Fascinating lists!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Write What You Know (But What Does That Mean?), Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, we considered the lives of Hans Christian Andersen and H. G. Wells as examples of authors who “write what they know,” or, in other words, inform their fiction with their actual experiences--and especially a pivotal experience, a turning point--in their lives. The same is true of many other--perhaps, most other--writers, the West Coast Stephen King, Dean Koontz, as well.

In fact, Koontz is a classic case.

Koontz grew up in abject poverty, the son of an abusive alcoholic who, the writer says, taught him everything about how not to be a man. Later in life, when his father was in a serious decline in his health, Koontz not only let him live with him, but also took care of him, not, he says, because he loved him or felt any sense of duty to him, but for his own sake. Koontz never wanted to become the man his father was.

His cruel, sometimes violent, and neglectful father seems to be the basis of many of his novels’ antagonists, not a few of whom demonstrate the behavior of the true sociopath and have no socially redeeming qualities. Most are narcissistic, and some are delusional, imagining themselves to be godlike figures who are above the law.

Like Koontz himself, many of his protagonists have suffered abuse as children, coming from seriously dysfunctional homes or backgrounds, but, again like Koontz, they are financially successful, resolute, compassionate, and sometimes altruistic. They are almost always willing to help a damsel in distress, just as, perhaps, Koontz, as a boy, longed to come to the aid of his mother, who suffered much violence from her husband in order to protect her son. The heroines in Koontz’s novels are invariably of the same mold, and several are single mothers who persevere against poverty and other limitations to bring up their children as best they can. To some extent, they mat even be surrogates for the young Koontz.

Dan Simmons, author of horror and science fiction novels worth reading, also uses his own personal experience to inform his writing. His adult career was spent in elementary education. According to his website, he “grew up in various cities and small towns in the Midwest, including Brimfield, Illinois, which was the source for his fictional ‘Elm Haven,’” the setting of his 1991 horror novel Summer of Night, which features a group of preteens who, one may assume, are much like their real-life counterparts who Simmons knew as his friends during his childhood in Brimfield. Much of the novel’s action takes place in Old Central School, a combination junior-senior high school that is in its last year. Once the current class graduates, the school is scheduled for retirement.

Many of the persons, places, and things featured in his novel had actual counterparts in the 1960’s Brimfield in which Simmons grew up. His younger brother seems to have been the model for Lawrence Stewart, and two of his boyhood friends appear to have inspired Kevin Grumbacher, Dale Stewart, Mike O‘Rourke, and Jim Harlen. Old Central School’s true-life counterpart was Brimfield School, across the street from Dan and Wayne’s (Dales’ and Lawrence’s’) house. The community’s Old Settlers’ Day is featured, somewhat altered, in Summer, as is the Saturday evening free shows that were featured in the city’s downtown bandstand park. His science fiction novels use Simmons’ extensive knowledge of romantic poetry and mythology.

Although he was not a horror novelist, another writer who wrote what he knew is playwright J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. In his case, his personal experience provided more a theme than a formula for his work. According to Wikipedia, Barrie “was a small child” who “drew attention to himself with storytelling.” His mother’s most beloved son, David, died two days shy of age fourteen, while ice skating, a loss that “devastated” his mother, and “Barrie tried to fill David’s place in his attentions, even wearing his clothes”:
One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say “Is that you?” “I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to,” wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), “and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s not him, it’s just me.’” Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her.
To pass the time, Barrie imagined himself a pirate.

His early literary efforts, “two ‘Tommy’ novels,” Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1902) “were about a boy and a young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending [sic].” After writing several other plays, Barrie wrote Peter Pan, which George Bernard Shaw described as “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”

It is not difficult to see the parallels between Barrie’s childhood, during which he impersonated his dead (i. e., lost) brother in an effort to appease his mother’s grief, to gain her attention, and to satisfy his mother’s wish that “her dead [i. e., lost] son would remain a boy forever.”
Peter Pan is a play about a flying boy who, refusing to grow up. leads a group of other lost boys in various activities, including the fighting of pirates.
Like Andersen and Wells, Koontz, Simmons, and Barrie obviously “write (or wrote) what they know (or knew).”

Friday, November 28, 2008

Aphoristic Horror

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Aphorisms, as themes, can give rise to story ideas. Consider the possibilities with regard to such a maxim as “Be careful what you wish for.” This adage could well have been the basis of W. W. Jacobs’ classic tale of terror “The Monkey’s Paw” (see the column to the right), in which a mother wishes for something she believes she wants, even though it is likely to be horrifyingly monstrous. (The same proverb, incidentally, could have been the basis for Stephen King’s novel, Pet Semetary, a sort of expanded and updated version of Jacobs’ story.)

Could “Two heads are better than one” have inspired Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”?

When the antagonist is dealing agonizing death, the saying, “It’s better to give than to receive” certainly springs to mind as a basis for any number of horror stories, especially of the slasher variety.

Had the alien shape-shifting protagonist of a Ray Bradbury story hearkened to Polonius’ advice to Laertes, “To thine own self be true,” he wouldn’t have suffered the fatal fate that he did.

The cruel king and the courtiers upon whom Hop-Frog takes revenge in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Hop-Frog” would have done well to remember, if they had ever learned, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” because it was the king’s insult to the protagonist’s girlfriend Tripetta that initiated her lover’s plan to avenge her honor.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Borrowed Malice

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? -- Edgar Allan Poe
When it comes to fashion and beauty, women don’t explain themselves. Perhaps, their practices in these areas are sometimes inexplicable--to men, at least, for whom there seems no reason to pierce one’s earlobes merely to make of them fixtures from which to dangle or otherwise display bright baubles, any more than there appears to be a reason for them to mask themselves in cosmetics or to wear the sex organs of plants, otherwise known as flowers, in their hair.

There is no reason per se. An effect, however, is accomplished by such bizarre affectations. This effect might be called “borrowed beauty”: by associating oneself with loveliness, whether by the beautification derived from the use of cosmetics, the ornamentation that results from the employment of jewelry, or the decoration that ensues from the wearing of fashion, women borrow from these accoutrements the beauty inherent in eye shadows, eyeliners, mascara, powders, lipsticks, and blush; in diamonds and rubies and pearls; and in clothing cut of floral prints, polka dots, stripes, and fabrics ranging from cotton to satin and silk. As anyone knows who’s visited a site such as Petite Fashion or Paula D Jewelry, there are virtually endless means by which women may embellish and enhance their own natural charms.

Like fashion designers and other artists, photographers know and use this technique, lending beauty to their beautiful models by associating them with things that are in themselves beautiful. The next time one peruses a photograph, especially if it is a “glamour shot,” he or she should give some thought to the scenery of the setting, including the colors, the props, and the model’s costume, including her makeup, jewelry, and whatever clothing, if any, she is wearing, remembering that nothing in the photograph is present by accident; all is there by design, to enhance the “glamour” of the model, which is to say, to embellish her own natural charms by associating them--and her--with objects that are, in and of themselves, beautiful.

Let’s look at an example of such a portrait. In glamour shots, the emphasis of the photograph is, of course, upon the model, and anything and everything else, although minimal in number or amount, is there to enhance her appeal. In the case of Playboy Playmates’ photographs, the background and props are often associated with opulence and luxury as well as with the model’s own beauty, so as to reflect the lifestyle of the Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, if not the typical Playboy subscriber himself: many such portraits are shot indoors, in richly appointed mansions, often in the houses’ bedrooms. (We have tried to use as family friendly a picture as possible, which required some research on our part, but no sacrifice is too great to provide excellence in the service of Chillers and Thriller’s noble enterprise.) Meet Tiffany, an artificial blonde of undeniable and, one might say, full-blown beauty.

Her facial features are enhanced by lighting and by perfectly applied makeup. (No doubt, a bit of airbrushing was employed as well.) Her matching bra and thong panties are pale yellow and printed with vaguely floral patterns that sometimes resemble confetti as much as flowers, imparting to her both borrowed beauty and the sense that she has a carefree and fun-loving frame of mind. The pale yellow color of her unmentionables complements her hair color and may thus be understood to be “accessories” to her own beauty rather than items of apparel per se.

