Fascinating lists!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Academy: Learning from the Masters

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Although Bentley Little has been taken to task, and rightly so, for the poor ways in which his novels typically end (not with a roar, unfortunately, but with a whimper), and his short stories and novels are often nothing more than a series of meaningless, although bizarre and horrifying, incidents or situations, he remains a talented writer who is especially adept at creating, maintaining, and heightening suspense. Despite his difficulty in suggesting causal relationships among the incidents of his story’s action and his trouble in sustaining a single narrative effect, he remains, because of his considerable strengths in other areas, a master of the horror genre who, as such, has much to teach the aspiring writer. We’ll look at one of his strengths in this post, just as we have considered some of his weaknesses in previous posts.

As we have pointed out elsewhere, a convention in horror stories is to offset a sense of the paranormal or the supernatural with the normal or the natural. This double perspective in horror stories allows either a natural interpretation or a supernatural reading of the bizarre incidents and situations that take place in the story.

H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Red Room,” which appears in the left column, is a good example. Is the room in the castle haunted or are the rumors of ghosts results of a natural cause? The castle’s caretakers are convinced that the chamber is, indeed, haunted, but the young narrator-protagonist has come to spend the night in the room to prove that it is not. (Stephen King’s “1408” is a contemporary version of the classic tale, as is the movie of the same title, which is based upon King’s narrative.)

Obviously, to maintain this dichotomy, the things that take place in the tale must be open to either type of interpretation; they must be understandable from the basis of faith in the paranormal or supernatural and from the basis of skepticism about the same. This is not easy to accomplish, especially without recourse to a rather heavy-handed use of ambiguity. The ability to accomplish this feat is the mark of a master, and Little does so with great facility.

He goes above and beyond the call of merely setting up the dual point of view by a few ambiguous descriptions that could be taken, as it were, either way--that is, as suggesting the effects of paranormal or supernatural causes or natural ones. In most chapters, he includes a scene which, on each page, contains at least one sentence, paragraph, or passage that suggests this twofold possibility of understanding.

Usually, this juxtaposition of the normal and the paranormal or the natural and the supernatural suggests that whatever seemingly paranormal or supernatural incident is happening may be the result merely of a character’s own feelings or thoughts. As he continues to present these juxtapositions, however, Little increasingly suggests that it is not merely someone’s way of looking at or feeling about his or her environment but something in--or, perhaps, behind--the appearances that is the cause of the uncanny and the eerie incidents that the character begins or continues to experience.

In the prologue to The Academy, Little writes:

. . . Kurt . . . . looked toward the classrooms.

Something was wrong.

There was a chain-link fence blocking off the buildings in an effort to prevent vandalism. Behind the fence, he could see closed classroom doors and windows shaded by off-white institutional blinds. The sight of the shut-down school had made him feel happy last year, but now it made him feel uneasy. Even the field and the blacktop basketball courts put him on edge, their emptiness somehow emphasizing the fact that the two of them [Kurt and his friend Van] were all alone here.

And no one would know if something happened to them (2).
Little tucks explanations (identified by me by the use of bold font) into the sentences to attribute natural causes to the unusual incidents, and his inclusion of the reason for the building of the fence suggests that the characters’ world is one of reason and sanity--a suggestion that will soon be toppled:

. . . Kurt . . . . looked toward the classrooms.

Something was wrong.

There was a chain-link fence blocking off the buildings in an effort to prevent vandalism. Behind the fence, he could see closed classroom doors and windows shaded by off-white institutional blinds. The sight of the shut-down school had made him feel happy last year, but now it made him feel uneasy. Even the field and the blacktop basketball courts put him on edge, their emptiness somehow emphasizing the fact that the two of them [Kurt and his friend Van] were all alone here.

And no one would know if something happened to them [bold added] (2).
On the next page, Kurt discerns something else, but it moves so swiftly that he’s unsure of what he’s seen; again, Little deftly tucks in an explanation that offers a natural cause for the incident (indicated by the bold font):

. . . Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a motion, a furtive shadow the size of a skinny girl that darted between two of the buildings so quickly that he was not sure it was even there (3).
Embarrassed by his seemingly unfounded fear, Kurt hopes to persuade his friend to leave their high school’s basketball court. As he ponders the issue, he and Van seem top come under a strange sort of attack:

Too embarrassed to let Van know that he was scared, Kurt stood there for a moment while his friend dribbled around the court and made a layup [sic]. He still wasn’t sure why he was scared, but he was, and despite the fact that it was the middle of the day, and hot and sunny to boot, the fear seemed to be
intensifying. He moved beneath a tree for the shade, leaning his back against the trunk, trying to think of a way to get his friend to leave.

A nut fell from the tree and hit him on the top of the head, bouncing to the ground. . . . The damn thing felt more like a rock than a nut . . .

Another nut came speeding down and hit his forearm, a round red bruise appearing instantly on the skin (4-5).

The fact that not one or two, but three, acorns fall (or are thrown) at him suggests that their fall is more than simply an accident or a coincidence, as do the heft and the force of the nuts and their immediate effect on their victim (“a round red bruise appearing instantly on the skin”). (Anyone who has ever had an acorn fall on him or her from a tree knows that, ordinarily, they don’t feel like a rock or ordinarily leave a bruise, especially not an “instant” one.)

Kurt tells Van it’s time for them to leave, but, oddly, Van reacts with “real hostility in his voice,” leaving Kurt mystified as to “where it had come from or what had brought it on.” As Van resumes shooting baskets, the rebounding ball seems to attack him, as the acorns had seemed to assault Kurt. When Van still refuses to leave the court, Kurt walks away. The narrator tells the reader, ending the prologue on an ominous note, “It was the last time he ever saw his friend” (5).

These repeated suggestions that there may be more than meets the eye behind apparently normal and natural incidents and situations helps to create and maintain suspense, as does Little’s very effective strategy of ending many of his chapters on an eerie, mysterious, or ominous note (a cliffhanger, but one that includes an element of the eerie and, possibly, the paranormal or the supernatural). As the story continues, it seems less and less likely that the increasingly bizarre incidents and situations can be explained as resulting from normal and natural causes and more and more likely that only a paranormal or a supernatural cause can account for them.

By the time the reader reaches chapter three of the novel, he or she will have pretty much decided that there is something beyond the ordinary going on at the charter school. The custodial staff is afraid to work the night shift: “It’s not that we don’t like to work,” Carlos tells his supervisor, Enrique. “We just don’t want to work here. At night” (30). Some of the janitors have reported odd, even eerie, events, and some of them believe that the school is haunted.

They notice that the school is different, too: “Something had happened to the school over the summer” (31). For one thing, “it seemed as if all over the school the illumination was dimmer than it had been before summer,” but, again, Little’s character--in this case, the custodian named Carlos--attributes the apparently dimmer lights to an understandable cause (although he isn’t convinced by his own explanation): “He tried to tell himself that it was intentional, part of an effort to save electricity and cut down on energy expenses but he couldn’t make himself believe it” (32).

Carlos’ doubt undercuts the reader’s tendency to attribute the story’s unusual goings-on to natural and rational causes. However, the reader will want to hedge his or her bets, just as Carlos does, in the event that the bizarre incidents do turn out to have a natural or rational explanation, as it would be embarrassing to discover that, all along, the events had, in fact, resulted from natural or intentional grounds.

Sometimes, Little starts an ominous passage by having his narrator tell the reader, directly, that something is amiss. He did so in the earlier passage about the vacant classrooms behind the chain-link fence that Kurt saw from the basketball court, and he does so, again, in this chapter, as Carlos hears voices coming from the girls’ locker room, which, at this time of night, should be deserted:

. . . Something was wrong tonight [bold added].

There were voices coming from the locker room and there weren’t supposed to be. Any summer practice ended hours ago, and at this time of the evening, the PE department should have been as silent as a tomb (35).
The repetition of the sentence “something was wrong” makes readers recall the earlier scene when something else was also “wrong,” and the use of two male names which sound similar--”Kurt” and “Carlos”--helps to tie the earlier scene to this one, in which something else is likewise “wrong.”

It’s something of a cliché to point out that people, more often than not, tend to think in clichés. Language itself, someone has said, is a “tissue of faded metaphors.” We speak, as we think, in such “faded,” or dead, metaphors, constantly relating one thing--frequently a thought, a perception, or a feeling, but also inanimate objects and even other people--to something else. In the passage quoted above, Carlos associates the should-be silence of the locker room to the quiet of a tomb, and, of course, “silent as a tomb” is a well-worn cliché. Therefore, the thought seems natural, because it is, in fact, commonplace. However, Little’s use of the metaphor also allows him to characterize the incident he’s describing as one that is eerie (because tombs are not only silent but are also creepy). The transition between the clichéd thought and Carlos’ feelings is almost inevitable, and Little capitalizes upon it by offering, once again, the possibility of a rational explanation for the mysterious and frightening sounds that the janitor hears in the girls’ locker room after hours. This extended explanation, in fact, illustrates perfectly how horror writers typically simultaneously suggest both a natural or a rational and a paranormal or a supernatural cause of the story’s bizarre incidents or circumstances. Notice, however, that Little tilts the reader’s interpretation toward the paranormal or supernatural explanation by characterizing Carlos’ attempt to explain--or to explain away--his perceptions as a rationalization rather than as reasoning and by adding the rhetorical question, at the end of the passage, “But he didn’t think so, did he?”:

. . . Something was wrong tonight.

