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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.

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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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