Fascinating lists!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Portals to Hell and Elsewhere

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
If we were to believe fantasy, science fiction, and horror fiction, gateways to hell or other dimensions (if hell is a dimension) are everywhere and range from black holes (The Black Hole) to old-fashioned wardrobes (The Chronicles of Narnia) to mystical hotspots known as hell mouths (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

These portals have always been interesting, if not fascinating, to me because they represent escapes from everydayness or, in other words, opportunities for adventure that is truly out of this world.

Cemeteries, houses, islands, lakes, mines, prisons, walls--these and many others have been openings to other places, sacred and horrific alike.


One of these portals is supposedly Stull Cemetery, near the Kansas city for which the graveyard takes its name. According to Stull Cemetery: Gate to Hell in Kansas?, a website dedicated to this allegedly unhallowed ground, “Some claim it an evil place; a frightening and even dangerous place--a place with a hidden stairway to hell--a place where Satan comes to visit the grave of his child.” A truly horrifying legend is associated with this burial ground. Another website paints a suitably macabre portrait of the place:

Stull Cemetery, and the abandoned church that rests next to it, is located in the tiny, nearly forgotten Kansas town of Stull. There is not much left of the tiny village, save for a few houses, the newer church and about twenty residents. However, the population of the place allegedly contains a number of residents that are from beyond this earth! In addition to its human inhabitants, the town is also home to a number of legends and strange tales that are linked to the crumbling old church and the overgrown cemetery that can be found atop Stull’s Emmanuel Hill. For years, stories of witchcraft, ghosts and supernatural happenings have surrounded the old graveyard. It is a place that some claim is one of the “seven gateways to hell” (Haunted Kansas: “Stull Cemetery”).

The method by which the legends about Stull seem to have developed is a study, as it were, for aspiring horror writers in how to create a spooky place that seems to be rooted both in history and in the supernatural.

First, the unusual features of the locale and the odd facts concerning it should be identified:

  1. The church that once stood on the site was abandoned long ago.
  2. The church was finally demolished.
  3. The name “Stull” sounds like the more macabre word “skull.”
  4. The devil allegedly appears in Stull each Halloween.
  5. A headstone in the cemetery bears the name “Wittich.”
  6. The few townspeople who continue to live in Stull are taciturn and unwelcoming.
Unusual, bizarre, and horrible, loosely linked alternate causes should be created to “explain” these situations and conditions. According to the present pastor of the new church, built opposite the site of the abandoned, now demolished church, many of the legends seem to have developed as a result of stories made up by students enrolled in a nearby campus of the University of Kansas and on the basis of partial truths and outright falsehoods or the exaggeration of “germs of truth”; others seem to be the offspring, so to speak of newspaper articles concerning the site:




This same two-step process can work for any place concerning which there are a few unusual features:
  1. Identify the unusual features of the locale and the odd facts concerning it. (Do a little research concerning the point of interest or recall some of the eerier and odder features of your own neighborhood, past or present.)
  2. Using falsehoods, exaggertions, and half-truths (or simple invention from nothing more than one’s own thoughts and proclivities), imagine alternative causes for these events, situations, and conditions that are more otherworldly. (Extrapolate and brainstorm.)

In addition, we recommend a third step:

Use loosely connected alternate “explanations” that are open ended, allowing for the accumulation of still more “legends” based upon falsehoods, half-truths, or creations ex nihilo. These additions can enrich and extend the mythos, allowing for longer works or, indeed a whole series of new stories. For example, Stull Cemetery is said to be one of seven portals, or gateways, to hell. Where are the others? They allow at least that many more stories about these portals and what they may unleash upon the world.

Horror writers do this all the time. Remember the crop circles in Signs? They weren’t mere crop circles; they were signaling devices for extraterrestrials, just as, some say, Stonehenge and the Peruvian Nasca Lines are. How about the chance alignments of towns and landscape features over wide ranges of the countryside? They’re mystical ley lines, some contend. What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke? Historians seem to believe that the colonists either died of starvation and exposure or were absorbed by the local native American tribe. The lunatic fringe, whose ranks the horror writer should consider joining, attributes their disappearance to alien abduction, the same incident that The X-Files’ FBI agent Fox Mulder believes took his sister from him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Terror Television

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999, John Kenneth Muir describes the premises upon which many TV series that feature horror as a staple of their episodes’ plots rely. In doing so, he provides horror writers with a means of creating a basis by which to establish and broaden the structure of a continuing series of sequels or an anthology of related or, indeed, interrelated stories.

Let’s take a peek at some of the premises that Muir identifies:



Night Gallery: in an art gallery of bizarre portraits, every picture tells a story. For example, the show’s host, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, introduces one portrait, from which proceeds a tale in which “a selfish young man yearns for the death of his rich old uncle so he can inherit the family’s incredible wealth,” as a result of which, “a painting in the old man’s estate becomes an instrument of the occult when it starts to reflect terrifying changes in the family graveyard.”