There were voices coming from the locker room and there weren’t supposed to be. Any summer practice ended hours ago, and at this time of the evening, the PE department should have been as silent as a tomb.


. . . Why had he thought of that word?

Carlos shivered. Sound could do weird things here in the PE department, he rationalized. The big echoey [sic] gym with its exposed beams and high ceiling, the tiled bunker like [sic] showers, even the coaches’ offices with their windowed half walls, all distorted the resonance of voices and often made the sound as though they were coming from a room or section of building that they were not. So while there wasn’t supposed to be anyone in here at this hour, it was entirely possible that one of the coaches had left a radio on in an office or something. There could be a perfectly innocent explanation for the fact that he heard people talking in the girls’ locker room [bold added].

But he didn’t think so, did he?

No (35-36).

Having offered a rational (or rationalized) explanation for what could be a paranormal or a supernatural incident, Little next exaggerates the “voices” the janitor hears, turning them into the “moans and yelps, grunts and gasps” of participants in an apparent orgy in progress, which includes “other sounds as well, disturbing sounds, and male laughter that was harsh, cruel, and far too loud” (36). Associating the sounds of the “harsh, cruel” laughter of the males with his abusive father, Carlos actually encounters him as he investigates the locker room, and he flees from the apparition, nearly knocking over his partner, Raakem, who has been working in a different part of the school and who looks as if he has also just fled from something horrific. By having more than one character experience and report bizarre, uncanny incidents, Little adds a veneer of verisimilitude to these experiences.

Typically, the natural or rational explanation follows the suggested paranormal or supernatural cause of the bizarre events, almost as if the reference to the natural or the rational grounds is a corrective to superstition or magical thinking concerning the dubious presumptive agency of occult powers. Later in the novel, Little reverses this typical order, offering a motive for an apparent threat by the school’s principal (“You will never graduate. . . . I’ll make sure of that”) that is both irrational and immoral, if not illegal, but is also non-violent, only to follow it with a much more unlikely and downright insane motive that portends not merely violence, but also death:

Ed found that his hands were shaking. What exactly did she mean by that remark? That she was going to make sure he didn’t have enough credits to graduate?

Or that she was going to make sure he was dead before his senior year?
Like a true master of the macabre, Little continues this juxtaposition of the normal, the natural, and the rational with the paranormal and the supernatural throughout his novel, allowing (until the final resolution of the narrative’s conflict), a dual understanding of its incidents. The idea that everything could happen as a result of the natural and could be rational prevents readers from rejecting the situations as unlikely from the beginning and, by the story’s end, allows them, perhaps, to accept that they are, in fact, paranormal or supernatural. The juxtaposition also creates, maintains, and heightens suspense and fear. Like Shirley Jackson and others, Little also recognizes that horror is personal, and, in his fiction, he makes it personal for his characters, relating it to their past or present experiences and to their future aspirations.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Teleology and Horror

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The evolution of hair, of eyes, of noses, of mouths, of sex and the sexes--these are fascinating topics, and they point, each one, to sometimes disturbing, sometimes revolting, but always fascinating, moments in which something original arose out of nature or creation, usually in response to a need. But in anticipation of a need to come?

Impossible, one might suppose--but what if evolution isn’t blind; what if it’s an instrument of an all-knowing, all-seeing God? In other words, what if evolution is teleological? (The very word “teleology,” of course, itself breeds horror among atheistic evolutionists, in whose number Charles Darwin did not, by the way, count himself any more than did the Catholic theologian and evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.)

Teleology, in relation to evolution, suggests that organisms develop along lines that are purposeful and goal-directed. Teleologists argue that, rather than being determined by its environment and the stimuli that it provides, the organism and its organs are determined by its (and their) purpose. For example, people have physical senses because they need to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell; they don’t sense things because they have senses.

The view of metaphysical naturalism that atheistic evolutionists hold and the view of ontogenesis that teleologists hold have moral implications concerning minerals, plants, animals, and humans. The former assumes that organisms are what they are and that they are neither good nor evil nor better nor worse than one another. The latter view is often the basis for the concept of lesser and greater organisms which each have a correspondingly lower or higher place in the cosmic chain of being. To personalize these views, one might say that Lucretius and Aldous Huxley hold the former view and that Aristotle and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin hold the latter view.

Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use. -- Lucretius. (In other words, function follows form)

Nature adapts the organ to the function, and not the function to the organ. -- Aristotle. (In other words, form follows function.)

These contrasting views of evolution frequently fuel speculative fiction, especially the science fiction branch of it, but they have also occasionally driven horror fiction, especially if one holds, as it seems easy enough to do, that human beings are natural organisms that have evolved to a point that is sufficient for them to begin, through such means as agricultural hybridization, eugenics, genetic engineering, and cloning, to direct evolution, for even adherents of metaphysical naturalism must find it difficult to deny any possibility of purposeful and goal-directed activity to human behavior in its entirety. We have become the gods that nature, perhaps blindly, or that God, with forethought, intended, us to become, and we are now capable, to whatever limited and clumsy degree, of determining the direction and the purpose of nature, as many a horror story involving the experimental procedures of mad scientists have indicated.

If Harry Harrison’s Deathworld trilogy is an example of the function-follows-form theory of evolution (the whole planet and everything in it has evolved to survive at the expense of all other plants and animals), the Terminator film series (especially the original) is an example of the form-follows-function theory of evolution (cyborgs have been created to seek and kill a specific individual and anyone or anything else that gets it its way, and they even build themselves). Both result in scary worlds in which one is apt to end up dead. Which method of execution seems scarier may come down to two questions:

  1. Would you rather be killed by a natural, organic monstrosity that responds to the stimulus of your presence by killing you or by a technological monstrosity that kills you because it’s programmed to do so?
  2. Is there an intelligence operating the universe (that is, nature) behind the scenes, so to speak and, if so, is this intelligence gracious or cruel, loving or malevolent?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Little Red Riding Hood: “Grandma! What big teeth you have!”
Wolf: “The better to eat you with, my dear!”
Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, originated the phrase “the survival of the fittest,” making evolution a sort of game in which the winner is the organism or the species of organisms (depending upon one’s view concerning whether the ultimate survivor will be an individual or a species) that eliminates all competitors. The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson coined the phrase “nature red in tooth and claw.” From Spencer’s point of view (and Tennyson’s), it’s a jungle out there. It’s a wonder that it wasn’t one of them, rather than Harry Harrison, who wrote the sci fi Deathworld trilogy, in which a planet’s wildlife develops with no other purpose than to kill or to be killed. Spencer’s (and Tennyson’s) view of evolution is a convenient basis for horror (and science fiction) stories, regardless of whether, from scientific and philosophical points of view, it’s true. However, the views of another early evolutionist are, perhaps, even more useful to horror and science fiction writers.

The puma: scary!

For most scientists, evolution is a case of function follows form. In other words, we have ears; therefore, we hear. By the way, their theory answers, once and for all, it would seem, the philosophical koan which asks whether a tree, falling in a forest in which no one is present, makes a sound. No. (There are no ears to hear.)

But what if Aristotle, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Jean-Baptiste Lemarck are right? What if evolution is really a case of form following function and we developed ears purposely so that we could hear? In a word, what if evolution is teleological rather than accidental?

Lemarck, once very popular among his peers, has since, like Lucifer, fallen from favor among the host of Darwinian evolutionists and has been cast into their version of hell (extinction). However, his views are interesting and pertinent to horror writers who are always searching for relatively plausible (all right, not absolutely unbelievable) ways to explain the monsters with which they populate the pages and film footage of their stories. And they seem, in some quarters, poised to return. Therefore, in the interests of the theory and practice of horror fiction, we’ll explore Lemarck’s theory--in summary fashion, of course. Then, we’ll consider a few possible applications of his theory to horror and science fiction.

He believed, and taught others to believe (but with possibly little lasting effect) that an organism can pass acquired characteristics on to their offspring. The characteristics thus transmitted from parent to offspring are necessary or helpful in promoting the species’ (and the individuals’) survival. The classic example of his theory is the giraffe’s neck. Needing to graze the leaves of trees, the animal continually stretched its neck until, eventually, the neck elongated and was genetically transmitted to its offspring.

Two principles govern Lemarckian thought: use it or lose it (unused characteristics are tossed while useful ones are acquired and retained) and family heirlooms, in the form of ancestors’ traits, are passed down through the generations. His view explains not only giraffes, followers claim, but athletes and thinkers and beautiful people, among others, for athletes have the physical prowess their athletic ancestors developed, thinkers the well-developed brains of their forebears, and beautiful people the aesthetically pleasing features their near and distant relatives share (or shared) with them. It’s not so good, perhaps, in explaining the continued existence of ninety-eight-pound weaklings, idiots, and the physically repugnant except to say that they are on their way out; their days are numbered. However, a little innovative thinking can, perhaps, discover a need for such otherwise undesirable traits and, thereby, save them from the damnation of eternal extinction.

According to later proponents of Lemarck’s views, unused organs and other structures likewise perish over time, becoming weaker and weaker until, eventually, they vanish. One might cite the appendix and the coccyx, or tailbone, as examples of vanishing organs, and some would include, among other body parts, the little fingers and toes. The surviving characteristics are then passed on to the kids. Environmental changes introduce new needs, and, as a result, the organism’s behavior changes, leading to the eventual acquisition of altered organs and characteristics which are then passed on to junior.

