Fascinating lists!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hell on Earth

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In previous posts, we argued that horror fiction is about the survival of loss and that the monsters it features are often metaphors for various real (i. e., existential) threats. We also suggested that, for many contemporary horror writers, the evils which threaten us today are apathy and indifference, whether personal, social, or cosmic in nature. Evil, these writers seem to agree, flourishes when good men do nothing. Stephen King seems to be the odd man out in suggesting that modern evil should be considered more a threat against one’s community, on whatever scale, than apathy or indifference per se.

Writers--especially horror writers--are always Dante, creating hells, with or without various levels of iniquity and torment. The modern hell results from the evils of apathy and indifference, from the loss, in other words, of altruism and self-sacrifice. We are the waylaid traveler in a world in which there are few, if any, good Samaritans.

In past times, the threats of loss with which society was faced--the monsters of the moment, as it were--were different. After World War II, Japan, with good reason, feared the atomic bomb, and Godzilla arose, a towering monster born of underwater nuclear waste, to terrorize Tokyo as Fat Man and Little Boy had terrorized Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The monster represented the annihilation of the Japanese people, a sort of genocidal doom imposed by strangers from afar.

King Kong, if we are to believe Carl Denham, seems to represent the bestial component not of humanity as such, but of the male of the species, whom only female Beauty can tame. What is the giant ape but the uncivilized and the undomesticated, and, therefore, the hyper-masculine, male? He is masculinity unrestrained, a rampage of testosterone that has not, as yet, met its match in the humanizing effects of estrogen. Too large, to be sure, to be a rapist, Kong is nevertheless an abductor who, quite literally, carries Ann Darrow back to nature, a primitive world in which there is no law other than that of the survival of the fittest. It is only when, tempted, as it were, by Ann, that Kong is captured (emasculated) and taken to the concrete jungle that he is subdued, however temporarily, and, at last, killed. As Denham laments, “’Tis Beauty killed the Beast.” The lesson of this masterful cautionary tale is as simple as it is profound: The undomesticated male is a threat not only to the female but to society--indeed, to civilization--itself, and, if it cannot be tamed, it must be destroyed by the tribe.

Beowulf’s monster, Grendel, was an outcast. A descendent of Cain, who was sent into exile by God himself, Grendel envied the fellowship displayed by the Danish warriors who met over mead in their great hall, Heorot, for which reason he attacked and killed as many of their number as he could, until, at last, he himself was dispatched by the Geatish hero. Critics see him as representing the feuding principle which, like that among today’s street gangs, requires that an outrage, real or perceived, by one tribe against another, be avenged. The act of vengeance itself, of course, requires, in turn, another act of vengeance, ad infinitum, thereby threatening the social order that is the foundation of civilization. By defeating this principle, Beowulf introduced social stability and ended the threat to the status quo that continuous intertribal warfare, in the guise of the monster, represented.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian hero overcomes the monster of his own--and of the rest of humanity’s--mortality. He does not defeat death itself, but the fear of it that immobilized his will and made life seem hardly worth the living. In other words, he learns to live with death, establishing the pagan alternative to Christian immortality: the name of the man of accomplishment, if not the man himself, will be remembered forever. To be forgotten is to be annihilated. However, the man of great accomplishment is apt to be memorialized both in stone monuments and in such poems as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, so his memory is assured, and he need not fear being forgotten; in this sense, he will live forever.

Epic narratives, by definition, deal with civilizations, nations, or societies. Other types of fiction may, also, but they need not do so. Often, other genres do not. Sometimes, the focus is finer. The group is more select, and the context is more contracted. For example, according to its creator, Joss Whedon, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is based upon the simple premise that high school is hell. It is a place that one is compelled to attend. The day progresses according to a predetermined structure that is imposed upon one by others. The setting is a more-or-less self-contained, self-sufficient environment--in sociological terms, a total institution. One is forced to participate in activities, such as physical education and geometry and English class assignments, that are abhorrent and painful, emotionally if not always physically. One is made to keep company with others whose presence one finds undesirable or even repulsive. Certain behaviors that one enjoys, whether chewing gum or making out with a member of the opposite sex, are discouraged or even forbidden, and the manner in which one would dress may be restricted or dictated by adults with no fashion sense. Pretty much everything one does is controlled by one’s keepers--the teachers and administrators--and even a visit to the rest room must be approved by someone else. High school students suffer not only a loss of freedom, but they also experience losses of autonomy, dignity, and individuality. Moreover, attempts are made to “socialize” them and to make them think in certain ways about certain things--in a sense, to brainwash them. Maybe, in many ways, high school is hell, as Whedon and others (Carrie’s director, Brian De Palma, for example) have suggested.

Buffy offers a convenient way of examining hell on earth, because it confines itself pretty much (for the first three of its seasons, anyway) to the microcosm of high school (and thereafter to the microcosm of college); because it ran for seven seasons before its demise; and because it frequently features a monster of the week, which supplies quite a bestiary of monsters, beastly, demonic, and otherwise, which suggests how horror writers are always Dante, creating hells, with or without various levels of iniquity and torment.

In “The Witch,” the third episode of season one, a high school cheerleader’s mother, who is also a witch, uses her magic to eliminate her daughter’s rivals so that she, the mother, can relive her glory days as a head cheerleader through her daughter, once the latter gains a spot on the squad. Although this plot may seem ludicrous, it has a real-life precedent in which a woman murdered the rivals of her daughter to ensure her win. The hell of high school, it seems, is home to abusive parents who, seeking to live vicariously through their children, represent real dangers to their offspring’s health and welfare.

