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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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