Tyranosaur: scarier!

Harvard University’s William McDougall and Ivan Pavlov were both Lemarckian scientists. On the bases of their research, they believed that acquired characteristics--rats’ learned ability to navigate mazes and similar skills--were passed on to the offspring of the animals that originally acquired them. Other scientists, including Ted Steele, Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, and John Cairns, have also observed behaviors at the cellular and microscopic levels that they attribute to a Lemarckian sort of genetics.

What are the implications of Lemarkian evolution theory for horror (and sci fi) writers? We can think of a few, and you can probably think of a slew.

Serial killers shouldn’t have children, for one thing, because the facility for killing other people that they’ve acquired from long and frequent practice is an acquired trait that they could pass on to their children. We don’t need a Ted Bundy, Jr. or a little John Wayne Gacy. One was plenty.

Ugliness might be helpful in some situations. It may not be handy in getting a date on Saturday night, but it could be useful in frightening away potential threats, which is why we wear Halloween masks and costumes and why mothers-in-law and other animals exhibit what scientists call “threat displays,” erecting their hair, expanding their muscles and chests, opening their mouths, and rearing onto their hind legs. The ugliest among us might still be with us because their ugliness is useful to their survival and to that of their children. Maybe they can’t compete in other ways, through intelligence, good looks, or by being a sycophant. They use their ugliness, so they don’t lose it. If so, might that not explain monsters? Few creatures are uglier than a gorgon, the extraterrestrials of Predator and Alien, or the monsters in H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction.

We should be careful concerning what we’re doing to our environment, because, if we change it enough or in the wrong way, the planet could become a breeding ground for new and improved, but not necessarily pleasant, behaviors which, in turn, could result in the development of dreadful organs and characteristics that are passed from mommy and daddy mutant to baby mutant. In such a modified environment, a nocturnal individual or group of individuals, finding daytime activity risky or just not worth the effort, might enter a catatonic state until nightfall and, faced with the need to acquire blood quickly and readily as a source of nutrients, it might develop fangs and come out at dark to suck the blood of Paris Hilton and other late-night partygoers. Viola! Thanks to Lemarckian evolutionary theory, vampires would no longer be merely fictitious beings (except, perhaps, for the undead and immortality issues).

Since advertising is based upon supplying needs, real or perceived, we might wonder what generations of commercials concerning perfume, beer, fashion, and the like are making of us and our children and who, besides business leaders, might be behind such campaigns and why. Are ads changing our cognitive environment? Are they identifying or creating needs that are not only lucrative, but also antisocial and harmful to society in general?

There’s a wealth of conspiracy theory-driven fiction here, it seems, with an array of possible culprits and motives. In a world in which form and function both follow need, anything is possible, especially if we include perceived as well as actual needs, and nature, already red in tooth and claw, might become red in maw as well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Anthology Ideas

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

There are probably as many ways to come up with an anthology idea as there are editors who come up with anthology ideas. In the brief head notes to his stories in his own anthology of twice-told tales, The Collection, Bentley Little mentions a few of them. For any who imagined that the innards of the publishing industry are as confused and messy as those of a dissected high school biology class frog, his comments on the matter suggest that such cynics are pretty much right on the money.

The ecology movement gave rise to the notion for one anthology: The Earth Strikes Back was to be a collection of tales concerning “the negative effects of pollution, overpopulation, and deforestation” upon the planet, or so Little supposed, at least, “judging by the title of the book.”

Another anthology, Cold Blood, was also to be centered on a “theme” and its stories were to have been written to “specific guidelines.”

A third anthology was to have included “stories based on titles the editor provided,” all of which “were. . . clichéd horror images.” This one, Little says, “never came to pass.”

According to Stephanie Bond, author of “Much Ado About Anthologies,” these collections “are assembled in various ways,” sometimes as the result of a group proposal by several authors, sometimes at the suggestion of an editor, sometimes as a way to test the marketability of an idea, and sometimes to capitalize upon a specific author’s unusual success. Usually, they come together because “editors formulate ideas for anthologies to fill holes they perceive in the market.”

I submitted a story for an anthology myself. It (the anthology, but my story also) concerned animals. My story was accepted, but I declined the invitation, because it was to have appeared in an electronic magazine and the editor wanted to pay via PayPal. I prefer payments by check, the old-fashioned way.

Anthologies have a common theme, of course, provided by a timely or evergreen topic, a holiday, an intriguing situation, or any other reasonably good excuse for a score or more (or fewer) stories by the same or different authors of the same genre.

Horror movies have also gone the anthology route. Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye and Creepshow are only two among many. Most follow the simple convention of sandwiching three of four short movies between an opening prologue that sets up the theme to be followed and an epilogue that rounds out the series and provides an appropriate sense of closure.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shirley Jackson: Learning from the Masters

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In an early scene of the movie Rose Red, its author, Stephen King, playing the role of a pizza deliveryman, announces his delivery of a “fully loaded” pie for “Jackson.” The line is King’s tribute to the author of The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, who also wrote the famous horror story “The Lottery.” (Rose Red is a takeoff--some might say a rip-off--of Jackson’s Haunting.)

What can the aspiring (or professional) horror writer learn from Jackson’s take on the fiction of fear? Quite a bit.

Like most writers, she writes what she knows. She begins many of her stories by recalling a situation or an incident that frightened her. In a letter she wrote, but never mailed, to the poet Howard Nemerov, she confesses, “I . . . consolidate a situation where I was afraid and. . . work from there.” Like King, Bentley Little, and other masters of the genre, Jackson finds the horrific, the eerie, and the dreadful in common, ordinary events and circumstances. She had, one might say, a highly developed sense of horror, just as the better comedians have a highly developed sense of humor.

Her discerning eye saw the dreadful and the appalling in people, places, and things that others tend to take for granted, accepting or rejecting without a second thought or, perhaps, any thought at all. In such activities as a communal lottery, a couple going about their daily business, the chores associated with marriage and motherhood, and college experiences, she found inspiration for six novels (The Road Through the Wall [1948], Hangman [1951], The Bird’s Nest [1954], The Sundial [1958], The Haunting of Hill House [1959], and We Have Always Lived in the Castle [1962]), three short story collections (The Lottery and Other Stories [1949], Come Along With Me [1968], and Just an Ordinary Day [1996]), and several other works for children and non-fiction publications.

Just as such contemporary horror writers such as Little, Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft locate the horrific in apathy, Jackson, like Little and King, finds it under the rock, so to speak, of everydayness. It is the malaise of the routine, the ordinary, the usual that destroys the mind and slays the soul. (For King, it is more a threat to one’s community, or hometown--an extension, as we have observed in other posts, of one’s own home.)

After marrying Stanley Edgar Hyman, she resided in Vermont, “in a quiet rural community with fine scenery and comfortably far away from city life”--an environment well in keeping with the ordinariness that infuses her fiction.

Interestingly, the houses in her stories are often more interesting (and sinister) than the stories’ characters. The opening to The Haunting of Hill House is justifiably famous:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
As a Wikipedia article points out, the same is true of the house that appears in The Sundial:

A less obvious but nonetheless imposing character in the novel is the Halloran house itself. Built by a man who came into great wealth late in his life, the house is lavish to the point of garishness, and the endless details of the grounds and interiors are carefully described by Jackson until they overwhelm both characters and reader alike. One of these details is the titular sundial, which stands like an asymmetrical eyesore in the middle of the mathematically perfect grounds and bears the legend “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” (a quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in “The Knight's Tale”). Jackson herself was fond of joking of an “architectural gene” that cropped up in her family once every few generations, and the house presented in The Sundial might foreshadow the infamous Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House. In both Hill House and Sundial, there are many striking similarities between the two houses: both Hill House and Halloran House were built by husbands as gifts for wives who died shortly before or shortly after seeing the house for the first time, and both houses become the source of conflict between various family members who disputed the house's ownership. The “mathematically perfect” grounds and the jarring sundial might remind readers again of Hill House, where all the floors and walls are said to be slightly off-centre. Halloran House, while never openly “haunted” in the sense that Hill House claimed to be, is the site of at least two ghostly visitations.
The tendency to invoke the ominous character of everyday objects is a convention in the horror genre, and women writers frequently attribute such a quality to houses and to domestic objects. One thinks, for example, of Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper” and of the house in which the apparent death of her husband prompts a revelation in the protagonist concerning her personal plight in “The Story of an Hour.”

It is possible, given Jackson’s statement that she starts her stories with “a situation where I was afraid and. . . work[s] from there” that her agoraphobia was a source of her interest in depicting sinister houses. Typically, an person who suffers from agoraphobia finds comfort in familiar surroundings, especially their homes, and are loathe to leave these sanctuaries of safety and security. What if one’s sanctuary should turn upon one, betraying one--perhaps even, in a manner of speaking, stalking one? The result could be The Haunting of Hill House, The Sundial, or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. At least, Sigmund Freud might entertain such notions. If we were to go so far as to take a leaf from those who believe in the efficacy of dream analysis (whose number numbers not only psychoanalysts of the Freudian stripe but others as well), and consider the house a symbol of the body, many of Jackson’s works might even be considered, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” examples of body horror.

