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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Madhouse


The Madhouse

Synopsis

Emily Coldwater was horrified to learn that her late parents’ estate was built with blood money. She is terrified to have discovered that the spirit of the place is alive and seeks vengeance for the terrible deeds of her father. Can Emily's own extraordinary powers protect her and her guardian aunt from the malevolent mansion that threatens to destroy the sole surviving link to her family--Emily herself? For readers who have graduated from R. L. Stine but aren't quite ready for Stephen King, this novel is a perfect read!

For more, visit The Madhouse

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Sample

Prologue: The Body in the Cellar

Palm Acres stood amid the shade of broad oaks and towering pines, surrounded by a vast variety of other trees-mimosas, maples, hackberries, sycamores, birches, goldenrains, pears, maples, Eastern redbuds, crape myrtles, Washington hawthorns, Bechtel crabapples, and, of course-palms. There were royal palms, Pauroutis palms, pygmy date palms, cabbage palms, Chinese fan palms, Christmas palms, fishtail palms, key thatch palms, queen palms, Macarthur palms, jelly palms, sentry palms, Washington palms, windmill palms, and yellow butterfly palms.

Flowers grew in banks that divided the estate into various sections or “lawns,” which were designated by reference to the points of the compass as the north lawn, the northeast lawn, the east lawn, the southeast lawn, the south lawn, the southwest lawn, the west lawn, and the northwest lawn.

Shrubs and hedges, ponds and fountains, statues and mosaics decorated the lawns and gardens and marble walkways. Beyond the towering hedge that surrounded the magnificent Tudor mansion that stood at the heart of the estate, looking down upon its lush surroundings from its hilltop vantage point, the dark blue-green sea with its white, crashing breakers relentlessly assaulted the golden sands that comprised the estate’s private beach.

The house boasted over a hundred and twenty rooms, including the great hall, parlors, studies, bedrooms, a conservatory, a library, an indoor swimming pool, a kitchen, a pantry, and a dining room. Some were paneled in oak, others were papered in silk, and still others were plastered with ornamental effects, all under a slate roof of many chimneys, steep gables, arches, and towers behind brick, half-timbered walls and mullioned windows.

The huge house was more than ample for its four residents, their dog and cat, and the servants who tended the family’s every need.

Abner Coldwater had been a rogue. He had done unconscionable things to acquire the fabulous wealth that had paid for this estate. Palm Acres, despite its great beauty and tranquility, was bought, envious relatives in the extended family were fond of observing-if in whispers only, at a distance-with “blood money.” These same relatives pretended to be scandalized by Abner’s deeds, but their indignation never prevented them from attending one of the formal balls or the many dinner parties that Abner’s wife Phoebe sponsored each year.

Quite the contrary was true! These same indignant relatives practically leaped at the opportunity to make an appearance at Palm Acres. At their vilified relative’s home, the sparkling wine flowed freely, the rich food was in endless and constant supply, and luxury was everywhere at hand, both with regard to the landscaped grounds and the elegant furnishings within the lavish rooms. To Abner’s and Phoebe’s faces, they were eminent and distinguished champions of society and culture whose millions were a boon to admirable and charitable efforts to aid the less fortunate. It was only behind their backs that they were rogues and scoundrels who had amassed wealth at the expense of others’ welfare.

Preston never gave any thought whatsoever to any of his distant relatives’ gossip, slander, and abuse. To him, it meant nothing. They could say whatever they wished, in whispers behind his back, as long as, to his face, they remained fawning fools who exuded false politeness and charm. It was enough-far more than enough-that he had inherited Palm Acres from his late parents.

For Lana, the unkind remarks stung, even if she knew of them only second-hand, from those who hoped to curry favor with her by apprising her of the very things about which she would gladly have remained blissfully unaware. Like her husband, Lana took refuge in the vast luxury and deep comfort of the estate, content to have such a fabulous home, a wealthy husband, and a lovely child. Her two-year-old daughter was an angel on loan from heaven, she often told others. Little Emily had made their family complete.

Tonight’s dinner-soup and salad, homemade bread, roast squab, potatoes au gratin, spinach, and cream corn, topped off with chocolate pudding with whipped cream-had been, as always, a delicious, if late, finish to a long day. Afterward, Preston slipped into his silk pajamas, smoking jacket, and leather slippers, taking a seat in the overstuffed armchair opposite Lana’s position on the scalloped loveseat’s velvet cushions. There were a few business papers to review, and then he would retire. To help him to sleep, he would relish a glass of champagne from the family’s wine cellar.

“Damn it!”

Lana looked up from her latest Regency romance, a slight frown of concern on her lovely face.

“I wish I hadn’t given the servants the night off,” Preston complained. “I would love to have a glass of champagne just now, but--”

Lana set her book aside, closing its gilt edges upon the red ribbon bookmark to hold her place. “I’ll get a bottle,” she volunteered.

Preston smiled. “Thanks, darling, but I don’t want to bother you.”

She returned his smile. “It’s no bother, dear. I’ll be just a moment.”

