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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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