It seems possible, too, that Jackson found the multi-tasking, or more specifically, the multiple roles of modern women to be a potential source of stories of the uncanny and the bizarre. In “Shirley Jackson: Delight in What I Fear,” Paula Guran points out that there is something almost schizophrenic about the many roles that contemporary women perform: “We're all expected to be multiple personalities these days. Nurturing mom, supportive wife, hard driving on the job and carpool driving off. Or maybe we can create a great soufflé while whipping up a new novel. If we've opted for a family we have to somehow be several people at once.” She points out, furthermore (as Chillers and Thrillers also points out, taking a different approach, in an earlier post) that “Writers often feed their creativity through several coexisting personalities.” (The mother who can’t balance the demands of these conflicting roles has recently become a stereotype in contemporary horror fiction, recognizable in King’s Carrie, Robert McCammon’s Mine!, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, and, of course, she originally appeared in ancient myth as such characters as the furies, the gorgons, the lamia, and the sirens.

So, what have we learned from our consideration of Shirley Jackson as a master of contemporary horror fiction? Quite a bit:
  • Relive the fear, using it as the basis for creating a horror story.
  • Find the terror in everyday situations and incidents.
  • Don’t overlook the opportunities for horror that exist in one’s own phobias, if one is fortunate enough to acquire any such “irrational” fears.
  • For hints of the horrific, look to the conflicts generated by the familial, social, and other roles that one is compelled to play.
  • Seek the horrific in the things, as well as the persons and places, associated with the familial, social, and other roles that one is compelled to play: any may inspire a story that makes readers’ hair stand on end and pimples their flesh with goose bumps.
  • Understand the horror of betrayal by the people--or places or things--that one holds nearest and dearest to one’s heart (and remember that no one, no place, and nothing is really safe).
  • Know that even Mom (and her apple pie), emptied of the good or seasoned with madness and taken to extremes, can be truly terrifying.
  • Realize that horror, like evil itself, is not only natural, social, psychological, and theological in nature, but that it is, above all, personal and should be taken personally.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tentacles, of Themselves, Do Not a Horror Movie Make

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Tentacles are creepy. They’re not arms, not exactly--not as we think of arms, anyway--but they’re like no other limbs, either--and they’re equipped with suckers! They have a longer reach than the law, too. And they writhe. Anything that writhes is creepy.

They can create suction. They can grip. They can wind and entwine.

They squeeze.

Although some women might suppose we’re talking about their last blind date, tentacles belong mostly to the denizens of the deep. That’s how strange they are.

Most land animals have refused to evolve them--and, no, an elephant’s trunk doesn‘t count. It doesn‘t even have suckers.

Octopi have eight of the damned things! Eight! That’s not just wasteful; that’s ludicrous. What in the hell could an organism want with eight tentacles? Eight tentacles do not encourage trust. The other organisms, besides octopi, that are equipped with tentacles are just as strange and repugnant, if not more so: cuttlefish, for example--there’s nothing cuddly about them--or krakens.

Tentacles are big in Asian horror, especially the comic strip variety, such as that of Manga and anime, in which these snake-like appendages are, quite frankly, phallic substitutes. These comics’ stories center upon rape--and, well, yes, an element of bestiality. In these comics, the rapists are not men--or not men per se--but monsters. Therefore, their assaults against female victims are supposed--by the comics’ publishers, if no one else--to be politically and socially acceptable, if scientifically dubious.

Since monsters equipped with tentacles are mostly maritime, they tend to threaten ships at sea, but, on a few occasions, they come near enough to the shore to menace bathing beauties. Occasionally, on the way in, they might take out a bridge or two, just to impress the ladies and to show that they aren’t monsters with which to be trifled. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the plot of such movies. They revolve around the question as to whether a ship or a submarine or a bridge or a bathing beauty or two can survive the attack of a sea monster with tentacles. (Usually, no, they can’t.)

Now, a movie in which the beast with the tentacles could lose some of its appendages only to have the severed or ripped loose tentacle itself become another beast with tentacles--that would be worth watching.

Or not.

Probably not.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“Heavy-Set”: Learning from the Masters

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

This post inaugurates a series which, featured occasionally, will analyze the techniques employed not only by the masters of the horror genre, but also those of the science fiction, fantasy, and other types of fiction. For both fans and aspiring writers, this series, hopefully, will be fun as well as occasionally informative.

We’re starting with “Heavy-Set,” a deft and tightly written short story by Ray Bradbury in which the horror, although understated, is definitely there.

The tale is, in fact, a lesson in how to use understatement to heighten suspense, terror, and horror.

It starts by identifying the main character, who is not Heavy-Set, but his mother, thus orienting the story to follow from her perspective, although the narrative itself is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. The opening sentence also establishes an everyday setting, which will sharply contrast with the tale’s understated terror: “The woman stepped to the kitchen window and looked out.” In doing so, she sees her son, Leonard, among the many weights with which he works out on a regular basis:

There in the twilight yard a man stood surrounded by barbells and dumbbells and dark iron weights of all kinds and slung jump ropes and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors. He wore a sweat suit and tennis shoes. . . .

This was her son, and everyone called him Heavy-Set.

By continuing to insert “and” between the items in the series in which he identifies the equipment that Heavy-Set uses, Bradbury stretches out the list of items, thereby impressing upon his readers how many items of equipment Heavy-Set has on hand. “A man stood surrounded by barbells and dumbbells and dark iron weights of all kinds and slung jump ropes and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors [bold added]” is more effective, for this reason, than “a man stood surrounded by barbells, dumbbells, dark iron weights of all kinds, slung jump ropes, and elastic and coiled-spring exercisors [bold added]” would be. It’s rhythm is also more melodious. It is in these seemingly small matters of diction and style that the truly great writers take pains to shine, and Bradbury, even among other established writers of his genre, is known for his perfection in this regard.

Next, Bradbury stresses the size and strength of the antagonist:

Heavy-Set squeezed the little bunched, coiled springs in his big fists. They were lost in his fingers, like magic tricks; then they reappeared. He crushed them. They vanished. He let them go. They came back.

Bradbury is such a skilled craftsman that he easily accomplishes several objectives at once--or, at least, like all true masters, he makes doing so look easy. In the short paragraph just quoted, for example, he emphasizes Heavy-Set’s size and strength with such phrases as “big fists” and “lost in his fingers,” but his description of Heavy-Set exercising with the “coiled springs,” employing the simile “like magic tricks” and short sentences (“He crushed them. They vanished. He let them go. They came back.”), also makes readers see this character exercising and, more than this, makes them see, also, how Heavy-Set exercises: slowly, methodically, purposefully. For him, exercise is more than merely exercise; it is ritualistic, perhaps even therapeutic. His devotion to his workouts is reinforced by the single-sentence paragraph that follows the description of Heavy-Set at work with the “coiled springs”: “He did this for ten minutes, otherwise motionless.” It is obvious that he is focused. Indeed, it is almost as if he is one with the springs that he crushes and lets go.

Readers see, next, that lifting a one-hundred-pound set of barbells is easy for Heavy-Set; he does so without effort:

“Then he bent down and hoisted up the one-hundred-pound barbells, noiselessly, not breathing. He motioned it a number of times over his head, then abandoned it” for a punching bag, which he punched. . . easily, swiftly, steadily,” working it over the same way he worked the weights.
He is proud of his size and strength; his physical prowess is the basis of his self-image and, perhaps, his self-esteem. As he finishes his evening’s exercise regimen, he fills “his lungs until his chest” inflates to “fifty inches” and stands “eyes closed, seeing himself in an invisible mirror poised and tremendous, two hundred and twenty muscled pounds, tanned by the sun, salted by the sea wind and his own sweat.”

Having established the size and strength of his story’s antagonist, Bradbury next establishes Heavy-Set’s “childlike” nature by having him carve Halloween pumpkins, as if it were a “job” in which to take pride, rather than a few moments’ pastime:

He had gone out earlier in the day and bought the pumpkins and carved most of them and did a fine job: they were beauties and he was proud of them. Now, looking childlike in the kitchen, he started carving the last of them. You would never suspect he was thirty years old. . . .
There is the suggestion that Heavy-Set may be mentally handicapped. His mother, who is very much aware of how much her son exercises, hearing “him every night drubbing the punching bag outside, or squeezing the little metal springs in his hands or grunted as he lifted his world of his weights,” seems to dote upon him for this very reason. She is extremely solicitous of his comfort and enjoyment, asking him whether he liked the dinner she prepared for him and telling him that she bought “special steak” and “fresh” asparagus. When he says that “it was good,” she replies, “I’m glad you liked it, I always like to have you like it.” The strange syntax stresses her desire to please her son, and readers wonder whether her solicitude is meaningful beyond itself.

Although girls and “eighteen-year-old boys” are attracted to him, for different reasons--the girls wanting to date him and the boys looking up to him--Heavy-Set avoids their company, and his mother is “used, by now, to hearing Heavy-Set each night on the phone saying he was tired to girls and. . . no, no he had to wax the car tonight or do his exercises to the. . . boys.” He seems to have trouble with relationships with others and avoids situations that could lead to such associations, whether of a dating or of a more general and casual sort, his difficulty reinforcing the suggestion that he may be mentally handicapped.

He seems better able to interact with young people in a group, for a limited amount of time, as he plans to attend a Halloween party to which he‘s been invited indicate. He has “bought two jugs of cider,” he tells his mother, in case “they all show up,” although, he worries, “they might not show up.”

