but it--and the seedlings that grow from its body--are electrocuted. The journalist among the team wires the story, warning radio listeners to “watch the skies!”
Obviously (Barack Obama, take notice!), the airmen’s theory proves to have been the true one. Either the creature was unable or unwilling to communicate with the humans and, perhaps driven by its hunger for blood, remained intent upon attacking and killing them. The situation, as the military mind had anticipated, came down to one of killing or being killed. This story, incidentally, also makes use of a convention that is common in horror fiction, but effective, nevertheless--the isolated setting in which characters are cut off from the rest of society, from culture, and, indeed, from civilization itself and are stranded to survive (or not) on their own.

Xenophobia reigns, with foreigners (represented by the humanoid plant-thing) are hostile and intent upon murder and mayhem. Only by banding together can society (represented by the scientists--Dr. Carrington excepted--and airmen) triumph against an invasion from beyond. As we pointed out in the previous post, the isolation of the remote arctic outpost cuts the team off from society at large, from civilization, and from culture, forcing them to act on their own in the interest of their survival. It’s up to them, and them alone, whether they live or die. The impulse to communicate, to reach out, to establish a relationship of some kind with the stranger is shown to be counterproductive; it could have been the deaths of all concerned. “Watch the skies!” the reporter warns the movie’s 1950’s audience. A threat--perhaps in the form of Soviet missiles, armed with nuclear warheads rather than flying saucers manned with extraterrestrial plant-creatures--might appear at any time. The monster seems to have been a stand-in for Americans’ real fear of the Soviet Union and its ongoing, ever-present threat of the annihilation of society, civilization, and culture. This story ends in the same way that King’s Needful Things concludes, by suggesting more strongly the theme.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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