She is a party girl, the photograph suggests, and she is accessible (the clasp of her bra is in the front, rather than in the back, an aid to male lovers intent upon demonstrating their love for, if not of, her.) As is often the case with regard to Playboy’s models, Tiffany is in a bedroom that is richly appointed, as one can readily discern by the great fleur-de-lis, or stylized lily, carvings of the enormous bed’s oversize headboard (the bedposts are replicas of Greek columns, as one can see in the second photograph); the elegant lampshade; the silk-and-satin pillows; and the comforter embroidered in golden thread. It could be that Tiffany herself is a woman of wealth, or she might be only the playmate of a man of means. In either case, the photograph suggests, as a party girl, she is a real treasure.

The beauty and elegance of her surroundings lend their qualities to the model, enhancing her natural charms by suggesting that she shares the attributes of the props with which she is associated, which is probably not actually the case, since Playboy is known to seek its photographic subjects from all walks of life, but particularly from middle-class backgrounds, wanting to feature a wholesome-looking, but sexy, sort of fantasy girl next door.

Horror artists and writers can, and do, accomplish an effect similar to that of glamour photographers. By associating their characters, whether they are victims, monsters, heroes, or others, with horrific props and inserting them, so to speak, into “brooding atmospheres,” they enhance the horrific effects of their illustrations or descriptions, imparting to them a “borrowed malice,” as it were.

In the opening paragraph of his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe associates a mansion with a human being, or, more specifically, with a human face, in his use of the twice-repeated phrase “eye-like windows,” but his description of the house also associates the edifice with such negative emotions as “melancholy,” “a sense of insufferable gloom,” “an utter depression of soul,” and an “iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought.” The countryside in which the estate is laid is characterized as “singularly dreary,” and the house is described as being equipped with “bleak walls” and “vacant eye-like windows.” Even the landscaping of the grounds is unrelieved by beauty and is, in fact, associated with images of death and decay: there are nothing more than “a few rank sedges” and “a few white trunks of decayed trees,” which are “gray” and “ghastly,” and the reader wonders, at the very outset of the story, whether the atmosphere is truly this horrific or whether it is the narrator--or even the house itself, casting a spell, as it were, upon the narrator--that makes the property seem so appalling:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was; but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium--the bitter lapse into every-day life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Poe’s description of Usher’s dwelling is the prototypical picture of the haunted house, and other artists, both literary and visual, have followed his lead, as can be seen both by the house that Psycho’s Norman Bates calls home and the domicile that houses the Amityville horrors (notice its “vacant, eyelike windows”).

The aspiring writer, whether of romance or horror, does well to remember and to employ the same tactics that artists as diverse as glamour photographers and masters of the macabre use, albeit for vastly different purposes, to enhance, in the former’s case, the beauty of a beautiful model and, in the latter’s case, to embellish the horror of the horrific subject: associate the character with beauty to make her more beautiful still or with the grotesque to make him even more bizarre and horrible. Whether by borrowed beauty or borrowed malice, a character can be made to seem all the lovelier or more malevolent, as the case may be.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Secondary Antagonists

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Some stories have a main antagonist and one or more lesser, secondary antagonists. The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was well known for having a Big Bad and a little bad each season except for the first, which was really more like a partial season, since it was comprised of only a dozen episodes. The Big Bad was the villain for the whole season, whereas the little bad was a villain for only a few episodes. The little bad was introduced before the Big Bad, often with several other villains following his or her debut, so as to keep viewers off-balance in discerning which of the several villains might turn out to be the Big Bad. Here’s the way the bads shake out for seasons two through six:

Other works of horror fiction also sometimes employ secondary antagonists.
Stephen King’s novel Carrie’s primary antagonist is Carrie White’s mother; the secondary anatomists are her high school’s bullies. It It, another King novel, the antagonist, a protean shape shifter able to take the form of anyone’s worst fear, is, in effect, its own secondary antagonists while, at the same time, is the novel’s primary antagonist as well.

Dan Simmons’ novel, Summer of Night, has a primary antagonist, and several secondary antagonists: the dead man walking (an eerily silent World War I doughboy’s ghost, huge worms with serrated teeth, a rendering company’s truck spooky driver, and others.

On occasion, a secondary antagonist will work independently of the primary antagonist, whereas, in other instances, he, she, or they will support the primary antagonist, often as a henchman or sidekick, as Spike and Drusilla serve and support Angel in Buffy; as Fritz (often erroneously called “Igor”) assists Dr. Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein, the 1931 film version of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus; and as Dr. Montgomery aids and abets the criminal “research” that vivisectionist Dr. Moreau performs upon a deserted jungle island in H. G. Wells’ classic 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The use of a secondary antagonist can heighten a story’s suspense, complicate its plot (even becoming the basis or bases for an additional subplot or additional subplots), and can multiply and enrich the story’s theme.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Unworthy Books

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon refuses to let his four earliest books be published because they are unworthy of him; as he explains on his website:
I always hear about writers who've written four books that end up in a drawer, and their fifth book is the one that gets published. The first book I ever wrote was published, flaws and all. For better or worse, I was allowed to learn to write in public. I think those books are simply early efforts. You have to take them as they are. I don't think they're very deep or anything; I think they're okay, but they simply represent where I was at that particular time.
(At least he’s honest. Dean Koontz has a different approach; he rewrites his earlier stinkers and foists them upon the public again, usually with a different cover so they appear, to the unwary or the forgetful, to be new novels rather than recycled trash.)

The books of which McCammon is too ashamed to let see the light of day ever again are Baal (1978), Bethany’s Sin (1980), The Night Boat (1980), and They Thirst (1981). A summary of them is sufficient, perhaps, to indicate the soundness of his judgment in this matter:


A woman is ravished. . . and to her a child is born. . . unleashing an unimaginable evil upon the world! And they call him BAAL in the orphanage, where he leads the children on a rampage of violence...in California, where he appears as the head of a deadly Manson-like cult...in Kuwait, where crazed millions heed his call to murder and orgy. They call him BAAL in the Arctic's hellish wasteland, where he is tracked by the only three men with a will to stop him: Zark, the shaman; Virga, the aging professor of theology; and Michael, the powerful, mysterious stranger (from the back cover of the Avon paperback edition of Baal).

Bethany’s Sin:

Even God stays away from the village of BETHANY'S SIN. For Evan Reid, his wife Kay, and their small daughter Laurie, the beautiful house in the small village was too good a bargain to pass up. Bethany's Sin was a weird name, but the village was quaint and far from the noise and pollution of the city. But Bethany's Sin was too quiet. There were no sounds at all...almost as if the night had been frightened into silence. Evan began to notice that there were very few men in the village, and that most of them were crippled. And then there was the sound of galloping horses. Women on horses. Riding in the night. Soon he would learn their superhuman secret. And soon he would watch in terror as first his wife, then his daughter, entered their sinister cabal. An ancient evil rejoiced in Bethany's Sin. A horror that happened only at night. . . and only to men (from the back cover of the Avon paperback edition of Bethany's Sin).

The Night Boat:

From the living hell of her watery grave she rises again. . . THE NIGHT BOAT. Deep under the calm water of a Caribbean lagoon, salvage diver David Moore discovers a sunken Nazi U-boat entombed in the sand. A mysterious relic from the last war. Slowly, the U-boat rises from the depths laden with a long-dead crew, cancerous with rot, mummified for eternity. Or so Moore thought. UNTIL HE HEARD THE DEEP HOLLOW BOOM OF SOMETHING HAMMERING WITH FEVERISH INTENSITY. . . . SOMETHING DESPERATELY TRYING TO GET OUT! Beneath the waves she will seduce the living and devour the dead...THE NIGHT BOAT (from the back cover of the British Sphere paperback edition of The Night Boat).

They Thirst:
A MASS MURDER. A DISAPPEARANCE. A CEMETERY RANSACKED. It looked like another ordinary day in Los Angeles. Then night came. . . . Evil as old as the centuries has descended upon the City of Angels--it comes as a kiss from the terrifying but seductive immortals. Slowly at first, then by the legions, the ravenous undead choke Los Angeles with bloodthirsty determination---and the hordes of monstrous victims steadily mount each night. High above glitter city a deadly contest begins. In the decaying castle of a long-dead screen idol, the few remaining human survivors prepare to face the Prince of Evil and his satanic disciples. Whilst the very forces of nature are called into play, isolating the city from the rest of the world and leaving it at the mercy of the blood-hungry vultures of the night. . . . THEY THIRST. Theirs is a lust that can never be satisfied (from the back cover of the British Sphere paperback edition of They Thirst).