As the story progresses, Bradbury’s narrator continually inserts references to Heavy-Set’s weightlifting and his squeezing of the exercisors. Bradbury also repeatedly alludes to his antagonist’s size. Such repetition has the effect of highlighting these actions and characteristics.

The narrator next associates the character’s physical prowess with his immaturity. After Heavy-Set finishes carving the last of his pumpkins, he moves “into his bedroom, quietly massive, his shoulders filling the door and beyond,” from whence he returns dressed in a very childlike costume, indeed, consisting of “a pair of short black pants, a little boy’s shirt with a ruff collar, and a Buster Brown hat” and “licking a gigantic peppermint-striped lollipop.” To his mother, he announces, “I’m the mean little kid!” If there were any question as to the antagonist’s being mentally handicapped, his dressing, at age thirty, in such an outfit eliminates all such doubt. His mother humors him as he parades before her, pretending to lead “a big dog on a rope,” exclaiming, “You’ll be the life of the party!” Nevertheless, she finds his antics “exhausting.” Readers suspect that putting up with the immature thirty-year-old man is no easy task for her.

Heavy-Set’s “childlike” nature becomes more apparent as one of the “eighteen-year-old boys” with whom he sometimes interacts calls to tell him that many of them won’t be attending the party. Unlike Heavy-Set, who avoids girls, the boys, although twelve years his junior, are more interested in dating than they are in attending a Halloween costume party, and “half the guys,” he learns, “aren’t showing up at the party” because they have “other dates.” Tommy, the boy who’s called to relay this news, says he himself has “a date with a girl.”

When, dejected, Heavy-Set says, “I ought to throw the pumpkins in the garbage,” his mother encourages him to go to the party, anyway, assuring him that “there’ll be enough for a party” and that he should “go on and have a good time,” especially since he hasn’t “been out in weeks.”

The narrator informs the readers that Heavy-Set has dated two girls during the past decade, neither of which date went well. His more customary way of spending his days is in solitary pursuits such as playing “a game of basketball with himself. . . in the backyard,” swimming, surfing, or, of course, working out with his weights and punching bag. In such activities (all of which are typical of men younger than he), Heavy-Set finds momentary release from the tension and stress that results from his loneliness and his inability to establish or maintain adult relationships. They are also a means for him to repress his sex drive, as the following description, with its almost-subliminal metaphorical allusion to orgasm, indicates:

Some nights he stood around like this and then suddenly vanished and you saw him way out in the ocean swimming long and strong and quiet as a seal under the full moon or you could not see him those nights the moon was gone and only the stars lay over the water but you heard him there, on occasion, a faint splash as he went under and stayed under a long time and came up, or he went out [as if on a date] sometimes with his surfboard as smooth as a girl’s cheek, sandpapered to a softness, and came riding in, huge and alone on . . . [an ejaculatory] white and ghastly wave that creamed along the shore. . . .
Although he has opportunities to date, he passes on them, and the boys who admire his physique, once they turn twenty-one, abandon him, to be replaced by a new set of youthful admirers who shall also abandon him in due time.

As the protagonist thinks of her son, Leonard, whom his youthful friends call “Heavy-Set” or “Sammy,” which is “short for Samson,” or “Butch” or “Atlas” or “Hercules,” her exhaustion comes through, and readers get a sense of her own desperation. Earlier, while she’d been watching her son parade in his Buster Brown costume, Heavy-Set’s mother felt “exhausted.” Now, readers learn that her son’s condition affects her in other ways, too. She is also lonely. Her son is uncommunicative and regards her not so much as his mother but as a generic female, “the woman,” who waits on him hand and foot and is always solicitous of his happiness and comfort:

He went into the kitchen. “I guess there’ll be enough guys there,” he said. “Sure there will,” she said, smiling again. She always smiled again. Sometimes when she talked to him, night after night, she looked as if she were lifting weights, too. When he walked through the rooms she looked like she was doing the walking for him. . . .
Having reassured him, again, that plenty of his acquaintances will be present at the party, his mother shoos him out the door, saying, “Fly away.” These words are as much a hope for herself as they are an encouragement to him. She hopes that he will do just this, like a bird that has been too long in the nest. His presence prevents her from living a full and independent life, for her own is devoted, almost entirely, to caring for him, despite the fact that Heavy-Set does, indeed, have a job of sorts, working “on the high power lines all day, up in the sky, alone.”

As the evening grows later, she keeps an eye out for her son’s return, hoping against hope, all the while, that, at last, he may have met “someone” and won’t be coming home, in which case, she herself will be free:

What if, she thought, he found someone tonight, found someone down there, and just never came back, never came home. No telephone call. No letter, that was the way it could be. No word. Just go off away and never come back again. What if? What if?
However, her desperate hope is short-lived, as she thinks, “No!. . . there’s no one, no one there, no one anywhere. There’s just this place. This is the only place.”

Earlier, she wondered what happened in her son’s life to retard his emotional development and to make him want nothing to do with girls, with sex, with marriage, or a normal life. Her questions show that she does not know much about her son, despite having lived with him for thirty years. He doesn’t communicate much, except when he is angry or disgruntled. There may not be much depth to him, and he certainly does seem to be mentally handicapped. He may harbor latent homosexual tendencies, as he is more concerned with what teenage boys think of him than he is with the marginal women who dote upon him. He seems, in a way, to court the teenage boys’ favor and admiration, rather than to avail himself of the pitiable women who display an interest in him, and his mother appears to attribute his behavior to a past traumatic event, possibly molestation, that he’s never mentioned to her:

Leonard, my good boy. . . . just where, in all the years, did the thing happen that put him up that pole alone and working out alone every night? Certainly there had been enough women, here and there, now and then, through his life. Little scrubby ones, of course, fools, yes, by the look of them, but women, or girls, rather, and none worth glancing at a second time. Still, when a boy gets past thirty. . . .
Readers also learn that much of the mother’s solicitude has to do with her fear of her oversize, mentally handicapped son rather than with her concern for his comfort and pleasure. She seeks to keep him content, as much as possible, to prevent his losing his temper and becoming violent with her, “the woman.”

Heavy-Set comes home from the party early and upset. He explains to his mother that only a few people showed up, and no one but him wore a costume. Despite his efforts to amuse them, the other partygoers simply stood around. The boys were more interested in their dates than they were in the party, and “just stood around” before, in couples, they went off to the beach together, leaving Heavy-Set alone:

“They had their girls with them and they just stood around with them and wouldn’t do anything, no games, nothing. Some of them went off with the girls. . . . They went off up the beach and didn’t come back. . . . I felt like a fool, the only one there dressed like this, and them all different, and only eight out of twenty there, and most of them gone in a half an hour. Vi was there. She tried to get me to walk up the beach, too. I was mad by then. I was really mad. I said no thanks. And here I am. You can have the lollipop. . . . Pour the cider down the sink, drink it, I don’t care.”

The narrator has suggested that Heavy-Set alleviates tension by exercising and working with his weights. Heavy-Set does so again, now, his mother watching and listening to her son punch the bag. Assessing the level of his anger by the time that he works the bag, she concludes that he is especially angry tonight:

He must have drubbed the punching bag until three in the morning. Three, she thought, wide awake, listening to the concussions. He’s always stopped at twelve before.
When he finally stops punching the bag, he comes into the house, and his mother has “a feeling he still” wears “the little boy suit,” but she doesn’t “want to know if this were true.”

She retired for the night long ago. Now, her son joins her in bed, lying beside her, “not touching her.” She feigns sleep, aware that her son’s body is “rigid,” and feels the “bed shake as if he were laughing.” More likely, he is weeping soundlessly, disheartened by the brokenness of his personality and the fiasco of the party at which he’s humiliated himself, and then he begins to work the “coiled spring exercisors,” and she wants to “slap them out of his fingers”--until a disturbing thought occurs to her: “What would he do with his hands? What could he put in them? What would he, yes, what would he do with his hands?” Her only recourse, she believes, is prayer, so she prays:

So she did the only thing she could do, she held her breath, she shut her eyes, listened, and prayed, O God, let it go on, let him keep squeezing those things, let him keep squeezing those things, oh, let him, let him keep squeezing. . . let. . . let. . .

It was like lying in bed with a great dark cricket.

And a long way before dawn.
Perhaps, readers may suppose, Heavy-Set has gotten into bed beside his mother to assault her, both sexually and physically, and perhaps to kill her. She certainly seems frightened enough to warrant such an interpretation. However, it seems more likely that he has gotten into bed next to her because he seeks comfort. He has experienced a traumatic humiliation, and he understands, perhaps, on some level, conscious or otherwise, that he is not normal, that he does not behave as even younger males do, and that his interests are immature and “childlike,” rather than manly. At thirty, he is single and still lives at home, with his mother. He may even still wear “the little boy suit” over his man-size body, she thinks.

Physically, Heavy-Set is strong and powerful. He appears to be manly, but he lacks virility, and, intellectually and emotionally, he is weak and boyish. These qualities, and his latent homosexuality, seem to suggest that he sees his mother, as “the woman”--an alien, but, nevertheless, comforting, presence. He does not relate to her sexually but as a dependent and inadequate youth relates to an independent and self-sufficient adult provider and caregiver. He seems to want comfort, not sex. At the same time, however, as he gets older, she is apt to become less and less able to provide the maternal nurture and comfort that she more easily supplied him in his younger days. If she stops giving the reassurances he needs, she is afraid that she will no longer be necessary to him, and he may, in a pique of uncontrolled temper, take out his frustrations and fears, his disappointments and helplessness, his defeat and impotence upon her. As an aging Atlas, he longer carries the world as easily upon his shoulders as his younger admirers, male and female, may suppose.

