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Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Vagabond Menace

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The Ancient Mariner relates his tale to the Wedding Guest.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the character of the same name is presented as a world-weary old man who has the uncanny, perhaps supernatural, ability to hypnotize his listeners, to whom, as an act of penance demanded by a deity, he must recount the cautionary tale of what befell him and his fellow sailors after he shot and killed an albatross for no reason. Many critics consider the bird to represent a symbol of God’s grace, making the ancient mariner’s act similar to the crucifixion of Christ and the mariner’s fate like that of the proverbial, anti-Semitic Wandering Jew, who was punished, as the story goes, for having mocked Jesus as he was hanging upon the cross by having to wander the earth until Christ’s second advent.

This type of character, the vagabond menace, although not necessarily common in horror fiction, has appeared in several stories of this genre. Often a male, this character has no home of his own. Instead, he travels from place to place, under an assumed name, causing havoc and misery (or, less often, averting the same), sometimes as a result of a curse (or as the result of having been assigned a mission). He is not the same as another type of itinerant character, the herald, for he does not go before another, greater character, announcing or otherwise preparing the latter’s way, as, for instance, the Silver Surfer scouts planets for his master, Galactus, to consume. Many times something of a trickster, the vagabond menace almost always has specialized, usually occult, knowledge or wisdom, which he uses to effect his covert plans or, less often, enlighten or rescue others, saving them from the same or a similar doom as that which has befallen them. He may be a force of good, but, more frequently, he is an agent of evil. He may represent a higher power, but he often acts merely in his own interest, according to his own plans, which usually remain unshared until the end of the story if they are revealed at all, although the reader may surmise the motives for the vagabond menace’s actions from clues provided by the writer.

For example, he appears as a houseguest in W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” In this tale, he is a traveler who has come to visit parents who have recently lost their son Herbert. He has with him the monkey’s paw of the story’s title, a talisman, or charm, that grants its user three magic wishes.

The wise (or at least knowledgeable) traveler also appears in Stephen King’s novel Needful Things as a shopkeeper who offers customer’s their hearts’ desires--in exchange, if not for their souls, a steep spiritual price that involves both sin and cruelty to their fellow townspeople. That this stranger may be the devil himself is hinted at rather strongly by his past and present, especially his ability to perform supernatural feats. Of course, he is also a wedge between the residents of Castle Rock, Maine, where, in the novel, he most recently sets up shop.

Another King story, Storm of the Century, features a villain of supernatural powers who, again, it is hinted, may be something on the order of a demon, who, getting along in years, visits the island town in search of a protégé who can, when properly trained, take his place.

The vagabond menace also makes an appearance in Shirley Jackson's quirky short story "An Ordinary Day, With Peanuts." This character goes about her day creating as much havoc as possible in as many individuals' lives as she can. At the same time, her husband does the opposite, playing, as it were, the angel to his wife's demon. They discuss their respective days when they get home, and the husband reminds his wife that, the next day, it's his turn to play the loving, caring role and hers to play that of the hateful, malevolent part. (Or maybe it's the opposite; it's been some time since I've had the pleasure of reading this clever tale, and it's not easily found, but the point is that the spouses switch roles, alternately playing the angel and the demon every other day.)

Even Mark Twain makes use of a vagabond menace in his short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” a tale that has suspiciously strong similarities to King’s Needful Things. In Twain’s story, the vagabond menace is a stranger who, in passing through Hadleyburg, which has a reputation as an “incorruptible town,” is offended by the deeds of one of its residents. To avenge himself, he offers a bag of gold worth $40,000 to the person who gave him $20 in a time of need and some invaluable advice. To claim the gold, one need only to submit, in writing, to Hadleyburg’s Reverend Burgess, the advice that he or she offered to the traveler. Unknown to the others, each and every resident receives an anonymous note from the stranger that reveals the advice that he was given, and they all submit the same remark to the minister, thereby claiming to be the rightful claimant of the stranger‘s reward. They all run up enormous debts, buying merchandise on credit, knowing that they can easily repay the debts once they have been awarded the gold.

At a public meeting, the townspeople are shamed when Burgess, reading the submitted slips of paper, reveals that all the residents of Hadleyburg have submitted the same bit of advice, but that none of them has submitted the entire statement that the stranger says he was told. They have submitted only the first half: “You are far from being a bad man--go, and reform.” The complete statement is “You are far from being a bad man--go, and reform--or, mark my words--some day, for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg--try and make it the former.” Finally, another note in the sack of gold is opened and read. It offers some advice of the stranger’s own to the townspeople whom he has duped and humiliated. They should not be so quick to claim incorruptibility, he suggests, because it is easy to do so when one’s virtue has gone untested. The gold turns out to be lead.

One couple, the Richardses, submitted the same note as all the others in Hadleyburg, but theirs is never read, and they receive the money that the sale of the sack of lead earns at an auction, but they are unable to enjoy their newfound wealth, as they live in constant fear that their duplicity will be revealed. However, their note is never read aloud, the stranger claiming to have prevented this occurrence in honor of a favor the couple did for him long ago. Before the old couple die, Mr. Richards confesses their guilt in hiding the secret that they, too, like all the other residents of their town, lied as to their advice to the stranger. They never gave him any advice or money, but merely wrote the same statement on the slip of paper they submitted in claim of the gold as everyone else had done. Twain ends his tale with the ironic statement, “It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again.”

The prototypical vagabond menace is Satan himself, the slanderer who appears before God, arriving from his wanderings in the earth, to accuse Job of false piety and devotion to God and afflicts God’s “good and faithful servant, Job” with a series of distressing conditions, including the loss of servants, livestock, and offspring and painful boils all over his body:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.

And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down
in it.

And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?

Hast not thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face (Job 1: 6-11).

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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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