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Monday, June 2, 2008

Purposeful, Frightening Scenes

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The largest part of a story is an act. Acts are made up of scenes. Scenes, in turn, are made up of incidents.

A good analogy is to think of an act as a chapter, a scene as a paragraph, and an incident as a sentence. Using this analogy, we can say that the first act of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, is comprised of the following scenes (our designation of the scenes is our own; the transcript of the screenplay we consulted as the basis for the summary does not divide the action into scenes):


  1. In a Phoenix, Arizona, hotel room, during her lunch break, Marion Crane and Sam Loomis discuss their frustration at wanting to marry one another but being unable to do so because of the heavy financial drain caused by Sam’s alimony payments to his ex-wife and his payment of his deceased father’s outstanding debts.

  2. Marion returns to work at Lowery Real Estate and learns that her employer, Mr. Lowery, is also late returning from lunch. As she chats with Caroline, a clerk, Mr. Lowery enters with a client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s had one drink too many. Mr. Lowery asks Marion to bring a deed into his office. Showing Marion a picture of his daughter, who’s to marry tomorrow, Cassidy makes a pass at Marion, but she deflects his flirtation. Then, he shows her the $40,000 in cash he’s brought to buy a house as his daughter’s wedding present. After Mr. Cassidy goes into his office, Mr. Lowery tells Marion to deposit the cash in the bank; he will get his client to write him a check for the money instead on Monday, when Mr. Cassidy is sober. Marion takes the deed into Mr. Lowery’s office and, complaining of a headache, asks permission to go home after depositing the money at the bank.

  3. Instead of depositing the money, Marion has gone home, where, having packed a suitcase, she dresses. She steals the bank deposit.

  4. As she drives through the city, she hears Sam’s voice greeting her upon her arrival and sees Mr. Lowery and Mr. Cassidy, exchanging waves with her befuddled employer.

  5. She continues to drive until night falls. Tired, she pulls off the road to sleep. She is awakened by a highway patrolman, who makes note of her license plate number. After she returns to the road, the patrolman follows her.

  6. Because the patrolman has her license plate number, she fears that he will connect her car with the money she’s stolen, once the theft is reported, so she trades in her car for a different model with different license plates.

  7. As she drives away, Marion imagines the highway patrolman talking to California Charlie, the car salesman, about her. Because she has acted suspiciously, the patrolman is likely to want to examine the sales papers, she thinks. She then imagines conversations between Mr. Lowery and Caroline, between him and Marion’s sister, and between him and Mr. Lowery, in which they figure out that she has absconded with the bank deposit.

  8. As a downpour begins, Marion sees a neon sign announcing “Bate’s Motel, Vacancy.” She stops to rent a room, but no one is tending the office. She sees a Victorian house atop a hill, in the front of an upstairs window of which the silhouette of a female figure moves past an illuminated window shade.

  9. Returning to her car, she honks, and, a little later, a young man joins her. As they exchange small talk, Norman telling her that all the rooms are vacant, the new interstate having bypassed the motel. The motel is relatively isolated, the nearest town, Fairvale, being 15 miles away. Norman returns to the house atop the hill to prepare a dinner for them.

  10. Marion hides the stolen money in a newspaper cradled in a magazine rack in her room. From the house on the hill, she hears Norman arguing with an elderly woman, who says, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper--by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!”

  11. Norman brings a tray of food, suggesting that he and Marion share it in his office. The office is decorated with stuffed birds, a result of Norman’s hobby as a taxidermist. Norman tells Marion that he’s trapped by having to care for his aged mother, who’s mentally ill after her husband died when Norman was five and a lover (before suffering a violent death) talked her into building the motel. Marion’s suggestion that Norman commit his mother to an asylum angers him. After he calms down, Marion returns to her room, saying she’s driving back to Phoenix the next day to try to extract herself from “a private trap” she’d “stepped into” there. In parting, Marion slips, telling Norman her real name, and he sees that, on the register, she’s signed under the assumed name of “Marie Samuels.”

  12. Norman peeps through a hole in the wall and sees Marion undressing in the bathroom.

  13. He retreats to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen.

  14. In her room, Marion calculates the money she’s spent and will have to repay, flushes this potentially incriminating evidence down the toilet, and takes a shower. As she showers, a woman wielding a knife stabs her repeatedly, killing her.