Although he’s known more for science fiction or fantasy than he is for horror, Bradbury’s “Heavy-Set” proves that the master is capable of writing superb horror fiction as well.

Horror stories typically start with an everyday situation, as “Heavy-Set” does, gradually introducing an element of the bizarre. In this case, this element is the discrepancy between the thirty-year-old, fit and muscular antagonist and his minimal intellect, emotional maturity, and social skills which, becoming clearer and clearer as the antagonist ages, traps both him and his victim, his own mother, in an existential trap that narrows more each year, threatening, ever, to spring shut upon them. Because of Bradbury’s masterful, understated storytelling, this subtle story of a man’s interrupted development is horrific, indeed. Readers are likely to say, along with the protagonist, “Let him keep squeezing those things!”

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Intriguing Chapter Titles

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Although it isn’t a horror story--at least not in the conventional sense--Ihara Saikaku’s short story, “What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac Maker,” a tale of adultery as a literally fatal attraction (based, it might be added, on a true story) offers a technique not seen often, if at all, in typical horror novels, but one which provides a simple, but interesting and effective, way of creating and maintaining suspense and of driving the story forward.

True, Saikaku’s choice of a true story as the basis for his story, his use of foreshadowing, and the situation itself, involving participants in an illicit affair against a background of sexual licentiousness and the concern of the protagonist’s society with superficial rather than meaningful matters create interest and suspense as well, but these are techniques already known to, and used by, writers of Western literature (by the use of which term, no, we do not intend to reference cowboy stories--or not only cowboy stories).

The technique we’re interested in is his use of cryptic, apt, and sometimes rather poetic titles for the segments--they are too short to be labeled chapters--of his story. Divided into five sections, these divisions are named:

  1. The Beauty Contest
  2. The Sleeper Who Slipped Up
  3. The Lake Which Took People In
  4. The Teahouse Which Had Not Heard of Gold Pieces
  5. The Eavesdropper Whose Ears Were Burned

Western writers have named the chapters in their novels. That’s nothing new. However, such titles have more often than not been straightforward. (A memorable one that is both cryptic, appropriate, and somewhat poetic is the title of chapter thirteen of Ian Fleming’s novel, Live and Let Die, in which James Bond’s CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, encounters a shark in a swimming pool: “He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him.” However, it is Fleming’s habit to extract a phrase or, more rarely, a sentence from the chapter and to let it stand as the chapter’s title. The title of chapter thirteen of Live and Let Die, for instance, appears, in the chapter itself, on a note attached to Leiter’s body.).

The key to the use of intriguing (as opposed to straightforward) chapter titles is to make the title both cryptic and poetic but apt. It should hint at, rather than directly state, the chapter’s plot, theme, or significance, and it should do so in a figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic manner. For example, the title of the third division of “What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac Maker” alludes to a lake in which the protagonist, Osan, and her illicit paramour, Moemon, pretend to drown themselves. Therefore, it alludes to the central point of the narrative segment, using the literary devices of (an apparent) personification and a play on words to do so. Read literally, as people are wont to read anything they peruse, “The Lake Which Took People In” suggests that a body of water will deceive someone, that it will take him or her or them in, or con them. The absurdity of such an idea, in turn, alerts the reader that he or she has misread the title, and that it should be understood differently. As it turns out, the reader will discover that the lake literally takes in people--those who enter its waters, to swim or, as Osan and Moemon pretend, to drown. Therefore, the title is appropriate. It is descriptive of the action that the story segment contains, and it also suggests the subterfuge of the characters who perform the actions, for it is by pretending to have drowned in the lake that Osan and Moemon intend to “take in,” or deceive Osan’s husband and others.

The chapter of the final section of the story, “5. The Eavesdropper Whose Ears Were Burned,” is also intriguing (as opposed to straightforward)--that is, cryptic, poetic, and apt. It suggests that a particular type of person, an “eavesdropper,” will be punished--in a fitting manner, by having his ears burned. In this case, the eavesdropper is Moemon, who, during a nostalgic return to his hometown, while disguised, overhears people insulting him. His ears, metaphorically, are burned. However, when he, Osan, and the servant who had served as an intermediary between them, helping them to cuckold Osan’s husband, the culprits are “burned” in quite a different manner. After being paraded before the townspeople, as a warning of the punishment that comes to adulterers, they are executed, dying “like dewdrops from a blade of grass.”

As a way of practicing this technique, one might name or rename the chapters of various horror novels or segments of horror movies, selecting titles which meet the three requirements we’ve identified as belonging to intriguing headings, so that the results are once cryptic, poetic, and apt. A good intriguing title takes some effort, but it should pay dividends in being another means by which to create and maintain narrative suspense and of driving one’s horror story forward, toward its inevitable crisis, its possible catastrophe, and its satisfying resolution.

By the way, these are the titles of the Live and Let Die chapters; note that, on the basis of our analysis, most are straightforward rather than intriguing:

  1. The Red Carpet
  2. Interview with M
  3. A Visiting Card
  4. The Big Switchboard
  5. Nigger Heaven
  6. Table Z
  7. Mister Big
  8. No Sensayuma
  9. True of False?
  10. The Silver Phantom
  11. Allumeuse
  12. The Everglades
  13. He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him
  14. Death of a Pelican
  15. Midnight Among the Worms
  16. The Jamaica Version
  17. The Undertaker’s Wind
  18. Beau Desert
  19. Valley of Shadows
  20. Bloody Morgan’s Cave
  21. Good Night to You Both
  22. Terror By Sea
  23. Passionate Leave

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bentley Little’s "Collection"

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

This is the second of two posts concerning Bentley Little’s anthology of short stories, The Collection (2000).

Assembled in The Collection, Little’s short stories fall into two broad categories:
  1. Those that make sense.
  2. Those that don’t make sense.
Tales in both categories tend to entertain. However, the senseless stories also annoy--sometimes, enough to cause a pretty bad rash.

The reason that the senseless stories annoy is that they’re senseless.

After spending ten to twenty minutes reading a story, a reader may not be entitled to a kiss, but he or she should--and does--expect the tale to have had a point, which is to say, to have made sense. When it doesn’t, the reader feels cheated. Hey! he or she is apt to think, I paid over eight bucks for this book, and, at that price, I want each and every story it contains to make sense.

Those of Little’s stories that don’t make sense fail to do so because their endings don’t add up to anything. They don’t explain why the bizarre incidents and situations in the story existed (or may still exist at the story’s end). They don’t suggest that the protagonist’s experience meant anything. In short, these stories--the ones that don’t make sense--are annoying, disappointing, and frustrating because they fail to provide the reader with a satisfying and appropriate sense of closure; they have no proper conclusion. They’re nonsensical.

In a moment, we will cite an example of one of his stories that doesn’t make sense. First, however, maybe we should explain what we don’t mean when we say Little’s often otherwise good-to-excellent stories don’t make sense and are, therefore, unsatisfying and annoying.

We don’t mean that they are ambiguous. Stories that end ambiguously are legitimate if the author has examined the two (or more) sides of an issue and leaves the story’s outcome to the reader’s interpretation, provided that the author has sufficiently explained the two (or more) ways that the story’s conflict could be reconciled and both (or all) are satisfying and appropriate conclusions, as Frank R. Stockton's “The Lady of the Tiger” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” to name a couple, end. There’s a difference in leaving the ending up to the reader and leaving the reader suspended in midair air.

We don’t mean that they lack a happy ending. Not every story’s ending is happy, nor should every story’s ending be happy. There’s a place, especially in horror fiction, for the tragic outcome, after all, as well as the comedic. What matters is whether the story ends in a logical fashion, without violating its own theme, tone, purpose, and type. “The Tell-Tale Heart” does not end happily, but “The Pit and the Pendulum” does. Both of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, however, end logically and, therefore, satisfyingly and appropriately.

What we do mean by saying that some of Little’s stories don't make sense is that they either come to an abrupt conclusion, without bothering to offer any explanation at all for the bizarre incidents they’ve recounted, or that they offer only a half-hearted and half-baked explanation that hems and haws but doesn’t really explain anything. The whole bottom of the story simply falls out from under it, and it ends in midair, with neither foundation nor support, meaning nothing. They’re nothing more than absurd exercises in creating suspense, more like the assignments of a creative writing student than a creative writer.

Having prepared the groundwork for our discussion, let’s take a gander at a Little story that, because of its ending, does make sense and then at one that, for the same reason, does not make sense. The former is both satisfying and appropriate; the latter, neither satisfying nor appropriate.

One of Little’s stories that does work is “Life with Father.” In a brief blurb, Little explains its origin:

I wrote “Life with Father”. . . for an ecological horror anthology titled The Earth Strikes Back. . . . [It was] rejected. Judging by the title of the book, I figured that most if not all of the stories would deal with the negative effects of pollution, overpopulation, deforestation, etc.

So I thought I’d do something a little different.

My wife is a hard-core recycler. Cans, bottles, newspapers, grocery bags--she saves them all. Even on trips, she brings along plastic bags in which to collect our soda cans.

