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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.'"

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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