According to our analysis, each of the above sentences is an incident of the story’s plot. Together, one or more of these incidents make up a scene. (Note: a scene involves conflict regarding at least one character--and usually two or more characters--and, often, dialogue, and it moves the story forward in a specific way, according to a predetermine purpose). In regard to horror stories, we might add that a scene also should scare the audience whenever possible.) Several scenes, in turn, make up an act.


As we indicated in a previous post, dramas (and other types of narratives, such as novels), often consist of five acts: (1) exposition, ending with an inciting moment that sets the (2) rising action in motion, leading to a (3) turning point, or climax, which gives way to the (4) falling action, which leads to (5) a resolution (if the story is a comedy) or to a catastrophe (if the story is a tragedy). (We won’t repeat our discussion of dramatic structure in detail in this post, but if you haven’t read it or don’t remember the details, you should refresh your memory by rereading “XXX.”)


As we have summarized the first act of Psycho, the first scene of this act consists of one incident:

In a Phoenix, Arizona, hotel room, during her lunch break, Marion Crane and Sam Loomis discuss their frustration at wanting to marry one another but being unable to do so because of the heavy financial drain caused by Sam’s alimony payments to his ex-wife and his payment of his deceased father’s outstanding debts.
The second scene of this act also consists of seven incidents:

Marion returns to work at Lowery Real Estate and learns that her employer, Mr. Lowery, is also late returning from lunch. As she chats with Caroline, a clerk, Mr. Lowery enters with a client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s had one drink too many. Mr. Lowery asks Marion to bring a deed into his office. Showing Marion a picture of his daughter, who’s to marry tomorrow, Cassidy makes a pass at Marion, but she deflects his flirtation. Then, he shows her the $40,000 in cash he’s brought to buy a house as his daughter’s wedding present. After Mr. Cassidy goes into his office, Mr. Lowery tells Marion to deposit the cash in the bank; he will get his client to write him a check for the money instead on Monday, when Mr. Cassidy is sober. Marion takes the deed into Mr. Lowery’s office and, complaining of a headache, asks permission to go home after depositing the money at the bank.
The third scene of this act is made up of one incident:

Instead of depositing the money, Marion has gone home, where, having packed a suitcase, she dresses. She steals the bank deposit.
Two incidents make up the fourth scene (each is underlined in its own color to better distinguish the two):

As she drives through the city, she hears Sam’s voice greeting her upon her arrival in California. She sees Mr. Lowery and Mr. Cassidy, exchanging waves with her befuddled employer.
The fifth scene is comprised of four incidents (each shown in a different color for emphasis):

She continues to drive until night falls. Tired, she pulls off the road to sleep. She is awakened by a highway patrolman, who makes note of her license plate number. After she returns to the road, the patrolman follows her.
Scene six consists of one incident:

Because the patrolman has her license plate number, she fears that he will connect her car with the money she’s stolen, once the theft is reported, so she trades in her car for a different model with different license plates.
The seventh scene is comprised of three incidents (each of which is underlined in a different color for emphasis):

As she drives away, Marion imagines the highway patrolman talking to California Charlie, the car salesman, about her. Because she has acted suspiciously, the patrolman is likely to want to examine the sales papers, she thinks. She then imagines conversations between Mr. Lowery and Caroline, between him and Marion’s sister, and between him and Mr. Lowery, in which they figure out that she has absconded with the bank deposit.
Three incidents make up scene eight (and are underlined in different colors to better distinguish each of them:

As a downpour begins, Marion sees a neon sign announcing “Bate’s Motel, Vacancy.” She stops to rent a room, but no one is tending the office. She sees a Victorian house atop a hill, in the front of an upstairs window of which the silhouette of a female figure moves past an illuminated window shade.
The ninth scene? Four incidents (again, each in its own color):

Returning to her car, she honks, and, a little later, a young man joins her. As they exchange small talk, Norman telling her that all the rooms are vacant, the new interstate having bypassed the motel. The motel is relatively isolated, the nearest town, Fairvale, being 15 miles away. Norman returns to the house atop the hill to prepare a dinner for them.
Scene 10 is made up of two incidents (colored individually):

Marion hides the stolen money in a newspaper cradled in a magazine rack in her room. From the house on the hill, she hears Norman arguing with an elderly woman, who says, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper--by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!”
Different colors indicate that scene 11 contains incidents:

Norman brings a tray of food, suggesting that he and Marion share it in his office. The office is decorated with stuffed birds, a result of Norman’s hobby as a taxidermist. Norman tells Marion that he’s trapped by having to care for his aged mother, who’s mentally ill after her husband died when Norman was five and a lover (before suffering a violent death) talked her into building the motel. Marion’s suggestion that Norman commit his mother to an asylum angers him. After he calms down, Marion returns to her room, saying she’s driving back to Phoenix the next day to try to extract herself from “a private trap” she’d “stepped into” there. In parting, Marion slips, telling Norman her real name, and he sees that, on the register, she’s signed under the assumed name of “Marie Samuels.”
Scene 12 = one incident:

Norman peeps through a hole in the wall and sees Marion undressing in the bathroom.
Scene 13 = one incident:

He retreats to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen.