I exaggerated her compulsion for this story.

Anything can be taken to extremes (The Collection, p. 71).

In this story, a father requires that his family recycle everything possible: urine, excrement, sanitary napkins, clothing, father’s semen (through incestuous unions with his daughters), and the offspring of these illicit unions (as food). Finally, unable to endure their father’s abusive “recycling,” the daughters unite, killing him. However, the apples don’t fall far enough from the tree, despite the girls’ horror at their father’s insistence upon recycling everything possible, and, as the story closes, the elder of the two considers how she might best recycle her father’s remains:

I place the biodegradable bags next to the butcher block, and as I take the knife from the drawer, I plan out where and what I’m going to cut, what I’m going to do with his skin, his blood, his hair. I try to think of the best way to utilize his bones.

Old habits die hard (p. 79).

This story, a satire regarding recycling taken to extremes, works because its exaggeration has a reason. It is not exaggeration simply for exaggeration’s sake or as for no other reason than to serve as a means to effect horror or terror (to take a narrative cheap shot, as it were). Instead, it is integral to the story’s plot and theme. In addition, the father’s obvious madness is a satisfying and appropriate explanation for the story’s bizarre situation and the incidents associated with it. The story is, within the context that it creates, believable--or at least does not stretch to the breaking point the “willing suspension of disbelief” that Samuel Taylor Coleridge has argued should be allowed for the sake of enjoying the chills and thrills that imaginative literature, including horror fiction, provides.

“The Woods Be Dark” is one if the many of Little’s tales that doesn’t make sense. In this story, a daughter mates with her father and then her brother after the men of the family fall victims to a dark force associated with a “bad place” in a woods near their mountain cabin. Once she becomes pregnant, she, accompanied by her mother and a medicine woman-cum-midwife of sorts, smash the head of her freakish infant, and order is thus restored, by virtue of this “ritual.” Although the story itself is interesting, frightening, and suspenseful, it makes absolutely no sense, because Little never bothers to explain how and why the men are transformed into monsters, who or what actually is responsible for their transformations, what the ritual is based upon and why it is effective in breaking the power of the dark force (whatever it is), why the incestuous union with the father and the daughter or the brother and the sister is necessary or what it accomplishes and why, or other important questions related to the story’s conflict. “The Woods Be Dark” with ignorance, and, although the tale is frightening and weird, it does not apply to anything beyond its own action. There is neither symbolism, metaphor, theme, or (other than to frighten and earn a few dollars) reason for being. There is no outcome, and the tale leaves the reader annoyed because the narrative wool has been pulled over his or her eyes only to be removed and to reveal. . . nothing.

In his account of the occasioning of this tale, Little does a better job of explaining its inspiration than he does its denouement:

“The Woods Be Dark” was written in the mid-1980s for a creative writing class. At the time I was under the spell of William Faulkner and turning out a slew of interconnected Southern Gothic stories all set in the same rural county. I lived in California, had never been anywhere near the South, didn’t even know anyone from the South--but arrogant and self-important jerk that I was, I didn’t let that stop me (The Collection, p. 13).

For whatever reason, Little does not end tales well, whether they are short stories or novels. Is it carelessness, laziness, or ignorance? Possibly, it is, one time, one, and another time, another. In any case, it is always annoying, disappointing, and frustrating, and, despite Little’s considerable gifts and talents in other areas, his stories’ endings have the unfortunate consequence of destroying the tale’s intended effect and of leaving an unpleasant taste in the reader’s mouth.

Fortunately, there is both help and hope for Little. Edgar Allan Poe offers a solution to Little’s problem: plot backward. Since we have discussed Poe’s advice in a previous post, we won’t discuss it again here. Anyone who is interested in reading the discussion should click here, on the title of the article, "'The Philosophy of Compsoition' and 'The Red Room.'"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Little on "The Collection"

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Many writers are fascinated, even to the point of obsession, with other writers’ inspirations. Stephen King claims to have located a small, curious store that sells multi-million-dollar story ideas for a mere pittance, although he’s rather vague as to the emporium’s exact location.

Horror maestro Bentley Little accounts for his facility with terror by letting his readers in on a little--or should one say a “Little”--secret: his birth followed closely upon his mother’s having attended a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In his volume of short stories, The Collection (2002), Little offers more specific accounts of his muse’s muses, prefacing each of his tales of terror with a brief explanation concerning its inspiration.

Bentley, who won the Bram Stoker Award and was thereafter “discovered” by both Dean Koontz and Stephen King, is excellent at plotting--except in one crucial respect: his endings (at least of his novels) are notoriously unsatisfying. However, his fans, aware of this near-fatal flaw, forgive him, for his action-packed plots, full of odd characters and odder incidents, propel readers forward with roughly the same force (and at the same pace) as that of a rocket. Before they fully realize that the conclusion of the story that they’ve spent hours reading is, to put it mildly, disappointing, they’ve finished another otherwise-excellent narrative, full of suspense and horror--trademarks, as it were, of a Bentley Little production.

There are 32 stories in The Collection, involving hitchhikers, newlyweds, a unique serial killer, residents of a town as strange as it is small, and an assortment of other grotesques of only the sort whom Little can create. It would be unfair to share all of the inspirational tricks that Little’s muse played upon the writer of this volume, but a few might suggest the variety of inspiration that Little experiences.

The lead-off tale is “The Sanctuary,” which was inspired by a source similar to one of those which motivated King to write his first novel, Carrie (1974).

King was inspired, in part, to write the story of a telekinetic girl’s use of her powers to avenge herself against her high school’s in-crowd bullies by his having wondered what it might be like to live in the house of a religious fantastic, as a girl he’d known in his childhood did (and as Carrie White, his novel’s protagonist, who was based, in part, on this girl, does). Strangely enough, the “inspiration” for his first novel has since been revamped for his official website, and it now includes a theme that has received an overtly feminist interpretation:

The character “Carrie” was a composite of two girls Stephen knew during high school. The story is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality. “Carrie White is a sadly mis-used [sic] teenager, an example of the sort of person whose spirit is so often broken for good in that pit of man--and woman--eaters that is your normal suburban high school. But she's also Woman, feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”

(That's quite a revisionistic view of the novel's theme!)

The same sort of wonder concerning the effects of religious fanaticism upon a child prompted “The Sanctuary,” Little confides to his readers:

Religious fanatics have always seemed scary to me, and when I hear them espousing some wacky eschatological theory or promoting their perverse interpretations of the Bible, I always wonder what their home lives are like. What kind of furniture do they have? What kind of food do they eat? How do they treat their neighbors and their pets?

“The Sanctuary” is my version of what life would be like for a child growing up in such a household (The Collection, p. 1).

The similar inspirations are interesting and allow fans, readers, critics, writers, and others an opportunity to see how two masters of the horror genre each handle a similar theme, one in a full-length novel, the other in a short story. What perspective does Little take as compared to King?

The sixteenth story (the one that appears at the halfway mark, so to speak, of Little’s anthology) is “The Pond.” According to Little, it had a somewhat more cerebral theme, “about lost ideals and selling out,” and is, as such, a story concerning “moral shortcomings”:

This is a story about lost ideals and selling out--moral shortcomings which are not limited to the boomer generation depicted here.

By the way, there really was a group called P. O. P. (People Over Pollution). They used to gather each Saturday to collect and process recyclables. Back in the early 1970s, my friend Stephen Hillenberg and I belonged to an organization called Youth Science Center, which would offer weekend science classes and field trips. We got to do Kirlian photography, visit mushroom farms, learn about edible plants on nature walks, tour laser la oratories--and one Saturday we worked with People Over Pollution, smashing aluminum cans with sledgehammers.

Stephen grew up to create the brilliant and wildly popular cartoon SpongeBob Square Pants (p. 199).

The final story in The Collection is “The Murmurous Haunt of Flies,” about which Little writes:

I’m not a poetry fan. Never have been, never will be. But while suffering through a graduate class on the Romantic poets, the phrase, “the humorous haunts of flies” leaped out at me while [I was] reading Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” I thought it was a great line and wrote it down.

Some time later, I found myself thinking of my great-grandmother’s chicken ranch in the small farming community of Ramona, California. She’d died years before, and I hadn’t been there for a long time, But I remembered a little adobe banya or bathhouse on the property that used to scare me (this bathhouse pops up again in my novel The Town). I remembered as well that there had always been flies everywhere--because of the chickens--and I recalled seeing flypaper and No-Pest Strips that were black with bug bodies. The Keats phrase returned to me, a light went on, and I wrote this story (p. 433).

A graduate class in Romantic poetry. A phrase from a John Keats poem. A grandmother’s place in Ramona, California. A bathhouse. Flypaper, No-Pest Strips, and “bug bodies.” For the writer, all human experience is “grist for the mill,” and nothing is sacrosanct. Anything and everything related to being human in an inhuman world is raw material for literary treatment in the horror genre, as The Collection itself does a pretty good job of showing.

