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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Blue Mountain Detour


A veteran with a guilty secret plans to spend some time with his family at a plush mountain resort tucked away in the splendid beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It will be great, Nathan Henderson thinks. But this is before they run into the detour that directs them into the heart of a human wilderness that’s more savage than the forest and darker than the falling night. Nathan alone stands between death and his loved ones, but, for a man like him, one chance in hell may be all he needs!


For more, visit Blue Mountain Detour

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Nathan Henderson was sweating profusely, despite the chill autumn air that drifted in through the open bedroom window, fluttering the curtains. He tossed and turned, thrashing about beside his wife, Naomi. She muttered, turning away from him.

The enemy was a young man, hardly out of his teens.

He wore the black pajamas and the flip-flop sandals of the Viet Cong.

He had ambushed them from their hiding place in the bamboo hut on stilts with the thatched roof that stood at the end of the muddy road that led through the village, wounding two of their number before fleeing.

Troops on the periphery of the area of operations had captured him, along with several of his comrades. They were to be sent to the rear for interrogation, but Nathan’s commanding officer, Captain Preston, had intervened, and now they were Captain Preston’s prisoners. He had separated this young man from the others.

The enemy soldier squatted on the ground, surrounded by a trio of guards who kept their M16’s trained on him. They had tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him with his own shirt. Now, on Captain Preston’s orders, a rope was placed around the young man’s neck.

It was a long rope.

The airplanes that were spraying Agent Orange had not reached this location yet, and the jungle that surrounded this isolated village was impenetrably thick on every hand. A single, narrow trail meandered through the dense undergrowth. Tree limbs and heavy foliage obscured one’s vision.

They had called in air support upon encountering the enemy, but it was entirely possible that Viet Cong soldiers remained hidden along this trail, awaiting their opportunity to ambush the company as it resumed its march to its objective. It was also likely that the trail itself was mined or booby-trapped.

Some of the men in Nathan’s outfit were setting fire to the village’s huts. The heavy, dry grass of the roofs caught fire easily, and in minutes the huts on either side of the muddy road were blazing. Nathan could feel the heat on his face as the flames danced in his peripheral vision.

They had brought the bodies of the dead villagers outside, laying them in the mud along the side of the road to be collected for burial later, after the area had been captured and secured.

As usual, it was a sultry day, and Nathan sweated profusely.

“All right,” Captain Preston said, “get the bastard up on his feet.”

A guard reached below each of the enemy’s armpits and lifted him to his feet.

“Start him walking,” Captain Preston ordered.

One of the guards placed the sole of his heavy boot in the prisoner’s back and shoved his foot forward.

The Viet Cong soldier stumbled forward, tripped over his own feet, and sprawled onto the ground.

Captain Preston, the guards, and the other soldiers watching the incident laughed, some of them, like Nathan, nervously. The other Viet Cong prisoners also wore their shirts as blindfolds, but they had no doubt heard their captors’ dialogue and some, at least, understood English well enough to know what had just occurred. They were very still, very quiet.

Sweat trickled into Nathan’s eyes, stinging him. Sure, Nathan told himself, the boy had killed two American soldiers, but what Captain Preston and the rest of them were doing wasn’t right. The Geneva Conventions, as well as common human decency, censored this sort of behavior. Nathan thought, I should intervene; I should say something.

“Get him on his feet,” Captain Preston commanded. The guards bent forward, each gripping an arm, and lifted the Viet Cong soldier. Captain Preston reached up behind the prisoner’s head, and unknotted the makeshift blindfold, pulling the shirt away.

The enemy soldier blinked at the bright sunlight. Like Nathan, he was also sweating profusely.

“Let’s move out, ladies,” Captain Preston ordered.

One of the guards poked the muzzle of his rifle into the prisoner’s back, and the young man marched forward.

The others stood watching, waiting until he reached the end of the rope. Then, they followed their point man.