The Sixth Sense: an investigator with ESP experiences “visions and insights” as he investigates cases involving psychic experiences stored in a computerized catalogue. In one episode, a missing-in-action (MIA) soldier communicates by means of automatic writing--in Chinese, yet!--with his psychic sister, to let her know that he is still alive, but someone seeks, through arson and murder, to keep the MIA’s whereabouts secret.

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: the owner of a haunted house recounts guests’ stories. In the series’ pilot, or initial episode, the owners, having just purchased and moved into the house, hear strange noises; the house, as it turns out, was built upon the gallows upon which an “unrepentant thief” was “hanged,” and, as a consequence--the actual nature of the cause-and-effect link is, as is often the case in horror fiction, tenuous and vague--the house is, as the local librarian confirms--indeed haunted.


Kolchak: The Night Stalker: “Reporter Carl Kolchak” pursues “great news stories” involving “monsters and supernatural phenomena.” In one case, he suspects that the gruesome murders of a serial killer is, in fact, the handiwork of none other than the 130-year-old, original Jack the Ripper.


Twin Peaks: “In the tall, silent woods beyond the northwestern logging town Twin Peaks, an ancient evil dwells” in what the region’s native Americans called The Black Lodge, which may, in fact, be “another dimension,” the source of “pure evil.” The doorway to this dimension can be opened as a result of “planetary alignment” or potential victims’ fear. The Black Lodge’s counterpart, which is believed to be the home of gods, is The White Lodge. Strange characters inhabit Twin Peaks. According to Muir, the show’s writers developed the town, even creating a map of it, before creating its characters.

The X-Files: A psychologist and criminal profiler, FBI agent Fox Mulder believes in the paranormal and the supernatural, investigating the agency’s “backlog” of the X-Files (“inexplicable” cold cases), hoping to learn why his sister was abducted by aliens; his partner is the skeptical physician and fellow agent Dana Scully. Muir points out that the series is based upon ten horror themes: (1) “Trust No One” (government conspiracies and cover-ups), (2) “Freaks of Nature” (animals, mutants, and other monsters), (3) “Foreign Fears” (“ancient ethnic legends” prove to have “a basis in fact”), (4) From the Dawn of Time” (“ancient and prehistoric creatures” enter the present because of “climatic changes,” humans’ “encroachment on their territory,” or their discovery at “remote locations,” (5) “Aliens” (extraterrestrials are “encountered but never validated empirically”), (6) “God’s Masterplan” (elements of Christian belief are “explored as ‘real’ concepts”), (7) serial killers, (8) psychic phenomena, (9) “The Mytharc” (elements of various thematic subsets fuse into a narrative nucleus with a “coherent” story line, and (10) “The Standards” (stereotypical villains from the horror genre, such as vampires and werewolves).

Poltergeist: The Legacy: “Since the dawn of man, a secret organization, The Legacy, has existed to combat the forces of evil, and it’s ‘houses’ are all over the world,” each one of which is populated by heroes “with special skills” who are armed with high-tech weaponry. Poltergeist: The Legacy chronicles “the San Francisco house, a magnificent castle” on “Angel Island.”


Dark Skies: “American history as we know it is a lie to cover up” humans’ war, fought by Majestic-12, a covert agency established by President Truman, which is currently headed by Captain Frank Bach, against a horrific “alien collective consciousness known as The Hive.” The series examines Bach’s decisions and their consequences.

The Burning Zone: “an elite ‘bio-crisis’ team” is dedicated to eradicating ‘disease that threaten to strike quickly and endanger many innocent Americans” in a sequence of attacks known as The Plague Wars. This team also seeks to counter The New Dawn, “a villainous organization dedicated to the annihilation” or humanity and “the supremacy of the Earth’s original life form, a hive-mind,” representing a “sentient virus that has been ‘asleep’ for 15,000 years.” As the series progresses, two of the experts leave the team to “spearhead” important operations in Zimbabwe, “to be replaced by the ‘rebel’ doctor Brain Taft.”

Millennium: this “horror/crime series” featuring “paranormal and supernatural overtones” was based upon a blend of two movies, Seven and The Eyes of Laura Mars.

Man on the Run: a cross between The Fugitive and A Rebel Without a Cause, this series follows the exploits of a “motorcycle slacker who discovers he’s a failed government experiment with a built-in expiration date” in the form of a “computer chip in his brain” that will kill him in a year, when he turns 21, unless he can locate his creator, Dr. Heisenberg, and undergo special “medical treatment.” However, there’s a complication: he’s been framed for killing the man who shared “the truth” with him and, now, he’s pursued by a government agent who is bent upon bringing him to “justice.”

Now that we’ve had a peek at some of the premises that Muir details in his fascinating tour of Terror Television, let’s see whether we can discern a few principles that horror writers can derive from such an admittedly rather abbreviated review.