Scene 14 is made up of two incidents (shown, again, in distinguishing colors):

In her room, Marion calculates the money she’s spent and will have to repay, flushes this potentially incriminating evidence down the toilet, and takes a shower. As she
showers, a woman wielding a knife stabs her repeatedly, killing her.




We said that each scene should advance the story in some way, so let's see how each of the four opening scenes of Psycho do so:

  1. In a Phoenix, Arizona, hotel room, during her lunch break, Marion Crane and Sam Loomis discuss their frustration at wanting to marry one another but being unable to do so because of the heavy financial drain caused by Sam’s alimony payments to his ex-wife and his payment of his deceased father’s outstanding debts. (This scene provides the antagonist’s motivation.)

  2. Marion returns to work at Lowery Real Estate and learns that her employer, Mr. Lowery, is also late returning from lunch. As she chats with Caroline, a clerk, Mr. Lowery enters with a client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s had one drink too many. Mr. Lowery asks Marion to bring a deed into his office. Showing Marion a picture of his daughter, who’s to marry tomorrow, Cassidy makes a pass at Marion, but she deflects his flirtation. Then, he shows her the $40,000 in cash he’s brought to buy a house as his daughter’s wedding present. After Mr. Cassidy goes into his office, Mr. Lowery tells Marion to deposit the cash in the bank; he will get his client to write him a check for the money instead on Monday, when Mr. Cassidy is sober. Marion takes the deed into Mr. Lowery’s office and, complaining of a headache, asks permission to go home after depositing the money at the bank. (This scene sets up the next one, creating the situation that allows Marion to commit a crime.)

  3. Instead of depositing the money, Marion has gone home, where, having packed a suitcase, she dresses. She steals the bank deposit. (This scene shows the antagonist perform an action--commit a crime; she forces herself, by her own behavior, to leave her job and her home, and to leave town, never to return; her crime makes her less sympathetic, or entirely unsympathetic, to audience.)

  4. As she drives through the city, she hears Sam’s voice greeting her upon her arrival and sees Mr. Lowery and Mr. Cassidy, exchanging waves with her befuddled employer. (This scene restores some sympathy for Marion, showing her to have a conscience, but it also allows her a chance to reconsider her scheme and to forego stealing the money. When she goes through with the crime, the audience may feel that she is weak, rather than evil.)

  5. Scenes 5, 6, and 7 force Marion’s hand, and her attempts to thwart justice also makes her even more unsympathetic to the audience: She continues to drive until night falls. Tired, she pulls off the road to sleep. She is awakened by a highway patrolman, who makes note of her license plate number. After she returns to the road, the patrolman follows her.

  6. Because the patrolman has her license plate number, she fears that he will connect her car with the money she’s stolen, once the theft is reported, so she trades in her car for a different model with different license plates.

  7. As she drives away, Marion imagines the highway patrolman talking to California Charlie, the car salesman, about her. Because she has acted suspiciously, the patrolman is likely to want to examine the sales papers, she thinks. She then imagines conversations between Mr. Lowery and Caroline, between him and Marion’s sister, and between him and Mr. Lowery, in which they figure out that she as absconded with the bank deposit.

  8. As a downpour begins, Marion sees a neon sign announcing “Bate’s Motel, Vacancy.” She stops to rent a room, but no one is tending the office. She sees a Victorian house atop a hill, in the front of an upstairs window of which the silhouette of a female figure moves past an illuminated window shade. (This scene offers Marion a respite from the physical storm and from the storm of her emotions--the guilt and fear she feels--and introduces the idea that a woman lives in the house at the top of the hill that overlooks Bates Motel.)

