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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.

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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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