When the blurbs are better than the novels they promote and the covers all look pretty much alike, it’s not a good sign; it may be evidence, however, of McCammon’s wisdom in “retiring” such tripe and in deciding to turn his attention and talents, such as they are, to “writing novels that” are “not as easily categorized,” to employ the explanation that his webmaster supplies for the master’s newfound aversion to the genre on which he cut his authorial teeth. Like Dean Koontz, and, more recently, Stephen King, McCammon seems intent upon putting distance between himself as a serious artist and the fecal matter that first bore his name in the cesspool of horror fiction. To be taken seriously as a writer, one must not write humor or horror, it seems. Even the few who occasionally beat the odds and enter the illustrious and glorious, gilt-edged canon of Western Literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe, are sometimes said to be only “three-fifths. . . genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” as James Russell Lowe (now largely forgotten) remarked concerning the still-remembered Poe.

Horror writers are not frequently considered great writers because, well, the field, fertile though it may be, seldom attracts the most sober, talented, and brilliant authors, except, besides Poe (and yours truly, of course), a few who have made an occasional foray into the cemeteries of darkness, such as Charles Dickens (“The Signal-man”), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), William Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily”), and Mark Twain (“Cannibalism in the Cars,” “A Ghost Story,” and “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”).

The genre is helped by the astute, well-read, well-educated, and thoughtful reader (a species rapidly approaching extinction, alas!) who can bring to bear upon these slight narratives the world of his or her own knowledge, experience, interests, and more-or-less well-cultivated tastes. Robert Block could learn from H. P. Lovecraft the same way that Lovecraft could learn from Poe--because all of these masters of the form had in themselves the capacity to be taught and to gain skills.

Some were formally instructed; others were not, but all were autodidactic and interested in the darker and hidden aspects of their lives and those of others, past, present, and, mayhap, future as well. Because of who they were and what they had inside themselves, they were able to create masterpieces of horror fiction, the genre to which their own inner demons drew them. They would have been just as likely to have been able to write so-called mainstream, or literary, novels and short stories had their hearts and minds and souls been in it. Fortunately, for the horror aficionado, these authors’ hearts and minds and souls were in horror instead.

Until such as a Hawthorne, a Poe, or a Lovecraft appears again in this “goodly realm of gold,” we shall have to be content with the Koontzes and the McCammons. At least, unlike the former, the latter cares enough about himself and his work to be properly ashamed of the worst of it and refuses to foist it off upon the public again in a supposedly new and improved edition.

Others, like King, follow a middle road, rewriting the same tired stories again and again, calling Christine, for example, From a Buick 8 the second time around, or simply recycling the tales of terror that others have told, as King does with his retelling of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House as Rose Red or H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room” as “1408.” At least, King “borrows” from the masters and, when he regurgitates previous stories, they have the semblance of something new, if not improved, rather than being slightly edited re-releases of previously released--well, you can supply your own epithet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Motivation as Explanation

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In earlier posts, we have considered the nature of evil as various horror writers have defined it. Some have seen evil as sinful; others as indifference on a cosmic, worldly, or local level; and still others as destructive of one’s local community.

These considerations of evil can be considered as being metaphysical. They deal with the very nature, or character, of evil. They delve into the heart and the soul, as it were, of wickedness, seeking to penetrate the depths of the mystery of iniquity.

More than many genres, horror cries out--one might say, given the nature of the genre, screams--for an explanation of evil on such a level. Moreover, horror fiction, to work at all, must also offer an explanation for the particular evil--the specific monster or other adversary--that threatens the protagonist of a particular tale. The very mechanics of the horror story demand this of its authors, and those who fail to supply such an explanation or whose explanation is not all that explanatory or plausible within the context of the story in which it is offered tend to perturb their readers.
Elsewhere, we laid bare the bones of the horror story’s skeleton, or formula:
  1. A series of bizarre incidents occurs.
  2. The protagonist discovers the cause of these incidents.
  3. The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to put an end to these incidents.
The second stage of the narrative is our topic in this post, for the cause of the bizarre incidents in a particular story is the antagonist’s motivation, and this motivation is the explanation, on the immediate and narrative, if not the metaphysical and universal, level, for the evil that occurs, although, often, the former is a consequence or, at least, a parallel, of the latter. An example of these two levels? In Christianity, the nature of evil is pride (“pride goeth before a fall,” as Satan learns), whereas Satan’s individual and personal motive in corrupting humanity is his blasphemous attempt “to be like the most high God”:
How art thou fallen, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit (Isaiah 14: 12-15).
Likewise, the apostle Peter, although he protests that he would never betray Jesus, even if his loyalty to the Messiah should cost him his own life, betrays Jesus, an act which stems from the greater love that he had for himself than that which he had for God (a sort of pride), but is, more immediately, directed at the saving of his own life, in the here and now.
This chart shows some of the explanations that are provided for the series of bizarre incidents that unfold in several well-known horror stories; again, as the motives of specific antagonists within particular narratives, they are causes in the immediate sense and within the contexts of the stories themselves, not in a universal and cosmic sense, as definitions of the very nature of evil itself:

These example could be multiplied ad infinitum, but the point is that, in the horror story that accommodates itself to the formula we identified, the antagonist’s motive is the explanation for the horror--the series of bizarre incidents that unfold in the first part of the tale, whatever the ultimate, metaphysical nature of evil itself may be.

Therefore, the horror writer’s first task is to determine what the antagonist’s motive shall be, to identify, in other words, what the antagonist wants and hopes to accomplish. Having done so, the author withholds this explanation for the bizarre incidents that occur in the story until the middle of the tale, wherein, discerning or learning the antagonist’s motivation (i. e., the cause of the evil events that are taking place), the protagonist is equipped to put an end to these incidents (and, possibly, the monster that is causing them). It’s extremely doubtful that the protagonist will ever but an end to the nature of evil, to sin, or pride, or indifference, or threats to the local community, or whatever this nature may be.

Despite the chaos, there must be order. Despite the madness, there must be a method. Despite the bizarre series of incidents, there must be a motive to the monster’s behavior which causes these incidents. Writers who do not provide a plausible motive for the bizarre series of incidents that result from their antagonists’ actions do not fare well with readers and critics, and otherwise good, or even superior, novels suffer as a result of such failures as well. Although Stephen King’s motives usually suffice to make his villains’ actions believable, he drops the ball in a big way with It, and Bentley Little, despite having written nearly a dozen novels and many short stories, has yet to pick up the ball or, perhaps, even to notice that it exists. The effect, upon It, is to all but ruin a potential masterpiece of the genre. The effect, upon Little’s reputation, of not yet his career, is sustained disappointment and, most likely, eventual oblivion.

Some motives that horror writers have used to explain the bizarre incidents that unfold in the first parts of their stories include:

  • Demonic possession in an attempt to bring about a person’s damnation
  • An alien’s mission (for example, conquest or mating with a man or a woman)
  • Vengeance upon a wrongdoer
  • Eruptions of a past or future events into the present
  • Pollution
  • Humans’ encroachment upon a monster’s habitat
  • An effort to steal or control dwindling food or other resources
  • Behavioral control or modification
  • Recruitment or testing
  • Eugenics
  • Efforts to survive a plague or the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust
  • Genocide
  • Punishment, individual or wholesale
  • Colonization
  • Commerce
  • War

Friday, November 14, 2008

Literature: A Communal Ceremony

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to H. G. Wells, the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were good periods for the writing of short stories. In fact, these years were the high point, he declares, for the publishing of such tales, and many were the writers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean who tried their hands at crafting such fiction: Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie, Frank Harris, Robert Louis Stevenson, Max Beerbohm, Henry James, George Street, Morley Roberts, George Gissing, Ella d’Arcy, Murray Gilchrist, E. Nesbit, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edwin Pugh, Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Morrison, Mariot Watson, George Moore, Grant Allen, George Egerton, Henry Harland, Pett Ridge, W. W. Jacobs, Christopher Isherwood, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Katherine Anne Porter, H. E. Bates, John O’Hare, Eric Linklater, and Naomi Mitcheson. (It pays anyone who wants to write to read widely, and when a celebrated writer lists writers whom he admires, one is well advised to read a sampling of their works, which is why this post includes the names that Wells cites in his “Introduction” to his collected stories.)

