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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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