“The Pack,” the sixth episode of the same season, examines the threats of peer pressure and mindless conformity to individuals’ personal integrity. Buffy Summers’ friend, Xander Harris, bitten by a hyena, becomes more and more feral and predatory, both socially and sexually, turning against his best friend Willow Rosenberg and his romantic interest, the Slayer herself. High school’s hell includes the demons of groupthink and the lockstep behavior that attends it.

The eighth episode of this season, “I Robot, You Jane,” takes on the dangers of the anonymous predators of Internet chat rooms: Willow meets a seemingly sweet suitor who is actually a demon that was released from the book in which its spirit was magically bound when the school’s librarian, Rupert Giles, orders the text to be scanned into the library’s electronic database and the demon escapes into cyberspace.

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” shows the psychologically destructive effects of cliques who ignore all others but their own members: a girl who is ignored by students and teachers alike gradually becomes invisible and seeks to avenge herself upon her passive-aggressive tormentors before, defeated by Buffy, she finds a home, of sorts, with a covert government organization (most likely the Central Intelligence Agency) that performs espionage activities.
Other episodes in this and other seasons of the show provide plenty of other examples of the types of loss that high school students face and the types of monsters that threaten them with these losses. Many have to do with matters of identity, multiculturalism and cultural assimilation, sexism and chauvinism, attempts to avoid personal responsibility and duty, the effects of past deeds upon one’s present life, the consequences of refusing or being unable to repress instincts and primitive impulses, the emotional manipulation of others, unrestrained passion, child abuse, unresolved guilt, misogyny, adolescent behavior, social ostracism, service to others, and autonomy. In other words, high school hell, as it is depicted in this series for teens and young adults, is layered with personal, social, and political strata, much like the world of adults. The difference is that many of the concerns are adolescent. Adults, for the most part, have survived the losses associated with adolescence and have moved on to face other dragons. The new monsters are not necessarily bigger and more terrible (although some may be), but they’re different, for different ages, whether with respect to the individual or his or her society, nation, or culture, differ over time. In every age, however, the rejected and the exiled, the repressed and the banished, become the condemned, or the damned, and new hells are created, with or without various levels of iniquity and torment. The demons are the threats of loss; the effects that follow such losses make up the atmosphere of hell. In the hell that is high school, the blessed are the ones who, surviving these losses, ascend to new levels of knowledge and wisdom.

Of course, that’s just the hell of high school. Once writers realized that there is not one world, but worlds within worlds, the numbers and kinds of hell, like the number and types of demons, multiplied significantly. There is the hell of school, of the workplace, of the home, of the place of worship, of places of leisure, and some hells are not places at all, but states of existence, such as illness, or situations, such as a loveless marriage, or events, such as the death of a loved one. Truly, as Edgar Allan Poe observed, “misery is manifold.” Hell is on earth because, as Jean Paul Sartre points out, in No Exit, hell is other people. It is also ourselves. As John Milton observes, Satan carries hell within himself, for it is a state of mind in which he has alienated himself from God. The same is true of us as well.

One might say of this post what some critics said of Milton’s poem. Much has been said of hell, but little of heaven. That’s because, too often, we count our curses, so to speak, rather than our blessings, seeing the bad and ignoring the good. By identifying the hellish, we have, by implication, also identified its opposite, the heavenly, which is why, as we have argued in a previous post, horror fiction is a guide to the good life as well as a body of cautionary tales. Whatever we fear to lose, we value, and heaven is the realm wherein we have stored up the things we deem to be valuable beyond all else, very little of which, as it turns out, is comprised of physical or material objects.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Form and Function of the Alien Menace

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Everything has a past, but not everything has a history. To have a history, something must have occurred within the scope of people’s self-conscious awareness of themselves and their world and must have been of sufficient interest for the historians among them to record and interpret these events.

Strangely enough, UFO’s and extraterrestrial creatures, often called aliens, have a history. In fiction (mostly science fiction, but some horror fiction as well), aliens have made appearances, usually as the enemy of humanity (but sometimes as its friend and would-be guru) as early as the seventeenth century. The idea that the moon might be inhabited was introduced in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) when an angel implies that the lunar satellite may be inhabited by lunatics similar to Adam and Eve, and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle made a case for alien civilizations in his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686). Aliens appear in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) as villains who meet their match in their encounter with Earth’s lowly bacteria. The recent discovery of rather large quantities of water on Mars makes the idea of life’s reality or possibility on other planets more feasible to many scientists than it seemed before this discovery.

Like Wells and other nineteenth-century novelists, many contemporary writers have featured aliens as characters in their novels. Stephen King (Dreamcatcher, The Tommyknockers) and Dean Koontz (The Taking) are examples. However, Hollywood loves aliens even more than novelists, and many films, both of the science fiction and the horror variety, have featured extraterrestrials.

This post is concerned not so much with the appearance of extraterrestrials in science fiction and horror stories but with the means by which such creatures seek to accomplish their goals or missions.

Form is limited by what nature exhibits. Therefore, as one might suspect, most aliens are either bipedal or humanoid in form, if not function, because it is difficult to imagine a creature that is otherwise, unless a writer takes (as some have done) one of our four-legged animal friends, one of our six-legged insect friends, or one of our eight-legged arachnid friends as his or her model. A few writers have looked to supernatural entities for their inspiration. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s allasomorph, in its true form, for instance, resembles nothing so much as it does a ghost. Although no such inspiration has been confirmed, it seems that George Lucas’ muse for his many extraterrestrial creatures could have been the demons with which Hieronymus Bosch populated the canvases of his Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.