  9. Returning to her car, she honks, and, a little later, a young man joins her. As they exchange small talk, shy, awkward Norman telling her that all the rooms are vacant, the new interstate having bypassed the motel. The motel is relatively isolated, the nearest town, Fairvale, being 15 miles away. Norman returns to the house atop the hill to prepare a dinner for them. (This scene brings the movie’s antagonist face to face with its protagonist and shows Norman to be a shy and awkward young man who, although attracted to the opposite sex, is uncomfortable in the presence of women.)

  10. Marion hides the stolen money in a newspaper cradled in a magazine rack in her room. From the house on the hill, she hears Norman arguing with an elderly woman, who says, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper--by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!” (This scene shows the conflict between Norman and his mother--up to this point, the audience has only heard of it, not overheard it.)

  11. Norman brings a tray of food, suggesting that he and Marion share it in his office. The office is decorated with stuffed birds, a result of Norman’s hobby as a taxidermist. Norman tells Marion that he’s trapped by having to care for his aged mother, who’s mentally ill after her husband died when Norman was five and a lover (before suffering a violent death) talked her into building the motel. Marion’s suggestion that Norman commit his mother to an asylum angers him. After he calms down, Marion returns to her room, saying she’s driving back to Phoenix the next day to try to extract herself from “a private trap” she’d “stepped into” there. In parting, Marion slips, telling Norman her real name, and he sees that, on the register, she’s signed under the assumed name of “Marie Samuels.” (This scene provides the background information that Norman knows how to stuff dead bodies, further develops the conflict between Norman and his mother, further characterizes Norman--the audience sees him as strange, understands that he feels “trapped” by his circumstances, shows he’s quick to anger, suggests he has a psychologically unhealthy relationship with his mother--intimates that violence has occurred in the past--in the death of Norman’s mother’s lover--makes Marion somewhat more sympathetic--because she has decided to try to make matters right concerning her theft of the money--and allows Norman to see that his suspicion that Marion is running from something is accurate, since she has signed in under an assumed name.)

  12. Norman peeps through a hole in the wall and sees Marion undressing in the bathroom. (This scene shows that Norman is a voyeur.)

  13. He retreats to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen. (This scene shows that Marion is conflicted concerning Marion and the sexuality that her nudity represents.)

  14. In her room, Marion calculates the money she’s spent and will have to repay, flushes this potentially incriminating evidence down the toilet, and takes a shower. As she showers, a woman wielding a knife stabs her repeatedly, killing her. (This scene restores a large measure of the audience’s sympathy for Marion, showing her as repentant, but ends with the story’s inciting moment as the protagonist, Norman Bates, commits a crime that will result in his ultimate undoing.)

We said that, in a horror movie, scenes must also frighten whenever possible. What’s frightening about the four scenes we identified as making up the first act of this film?



Even when a scene accomplishes a definite, predetermined purpose--motivating a character, for example--it can, and should, in horror stories, frighten the audience. Therefore, a horror story writer must discern what is horrific, implicitly or explicitly, about each of our plot’s incidents. Not every scene, especially of the earlier ones, frightens viewers, but several do, the types of fears varying, as do their intensities, building toward the shower scene’s climactic terror:

  • We fear that Marion may do something rash.
  • When she does so, we fear that Marion may get caught.
  • When she does not, we fear that Marion may get arrested.
  • We fear that Norman may not be trustworthy and, in fact, may be mentally unstable.
  • We fear that Marion may be raped.
  • We fear that Marion will be killed (which, of course, she is).

Since this has been a fairly long post, let’s summarize its key points:

  • The largest part of a story is an act. Acts are made up of scenes. Scenes, in turn, are made up of incidents.
  • A scene involves conflict regarding at least one character--and usually two or more characters--and, often, dialogue, and it moves the story forward in a specific way, according to a predetermine purpose. In regard to horror stories, we might add that a scene also should scare the audience whenever possible.
  • Various ways in which the scenes in Psycho move the story forward are to motivate characters; to set up subsequent scenes; to establish points of no return that force a character to continue to behave according to a specific course of action; to characterize the protagonist, the antagonist, or another character; to establish or heighten conflict within or between characters; and to provide background (expository) information about the story’s characters or situations.
  • A drama often consists of five acts: (1) exposition, ending with an inciting moment that sets the (2) rising action in motion, leading to a (3) turning point, or climax, which gives way to the (4) falling action, which leads to (5) a resolution (if the story is a comedy) or to a catastrophe (if the story is a tragedy).

Note: The summary of Psycho is based upon the screenplay, available at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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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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