Wells says that, in these days, he always found it easy to write short stories. He could write one about nearly any topic:

I turned out tale after tale like a baker making fruit tarts. They were all about three or four thousand words long. You laid hands on almost anything that came handy, a droning dynamo, a fluttering bat, a bacteriologist’s tube, a whale’s otolith, a blast furnace at night, or what not; ran a slight human reaction round it; put it in the oven, and there you were (“Introduction” to the revised version of “Country of the Blind”).
There were no rigid requirements about the subject matter or even, very much, the form that such stories were supposed to take, which made the writing of them easier and their inspiration more plenteous:

[The short story might] be horrible or pathetic or funny or beautiful or profoundly illuminating, having only this essential, that it should take from fifteen to fifty minutes to read aloud. All the rest is just whatever invention and imagination and mood can give (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).
Wells found inspiration everywhere:

I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would find I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).
As is often the case, the success of this art form gave rise to a critical study of it, and, before long, practitioners of this gross science would “murder” that they “might dissect,” and editors, Wells says, believed that they understood the market for writers’ “products.” The bean counters also entered the fray, presumably, as “every editor” began to trail “a real or imaginary public behind him.” In short, the short story became both a topic of scholarly and critical study and a product for the marketplace. These developments had a crushing effect upon the art of the story, Wells believes:

There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it were as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what anyone of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes’ reading or so (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).
For his part, Wells prefers the old ways, wherein a story could be about “almost anything”:

I. . . am all for laxness and variety in this as in every field of art. Insistence upon rigid forms and austere unities seems to me the instinctive reaction of the sterile against the fecund. . . .

. . . The short story is a fiction that may be read in something under an hour, and so [long] that it is moving and delightful, it does not matter if it is. . . ‘trivial’ [or]. . . human or inhuman (“Introduction” to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories).

Certainly, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe argues something quite different than Wells does, believing that a short story should be purposefully written with but one goal in mind, which is to deliver, at the conclusion of the tale, as throughout, a single, unified effect in the best way possible. Aspiring writers are likely to come across differences of opinion among celebrated writers, just as they might when watching the proceedings of a criminal trial wherein both the defense and the prosecution call expert witnesses to testify about a theoretical issue pertaining to the case. Experts disagree.

There seems to be at least three reasons for such disagreements, when it comes to theories about literary art, at any rate.

First, individuals, whether Sigmund Freud or Edgar Allan Poe or H. G. Wells tend to write as if they were the voice of all men and women, everywhere and for all time, rather than one person who is here and now. Their dictums are opinions dressed up, as it were, in royal robes, and their pens are, therefore, sometimes mistaken for scepters. While only a fool would disregard the considered opinions of a Poe or a Wells (notice the exclusion of Freud), only a fool, likewise, would take his pronouncements as gospel. The individual expresses his or her own thoughts only, and each one who considers them must do so with his or her own mind in gear, rather than in neutral or park, deciding what, and to what degree, to give credence to such statements. The truth is likely to be between such extremes of opinion.

Second, as an art develops, so do lenses for viewing it and principles for using these lenses. Like critics, readers will also come to understand, and to seek, patterns within works. John Hammond, the president of the H. G. Wells Society and editor of The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells, notes, in his “Introduction” to the book, that Wells writes to a formula: “In each case the central character is an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality. . . . The typical Wells hero is a person going about his everyday affairs whose life is turned upside-down by a random event or encounter.” Although, within this framework, there is no doubt that Wells’ stories were imaginative and varied and “horrible or pathetic or funny or beautiful or profoundly illuminating,” they do have a tendency to unfold in the manner described by Hammond. Likewise, although they may have been written as Wells’ fancy dictated, they were published, Hammond points out, only after considerable revision on the author’s part:

. . . There is a widespread impression that Wells was a facile writer who did not take pains over his writing and rarely revised his work. In fact the reverse is the case. The manuscripts of most of his novels and short stories still survive, all written in his minute spidery handwriting (no word processors in those days). These reveal that his stories were most carefully written and revised, often going through draft after draft before he was satisfied. ‘A Dream of Armageddon,’ for example, went through six versions before reaching its final form, and the different drafts of ‘The Country of the Blind’ reveal an extraordinary amount of indecision, especially its final paragraph.
In short, as William Wordsworth points out, we do “murder to dissect,” and, as a result, we learn more about the blood and guts inside the skin, whether of the human corpse per se or of the literary specimen. This knowledge, in turn, generally allows improvements upon the structure and the mechanics of the story, even if, at times, it also may stifle the author’s creativity. Likewise, by learning the tricks of the writer’s trade, the reader comes to expect better and greater writing, which, like the critics’ “dissection” of the form, enhances the artistry of the artists whose art produces the story. It’s a circle, sometimes vicious, but one in which, to a greater or lesser degree, each of its participants--writer, critic, and reader--are served more or less well.

Third, art, like religion, can be studied from either of two perspectives. In religion, there is prophecy, which is to say, revelation, and there is dogma, which is to say, tradition. Although the two are ultimately complementary, they are, in the short term, and especially in the moment, often seemingly antithetical and antagonistic. Revelation is new knowledge or instruction, from on high, from God himself, as given through the intermediacy of a prophet. It is the spirit of the law, so to speak. Dogma is revelation stored and mediated through the priest. It is the letter of the law, as it were. Both are necessary and, ultimately, complementary. Analogously, the writer is the prophet, speaking, as it were, for the muse who inspires him or her. The critic and the writer are the clergy and the laity, who practice the “faith” that is given to them by the writer. At the same time, to better understand that which art has given them, they codify and interpret and canonize. It is through the work of all parties that fiction becomes whatever it is at any moment and whatever, in the future, it may become. Like faith, literature is the creation of a community of the faithful, consisting of not the writer only, nor the critic only, nor the reader only, but all parties together. Literature is a communal ceremony.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Write What You Know (But What Does That Mean?)

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Aspiring writers are often advised to write about what they know. This is sound advice. However, those who would heed it often put too narrow an interpretation upon this counsel. By “write about what you know,” the advisor is not suggesting that, for example, a bricklayer write only about laying bricks or that a chef write only about preparing meals. Let me quote from a not-always-reliable source that many would advise you (and well) not to use, Wikipedia, a free, online encyclopedia the fault of which lies in the fact that anyone is allowed to “edit” almost any article at any time, concerning Hans Christian Andersen.

Plain in appearance and painfully shy, especially around women, this ugly duckling longed for a life of love, but had to settle for one of fame. I quote the article concerning Hans Christian Andersen and the pathos of his life:

Andersen often fell in love with unattainable women and many of his stories are interpreted as references to his sexual grief. The most famous of these was the opera soprano Jenny Lind. One of his stories is “The Nightingale”, [sic] was a written expression of his passion for Lind, and became the inspiration for her nickname, the “Swedish Nightingale”. [sic] Andersen was often shy around women and had extreme difficulty in proposing to Lind. When Lind was boarding a train to take her to an opera concert, Andersen gave Lind a letter of proposal. Her feelings towards him were not mutual; she saw him as a brother. . . . A girl named Riborg Voigt was the unrequited love of Andersen's youth. A small pouch containing a long letter from Riborg was found on Andersen's chest when he died.

At one point he wrote in his diary: “Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!” Other disappointments in love included Sophie ├śrsted, the daughter of the physicist Hans Christian ├śrsted, and Louise Collin, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin.

Unlucky at love, Andersen was happy to find friendship with Charles Dickens, but, alas, during a visit to the English author’s residence, he overstayed his welcome, and Dickens never answered his fellow writer’s and former houseguest’s subsequent letters:
In June 1847, Andersen paid his first visit to England and enjoyed a triumphal social success during the summer. The Countess of Blessington invited him to her parties where intellectual and famous people could meet, and it was at one party that he met Charles Dickens for the first time. They shook hands and walked to the veranda which was of much joy to Andersen. He wrote in his diary “We had come to the veranda, I was so happy to see and speak to England's now living writer, whom I love the most.”
Ten years later, Andersen visited England, primarily to visit Dickens. He stayed at Dickens’ home for five weeks, oblivious to Dickens’ increasingly blatant hints for him to leave. Dickens’ daughter said of Andersen, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” Shortly after Andersen left, Dickens published David Copperfield, featuring the obsequious Uriah Heep, who is said to have been modeled on Andersen. Andersen quite enjoyed the visit, and never understood why Dickens stopped answering his letters.