One of the more interesting aliens is The Blob, a gelatinous mass similar to an ameba that has been magnified several millions of times. Although a giant jelly-like mass may seem silly, it seems less so if one imagines what it would be like to be engulfed by such a blob. One would no doubt twist and thrash about, kicking (if not screaming), panicked and terrified, as he or she began to suffocate within the gelatinous mass. If mere suffocation is not enough to frighten and annoy the victim, one is not to worry: the creature also digests its prey, dissolving him or her into a nutritious protein stew. Meanwhile, the terrified face of the struggling victim is visible through the blob’s membranous, gelatinous form.

King’s Dreamcatcher aliens resemble legless red weasels. Spawned by the ingestion of an infectious mold called a byrus, the aliens, known as byrum, incubate within their hosts’ abdomens and exit through their rectums. The byrum is linked telepathically with the byrus, with which the alien creatures maintain a symbiotic relationship that is hazardous to human health. King said that his aliens symbolize cancer, which is the title that he’d originally given his work in progress before deciding upon Dreamcatchers instead.

The aliens of King’s Tommyknockers are more human in their appearance, although with a bit of crab and dog thrown in, for good measure. Unusually tall, they have claws instead of feet and canine countenances. Gray of skin, they are milky-eyed and have apparently foregone sex and gender in favor of sexless androgyny. They have also given up spoken and written language, it seems, preferring to communicate telepathically. (In King’s novels, the ability to use telepathy is one of the necessary attributes, it seems, for aliens.) In other ways, however, the aliens are severely limited, if not actually mentally handicapped. Unable to reproduce sexually, the aliens resort to transforming humans into semblances of themselves in an apparent attempt (King is never too clear on this point) at colonizing the Earth. Many critics see these aliens as representing the effects of substance abuse, from which King was allegedly suffering at the time that he wrote this novel.

Koontz’s aliens are so much like spaceships that the human characters mistake the extraterrestrials for such. (In fact, though, the creatures aren’t aliens at all, as it turns out; they’re fallen angels, led by Satan). When they pass overhead, one feels as if he or she is mentally radiated, as it were, and known, completely and instantly. To facilitate their conquest of the Earth, an advance team of the extraterrestrials is undertaking a reverse-terraforming of the planet to create an atmosphere that is hazardous to humans but agreeable to the extraterrestrials. It is only toward the end of the novel that the protagonist learns that the aliens are actually an army of demons who have come to destroy the planet. In this novel, Koontz inverts the old idea that the demons of myth and legend were inspired by aliens who visited the Earth in days long past, making the belief in aliens a consequence of the actual existence of demons. This plot ploy allows Koontz’s novel an unusual theological significance that King matches in his own demon-haunted novel Desperation.

Form is one of the limits that nature imposes upon writers who want to write about alien creatures, for people, writers included, are limited by nature as to what they can know and, consequently, about what they can write. Nature, although varied, is finite, and, sooner or later, minerals, plants, insects, and animals are going to run out of characteristics and abilities that can be imposed, in more or less disguised fashion, upon supposedly extraterrestrial creatures. This is a given.

Therefore, writers are well advised, if they want their monster to be an alien, to take a leaf from King and Koontz and give them a non-human (and possibly an inhuman) means of carrying out their (more or less human) motives for visiting Earth to begin with and for whatever mission or endeavor they undertake after they get here. Despite some problems with his plots, King’s Dreamcatcher and Tommyknockers do impart more-or-less alien means of accomplishing his extraterrestrials’ more-or-less human purposes, although he uses a biological concept (symbiosis), a paranormal cliché (telepathy), and a centuries-old political purpose (colonization) to do so: his aliens are here to invade the Earth (Dreamcatcher) and to colonize our planet (The Tommyknockers); the way they go about doing so--spreading a disease in which they are symbiots and transforming humans into themselves with a gas--are more-or- less alien methods. Koontz’s motive for his aliens’ presence is even more intriguing: they are merely wearing disguises; the aliens are actually demons who wear their extraterrestrial appearances as fleshly costumes. Affecting a disguise isn’t all that unusual, especially for humans, but the means by which the demons in his novel accomplish their purpose--taking upon themselves an extraterrestrial likeness--is beyond the scope of anything that human beings can accomplish--at least this side of hell.

If a writer can’t get past the restrictions of form in creating aliens, he or she should at least try to imagine a way to bypass function, giving his or her aliens a non-human method by which to accomplish their purposes. As in so many other matters relating to horror fiction, King and Koontz have shown the way by which writers can do so.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Images of Horror, Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Psst! Here’s a secret: Horror writers should analyze visual images (such as occur both on screen and in movie posters) for ideas as to what is horrible about everyday situations. That’s such a good tip that it bears repetition (and a larger font size):
Horror writers should analyze visual images (such as occur both on screen and in movie posters) for ideas as to what is horrible about everyday situations.
Sounds pretty basic, right? A matter of common sense? You’d be surprised, perhaps, at how uncommon common sense is and at how often people forget the basics.

Let’s practice this technique.

Here’s a movie poster advertising Cujo, a movie based upon Stephen King’s novel of the same title.

For the two or three who don’t know the story line, it goes something like this:
A faithful St. Bernard, having been bitten by a rabid bat, bites the hand that feeds him; the hand belongs to Donna Trenton (and her family).
(In analyzing images, one should remember to “read” them the same way that one reads text, from left to right and from top to bottom.) Centered at the top of the poster is the text, “From Stephen King’s novel comes a chilling tale of a quiet New England town and a horrible evil in the dead of summer.” The text drops the name of today’s most celebrated horror novelist, Stephen King, citing his novel, Cujo, as the film’s source. It also tells the reader how he or she should feel about the film: it narrates a “chilling tale.” There is the suggestion of a violent intrusion upon the serene, everyday world, and the menace that threatens to assault the film’s characters is heightened by the description of “dead summer”: the “horrible evil” is so “chilling” that it can, as it were, kill even the sunniest part of the year. (Summer is often symbolic of one’s youth, and, of course, one of Cujo’s victims will be Donna Trenton’s young son [sun], Tad).

