Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the first three of a baker’s dozen (plus one) of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.
1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
2. Develop a continuing theme. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
3. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
4. Rescue a damsel in distress. Perhaps Dean Koontz uses this technique for generating horror plots more than any of his contemporaries, especially in his more recent novels, including The Husband and The Good Guy. In Koontz’s universe, a woman can seldom protect and defend herself, or even find her way through life, without relying upon a strong, competent, able-bodied, and taciturn man. The women’s ineptitude in this regard often cause rather improbable plots on Koontz’s part. Nevertheless, his stories tend to be suspenseful, fun reads. In The Husband, Mitch Rafferty, a gardener, receives a telephone call from his wife’s kidnapper. He tells Mitch to watch a man who is walking his dog across the street. The man is shot and killed on the kidnapper’s orders, demonstrating that he is dead serious about killing Mitch’s wife, Holly, if Mitch tips off the police or fails to provide the hefty ransom that the abductor demands--one which is way beyond Mitch’s financial scope. Fortunately, as it turns out, Mitch’s brother is wealthy, but, of course, the plot twists and turns to the point that the reader wonders whether Mitch will ever rescue Holly or even manage to stay alive himself. The Good Guy’s storyline is similar. This time, the blue-collar worker is Tim Carrier, a stone mason. He’s having a drink at a local bar when a man arrives and, mistaking him for the hit man he’s hired to kill a woman, hands him his $10,000 fee and a photograph of the intended target, Linda Paquette, a Laguna Beach writer (like Koontz himself). Minutes later, the hit man, Krait, enters the bar, mistaking Tim for his client. Tim hands him the money he’s just received, telling Krait that he’s changed his mind about having Paquette killed. Then, he finds the intended target, and he and Paquette flee, the killer on their trail. Fortunately, Tim’s past has well prepared him to be Paquette’s protector, for Krait is an able and relentless, conscienceless killer. Koontz’s modern knights in white armor will uphold the tradition of chivalry, no matter how dead it may be in the everyday world in which the rest of us have to live.
5. Find the strange in the familiar. Two specimens of this approach may be offered, one as much a failure as the other is a success. Although we have discussed them previously, we offer a truncated version of our previous discussions here to demonstrate the technique of finding the strange in the familiar. The failure is the film, The Happening (2008), which was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. As most horror stories of this kind begin, the movie starts by showing a series of bizarre, seemingly inexplicable occurrences: mass suicides and murders by individuals and groups whose behavior is markedly aberrant. As the series of such incidents continue, spreading from person to person, from group to group, and from town to town, various theories are considered and abandoned as to the cause of the strange happenings. Is a bio-terrorist attack behind the events? Is it an epidemic of some kind? A botanist thinks that plants may be responsible for the murder and mayhem, releasing airborne toxins to defend themselves against humanity. The protagonist, a scientist named Elliot Moore, and his wife Alma take refuge with an murdered friend and colleague’s orphaned daughter Hess inside an eccentric old woman’s house as the plants continue to press their attack. Their hostess becomes infected, but they escape her attempts to kill them and, later, leave the house, surprised to find that the attacks have ceased. Three months later, watching TV, Elliot, Alma, and their adopted daughter hear a newscaster warn that the mysterious happening might have been but “the first spot of a rash” to come. Alma discovers she is pregnant, and, as she and Elliot celebrate, another series of bizarre suicides and murders take place in France. The film seeks to find the strange in the familiar, seeing flowers and shrubs and trees, especially those which blow in high winds, to be as menacing as poisonous weeds, but it is difficult to fear vegetation, wind or no wind, and the suspense simply doesn’t build, despite the mad and dangerous behavior of the infected humans whom the plants are bent upon exterminating. The heavy-handed, moralistic environmentalist theme of the movie is about as profound in its delivery as a PETA ad. The plot suffers in other ways, as does the characterization of all the players, but these are matters outside the present concern. A story that is more successful in eliciting the strange within the familiar is Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” Stoker suggests, far more subtly and effectively than Shyamalan, that there may be prodigious unseen powers operating behind the scenes, so to speak, of the natural events that take place in a remote stretch of forested countryside outside Munich on Walpurgis Night. Stoker he suggests that a tall, thin man who’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere and vanished as abruptly after frightening the coachman’s horses and leaving the Englishman stranded in the countryside as twilight gathers toward Walpurgis Night may be the unseen watcher, and perhaps also the occult, supernatural force that seems to control such natural forces as the weather, the wolves, the effects of the blizzard, and the hail. Alternatively, a note to Herr Delbruck by Dracula suggests that Transylvanian count himself may be opposed to whatever supernatural force is controlling these forces of nature and that, as this power’s adversary, he is acting, for reasons of his own, as the Englishman’s protector, however short-lived this self-assigned role may turn out to be. Examples of other stories that are more or less successful in seeking the strange within the familiar are Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 and most of the stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Concerning the finding of the strange in the familiar, the reader is advised to peruse the several articles that we have posted previously on Thrillers and Chillers, under the heading “Everyday Horrors.”
6. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). The past is prologue to the present. Stephen King employs this technique in It, in which an ancient evil makes a reappearance in Derry, Maine, every 27 years. In its last previous appearance, it was defeated by the Losers Club, who reunite as adults to take it on when it makes its next appearance in town. In Summer of Night, a novel that is similar in both plot and theme to King’s It, Dan Simmons’ ancient evil, associated with the House of Borgia, seeks to establish itself in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, but it encounters the determined resistance of five pre-teen boys and a street-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Bentley Little also employs the technique of bringing up the past and relating it as prologue to present catastrophes on several of his novels, including The Resort, in which a former nightmarish resort, although razed long ago, somehow determines the fate of a present, nearby resort and what befalls its staff and guests. A movie that takes this tack is Poltergeist, wherein, because a housing development has been built upon an Indian burial ground, there is hell to pay.
Stay tuned: We will explore additional horror plot staples in subsequent posts.