As unlucky in friendship as he’d been in the pursuit of love, Andersen was a lonely man who longed for continuous companionship, which led, perhaps, to the many hours he spent in writing the stories for which he was famous, many of which deal with characters who, like Andersen, made unhappy attempts to establish lasting and meaningful, if not intimate, relationships. In other words, in a larger sense than our bricklayer would write only of laying bricks or our chef who would write only of preparing meals, Andersen wrote what he knew: the heartache of loneliness and rejection such as make up the themes of such of his tales as “The Angel,” which is “about an angel and a dead child gathering flowers to carry to Heaven where one flower will sing when kissed by God”; “The Fir Tree,” which “was cut down for a Christmas tree. . . . bought and decorated” and “expected the festivities to go on,“ but, instead, “was was burned and the happiest day of its life was over”; “The Match Girl,” which is “about a girl who dies selling matches on a wintry New Year's Eve,” soon after seeing “a vision of her deceased grandmother, the only person to have treated her with love and kindness”; “The Little Mermaid,” which is “about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a merperson to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince”; “The Nightingale,” which is “about an emperor who prefers the tinkling of a music box to the song of a nightingale“ and “is believed to have been inspired by the author's platonic relationship with opera singer and fellow Scandinavian, Jenny Lind”; “The Ugly Duckling,” which is about “a cygnet” who is “ostracized by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness,” but “matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all”; and others in the same vein. It is not difficult to see how these stories might be derived from the author’s own feelings of rejection and loneliness.

Another example of a writer who seems to have written many of his short stories, if not so much his novels, from what he knew is that of H. G. Wells, who, John Hammond, founder and president of the H. G. Wells Society and the author of the “Introduction” to The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells tells us, suffered “several ‘false starts’ in life” before winning “a scholarship to the Normal School of Science at South Kensington (now part of Imperial College) where he studied biology under T. H. Huxley,” graduating in 1890, only to have “his subsequent career as a teacher. . . cut short by ill health” and “a breakdown” that occurred in 1893. While “convalescing” from this “breakdown,” Wells “began articles and short stories and was soon earning his living as a journalist.” The victim of ill health and other setbacks, Wells wrote stories that followed a set pattern, or formula, Hammond observes:

In each case the central character is an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality.
. . . [His] stories are undoubtedly entertaining and are meant to be read for pleasure, but of course Wells had a more serious intent in mind. They are designed to stimulate thought, to suggest possibilities of behaviour and to alert the reader to the immense role of chance in human affairs. The typical Wells hero is a person going about his everyday affairs whose life is turned upside-down by a random event or
encounter. . . .
--much in the same manner, we might add, as his own life was turned topsy-turvy by his “ill health” and “breakdown,” which diverted his career from one of science to one of “journalism” and the writing of fiction. In other words, like Andersen and many other writers, both of horror and other genres, Wells wrote about that which he knew--about “an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality” and about “the immense role of chance in human affairs.”

In most people’s lives, there is a defining moment, “a random event or encounter,” as Hammond characterizes such a time, that transforms one, making him or her what he or she becomes. If one aspires to write, it is of this moment that one should write, letting it give shape to narrative after narrative. It is this that is meant by those who counsel aspiring writers to “write about what you know.”

“Angel, The,” Wikipedia
Complete Stories of H. G. Wells, The, ed. John Hammond. J. M. Dent, 1998.
“Fir Tree, The,” Wikipedia
“Hans Christian Andersen,” Wikipedia
“Little Match Girl, The,” Wikipedia
“Little Mermaid, The,” Wikipedia
“Nightingale, The,” Wikipedia
“Ugly Duckling, The,” Wikipedia

Monday, November 10, 2008

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In the 1960’s, the X-Men trained in the Danger Room. A spacious chamber in their mansion, it was full of hidden traps, launchers, catapults, collapsing floors, and various other mechanical threats. From the control booth, an individual observed the exercise while ensuring the participants’ safety. Improvements replaced some of the mechanical effects with computerized and holographic hazards. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, also writes for Marvel Comics on occasion, and, during a stint for The Amazing X-Men, he made the danger room self-conscious. Unfortunately, he also personified it as a female character known as Danger. The room has since been replaced with the Danger Cave, a cavern beneath the mutants’ mansion, which uses holograms to review the X-Men’s battles with enemy mutants, rather after the fashion of professional football teams’ use of taped games to identify areas in which players can improve their play.

Horror movies often employ a sort of metaphorical danger room by confining characters in a close, often locked, sometimes remote area into which the monster or other threat, natural, paranormal, or supernatural, is introduced. The characters are thus forced to fight the monster at close quarters without being able to escape. Beowulf, Alien, The Thing From Another World, 1408, Jurassic Park (Michael Creighton), The Island of Dr. Moreau (H. G. Wells), The Funhouse (Dean Koontz), Storm of the Century (Stephen King), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Ghost Ship, The Descent, Saw, The Mummy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and many other novels and movies, both science fiction, horror, and otherwise, employ such a “danger room.” Perhaps the greatest use of the concept appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” in which the danger room is a coffin, inside which the buried person, still alive, must confront the monster of his own terror.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome specifies one of the rules, as it were, for the sort of danger room that appears in horror fiction: “Two men enter; one man leaves,” except that the numbers may differ, both with regard to those who enter the setting and those who survive the monster’s attacks. In other words, there are going to be one (or many) victims and one (or more) survivors before the monster is killed, if it is killed. Unlike the X-Men’s danger room, this chamber of horrors is, in a horror story, full of real and terrible dangers, even when they are mental, rather than physical, in nature, and they will be, for some, at least, lethal.

There is no escape or, at least, no easy way out. (As the protagonist of 1408 is told, the only way out of the danger room is “feet first.”)

Another rule seems to be that the dangers, although predetermined, must be, to the characters they threaten, both unknown and varied. If the narrative has only one monster, as most horror stories do, its terror must be multiplied in some way, whether by its ability to reproduce quickly, sexually or asexually; its ability to transform itself into other entities or forces; its use of different deathtraps and devices of torture; or some other technique or combination of techniques. The protagonist and the other characters must be kept constantly off balance. Therefore, if they figure out how or why the monster attacks, the monster must then attack in a completely unexpected way as a result of an unknown or unforeseen impulse, motive, or cause, or the intervention of another character.

There must also be a reason for the danger room’s existence--in other words, a plausible and believable cause for the existence of the story’s setting. Alien takes place aboard a derelict spaceship; the extraterrestrial in The Thing From Another World is the frozen body of an alien pilot whose spaceship crashed in the arctic, where a team of scientists set up a research station; Jurassic Park is built on an island as a future tourist attraction that is half-zoo, half amusement park; Dr. Moreau has come to an uncharted island to conduct his unethical research; and so it goes, each story providing a reason for the existence of its particular version of the figurative danger room.

Poe gives a great early example of a danger room as literal as that of the one that appears in the 1960’s X-Men comics: a dungeon wherein there is both a pit and a razor-sharp pendulum as well as red-hot walls that close upon prisoners in the same manner as the walls of the giant trash compactor close in upon Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca in the original Star Wars movie. Likewise, in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the danger room is also an actual, physical place: the palace of Prince Prospero. However, the danger room can be, as Poe shows, the mind itself, as it is in not only “The Premature Burial,” but also several of his other stories, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Black Cat.” Madness can be a place, as it were, in which traps and missiles and collapsing floors appear as thoughts, feelings, attitudes, delusions, fears, and assorted other inner demons from which escape is truly impossible and in which survival may or may not occur for the poor soul that is beset by these monstrous dangers.

In constructing a danger room of one’s own, a writer should remember these principles:

  1. There must be victims and at least one survivor before the monster is killed, if it is killed.
  2. The dangers must be unknown to the characters and varied.
  3. There must be a plausible reason for the danger room.
  4. Escape is difficult, if not impossible.
  5. The danger room may be actual and physical or figurative and psychological.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

It Is Necessary to Suffer To Be Beautiful. . . Or Believable. . . Or Interesting

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, once told the show’s star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, that, to create interesting television, it was necessary to make her--or her character, at least--suffer.

His tongue-in-cheek statement has a serious aspect to it, for it refers to the need of a narrative to depict conflict. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, authors of Understanding Fiction, point out that without such conflict, there is no, nor can there be any, story.

In longer works of fiction, such as epic poems, television series, movies, and novels, the main character is going to be beset by problems. Several, not just one, is going to impede his or her progress toward reaching the goal that he or she has set for him- or herself. Some are likely to be due to circumstances, others to the actions of other characters, and still others to the protagonist’s own internal conflicts. In general, such conflicts will be natural, psychological, social, or theological. Most likely, two or three--or perhaps all--types of conflict will be operative in such a story.

