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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Perennial Favorites

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The ingredients of the horror plot are relatively few and relatively simple:

  • A series of bizarre incidents or situations (or both).
  • An explanation for the bizarre incidents or situations (or both).
  • A battle with the monster in which the monster is defeated (using the knowledge gained by the explanation of the bizarre incidents or situations [or both]).

Usually, such a simple formula results in boredom pretty quickly. Even great literature, such as Voltaire’s Candide and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, built, as they are, on repetitions of the same plot device (the discovery of evil and suffering in various situations and the misunderstandings of incidents and situations because of a special species of madness, respectively) soon become rather tiresome. Why doesn’t horror fiction?

The answer, of course, is that quite a bit, even of the best of it, does become tiresome, sooner or later. Some stories don’t seem to wear out their welcome as quickly as other stories do or, another way of putting the same thing, some writers don’t seem to wear out their welcome as soon as others do. A few--Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Shirley Jackson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King--are perennial favorites, some even long after their demise. (Those who regard Wells as strictly a science fiction writer haven’t read such novels as The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Food of the Gods or such short stories as “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” and “The Red Room”.)

So what makes a horror story (or its author) a perennial favorite? There are lots of ingredients, but these are some of the more noticeable and longstanding

Mystery, especially when it is coupled with menace, is one of the secret ingredients of the perennial favorite. A sense of foreboding, communicated by the story’s tone and mood--its atmosphere--gets under the skin and stays under the skin sooner and longer than most of the story’s other elements, including, when there is an overt one present, the monster. The vehicle for the creation of such atmosphere is description. The writer who can write powerful descriptions is likely to write powerful fiction, and, when the fiction that he or she writes is horror, it will be horrific. The description of Poe’s House of Usher alerts the reader that the decaying mansion is likely, in some sense, to be haunted, even, perhaps, conscious and aware of itself and others, intentionally evil. Stoker’s description of the countryside through which Dracula’s guest wanders on Walpurgis Night suggests that a tremendously powerful force is operating behind the scenes of natural incidents. H. P. Lovecraft’s varied descriptions of the type of monster that menaces the protagonist and the villagers of the small town in his story, “The Lurking Fear,” takes place keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat and the protagonist’s teeth on edge. The treatment of a horrendous game of chance as commonplace makes Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a haunting tale. H. G. Wells’ descriptions of the mysterious incidents upon the remote jungle island upon which Dr. Moreau performs experiments as immoral as they are cruel and vicious keeps readers turning the pages, especially when the protagonist, Edward Prendick, believes he may be the doctor’s next victim. Mary Shelley’s description of the pitiful, but also terrifying and repulsive, creation of Victor von Frankenstein hooks her readers and keeps them hooked.

The knowledge that the hyper-masculine monster is much stronger, faster, and inhuman than the human characters adds to the suspense. How can a band of men and women survive against madmen, monsters, and supernatural threats that, too often, are motivated by impulses foreign to the vast majority of people and are not only dangerous but also frequently lethal? “It is a terrible thing,” Jonathan Edwards warned his congregation, “for a sinner to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is also a “terrible thing,” it seems, for a horror story protagonist to “fall into the hands of a living” madman, monster, or supernatural force or entity. How can a mere man or woman be expected to fight that which is far stronger and faster, but much less human, than they are? A boy told a news anchor what it was like to be picked up and flung by a tornado. It was terrifying, he said, because it made him feel helpless. The wind simply lifted and threw him as if he were nothing more than a rag doll. The same sense of terror and vulnerability would apply were a monster to attack, whether its victim was female or male.

The betrayal by a familiar and trusted family member, friend, or neighbor, or even a dog or everyday object, such as a toy, makes a story or an author popular and memorable, as Stephen King proves with such novels as Cujo, Christine, From a Buick 8, ‘Salem’s Lot, Desperation, The Regulators, and others, and as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy and The Taking, and Dan Simmon’s Season of Night, to name but a few, indicate.

Mystery, menace, atmosphere, a powerful monster, and betrayal by one who is familiar and trusted are all ingredients of those horror stories, whether short stories or novels, that become perennial favorites, but one that stands out even more, perhaps, is these narratives’ worlds. The best of these writers have the gift of creating not only intriguing and eerie incidents and situations, sympathetic characters, and zigzagging plots, but each also creates a specific, self-contained world unto itself, full of memorable persons, places, and things. Whether this world is Elm Haven, Castle Rock, Derry, Desperation, Wentworth, a university campus (as in Bentley Little’s University), Dunwich, Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, Moonlight Bay, or some other God-forsaken place, the perennial favorites among horror fiction and authors create their own worlds, replete with all the accoutrements of town, suburbs, or city, even, at times, maps of the streets, complete with the designations of the place’s residents’ houses. These writers make their readers part of a bigger community, giving them a home, no matter how humble and (eventually) dangerous, and the reader, becoming, as it were, him- or herself a fellow resident, at the very least, and possibly a friend, as it were, to one or more of the inhabitants of the story’s town, have themselves a stake in the incidents that occur there and in the outcome of these incidents and situations. It is unfortunate that another person’s house or town or state or country is attacked; it is catastrophic when one's own house, town, state, or country is the one that's attacked--and by a monster, at that! Therefore, to mystery, atmosphere, a powerful monster, and betrayal by one who is familiar, we must add the worst of all possible threats--the one to hearth and home, to family and friend. Look for this sense of community in the stories and novels of horror that have most struck your own fancy and which continue to enthrall and entertain you. It’s one of the horror writer’s most dependable and effective narrative techniques. Hillary Clinton was right about something, after all (sort of); it takes a village to raise the hackles.

Finally, horror fiction offers what no other type of genre can: a unique perspective. The world of horror is not safe (it’s full of monsters and menace, after all), but it’s unsafe in a way unlike the worlds of any other genre. Horror fiction’s ultimate theme is that, in the great roulette wheel in the sky upon which our lives are played out, there is the red (blood) and the black (death), and any spin of the wheel will land us on one or the other. Life, in short, is brutal, full of suffering, and ends, sooner or later (usually sooner, in horror fiction) in death, which may or may not be the end of it. (There could be, as Hamlet supposes, a worse place than the grave.) Life is painful. Life is harsh. Life is grievous. And then we die. However, life has its moments, mostly while the ball is still in motion and hasn’t lit, yet, on the red or the black, and, while the ball is hurtling round and round, we survive; perhaps, we even thrive. We go places, we see things, we might, on occasion, between the halt of the wheel and the jolting hops and skips that end on blood or death, even enjoy ourselves. In addition, since the game of chance that is our lives is viewed, in fiction, from the outside, vicariously through our identification with the little silver ball called the protagonist, we ourselves (although the same may not be said, always, for the protagonist) survive the trauma and the destruction of the red and the black, learning that we can endure despite pain and suffering and death. Meanwhile, the wheel spins, and the silver ball goes round and round, and where she will stop, no one knows (except that it will be on either the red or the black).

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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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