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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Middles: 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.

Since you may not remember, in detail, how these stories developed their middles and endings, even after consulting an online summary of them, we’ll summarize their middles in this post and offer some comments upon them. In a later post, we’ll do the same with regard to these stories’ endings.

Let’s start with Psycho:

Norman panics upon discovering Marion’s bloody corpse. However, he manages to wrap her body inside the shower curtain and cleans up the mess. Placing her body and all her belongings, including the stolen money, which Marion had hidden in a folded newspaper, into the trunk of her car, he pushes it down a slope, into a swamp.

Marion’s sister, Lila, worried that Marion is missing, contacts her lover, Sam, as does a private detective, Milton Arbogast, whom Mr. Lowery has hired to recover the money Marion has stolen. The detective suspects that Lila or Sam knows Marion’s whereabouts. Tracing Marion to the Bates Motel, Milton questions Norman and insists upon interviewing his mother, which Norman forbids. The detective calls Lila, telling her that Norman is not being truthful. Milton then sneaks into Norman’s house, but he is pushed down the stairs, backward, as he climbs them toward the second floor. To finish him off, he’s stabbed to death.

When Lila alerts the local deputy sheriff, Al Chambers, of Milton’s claim to have seen Norman’s mother, the lawman is baffled: the woman was buried 10 years ago, after she’d poisoned herself and her lover.

At home, Norman confronts his mother, urging her to hide out in the house’s fruit cellar to prevent herself from being discovered by those who are hunting for the missing woman, Marion, whom Mrs. Bates has murdered. She refuses to do so, irate as she recalls Norman’s having persuaded her to stay there previously, for a long time. Nevertheless, Norman carries her there, against her will, as she screams, “Put me down! I can walk!”

Sam and Lila conduct an undercover operation of their own. Pretending to be married, they rent a room at the Bates Motel. Norman is careful to assign them to one that is far from the one he’d rented to Marion, but they sneak into Marion’s former room and discover that the shower curtain is missing. Peering into the toilet bowl, Lila notices a bit of paper on the edge, with “$40,000” written on it--proof that her sister had been a guest at the Bates Motel.

Lila sneaks into Norman’s house to talk to Norman’s mother while Sam distracts him in the motel office by accusing Norman of having murdered Marion for the money she’d stolen. However, soon after they begin to argue, Norman discovers that Lila is absent. He knocks Sam out and flees to his house, but Lila, seeing his approach, takes refuge in the fruit cellar, where she finds Norman’s mother. She is horrified to learn that Mrs. Bates is a mummified corpse.

Wearing his mother's clothes and a wig, Norman bursts into the cellar, armed with a knife, identifying himself as his mother, Norma. Sam, having regained consciousness, disarms Norman, tearing his dress in the process.

Let’s see how the screenwriters, Joseph Stefano and Samuel A. Taylor (unaccredited), developed the middle of this story.

The middle of the story deals with the aftereffects of Norman’s murder of Marion. This portion of the story includes his murder of several other victims, and the revelation of his secret identity as his deceased mother (and thus his severe mental illness), which is accompanied by his cross dressing. It ends with Norman’s being disarmed by Sam as he attacks Lila, dressed as his mother, Norma. In other words, the middle of the story is logically connected to the beginning and explains the bizarre incidents that were suggested at the outset of the movie more than they were shown. The middle of the story also transitions to the ending, which we’ll look at in a later post. In the process, additional characters are introduced (often victims) as the initial conflict is complicated and the story moves toward its climax, or turning point. This approach is typical to horror story plots. After describing a number of bizarre incidents, the plot explains the cause or reason for these incidents as the main character discovers why such odd things are afoot. This knowledge allows him or her to solve the problem represented by these incidents and to restore order or the status quo, which takes place at the end of the story.

The beginning of Needful Things seems too slight for much development, but, as we mentioned in our previous post, Stephen King manages to get 792 pages out of it, and the movie based upon his novel has a running time of 120 minutes. How does King manage to get so much mileage out of the simple situation of a man with supernatural powers’ opening of a curiosity shop in small-town Castle Rock, Maine?