A couple of examples, represented by simple diagrams, will illustrate the point. In the diagrams, the circle represents the character whose name it bears, and the text at the ends of the lines radiating from the circle represent the conflicts, some psychological, some social, some theological, some situational, in which the character finds him- or herself.

The first diagram shows the plight in which the protagonist of Stephen King’s novel Carrie finds herself. On the edge of adolescence, Carrie lives with her mother, Margaret, a mentally disturbed religious fanatic who considers sex to be wicked. Carrie’s mother has never bothered to tell her daughter the facts of life, and, when, while Carrie is showering following a physical education class, she begins her first menstruation, she is horrified to think that she is bleeding to death. Her classmates find her horror a cause for amusement, and, cruelly, they toss tampons at her, chanting, “Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!” Although the teacher puts an end to the girls’ taunts, Carrie is humiliated.

A social pariah among her peers even before this incident, Carrie continues to be tormented by her schoolmates. However, her life seems about to take a turn for the better when one of the school’s more popular boys, Tommy Ross, asks her to be his date to the prom. Instead, after she is given a taste, as it were, of what it would be like to be accepted by her peers, she is again publicly humiliated when she is drenched in pigs’ blood. She loses control of herself, unleashing, with devastating effect, the telekinetic power with which she was born. Before she is through exacting vengeance, she has killed most of her fellow students and many of the school’s teachers, destroyed the gymnasium, and obliterated her city’s downtown area. Returning home, she has a showdown with her mother, in which she learns that she is the product of her mother’s having been raped. Margaret stabs Carrie, but Carrie kills her before, later, Carrie herself is killed.Another King novel, Desperation puts its protagonist, twelve-year-old David Carver, through his paces, as indicated by this diagram. As a younger child, David had promised God that he would serve him, no matter what God required of him, if God would heal David’s friend, who was dying. God honored David’s prayer, and, now, years later, God has a mission for David: save the captives of the demon Tak, who, having escaped burial in an abandoned mine, possesses the bodies of various residents of Desperation, Nevada. David manages to do so, at the cost of his little sister’s and his mother’s deaths and his father’s near-loss of his sanity. David concludes that “God is cruel.” However, another character, John Edward Marinville, something of a stand-in for King himself, it seems, advises David that God is beyond human understanding and that, although his actions may seem “cruel” to human beings, God possesses many attributes, including, especially, love.

During the course of the seven-year-long series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, protagonist Buffy Summers suffers many a conflict, not only with demons, but with inner demons as well, as the diagram representing her struggles suggests. It is her lot in life to have been “called” as the “chosen one” by The Powers That Be, to protect the world from vampires, demons, and other monsters that slither, creep, or crawl out of the Hellmouth (located beneath her high school’s library) each week. Instead, Buffy longs to live a “normal life” in which, as a teen, she can moon over boys and whine about homework. Over the years, she is unlucky in love (to put it mildly), and a number of people she loves, including her parents (her father through divorce, her mother through death) are taken from her. She herself dies not once but twice along the way.

Writers who want to create fully developed characters who seem lifelike enough to be a tormented soul trapped in the hell that is high school, to serve as latter-day servants of God, or to fulfill whatever other role he or she is assigned should take Whedon’s dictum to heart. Just as it is necessary to suffer to be beautiful, as the French say, it is necessary that the protagonist suffer to be believable and for the story to have interest to its reader, as Whedon says.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Plot, Character, Setting and Theme as Narrative Starting Points

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The four primary elements of fiction are plot, character, setting, and theme. Associated with most of these is a cluster of related components: plot is divisible into exposition, inciting moment, rising action, turning point, falling action, moment of final suspense, and (depending upon whether the narrative is a comedy or a tragedy) resolution or catastrophe. Of course, all plots are also derived from, and developed upon, conflict. Likewise, setting is not merely a matter of a specific time and place, but it also entails the particular cultural milieu that exists in this particular time and place. Victorian London, for example, is very different than nineteenth-century Tombstone, Arizona. Similarly, character involves motivation, various personality traits, and, usually, interrelationships among several fictional persons. Only theme is simple, rather than complex, having no subordinate constituents.

Since any of these four elements is a potential starting point for a story, a writer may generate an idea for a story by considering plot, character, setting, or theme.

Some writers, among them both C. S. Lewis and Stephen King, have been inspired by mental images of characters in specific situations or settings. C. S. Lewis specified the image of a fawn, or satyr, carrying an armload of parcels, as the mental picture that launched The Chronicles of Narnia, and Storm of the Century, King says, began with his imagining a strange man incarcerated in a jail cell. The placement of a character in a particular situation or setting is not a story, of course, but it is (possibly) the beginning of a story that could start by considering an interesting character. It is the starting point from which a series of questions can begin to be asked. The choice of a protagonist or an antagonist can also suggest, or even determine, the story’s counterpart as well. Once William Peter Blatty decided upon a demon--maybe Satan himself--as his story’s antagonist, an exorcist became the most logical choice of a protagonist. (Although The Exorcist is said to be based upon a true story, Blatty, as an author of fiction was free to select a character other than a priest as his protagonist, had he wished to do so; fact does not determine fiction, even when the latter is based upon the former.)

Many of Jesus’ parables begin as answers to his disciples’ questions concerning the meaning of the law or of right conduct in regard to particular situations. They are stories told, in other words, to impart wisdom. Their purpose is not primarily to entertain, but to instruct. Therefore, they originate as a means for expressing, in concrete terms, abstract ideas or values. They are theme-driven. The Parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates the meaning of forgiveness. The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows the meaning of loving one’s neighbor. The Parable of the Mustard Seed shows the meaning of faith. Horror stories, as cautionary tales, also often drive home a theme. Beowulf teaches the destructive and deadly effects of intertribal vengeance. The Shining shows the terrible consequences of self-absorption, self-indulgence, and child and spousal abuse. Cujo is not only about a rabid dog, but also about the devastating effects of adultery upon one’s marriage and family.

Sometimes, a setting will suggest a story. It is no accident that many horror stories take place in isolated environments, total institutions, or confining spaces. What other monster but the strange troglodytes could have inhabited the cavern into which, as if into Satan’s maw, the female spelunkers enter in The Descent? What better foe could beachgoers encounter in the finny deep than the gargantuan white shark with which Peter Benchley confronts his readers in Jaws? Likewise, the rain forest in which Special Forces soldiers first encounter the camouflaged extraterrestrial in Predator fairly cries out for such a monster as its antagonist.

Edgar Allan Poe’s essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," is the quintessential document, perhaps, alongside Aristotle’s Poetics, for the point of view that it is the plot that matters more than other elements (a point not always conceded by other authorities). Poe argued that a writer should commence not at the beginning of his or her story but, on the contrary, with its end, working backward in determining the sequence of actions and other details that will best lead, inevitably, toward the narrative’s climactic finale, using his own narrative poem The Raven as an example of the process. Many writers share Aristotle’s and Poe’s respect for plotting, so much so that they find themselves at a loss to put pen to paper (or, more commonly, finger to keyboard) until they have plotted the whole tale, from “A” to “Z.” (Others, such as Mark Twain, write the same way that the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” plays his game, blindly, as it were, purely “by inspiration.”)

The fact that a writer can generate a story from any of the four primary elements of fiction quadruples his or her opportunities for inspiration. It does more than this, however: it also provides the writer with a way of considering, and deciding, which element he or she wants to emphasize. The author must consider whether the story highlight an individual’s actions in the face of fate (plot); personal limitations, abilities, and will (character); the effects of time, place, and culture on the understanding and development of character and the limitations imposed upon one by his or her environment (setting); or the lesson that the main character learns as a result of his or her experience, as recounted in the story (theme). The choice that the writer makes at this initial point will affect the story as a whole and how the reader understands the tale. In this sense, four possible stories confront the writer, and he or she must choose which of the four to tell. For horror story writers, Poe suggests a solution to this dilemma: pick the element that will best sustain and heighten fear and trembling. After all, that’s what horror is all about.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Learning from the Masters: Robert McCammon, Part 2

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon is the author of A Boy’s Life, Stinger, Swan Song, Gone South, and several other highly readable horror novels. He has also written his share of short stories, and it is to one of these that we turn in this post, that we may learn from another master of the genre in its rather abbreviated form.