They all knew that, at any moment, rifle fire might erupt from the bush, and they were on their guard. They were tense, and their eyes moved continuously as they scanned the thick underbrush, eyeing the gaps between the dense thickets and close-standing trees. The only sound was their own footsteps. Like everyone else, Nathan was frightened, and his fear was a lump in his throat he couldn’t swallow. His jaw was clenched, and his finger was taut on the trigger. He was prepared, at any moment, to dive for cover and fire at any enemy, seen or unseen, that might ambush them.

Nathan had given no more thought to the Viet Cong soldier ahead of them on the trail. The morality of using him in this manner nagged at Nathan’s conscience, gnawed at it like a dog worrying a bone, but staying alive was all that mattered to him at the moment. If he got out of this jungle alive, he could occupy himself with the luxury of contemplating good and evil, right and wrong.

The explosion was a terrible shock, even though they had been expecting it--or something like it.

Their prisoner screamed and fell to the ground.

A column of dust, like smoke, wound into the sky.

Their human minesweeper had found a mine.

“You!” Captain Preston said, nodding toward Nathan and grinning, “go get that rope off him!”

Nathan swallowed.

“Now!” Captain Preston ordered.

I should refuse, Nathan thought. There’s no way I should be part of this. He glanced nervously at his fellow soldiers. Their faces were hard and inexpressive. Their eyes showed nothing.

Nathan ran toward the fallen enemy.

This is wrong! he told himself. Don’t do it!

The young man’s face was flushed. His body was awash in sweat. His lower right leg was gone, and the broken-off bone showed through the mangled flesh of the stump. His blood was a red pool in the dry, scorched soil of the narrow path. He moved from side to side, moaning and groaning through clenched teeth.

Nathan reached out, untying the rope.

He hurried back to his own men.

“Tie it around the next one,” Captain Preston commanded.

A replacement for the wounded minesweeper had already been shoved forward. He was another terrified, thin, young man. His blindfold had been removed, and the prisoner stared in horror at his fallen comrade. He struggled between the guards on either side of him.

“Hold him still, damn it!” Captain Preston barked.

Nathan slipped the noose over the prisoner’s head. Let it drop around his neck, and tightened it.

“Move out!” Captain Preston ordered the terrified youth.

The prisoner refused to budge.

One of the guards hit him between the shoulder blades with the stock of his rifle, and the enemy soldier staggered forward.

The guard hit him again.

The prisoner stumbled forward, taking one slow step after another, scanning the ground before him for tripwires, disturbed earth, or any other sign of a booby trap or a land mine.

“No,” Nathan moaned, “no, no, no! It’s not right!”

“Nathan,” his wife called, awakened by her husband’s plaintive objections to whatever nightmare was unfolding for him this time.

“It’s wrong!” Nathan wailed.

Naomi shook his shoulder, and his eyes snapped open as he reared up in bed beside her. His face was a mask of horror.

“Nate?” she cooed. “You were having a nightmare.”

His eyes darted about the room, seeing a chair against a thicket of brush, a lamp on a dresser in front of a stand of trees, a wall beside the bloody, legless man on the forest trail. One of them had shot him, Nathan remembered, as they filed past the wounded prisoner.

“It’s all right,” Naomi said. “It was just a dream.”

The nightmarish figure writhing on the ground dissolved. The jungle disappeared. Vietnam vanished again--for the moment, at least.

He breathed deeply, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“You okay?” she asked.

He nodded. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she answered. “Go back to sleep.”

He almost chuckled at the suggestion; it was so absurd.

“I think I’ll have a nightcap,” he said.

“A drink?”

Her tone, disappointed and concerned, touched him. It also irritated him. He had lived through hell, and sometimes, when the demons revisited him, he needed a drink. Why couldn’t she understand that? Why did she have to be so disapproving of him for wanting to drown the memory of that bloody young man whose leg had been blown off when they’d used him as a human minesweeper? For a moment, Nathan saw the enemy soldier again, writhing on the ground, wailing through clenched teeth.