He nodded, embarrassed. She knew of his childish fear of the dank, dark room in the basement. Even as an adult, he loathed the underground wine vault. It was disagreeably damp and dark even when the dim bulb was illuminated. Retreating from the sudden light, the shadows, it seemed to him, just waited for a chance to leap forth from the niches and alcoves and crevices to which they’d momentarily retreated. They bided their time, waiting to plunge the clammy room into impenetrable darkness so that whatever monsters lurked within the walls could assault him, kill him, and devour him.

Such fears were stupid and childish, he knew. Such fears were unmanly. They were also quite real to him, despite his embarrassment. Except in response to an emergency, he would not-could not-step foot into the wine cellar. It was to that dark, dank place that his father had exiled him time and again, locking him within the close, clammy space, alone and trembling in the darkness. Such was his punishment for any infraction, no matter how small, of his father’s countless rules, and such was his father’s means of ridding his son of the boy’s “foolish” fear of the dark.

The effects of such callous “punishment” were to establish within Preston a lifelong dread of the wine cellar and any other small, dark places as well as bitter self-loathing and mortification toward his childish fears and senseless timidity. Even now, he had to rely, in his servants’ absence, on a woman to fetch his wine for him, and he cursed again his unmanly fear of the dark.

Lana knew the arrangement of the bottles in the racks, where the ports, sherries, and brandies were kept and where the amontillados and champagnes were stored. Selecting a dusty bottle of Dom Pérignon, she smiled, knowing how much her husband enjoyed the delicate white wine. She turned, to ascend the narrow stone stairs, and the heavy, blunt object struck her hard in the back of the head. Lana gasped in pain and surprise, falling to her knees. The Dom Pérignon crashed against the stone floor, bursting in a spray of glass and wine. Darkness engulfed her. Lana’s last sensations were the pain in her head and the fine bouquet of the world-famous champagne.

“Preston!” Lana’s attacker cried, the voice shrill and loud over the house’s intercom speakers.

Upstairs, Preston hastily extinguished his cigarette in the smoke stand’s crystal ashtray and hurried toward the elevator that would take him to the feared and hated cellar.

“Preston!” the voice cried again.

When the elevator doors parted, he sprinted from the car, down the subterranean corridors, to the dank, dark room.

Lana lay face down on the wine cellar’s stone floor, atop the broken champagne bottle and the spilled wine.

Preston’s confederate, Natalie Martin, said, “Don’t just stand there. I can’t move her by myself.”

Preston bent over his wife’s corpse. Taking Lana’s body by the wrists, he pulled, grunting, and managed to turn the cadaver onto its back. Lana’s beautiful blue eyes stared sightlessly into his own. He shuddered. The sight of her dead body was more horrible than he had imagined, especially in the close confines of this damp cellar. Together, he and Natalie wrapped the corpse in a heavy plastic bag and sealed the bag with duct tape.

“Take her ankles,” Preston instructed his partner in crime.

The lovely, dark-haired woman with the dark eyes took an ankle in each hand and, together, Preston and she were able to drag Lana’s corpse over the rough, stone floor to a niche behind one of the wine racks.

Waiting on a low table beside the niche was a trowel and a bucket of mortar. Beside the table, there was a pile of bricks.

They stood Lana’s bagged body up against the back wall of the narrow alcove. Preston’s murderess held the corpse erect while her accomplice set the bricks in place, added a layer of mortar between each successive tier, and walled up his late wife inside the alcove.

His partner rewarded his labors with a kiss. “I love you, Preston Coldwater,” she proclaimed.

“I love you, too, Natalie Martin,” he replied, returning her kiss.

She withdrew her lips, stepping back. “You mean Natalie Coldwater, don’t you?”

Preston smiled. “Of course,” he answered, “as soon as a decent interval of mourning has passed.”

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” she demanded.

“I think we’ll have to wait at least a year.” He glanced nervously around the damp wine cellar that had just become his late wife’s tomb.

“There’s no way I’m waiting twelve months!”

“How about six months, then?”

She nodded, the smile returning to her face. “Are you asking me to marry you?”

He grinned. “I’ve already asked, and you’ve already accepted.” He again hazarded a glance to his left, a quick look to his right, and a peek behind.

She was distracted by his furtive, darting glances. “What are you looking for?” she demanded.

He swallowed. “You know how nervous this place makes me.”

She snorted derisively. “It was your idea to entomb her body here.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it.” He started toward the arched doorway.

“Wait,” Natalie said.

He stepped into the hallway outside the wine cellar. Looking into the dank, dark room, he asked, “What is it?”

“The brat,” she said, “and Lana’s sister, Cecilia. “What do we do with them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Wouldn’t it be convenient if they were to take up residence beside darling Lana?”

Preston blanched. “You mean that we should kill them?”

Natalie’s eyes swam with amusement at his discomfort. “Why not?”

“No!”

“We don’t need them underfoot all the time, getting in our way.”

Preston shook his head. “I won’t do it. I won’t hear of it.” He hastened down the corridor.

Natalie hurried to catch up to him. “At least let’s talk about it. We don’t need a brat and her nanny. We don’t need anyone but ourselves.”

In the end, however, Preston was adamant. Needed or not, two-year-old Emily would be allowed to live, as would her Aunt Cecilia.

After all, if they were going to keep the child, they would need someone to mind her.

For more, visit The Madhouse

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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