Fascinating lists!

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.

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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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