In short, the poster’s text suggests horror, fear, and a violent assault by “horrible evil.” The poster’s visual images build upon these linguistic images.

Below the text and to the right is a large house. It stands alone in a large expanse of empty, treeless lawn, below a dark, ominous sky rippling with storm clouds. The house seems about to be blown away by the force of the wind that drives the black and gray clouds.

Closer to the poster’s viewer, in the foreground, is a white picket fence. White picket fences have long been associated with suburban domestic bliss, and although the house seems to be more rural than suburban, the psychological associations of domesticity and happiness are retained--at least in part--by this symbol. However, there is something not quite right about the fence. It needs a fresh coat of paint. The slats are weathered and stained. Some bear long scratches. At the base of the fence, just before the image is lost to darkness, tufts of grass suggest that the lawn needs to be trimmed. It is a fence that, although not yet in a state of total disrepair, needs maintenance. It is neglected.

If the fence symbolizes the bliss of domestic and suburban life, it is a happiness that could use a bit more care. In fact, Donna's own life is in an emotional, moral, and spiritual state of disrepair because of the adulterous affair she’s been having, a secret that her husband, Vic, has since learned. The destructiveness of her infidelity is about to destroy her family, Tad included.

But there is more than a little thin paint, stains, and scratches wrong with the white picket fence. Centered upon it is a blood-red, streaming, dripping message to the viewer: “Now there’s a new name for terror. Cujo.” As Vic’s wife, Donna should have been his best friend. Instead, seized by a rabid lust for an itinerant furniture repairman and poet, she has betrayed her husband’s trust and her son’s welfare. In a way, she is Cujo. At the same time, Cujo represents the effects of her infidelity, which trap her, indirectly kill her son (Tad dies of heatstroke from being trapped inside his mother’s automobile), and emotionally devastate Vic. The novel and the movie are cautionary tales concerning the madness of adultery and the fatal consequences it may have, both literally and figuratively, upon the members of the betrayed family.

The poster is an effective way of tying the overt action of the rabid dog’s attack upon Donna and Tad (and, indirectly, upon Vic) to the narrative’s covert message regarding the devastating effects of the threat to domestic bliss that the bestial monster, adultery, may have and shows, more than many movie posters, the strong relationship of plot to theme. At the same time, it intrigues potential moviegoers, interesting them in seeing another scary Stephen King story brought to the big screen--this one about a mad dog. (Of course, it’s really about adultery, but what’s scary about marital infidelity? This question is the very one that the story answers: infidelity is destructive to the family relationship and to the members of the family themselves.)

Horror movie posters, when they are well executed, as the Cujo poster is, can show writers how to tie plot and theme together on a symbolic and metaphorical level while, at the same time, appealing to readers’ fears or other emotions, which is another reason that (psst!) horror writers should analyze visual images (such as occur both on screen and in movie posters) for ideas as to what is horrible about everyday situations.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Toward a Taxonomy of Horror Fiction

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

“Taxonomy” is a fancy word for classification system--a sort of intellectual file cabinet for grouping things on the basis of their similarity to one another or their sharing of a common trait that excludes anything that lacks this trait. In biology, organisms are grouped by whether they have a backbone (vertebrates) or not (invertebrates), and animals are grouped as reptiles (scales), amphibians (able to breathe in water or on land), and mammals (ability to bear live young).

Whether horror fiction can be so classified is a debatable point. What is the single trait that is essential to literature that would be cause it to be considered horror fiction? Literary works that cause readers to feel fear, one might suggest, are specimens of horror fiction. This approach to the taxonomic problem classifies the work by its effect. Certainly, Edgar Allan Poe would subscribe to such a principle, as his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” makes clear.

Many things that one would not ordinarily, if at all, regard as horrific nevertheless disturb us: a steelworker’s accidental fall from a skyscraper, the crash landing of a jet airplane on the ocean, a house on fire, the sight of an animal’s cadaver alongside the highway. We tend to speak of such events as “tragic” or “unfortunate,” or “gross,” but, although they shock, sicken, and disturb us, they seldom actually frighten us.

For an incident or a situation to be horrifying, it must be personal: it must affect us individually and personally, directly or vicariously. Otherwise, it may be terrifying, atrocious, and sickening, but it is not horrific or horrifying.

This seems to be the first criterion for classifying a narrative as a horror story, then: it must affect us individually and personally, directly or vicariously.

If we are on board, a runaway train is terrifying, as would be a car that won’t stop, no matter how many times or how hard the brake pedal is stomped, or an airplane that takes a sudden and irreversible nosedive into the planet. However, it is not the train, the car, or the airplane itself that terrifies. Rather, it is the fact that it is on an uncontrollable course that could well result in our own injuries, deaths, and destruction. Since we are passengers aboard the train, or in the car, or aboard the airplane, the uncontrollable, headlong dash toward injury, death, and destruction makes the situation personal. It affects us directly and individually. Even if the runaway train, out-of-control car, or plummeting airplane were to be brought under control, its initial behavior would be harrowing. During the time that we were, as it were, at the mercy of the vehicle, we would experience true horror. If we analyze the cause of our horror, however, we understand that it is not the mere train, car, or airplane that horrifies but the fact that it is out of control. We can make no appeal to a machine, for it has neither ears to hear nor brain to think nor heart to feel.