“I need something,” he explained, “to relax.”

She sighed, looked at him for a long moment. “All right, then, a drink, but just one. Please.”

He tossed back the blankets and rose, making his way around their bed.

When he reached the doorway, she said, “I love you.”

He swallowed. “I love you, too,” he replied softly.

Vietnam had come to symbolize the terrible incidents that had made up his life during the war. The country’s name or even a map of the land made him remember the cruelty of human beings toward one another and how, so many years ago, a young man himself, he had participated in such cruelty. For him, Vietnam had come to mean the worst that was within humanity and the worst that was within him.

For years after he had hung up the green beret forever, he’d drunk himself into a stupor every night.

Then, one evening, he’d met her, and she’d seen what she’d called the “goodness” in him. He had smiled ruefully at that. “There’s no goodness in me,” he’d replied, and he’d told her about Vietnam.

She had saved his life.

She had allowed him, if not to forgive himself, to go on, at least, and he had stopped drinking, mostly, and enrolled in college. Five years later, he’d earned a degree in engineering. Ever since, he’d helped to rebuild civilization rather than destroy it; he’d made sweet love to her, fathering two children; and he’d almost stopped drinking.

He went down the hallway and opened the first door on the right, looking in on his fourteen-year-old son, Henry.

The boy slept the sleep of the innocent, dead weight under the blankets. His eyes moved rapidly beneath their lids, signifying that he was in dreamland, and Nathan thanked God that his son was smiling instead of thrashing about, screaming.

“Sleep tight,” he whispered to his son, closing the bedroom door.

The next room on the left was Julie’s bedroom. He opened it, and saw his sixteen-year-old daughter slumbering soundly as well, dreaming, perhaps, of dancing in a long, formal gown with a handsome suitor under a full moon.

He hoped that neither of his children knew anything of his nightmares or of his cowardly behavior in Vietnam, but he knew that kids often knew more than their parents supposed. It was possible--hell, it was likely--that they had heard his screams in the night. They might even know about the human minesweeper. They might also know about the other incidents, his other nightmares. If so, it was another of the many sins he sorely regretted.

Downstairs, Nathan filled a glass with brandy, and he took a sip of the dark, bitter liquor. It burned its way down his throat and spread its warmth through his stomach.

Tomorrow, he and his family would leave their suburban sanctuary and, for two weeks, anyway, return to nature. They’d rented a cabin deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Nathan was determined that he, Naomi, Julie, and Henry were going to have a good time while strengthening the ties that bound them.

Too frequently of late, his daughter and son had argued. The family was beginning to drift apart, it seemed to Nathan. Their places at the dinner table were vacant more times than he liked, and neither Julie nor Henry ever seemed to be home much anymore. When they were home, they lived in their rooms, in front of television shows that depicted premarital sex and drug abuse as normal behavior or lay abed with headphones blaring obscenity-laden music into their heads.
Nathan hoped that getting back to nature, even if only for a couple of weeks would--

He shook his head.

Their two-week trip wouldn’t so a damned thing, he knew, except make his kids whine more than usual and his wife even more committed to the conveniences of suburban living.
Well, it would be a change of scenery, anyway. It would be a way to relax without alcohol. It would be a way to get away from it all, with just his family around him.

He lifted the glass to take another sip of the brandy, but decided against it, setting the glass aside, and crept up the stairs to the room he shared with his mate.

She was still awake.

As usual, she had waited up for him.

“You’re back sooner than I had expected,” she told him.

He climbed into bed beside her.

“Yes,” he answered, snuggling against her warmth.

She kissed him.

He smiled in the darkness, appreciative of his wife’s love and devotion, grateful for his children’s love and affection, thankful that, in Naomi, he had found a woman whose heart was bigger than Vietnam.

For more, visit Blue Mountain Detour

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

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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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