Fascinating lists!

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:


Baal:

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.

No comments:

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.

Product Cloud

You Tube Player

Loading...
There was an error in this gadget

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.

Popular Posts