This seems to be the second criterion for classifying a narrative as a horror story, then: the menace with which we are threatened must be out of control (beyond appeal). When the menace is a human being, part of what may make him or her uncontrollable, or beyond appeal, could be his or her inhumanity. A lack of the ability to experience emotions or the lack of a conscience, for example, puts a sociopath beyond appeal. Emotional pleas mean nothing, because he or she feels neither sympathy nor empathy, and moral appeals mean nothing, because he or she has no sense of right and wrong.

Although the threats with which horror fiction confronts its readers need not be human, and, therefore, may lack discernment and purpose, a third criterion, perhaps more desirable than necessary, as an ingredient of horror fiction is consciousness, or intelligence, for it seems that an out-of-control menace that threatens us personally and individually, directly or vicariously, is more horrific if it is intelligent than if it is merely a insentient force or being like a forest fire, a disease, or a runaway train. Intelligence gives the menace will and the ability to execute sophisticated plots. A madman, who is able to reason, after a fashion, and yet who lacks humanity--a sociopath, in other words--is far more horrific a threat than even a plummeting airplane, because he or she threatens us personally and individually, is out of control (beyond appeal), and is able to carry out his or her schemes relentlessly.

Perhaps we can classify any story, in print or on film, that meets these two criteria as being an instance of horror fiction:

1. The threat must affect the reader or audience individually and personally, whether directly or vicariously.
2. The menace with which the reader or audience is threatened must be out of control (beyond appeal).

These two elements, we may say, are essential characteristics of the horror story. To them, we can add a nice-to-have element, which, like a good seasoning, spices the plot:

3. The menace with which the reader or audience is threatened should be conscious, or intelligent, if possible.

The adoption of these criteria leaves ample room for the most monstrous monster, but it also allows us to include such stories as Psycho, Jaws, Cujo, and The Island of Dr. Moreau in our taxonomy, and most horror writers, fans, and critics would agree that these stories, involving a mad, transvestite killer; a shark; a rabid dog; and quasi-intelligent human-animal hybrids, respectively, should be accorded room on the genre’s specimen boards.

Of course, a taxonomy usually also includes subtypes. Perhaps they shall be the topic of a future post.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Story Deck

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Imagine a deck of cards that consists of four suits: Characters, Settings, Inciting Moments, and Themes. One card is dealt from each suit. After the cards are acquired, the player can modify them or add others, as long as the modifications are appropriate to the context that is created by the other cards in the player’s hand and any cards that are added from one or more of the deck’s constituent suits. For example, New York City, a Settings card, could be modified so that New York City Subway System and New York City Art Gallery are added as modified cards in the Settings suit. Likewise, such additional cards as Commuter’s Girlfriend, Serial Killer, Cannibals, and Art Gallery Owner could be added to the Characters suit. The recipient of the resulting hand must create a plot for a horror story from the cards that he or she has been dealt.

Characters: A commuter
Settings: New York City
Inciting Moments: Struggling photographer Leon Kaufman’s latest body of work--a collection of provocative, nighttime studies of the city and its inhabitants--attracts the attention of prominent art gallery owner Susan Hoff. For his upcoming debut at her downtown art space, she encourages him to get even grittier pictures that humanity's darker side.
Themes: Fascination with evil is a dangerous obsession.

Result: Midnight Meat Train: Leon Kaufman's photos of the darker side of humanity inspires art gallery owner Susan Hoff to promise Leon a place to showcase his work at her gallery if he can get even edgier pictures. He begins to film a serial killer, Mahogany, who stalks and kills late-night commuters, thereby endangering not only himself but his girlfriend, Maya, as well.

Here’s another example.

Characters: Crank caller
Settings: College campus
Inciting Moments: During the holiday season a house of sorority girls are harassed by a person making crank phone calls.

Themes: Christmas can bring out the worst in a person.

Result: Black Christmas: On Christmas, a creep begins to male crank calls to sorority girls, who start to disappear, one by one.

Your turn. Here are your cards:

Characters: A mortician
Settings: A funeral home
Inciting Moments: A mortician earns his real living selling corpses to organ harvesters, cremating or burying whatever remains of the remains.
Themes: Disrespect doesn’t stop at death.

What is the result, your story?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Frustrating Formulaic Fiction

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Genre fiction is formulaic fiction.

It must be.

There’s an unwritten law somewhere that requires it to be. (Or maybe it’s a written law.)

Formulaic fiction fails to entertain after a while, because most people get tired of reading yet another variation on the same tired and tattered narrative formula, especially when the formula is fairly straightforward and simple.

Formulaic fiction fails because it is predicable.

A reader pretty much knows what to expect from the beginning and pretty much every time before something happens. Formulaic fiction is unimaginative, unoriginal, predictable, and boring. It’s a cliché. Actually, it’s a series of clichés strung together like so many faux pearls. There are no surprises, shocks, chills, or thrills because everything that happens is seen coming way before it actually arrives. Familiarity breeds contempt, and formulaic fiction, whether it’s adventure, detective, horror, fantasy, romance, science fiction, Western, or otherwise, is all too familiar to its readers.

In a word, formulaic fiction is frustrating, but there are ways to frustrate formulaic fiction. In this post, we will consider a few techniques for doing so. Mostly, though, these methods boil down to this: become a Boy Scout. In other words, as a writer, expect the unexpected--from yourself and your characters.