An interest in a writer’s inspiration teaches another lesson, too, for aficionados of literature, and its reading and writing pursuits. These insights into the origins of stories--or, at least, of the ideas for stories--indicate an all-too-important, if basic, truth. (Often, because such truths are basic, they are easily and soon forgotten.) As Ihara Saikaku reminds the readers of his own short story, “What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac Maker,” there is a fundamental difference between literature and life. The latter, made up of a discrete and separate series of incidents involving, more often than not, random, and even contradictory situations and expectations, lacks a pattern to its events--especially, a cause-and-effect pattern. In other words, it lacks a plot. Therefore, much of the experience--or series of experiences--that, collectively, we call “life,” seem absurd, meaningless, and purposeless, which can lead to despair at the sense of the futility of existence, tempting us to say, along with King Solomon, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

By selecting from the multiplicity of life’s--and, indeed, of history’s--incidents and situations, those which, assembled in a particular sequence, according to the principles of cause and effect, literature suggests that life is what it otherwise does not seem to be--significant, meaningful, and purposeful, which perception leads one to hope (sometimes against hope) that it is worthwhile, after all, despite Hamlet’s “ slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and “proud man’s contumely.”

With respect to horrific incidents and situations in particular, horror fiction suggests that such experiences are not only survivable but are also important. They can teach as well as torment. They can enlighten as well as frighten. They can help us to get our minds right about ourselves, others, and the world around us. How, specifically, horror fiction accomplishes such feats is analyzed in several other, previous posts and is likely to be examined, yet again, in still future essays.

Meanwhile, The Collection awaits, with interesting insights of its own.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Fine Line Between Humor and Horror: Finding the Vein

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

As many an Abbott and Costello film, Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Addams Family, The Munsters, and other movies and TV series have shown, there’s a fine line between horror and humor. Finding the line isn’t always easy, though. One cartoonist who’s managed to find the vein of humor in horror, however, is Mark Parisi, whose one-panel horror cartoon series, Off the Mark, does a fair job of tickling the funny bone. He started the series in 1987. Distributed by United Media, it now appears in 100 newspapers and has been featured on greeting cards, T-shirts, and other products.

One panel shows a line of socks, some of which are singles and others of which are paired, waiting in line for their turns to climb a stepladder; walk the horizontal, open door to a clothes dryer; and enter the dark interior of the machine’s drum. A large sign, framed by electric bulbs, announces the attraction as the “Spin of Terror,” and warns that “Many go in . . . few come out!” The socks, equipped with eyes and mouths, look calm enough at the end of the line, but, as they approach the dryer, their expressions become increasingly anxious and frightened. One sock who has managed to “come out” of the “Spin of Terror” is a cigar-chomping ghost, through whom the laundry room’s blue-gray carpet is visible.

Another of Parisi’s ‘toons shows an assortment of personified cakes, seated, as it were, in a theater, some with unlit candles atop their uppermost layers. All of them express fear or revulsion as, on the big screen, a bikini-clad model jumps out of a large cake, thereby destroying it. The cartoon’s caption provides the context: “Cake Horror Movies.”

In a third ‘toon, labeled “The original HMO horror story,” Parisi takes on Humpty Dumpty. Showing the gigantic egg to have had a “bad fall,” indeed, the king’s horses and men are trying to put their patient “back together again,” with dismal results. Poor Humpty, who’s quite a mess, complains, “These guys don’t know what they’re doing! A specialist, I need to see a specialist!”

Parisi’s cartoons bear a passing resemblance to those of Greg Larson (The Far Side), but the art is cleaner, sharper, simpler, and colored in soft pastels that enhance, without detracting from, the pictures. Several depend upon anthropomorphism, their humor derived from imagining how things might look from the point of view of a group of personified socks, cakes, or a broken egg. Others depend for their humor upon famous people or characters associated with the horror genre. One such ‘toon shows a young boy, clad in blue pajamas with yellow polka-dots, wearing a pair of thick-lens eyeglasses. Seated upon the floor, before a decorated Christmas tree, he eyes the contents of his stocking, which he‘s shaken out, onto the floor. “Toys and candy?” The boy thinks. “I was expecting a severed foot.” The caption makes the drawing funny: “One in a long list of disappointing Christmas stockings for Stephen King.” The last-minute revelation of the character’s identity serves as a sort of punch line to the joke that’s set up by the drawing and the text in the thought balloon. Another cartoon also depends for its effect upon well-known characters. It shows Frankenstein’s monster driving a car. Next to him, a human driver, having gotten the monster’s attention, jabs his index finger toward the roof of his car to indicate that the monster has left his severed hand atop the roof of his automobile. Neither text nor caption is necessary to convey this cartoon’s humor.

Parisi also relies upon puns and wordplay to produce his cartoons’ humor. In one toon, a lawyer, cross examining a vampire seated in the witness chair, demands of him, “So, you claim he was already undead when you got there?” In another cartoon, Frankenstein’s monster is reclining upon a psychoanalyst’s couch. The analyst says, “You know what? You’ve got a screw loose,” referring to one of the electrodes implanted in the monster’s neck, which, indeed, has come loose. The caption, which is perhaps unnecessary, reads, “What really set him off.”

Horror movies either allow a lull, so to speak, between the storms of death and destruction which are their dramatic mainstays or they include periodic moments of comic relief. Parisi’s cartoons provide the humor, after a fashion, but the horror is purely imaginary. Nevertheless, they are diverting, if only mildly, in a thoroughly wholesome, rather than gruesome, way, and effect a roll of the eyes and a stifled groan, at least, if not an occasional titter. That’s horror enough for the comics pages of a family newspaper.

These and others of Parisi’s toons can be reviewed at his website, Off the Mark.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Birth of Monsters and Other Poems

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In previous posts ("Horrific Poems: A Sampler" and "Charles Baudelaire's 'Carrion'"), I shared a few poems in the horror genre. In this post, I'm sharing a few of my own verses, which, hopefully, will be found diabolical enough to thrill, if not to chill.

I chose the sonnet because of its rhyme scheme. The sonnet form I've selected requires that, in the first twelve lines, the last word of each alternate line must rhyme. It also requires that the last two lines constitute a rhyming couplet. The overall rhyme scheme often forces an image, a trope, a thought, or a sentiment, thereby, helping, as it were, to write the poem itself, as if the rhyme scheme were something of a muse.

To The Wind

The wind blows free, but you and me,
We are captives, bound by a force
Mightier than stone, field, or tree:
Gravity determines our course.
Within the confines of the earth,
We may go wand'ring as we please;
Our minds may conceive and bring forth
Flights of fancy, winged fantasies,
Divorced of flesh and wed to naught,
With no authority to say
Nay, ye have transcended what ought
Be thought or tried by mortal clay.
Fettered by our humanity,
A faint breeze is cause for envy.

The Birth of Monsters

Beneath the canopies of trees, shadows,
Thick and dark, fall across stained, moss-covered
Headstones, and the rising winter’s wind blows;
Leafless branches, like clawed fingers, scratch; stirred,
By a sudden gust, wreaths and flowers leap
From vases overturned, blow and scatter,
And, were the cadavers not buried deep,
They might, clotted with gore and blood-splattered,
Rise from their coffins and their graves, to reel
And stagger across the dark churchyard’s grounds,
Insensible and unable to feel,
Among the tombs and the burial mounds.
Look! Listen! The imagination warns;
Of such wild nights are ghastly monsters born!

The Great Debate

In life, the skeptic and the man of faith
Each sought to refute the other one’s view,
The former claiming that to see a wraith
Meant one had lost his reason, for, ‘tis true,
That quick is quick and dead is dead; buried,
Bodies are removed from society,
Fit for naught but food on which worms may feed.
The latter argued that the soul, set free
By the body’s death, ascends unto God,
In whose image and likeness it was made,
Leaving but mortal flesh beneath the sod,
The transcendent spirit beyond decay.
Their passionate arguments have long since
Ended, unsure--by their own deaths silenced.

Fiendish Kinsmen

Winged, fanged things with claws, vague and indistinct,
Haunt the dark; furtive and stealthy, seldom
Are they seen, for which reason they are linked,
More often than not, with nightmare or some
Horrid fantasy, reason’s predators,
Slimed in mucus and enveloped in blood,
Stalking, or creeping, or slinking through gore,
Vile, evil things unseen since Noah’s flood,
The very spawn, perhaps, of murd’rous Cain,
Living embodiments of sin, exiled
From Eden, homeless, now, but for the brain
Of man, whose thoughts are both wicked and wild.
Not once were these mad fiends clearly described,
Yet we know them well, for we’re of their tribe.

The Book of Art, the Book of Life

The image, metaphor, and symbol each
Is plucked, as a leaf, from the tree of life
That it, pressed within an art book, may teach
The lesson of sorrow, anguish, or strife.
Authors may select a flower, a dove,
An ocean liner cruising the vast deep,
A rainbow shining in the sky above,
Or a road winding up a mountain steep;
Wordsworth wrote of a cloud of daffodils
Beneath a clear sky, both bright and azure,
Keats of a granary at autumn filled,
And Blake of a lamb, wooly-bright and pure;
Only in poems by Baudelaire and Poe
Does art blush to see blood and guts on show.

The Roulette Wheel

The roulette wheel, having been twirled, must whirl,
Its silver ball leaping from red to black,
Having, from the Croupier’s hand been hurled,
A fortune risked upon its fateful track.
Past the even and the odd, the small ball
Runs round the tilted track within the wheel;
Where it shall stop, no one yet knows, but all
Watch, transfixed, to see which fate it shall seal--
In Europe, thirty seven chances be,
One more in American destinies:
In the modern world, our technology
Has replaced the Norns, Moirae, and Parcae:
The wheel spins with pain, grief, and misery,
Red blood, black death, and silvery decay.

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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