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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.

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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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