Formulaic fiction is formulaic largely because it is routine and repetitive rather than exploratory. It follows the same path over the same ground, leading around and around in the same concentric circles. To frustrate formulaic fiction, a writer must become a stranger in a strange land. He or she must choose the little-worn over the well-worn path. Better yet, he or she should choose from one of several other possible paths.

Just as some moviemakers now make movies with one official ending, as it were, and several “alternative endings,” a writer should have several pathways (and possibly a few byways) from any major (or even minor) incident of the plot. Stories are, by and large, linear, but the any point from “B” to “Z” can end up as point “B.” Only after it is chosen, does it become the chosen one. Until then, several other incidents should compete for the honor and distinction of being this second incident. The same is true of incidents “C,” “D,” and so on, all the way to “Z” (or however many incidents make up the chain of actions, events, and situations that form the story’s plot).

Let’s try an example.

A man finds a love letter, in his wife’s hand, addressed to another man.

Oops! What might he do?
  • Confront his wife about the affair.
  • Confront his rival about the affair.
  • Confront both is rival and his wife about the affair.
  • Leave his wife, without divorcing her.
  • Divorce his wife.
  • Kill his rival.
  • Kill his wife.
  • Kill himself.
  • Kill both his rival and his wife.
  • Kill both his rival and himself.
  • Kill both his wife and himself.
  • Kill all three parties--his rival, his wife, and himself.
  • Show the love letter to his (and his wife’s) children.
  • Show the love letter to his wife’s parents.
  • Show the love letter to his own parents.
  • Pretend he never found the love letter.
  • Write a “love letter” of his own to his rival, signing his wife’s name (or using a photocopy of her signature).
  • Do two or more of these options.
Of course, there are many other possibilities, some much more imaginative than any that we’ve listed, and some may suggest still others. The point is that, by listing these alternatives, the writer will have expanded his or her options considerably. If he or she chooses the more imaginative, even if it is also the more unlikely, option, his or her story will be correspondingly less predictable and, therefore, that much less formulaic.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Femme Fatales

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman started it all. Or maybe it was Lilith or the lamia. Or the bride of Frankenstein.

Actually, it’s probably impossible to say just which female character became the world’s first female monster, but the ladies have proven that she can be the deadlier of the species when she’s of a mind to be. In fact, in Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia argues that civilization is a result of men’s attempt to resist the overwhelming influence and control of humanity’s chthonian nature, as represented by woman as Mother Nature (which is roughly the same, one might add, as that which Biblical writers are pleased to refer to as the “flesh,” which is eternally opposed to the spirit and often calls one to take a nasty fall. It should be understood that the “flesh” does not mean simply the sexual aspects of men and women but, rather, all that is implied by their immanent and temporal nature or their mortality.)

As we have argued in a previous post, horror fiction is all about significant loss and our attempts to survive it. There are many, many such types of such loss, some personal, some psychological, some social, and some theological. The greatest loss of all, perhaps, is that of life itself. Can death be survived? Most religions insist that it can, and some horror stories suggest the same. Of course, one’s position on such a matter, whether pro or con, is one of faith, for the world, if any, that lies beyond this earthly, mortal realm is an “undiscovered country from whose borne no one has returned.”

One type of loss of which horror fiction treats is the loss of order. Order can be the result of a formal political process in which laws are codified and enforced by a police or military force or, less often, of an informal social process in which unwritten laws are transmitted from one generation to the next and enforced by the stigma of the tribe. In other words, order among men and women is a product, so to speak, of law or of tradition. In many horror stories, such social control, such regulation of behavior, such organization of society, including the roles that men and women play within their larger groups, is either set aside or, more frequently, cast down, as Moses, in a fit of rage, cast down the stone tables upon which God had carved the Ten Commandments. Sometimes, horror fiction inverts order; it turns insides out and upsides down.

In the animal world, the males are the pretty ones. This state of affairs is inverted among humans, where men are not only stronger than women but are also smart enough to know it and to use their superior physical strength to their advantage, one effect of which is to make women compete among themselves for their attention. It may be argued that, ultimately, women gain control of the situation, in marriages at least, although most societies are now patriarchic and are likely to remain so, at least for the foreseeable future. Therefore, to assert themselves, women have had to adopt stratagems that allow men the pretense, at least, of being in charge and in control. Allowing men the ego salve of being the dominant “partners” in the marital relationship, women rule, largely because they are pretty (or, more crassly, but accurately, sexy), and they take great pains and spend small fortunes to stay that way.

Men, it may be suggested, symbolize strength, whereas women represent beauty. What if women’s figurative significance were inverted, though, some horror stories have asked, and they were understood, even if for but a moment, as suggesting strength rather, or more, than beauty? The answer, in a word, writers of such literature imply, is a monster.

Equipped with the strength to subject men to their will and to dominate them individually and collectively, woman would become not seductive Eve but demonic Lilith. She’d become Pandora, the lamia, the gorgon, a fury, a she-mantis, a reptilian thing covered in scales, a female Frankenstein’s monster, a fifty-foot woman on an estrogen-fueled rampage, a blood-sucking fiend, la belle sans merci. She would become a femme fatale.

Some movies and books depict women as monsters, females as femme fatales. Such movies and books suggest their creators’ reasons (or lack thereof) for fearing the women whom they depict as monsters. Most such creators are men. Whether their fears are representative of their whole sex is debatable, but their qualms and uncertainties, at least, reflect how some members of the male sex have viewed the opposite sex. (The classics of Western literature that feature female monsters, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, The Metamorphoses and other sources of Greek and Roman mythology, European fairy tales, Beowulf, Christabel, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and others, are worthy of even more consideration, but they are not the topics of this post; here, we are concerned more with movies.)