For those who have not read his short story, “Black Boots,” which originally appeared in Razored Saddles (1989), a summary is in order:
Davy Slaughter is running from his nemesis, Black Boots, whom he has killed eight times. The problem is that his enemy keeps coming back, from the dead, and, Davy believes, he’s on his trail again now. The young gunfighter becomes so keyed up with the thought that he is being stalked by Black Boots that he challenges a distant figure, firing several bullets in its direction, before he realizes that “he was shooting at a cactus.” Davy also finds that his gun hand is stiff, the fingers aching. As he crosses the desert for Zionville, he spits and plucks white worms from his mouth. He runs out of water and drools blood.

In Zionville, Davy is greeted by a two-headed dog that runs circles around his mount, both mouths yapping, and Davy observes that the sheriff has been “long gone,” leaving the bank and its meager holdings easy pickings should Davy decide to go to the trouble of robbing it.

He bellies up to the bar in the town’s saloon and exchanges a few words with the bartender, Carl Haines, whose face, one moment seems covered in flies but the next moment is “clear again, not a single fly on it.” Davy asks whether the town has a sheriff. One is on the way, from El Paso, Carl tells him, asking whether Davy intends to cause any trouble.

Davy is disturbed to see the “snout of a rattlesnake” appear inside the “black, empty socket” of the one-eyed bartender’s face. Carl assures Davy that the Zionville populace are “peaceful folk” who “don’t quarrel with nobody.” As Carl speaks, Davy is “fascinated” to see that the rattlesnake’s head now completely extends from Carl’s eye socket. Davy feels as if his own skull may explode. The next moment, the snake is gone and Carl has two eyes again.

Davy asks whether anyone has been asking for him, and Carl assures him that no one has. He describes Black Boots, asking whether Carl has seen him in particular. When the bartender says he has not, and that no one else has been asking for Davy, the young gunfighter confides in Carl that he has killed Black Boots eight times and that Black Boots is, nevertheless, stalking him at the moment.

The saloon’s swinging doors open behind him, and Davy spins, gun drawn, and nearly shoots Joey, a youth who’s followed him to the saloon, fascinated by Davy’s appearance and demeanor. Carl and Davy tell Joey to go home, but the youth asks whether Davy knows how to use his gun. Davy sees Carl’s brain matter seeping through a wound in the bartender’s brow and thinks it an “interesting sight.” Davy asks, “Don’t that hurt?” and ventures to poke the wound with his finger when Davy discerns that Joey is really Black Boots in disguise, “wearing a kid’s skin.”

Davy kills Black Boots, watching him die as Joey’s mother, having come in search of her wayward son, finds Joey dying in front of the saloon and Davy standing over him. Where Black Boots had been, Davy sees, the body of a youth lies, dead.

From behind him, Black Boots, now armed with a rifle, shoots at the same time that Davy, alerted by the sound of the weapon being cocked, wheels and fires his own weapon, and Black Boots goes down, behind the bar. Davy shoots his adversary again, but, as he stares down at the body behind the bar, he sees that it is not Black Boots anymore; it is the bartender, Carl.

Davy staggers outside, where his horse is a skeleton, its heart and lungs visible and alive within its ribcage. He mounts the steed, but it resists his effort to turn it, and Black Boots dashes out of a store, gun in hand, and he shoots Davy three times, one of the bullets knocking him from his skeletal steed. Davy tries to return fire, but he’s out of ammunition. Black Boots shoots Davy twice more, killing him.

Davy is declared to have been “crazy as hell” and to have shot Joey for no reason.

Davy’s body is wrapped in a canvas sheet, stood against the wall and photographed for the new sheriff to examine upon his arrival from El Paso, and buried without benefit of a pine box, and “the man who,” burying his corpse, “threw dirt on the gunfighter's face wore black boots.”
Like others in McCammon’s body of short stories, “Black Boots” is based upon a stereotypical character, that of the itinerant young gunfighter who is haunted by the reputation that his speed and deadly accuracy have earned him. An obviously paranoid character, Davy’s fear of being killed by another gunfighter who is seeking a reputation of his own seems to have given form to his fear, creating Black Boots as a representative of the predatory wannabe killer who stalks him--in his own mind, if nowhere else. Davy claims to have killed Black Boots “eight times,” to no avail. His nemesis returns, a revenant reborn of his own imagination and fear. Black Boots cannot be killed, because he is a product of Davy’s own paranoia.

The opening paragraphs of the story show the reader that Davy’s thoughts are focused upon death. He imagines that his mouth is full of worms. Perhaps they are maggots. If so, their presence suggests that he is in a state of decay, and the blood in his mouth suggests that he has been wounded or injured, perhaps severely. However, his nonchalant demeanor suggests that he has suffered this condition for some time. Since his response--or near-non-response--to his discovery of worms and blood inside his mouth is not normal, he also appears to be, well, abnormal. Likewise, his belief that a dead man has returned to life (not once, but eight times) marks him as being a seriously disturbed individual--unless, that is, the context of the story, which is of the horror genre, after all, subsequently validates his belief as being, in the horrific and bizarre world that he seems to inhabit, possible. However, the reader, awaiting further evidence, as it were, is certainly apt to reserve his or her judgment concerning Davy’s sanity or the lack thereof. His thoughts about the mysterious Black Boots, whom he believes is stalking him with the intent to kill him, also establishes Davy’s fixation with death and dying.

Davy mistakes a cactus for Black Boots, firing several bullets at it, but this error can be attributed to his fear and need not mean that he is insane. However, when he arrives in Zionville and sees a two-headed dog, the reader is likely to place another tick mark in the “Insane” column. Still, it may be that the story takes place in a world of mutants, perhaps, for all one can know at the moment, following a nuclear holocaust. One thing is clear, though: Davy definitely bears watching!

The bizarre incidents keep coming, as Davy observes--or, hallucinating, imagines--the bartender’s face to change, undergoing extreme--indeed, impossible--transformations. First, it is covered in flies, next he loses an eye and a rattlesnake inhabits the vacant socket, and then his brain tissue starts to seep through a wound in his skull. Finally, he believes that his nemesis, Black Boots, can “wear a kid’s skin,” thereby disguising himself as someone else by actually becoming another person. The jury, in the form of the reader, is no longer out; the verdict is in: Davy is a stark, raving lunatic, completely established as an unreliable narrator. Much, if not all, of what he believes is the product of hallucinations, caused, it seems, by his psychotic paranoia.

The reader who guesses the plot twist is not surprised by the story‘s ending. McCammon offers many clues that all is not as it seems with the protagonist. However, the reader may, nevertheless, be amused by the tale. The same technique that piques the reader’s curiosity--Davy’s bizarre visions--gives away its secret. Still, it is interesting to hallucinate along with him. Like many other stories in the horror genre, “Black Boots” relies upon a confusion of the normal and the abnormal, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday and the astonishing. The duality soon exhausts itself, though, and it would not work at all in a longer piece. Surprisingly, this split between the sane and the insane that results from a life lived in fear of a one-upmanship that is not merely unpleasant but, in fact, fatal, is slim, indeed, pointing, perhaps, to the inadvisability--the foolishness--of living one’s life on such terms. The thin plot ploy supports the narrative’s much deeper theme, making this slight tale worthwhile reading, after all.

There is one more thing to say about this story, too, which shows McCammon’s inventiveness all the more, especially since he relies upon such a slim story line: the last line of the story, referring to the “black boots” worn by the nameless, faceless man who buries Davy, suggests that Black Boots was not, perhaps, a phantom of his victim’s madness, after all. He may be, as Davy believed him to be, a supernatural being, capable not only of raising himself from the dead and assuming the forms of others but also of warping reality itself, making Davy believe that a cactus was his stalker, that a dog had two heads, that Joey and Carl and the shopkeeper were other incarnations of the predatory gunfighter whom Davy feared and fled, and that his horse had become a living skeleton. Perhaps in his shootouts with other gunfighters, Davy had, at last, met his match in a monster that is as much beyond life and death as he is beyond good and evil, a monster that wears black boots.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Learning from the Masters: Robert McCammon

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon is the author of A Boy’s Life, Stinger, Swan Song, Gone South, and several other highly readable horror novels. He has also written his share of short stories, and it is to one of these that we turn in this post, that we may learn from another master of the genre in its rather abbreviated form.

For those who have not read his short story, “The Thang,” which originally appeared in Hot Blood (1989), a volume of erotic horror, a summary is in order:

Dave Nielson has traveled 700 miles to visit a magic shop in New Orleans, where he hopes to find a solution to his problem (nature was not generous in endowing him with the essentials of masculinity). He hopes a voodoo practitioner may be able to help him. He meets one, Miss Fallon, at the shop, who offers to remedy his anatomical deficiency, asking for half her $300 fee up front and the rest after Dave has seen the results. She mixes him a drink, replying to his query as to its ingredients, “You don’t want to know.”

