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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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