What, then, do movies that feature female creatures suggest about women (or the moviemakers’ ideas about women)? Let’s consider a few of the more notable films to have threatened audiences with the dangerous doings of femme fatales:

  • The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman
  • Species
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Teeth
In Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958), Nancy Archer is mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore after her two-timing husband, Harry, having inherited $50 million, abandons her for another woman, Honey Parker. After a close encounter with visiting extraterrestrials, she is radiated, which makes her huge, and she kills Honey before reclaiming her wayward hubby. As she carries him through the streets, as if he were nothing more than a live doll, the police shoot an electrical transformer as she passes it, and she and Harry are both electrocuted. This movie’s horror derives from the fear that a wronged woman may exact vengeance and suggests that infidelity is a much larger problem (literally) than it may appear to the man who perpetrates it, since it is more than a merely physical or sexual betrayal, which can have an emotionally and, indeed, existentially devastating and destructive effect on both marriage partners, the victim as well as the victimizer.

In the original movie’s remake (1993), the femme fatale has come a long way, baby, and her growth represents her emancipation from chauvinistic and patriarchal dominance, and the aliens who increase her size also imprison her husband until he can be convinced of the errors of his sexist ways.

Read from a male’s point of view, Species (1995) seems to depict women, in the guise of sexual predator (a role more often associated with men than with women). As such, women dehumanize men, seeing them (as men too often view women) as merely sex objects upon whom their own sexual needs may be satisfied. The product of an alien human hybridization experiment, Sil is both extraterrestrial and human. She’s also bent upon motherhood, and there are no candy or flowers in her courtship designs. There is just her beguiling appearance, with which she lures her prey, and her superior physical strength, which she uses to force herself upon them. Procreation is her purpose, and rape is her means to this end. Men are nothing to her but walking, talking sperm banks, and she can do without the walking and the talking very well, thank you. She rejects by killing those whom she finds unworthy of, or threatening, to her, and, after she finally mates successfully, she and her offspring are killed by the team of government scientists and military personnel who have been tracking her. The patriarchy, although threatened by their Galatea, resume the upper hand.

In her role as sexual predator, Sil is somewhat like Faith, a character in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). A sort of female Nietzschean superman, Faith has physical strength that far exceeds that of any man, and she uses it to satisfy her desires, sexual and otherwise, without regard to their effects, emotional or otherwise, on her victims. A love-him-and-leave-him sort of girl, she summarizes her philosophy succinctly, saying, “Get some, and get gone.” In “getting some,” she nearly kills Xander Harris, an ordinary teenage boy, after fornicating with him, but she is stopped by the timely arrival of Angel, a male vampire with a soul. That her views are horrible to the patriarchic society in which she lives is indicated by the more traditional, if rather liberated, lifestyle of her counterpart, the titular Buffy Summers, who is also possessed of superhuman strength but prefers to nail her lovers according to the much more traditional, socially acceptable rules that lesser women have been taught to use in the mating game. Buffy’s manner of dating and courtship highlight the aberrance of Faith’s sexual behavior and Faith’s nature as both a rogue vampire slayer and a femme fatale.

Teeth (2007) confronts viewers with an age-old fear among men--that of the castrating woman. In this film, the vagina of Dawn, the teenage cannibalistic protagonist, is equipped with teeth that respond to her anger or rage, biting off the genitals of a would-be rapist; those of a boy who had seemed to care about her but bedded her only so that he could brag about having done so to his adolescent friends, having bet with them that he could seduce Dawn; and those of her stepbrother, who’d hoped to have sex with her before their father ruined his hopes by marrying Dawn‘s mother. After these snacks, Dawn leaves town, finding self-confidence in her power to defend herself, and smiles at the elderly man who has stopped to give her a ride when, locking her inside his car, he insists that she have sex with him.

In the context of this film, the femme fatale is not a predator, but, rather, a young woman who is uniquely able to protect herself. She evens the playing field, so to speak, by being more than merely able to fend off unwanted advances or even intended sexual assaults. The organ which, in feminist thought, allows men to dominate women, becomes, in Teeth, the instrument, so to speak, of both liberation and vengeance. Talk about poetic justice! Women, who have been sexually assaulted by men, now have a means of defending themselves and of exacting a suitably ironic revenge upon would-be rapists or boyfriends who won’t take no for an answer. No doubt, some feminists believe that the makers of this movie corrected an error in nature’s or God’s work, equipping women with the very weapon they needed--a sort of dental chastity belt with (real) teeth--to be employed or not at the owner’s discretion.

The femme fatales we have considered in this post are not so much scary in themselves as they are scary to the men who watch them, for they represent what women would be like were they to act as men behave, as sexual predators who seek men only as a means to satisfy their own lusts. By turning the tables, as it were, on men, these movies’ femme fatales show men what it is like to be considered sex objects who are accounted as nothing more than things to be brutalized at will and discarded thereafter as having had their only value depleted.

To deny one his or her humanity is a horrible and monstrous thing, these films suggest, and the one who does so is a monster. Monsters may rampage for a time (every monster has its day), but, sooner or later, it will be exposed, understood, and, usually, terminated. Are these studies in feminine angst and rage reflections of men’s guilty consciences? Are they symbolic projections of rape fantasies? Are they nothing more than reinforcements--or, possibly, reassurances--of men’s superior status in nature and in society (as understood by the men who write and produce such films, of course)? All of the above? None of the above?