After he manages to drink the potion, Miss Fallon orders him to return to her after the weekend, eating nothing, meanwhile, but gumbo and oysters. Dave rents a room in a nearby motel.

He feels “different” almost immediately, and is able--or imagines himself to be able--to hear “the blood racing in his veins.” However, when he checks himself, he is distressed to see that his problem remains. He sees a gentleman’s club across the street from his motel, and he decides that, since he’s unable to sleep, he may as well enjoy the show. “Without thinking,” he orders a beer.

Aroused by a dancer, his manhood springs free, now “the size of a small artillery piece,” his testicles as large as “cannonballs.”

Horrified, Dave flees the club, its patrons terrified of him. He returns to his motel room, where, after having reached a length of 17 inches, Dave’s “thang” returns to its
former puny size. He struggles to prevent himself from having erotic thoughts, but a woman’s announcement, on the street below, that she seeks immediate intimacy with a man causes him to lose control over his libido. As the woman, Ginger, continues to voice her need, Dave struggles with his monstrous organ, causing enough noise to capture the attention of his neighbors, an elderly couple, who, having appeared in the doorway, witness “what appeared to be a naked man fighting a pale python.”

Apparently, they call the desk clerk, because he and a security guard arrive within moments. The clerk declaring, “We don’t permit. . . this kind of behavior in our establishment,” and Dave is summarily evicted. When he arrives to open the magic shop, the shop’s owner, Malcolm, takes one look at Dave, “suitcase in his hand and his shirttail out,” waiting “on deserted Bourbon Street,” and concludes, “You done screwed up, didn’t you?”

When Miss Fallon arrives at the shop, Dave confesses to having drunk a beer, learning the bad news that there is no antidote to the potion that has extended him--not, that is, unless he is willing to allow Miss Fallon and her Aunt Flavia to “experiment” on him by concocting various elixirs. In three months or so, she says, the two women might be able to produce an antidote.

However, there is one not-so-small catch. Dave must agree to become Aunt Flavia’s boarder. She is an unattractive woman, a husky octoroon woman with copper eyes, her long-jawed face like a wrinkled prune,” whose feminine parts are as oversize as Dave’s masculine counterparts--so large, in fact, that Dave is horrified to see “something loose and fleshy was brushing against the front of her caftan, down between her thighs. . . Something very large.”

This story is almost entirely situational. There is little development of character. It is similar to a medieval fabliaux, in which the foolishness of a protagonist is highlighted and exemplified by his or her behavior, which is motivated by a simple desire to engage in sex. This desire is, in turn, usually frustrated or complicated by another character, often with the result that the protagonist is humbled, if no wiser. These cautionary tales sometimes end with the statement of an explicit moral, but, just as often, they conclude without making their messages clear. It is difficult to imagine how a reader could not conclude for him- or herself the moral of a story like “The Thang.”

Men are as obsessed with the size of their genitals, it seems, as women appear to be preoccupied with the dimensions of their breasts. Those of both sexes who find themselves dissatisfied with their endowments in these particulars often seek to enlarge them, whether through the use of chemicals, instruments, or surgery. For many, the results are satisfactory, but, occasionally, something goes wrong, as it certainly does in McCammon’s story. Reducing the whole of himself to a part (or parts) is dehumanizing, and, therefore, absurd. Dave is a grotesque character, because his overriding concern with the size of his manhood in particular and with sexual considerations in general reduce him to silly dimensions as a human being. He is ruled by his libido, which makes, for him, the matter of his endowment of extreme importance. He discovers, only after the trauma of getting what he has wished for, that his dream, having come true, is a nightmare. His having to live with and satisfy the fleshly appetites of a woman who is as self-absorbed with sex as he himself is--or has been--is an ironic penance. However, matters could be much worse, for Dave’s apparent promiscuity obviously makes him susceptible to risks that far outweigh even a nearly uncontrollable phallus the size of a “python.” The gargantuan member seems to symbolize Dave’s own infatuation with sex and size. As the story’s title suggests, Dave’s gargantuan member is itself a manifestation of his obsessive interest in such matters. The story shows--literally--that his obsession with sex and size is monstrous.

He seems more in need of a psychologist than of a pair of voodoo priestesses. McCammon’s bawdy story pokes fun at the proclivity of men in general to be ruled, in sexual matters, by their passions. Dave, for better or for worse, is an everyman, whose sexual obsessions amuse, annoy, mystify, and anger women who can’t understand why a man can’t simply be satisfied with what nature has given to him (even if, in their own cases, they may seek to “enhance” their breasts with surgical implants.) Perhaps McCammon will pen a sequel that focuses upon such damsels in distress.

There is, at times, a fine line between humor and horror, and, in “The Thang,” McCammon has found, if not crossed, this line.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Do Not Pass “Go”; Do Not Collect $200: Monster Board Games

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

When one tires of Monopoly and Scrabble, there’s always the death and destruction of the diabolically creepy horror board game. They may make better Halloween presents than Christmas gifts, but, should Santa need a stocking stuffer, your wee ones could enjoy receiving one of these ghoulish games.

Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight Games): H. P. Lovecraft provides the town and the mythos. Bizarre incidents occur in the town that Lovecraft made, heralding a horrific catastrophe; Lovecraft’s Old Ones are the culprits, and all that stands between them and the end of the world are the game’s players, a team of investigators, numbering between one and eight, who are twelve years old or older and who can spare two to three hours--not much time when one considers the height of the stakes involved: the fate of the world awaits the throw of the dice.

Gateways open upon other areas of the town, and, if too many open at once, look out! An alien will enter the scene, wrecking havoc. Therefore, it’s a good idea to close the gates! Unfortunately, to do so, the players themselves must enter these same portals and be teleported to--well, somewhere else.

An interesting addition to this game is its extension, Dunwich Horror (also manufactured by Fantasy Night Games), which supplies a game board for another Lovecraft town, Dunwich, which is a short distance from Arkham and is beset by its own mystical and macabre problems. The play is similar, but the rules have changed. Similar games from the same maker are the additional Arkham Horror Expansion games Kingsport Horror (based on yet another of the fictional towns that Lovecraft invented), Curse of the Dark Pharaoh, and The Black Goat of the Woods.

There is also Zombie Town: players’ neighborhood have gone to the zombies, who rise from their graves in the cemetery in the middle of the community, and no help is forthcoming; it’s up to each player to scrounge up the makeshift weapons he or she needs to survive for the ten days’ duration of play, by which time the neighborhood will be overrun by zombies, some of whom will be one’s next-door neighbors! Isn’t this the same premise of The Beverly Hillbillies?

For younger players, All Wound Up: Escape from the Cemetery (Twilight Creations) is a fun alternative, in which the pieces are, as the game’s title suggests, wind-up zombie toys. Players are allowed to wind their avatars so many times, depending upon their play, as they race in various directions to be the first to reach the cemetery’s front gate. Two to four players, eight to adult, can participate in the mayhem.

Dracula (Rio Grande Games/Kosmos) is based upon Bram Stoker’s novel, and sets Dr. van Helsing the unenviable task of locating the coffins of the undead while his nemesis, Count Dracula himself, seeks five new victims. Play lasts about half an hour, can be joined by two who are twelve or older and have sound hearts, if not sound minds, and contains such contents as the game board, cards, figures, barriers, energy cubes, and a rulebook, which, appropriately enough, come in a box. This is one you can really sink your teeth into! (Sorry; couldn’t resist.)

There are lots of other games in the horror genre waiting to take a bite out of your favorite goblin this Christmas; some are apt to be harder to find than others, and a few may be out of production altogether (but there’s always eBay):
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Susan Prescot Games)
  • Dracula’s Revenge (Human Head Studios/Green Ronin Publishing)
  • Frankenstein’s Children (Human Head Studios)
  • Vampire: Prince of the City
  • When Darkness Comes: The Awakening Game Board (Twilight Creations)
  • Munchkin Bites (Steve Jackson Games)
  • Betrayal at the House on the Hill (Avalon Hill)
  • Ghosts (Milton Bradley)
  • The Great Brain Robbery (Cheapass Games)
  • Minion Hunter (Games Designers Workshop/Dark Conspiracy)
  • Which Witch? (Milton Bradley)

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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