Let’s start by summarizing the middle of the story:
After the shop opens, the townspeople visit Needful Things, each to buy that which he or she wants more than anything else. Brian Rusk wants a Sandy Koufax baseball card on which the player has signed his (Brian’s) name; Danforth (“Buster“) Keeton wants a machine that forecasts the winners of horse races; others want things that have a special meaning for them. All agree to do a “favor” for the store’s kindly owner, Leland Gaunt, ignoring the warning, “Caveat emptor” (“Let the buyer beware”) posted in his shop. The favor is always a seemingly harmless, if sometimes mean-spirited, prank that is played upon a casual acquaintance. However, the pranks turn out to be anything but harmless, causing the townspeople to turn upon one another in an escalating series of violent acts that threatens to destroy the entire town.

The only person in town who is not susceptible to Leland’s powers, because he already has everything he needs, is Castle Rock’s sheriff, Alan Pangborn. During the course of the story, Alan suspects that the series of violent acts can all be attributed to the same source, or cause: Leland Gaunt. The story climaxes when Leland seduces the sheriff’s girlfriend, Polly, by presenting her with a necklace that relieves the pain she suffers as a result of her arthritic hands. Leland’s seduction of Polly forces a showdown between him and the sheriff.
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.

The middle of the story is an outgrowth of its beginning, showing what many of the residents of Castle Rock value above all else and the consequences of their willingness to do harm to others to acquire these material objects. Therefore, it is a logical development of the story’s initial situation and, like Psycho’s middle, the middle of King’s novel also explains the cause of the bizarre incidents that occur in and around the town. Ironically, it is the man who values someone else, his girlfriend, above all merely material objects who can stand against Leland’s powers, and it is when Leland threatens the one whom Alan loves that the shopkeeper sets up the final showdown between the force of good and the force of evil that is played out at the end of the story. In the process, King also introduces more characters (mostly victims), and, by delving into the back stories of the many residents of Castle Rock who appear in this novel, King gives depth (and length) to the narrative. In addition, he provides the motives of, and insights into, his characters, making their choices of Leland’s wares and their willingness to harm others understandable if not always entirely believable.

Finally, we will summarize and comment upon the third story whose beginning we summarized in our previous post, The Thing From Another World, a 1951 science fiction classic film which qualifies as a horror flick, too, because of its chills and thrills:

A team of scientists at a remote arctic research laboratory, investigating a possible aircraft crash, find the wreckage of a flying saucer, covered in ice. Using explosives to free the ship, they accidentally destroy it, but they recover a body frozen in the ice.

As they return to their outpost, a major storm approaches, making communication with their headquarters in Anchorage problematic. Some scientists want to thaw out the creature, but the commanding officer, Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry forbids them from doing so until he receives orders from Anchorage.

Nervous in the presence of the alien body he guards, an airman uses an electric blanket to cover the ice block in which the extraterrestrial being reposes, causing the creature to thaw out, and it revives. Sled dogs attack the escaping alien, biting off one of its arms, which the scientists recover. As the limb warms, it absorbs the canine blood and returns to life. The scientists, examining the arm, conclude that, although the creature seems to be an animal of human-like appearance, it is actually a plant. (Yes, this twist stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.) Despite the creature’s obvious handicap to communication, one of the scientists (probably not a Nobel laureate) believes that they can reason with the creature. By contrast, the Air Force personnel do not believe that the plant can think or communicate with them, and they assume that it could be dangerous. (See, there is such a thing as military intelligence, on rare occasions.)

To survive, the plant-man attacks and kills other sled dogs, living upon their blood. When Dr. Carrington discovers a sled dog’s body, devoid of blood, hidden in the outpost’s greenhouse, he has volunteers among his team stand guard. The creature later kills several of them before it is lured into a trap inside the greenhouse.

Having determined that the creature needs human blood to reproduce, Dr. Carrington sneaks plasma from the base infirmary, using it to incubate the seeds he’s extracted from the creature’s severed arm.
The middle of this story is also logically connected to its opening situation, as the characters seek both to understand the nature of the creature they’ve recovered and to eliminate it as a threat after an Air Force guard inadvertently thaws the ice in which the creature reposes and it attacks sled dogs and humans. They learn the secret as to its true nature (a plant in human form) and the reason that it needs blood (to survive and to reproduce). Several characters become the monster’s victims. There is a conflict between a scientist’s desire to learn the secrets of nature, as represented by the alien plant-creature, and ordinary humans’ instinct for self-preservation, or survival. The former impulse is shown as being in opposition with the latter--at least when an extraterrestrial plant, capable of moving under its own power, is involved. The middle also transitions toward the story’s end, which we will consider in a later post. 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.

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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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