By turning the tables on men as sexual predators, movies like The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman show that sexual betrayal not only hurts the victim but also can have repercussions for the victimizer, since infidelity is destructive to both parties and to the marital relationship itself; Species and Buffy the Vampire Slayer show what it’s like, from the female’s perspective, to be the prey of such attackers; and Teeth, portraying women as able protectors of their own virtue, suggests that women are not irreducible to their body parts and that any man who attempts to dehumanize women by regarding them as mere sex objects may learn that he, as much as she, can be reduced to mere objectivity--in his case, by being deprived of the very type of organs that he insists are the only parts of women that are desirable by, and valuable to, men. After all, if he has no genitals of his own, hers are likely to become a lot less important to him. Femme fatales convey the message that women are not merely sex objects whose purpose it is to serve--or service--men and that they deserve dignity and respect. If they are ill treated, these movies suggest further, vengeance, of a poetically just sort, is sure to follow. After all, “hell hath no vengeance like a woman scorned,” and the disrespect of a person’s humanity is, perhaps, the very zenith (or nadir) of disdain.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Academy: Learning from the Masters, Part 2

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In part one of “The Academy: Learning from the Masters,” we explored how Bentley Little juxtaposes the normal, the natural, and the rational with the paranormal and the supernatural throughout his novel, The Academy, allowing (until the final resolution of the narrative’s conflict), a dual understanding of its incidents. We argued that 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. We also suggested that the juxtaposition also creates, maintains, and heightens suspense and fear and that Little, like other horror writers, 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.

In this post, we are going to explore another technique that Little and other horror writers typically employ to create, maintain, and heighten suspense and horror: the presentation of experience from the viewpoint of the prey or the intended victim. A good example of this technique occurs in chapter nine of the novel, as a student arrives at Tyler High School to participate in a session of the student council, of which she is a member:

Myla took the key out of the ignition, shutting off the radio, causing the lit dashboard to go black. The world was suddenly silent. Getting out of the van, she locked the vehicle’s doors. She wished she’d brought a flashlight. There was one somewhere in the van that her mom kept there for emergencies, but she didn’t know exactly where it was, and she didn’t have time to look for it. She was already late (97).
There’s more to the description, but let’s pause for a moment and analyze it so far. The first two sentences function well together, the first delineating an incident that is typical of teenagers--listening to the radio as they drive a parent’s car. Teens usually like to turn up the volume, so, in reading this paragraph, many readers would be apt to imagine the radio to have been loud, even blaring. Therefore, when Myla turns off the engine, the resulting silence would be deafening, so to speak, and it might well seem that the whole “world was suddenly silent.” Going from loud music to a “world” of silence in a mere instant--the amount of time it would take for the driver to shut off the ignition--would be dramatic in itself, and it changes the tone of all that went before and all that follows this sentence. In such complete silence, especially after such loud sound, there might be an element of menace. It is normal behavior to lock one’s vehicle after exiting it, but locking doors also suggests the need to take precautions to ensure one’s safety. The use of the word “emergency,” in reference to the flashlight, also plants the idea that Myla may be abut to have an emergency of her own. She is a character in a horror novel, after all. As a teenage girl making her way from her parked, locked car in the darkness, Myla is vulnerable, but she is made more so by the fact that she is “late already” to her destination and “doesn’t have time” to search for the flashlight, because hurrying makes one less cautious than he or she might otherwise be and suggests that Myla’s thoughts might be elsewhere, focused upon her being late and, perhaps, upon whatever task she is executing. We, the readers, are on the scene, somewhere, as observers, and what we see is disquieting; we are afraid for Myla, about whom we have a premonition that all may not go well for her.

The first paragraph focuses upon Myla’s sense of sight (and her thoughts). The next paragraph describes her sense of hearing and her sense of sight. In addition, it describes her emotions:

Myla stepped over the curb, starting down the walkway that led into the center of campus. She didn’t like the echoing sounds her footsteps made on the cement or the way that indistinct lighting from within the quad ahead of her made the surrounding trees and buildings look unfamiliar and threatening.
By hearing through Myla’s ears and seeing though her eyes and by getting inside her heart, at her emotions, and inside her head, at her thoughts, Little’s omniscient narrator has made his story’s suspense (if not yet its horror) personal. It is not something that the reader merely imagines, but it is something that is seen and heard and believed and felt from within a character with whom the reader, for the nonce, at least, identifies. The familiar campus is alien to her, and her echoing footsteps suggest to her, perhaps, that there are others in the area. Their footsteps could be among her own, lost in their echoes. Someone could be stalking her. She feels threatened, and, the next sentence informs us, “she quickened her pace.” A moment later, she sees “a small dark form rush past the front of the library” and she runs. By making the suspense personal, Little has ratcheted up the tension.

Myla makes it safely inside, to participate in a decidedly odd session of the student council. The paragraphs were just a teaser, were they? Yes and no. They did tease, making us think that something was going to happen to poor Myla--something bad, something horrible. When nothing bad did happen, we breathed a sigh of relief, but, while she was crossing the dark campus, frightened at the shadows, sounds, and sights she heard and saw along the way, we bonded with her. Now, when something terrible does happen to her, it will affect us all the more strongly, because we have come to care, however much, for Myla. We didn’t want anything horrible to happen to her, and it didn’t.

Not this time.

But it might--and probably will--next time.

By presenting the action from the point of view of the prey or potential victim, Little gains his reader’s sympathy. If next he presents her injury or death from her point of view, we will be all the more horrified than we would have been had, in seeing her for the first time, as she is injured or killed, we otherwise would be. Seeing the action presented from the potential victim’s point of view makes us, the readers, potential victims, too. We become more than mere observers; we become the prey.

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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