  1. The premise should establish an opportunity for the occurrence of bizarre and mysterious incidents (for example, extraordinary natural events or paranormal or supernatural proceedings) and the arrival and departure of extraordinary beings or forces.
  2. The premise should allow a recurrence of a cadre of characters and the ongoing development of one or more themes.
  3. The premise should unify fairly disparate elements of plot, setting, and theme.
  4. The premise should allow the exploration of diverse types and sources of narrative conflict and character development.
  5. The premise should link past and present (and, possibly, future) action.
  6. The premise should allow something that is lacking (for example, justice) to be supplied.
  7. The premise should suggest, if not explicitly identify, one or more causes for the mysterious and bizarre occurrences that take place within and between the stories or episodes.
  8. The premise may involve cover-ups by government agencies, overt or covert, or by private, but powerful and well-financed, organizations.
  9. The premise should allow for both natural and occult explanations for and causes of the mysterious and bizarre incidents, forces, and beings.
  10. The premise may address topical events or social, political, or moral issues and concerns.
  11. The premise may be inspired by a film’s concepts or by combined themes from several motion pictures.
  12. The premise should allow for new directions of plot. (For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes a new direction when Buffy Summers graduates from high school and enrolls in college, and The Burning Zone takes a new direction when two of its experts leave the group to head specialized operations related to the main line of investigation.)

Source

Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999 by John Kenneth Muir, McFarland and Company, Inc., Jefferson, NC, 2001.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Paradise, Heroism, and the Eternal Return: A Formula for Both Myth and Horror

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Much of the argument and many of the insights that Paul Nathanson shares with readers of his Over the Rainbow: Secular Myths of America can be applied to the horror genre. Taking a leaf from Micea Eliade, Nathanson points out that the cosmos--the orderly system that originates from chaos as a result of divine creation--represents the “familiar world,” whereas chaos corresponds to the world of the unknown, which is inhabited by “ghosts, demons, and foreigners.” We can apply Nathanson’s observation, by way of Eliade, to the garden of Eden versus the great wilderness beyond it. Into the familiar world of the cosmos, Nathanson observes, the unknown can erupt, via kratophanies, hierophanies, and theophanies; the unknown, like the sacred, can also be repeated through myths and rituals. The sacred becomes a way of orienting a tribe or a nation, Nathanson states; it delineates that which is desirable by separating the sacred and the profane or the sacred and the secular.


There is always a sacred center to the world, Nathanson, echoing Eliade, points out. This center, the axis mundi, is often a “mountain, city, temple, palace,” or island, whereat are met heaven, earth, and hell. The revelation of the sacred is the revelation of the real.

The axis mundi need not number one; there can be several, or even many, of these sacred centers. As Nathanson points out, every spatial hierophany or consecrated space is “equivalent to a cosmology.” There are, after all, many sacred mountains, cities, temples, palaces, islands, groves, wells, hills, and other such centers of the sacred life. However, all such places have something in common, Nathanson says. In existential terms, they form a “sacred cycle in which cosmogonic events” are experienced anew from time to time “through the ritual reenactment of myths by which man recreates,” or repeats, “the act of creation” that is represented by the sacred calendar and year; these mystical rituals reenact the original creation of the gods.



In religion, to be real is to have meaning, Nathanson contends, and for a ritual act to have meaning, it must symbolically repeat its sacred, prototypical event, whether spatially or chronologically, since the cosmos is the prototype, or archetype, of reality itself. The harmony of the cosmos is desirable and to be embraced; the disharmony of chaos is undesirable and is to be rejected. Moreover, Nathanson observes, the cosmic interpretations of reality are both communal (Israel, the Church) and individual (the Jew, the Christian). This twofold character of the cosmos led the question of whether paradise is future and otherworldly or here and now.


According to Nathanson, the tension between these two possible understandings was never resolved, but has been allowed to enrich the concept of paradise, as does the possibility of one’s understanding it in either literal or figurative terms. For example, we can glimpse eternity from within time (before our own individual deaths) or paradise from within history (before the end of history). Indeed, as religious faith declines, utopias sometimes take the place of paradise, just as the idea of progress replaced the idea of providence, with destiny being seen as something better than, rather than a return to, the origins of things.


By definition, the city, in ancient times, was a walled enclosure, and by including some persons and things, it also excluded others. That which was within the walls was part of the sacred place, paradise. That which was without the walls was part of the secular or the profane world, and, as such, was, as it were, exiled, condemned, or damned. With this understanding before us, it is easy to comprehend why Nathaniel exercised such passionate devotion in the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls following his return from the Israelites’ dispersal into Babylon.

The difference, Nathanson says, between paradise lost and paradise regained is the snake: in the former, it is present; in the latter, it is absent.

In horror fiction, these themes are often invoked, whether overtly or symbolically. There is the sacred center, or axis mundi; myths and rituals, or their equivalents; and an orientation toward that which is valued and that which is devalued; there is inclusion, and there is exclusion. For example, we can also apply this concept to Heorot, the hall of Danish fellowship, and to the wilderness, inhabited by the monstrous, outcast Grendel that lay beyond its walls. Likewise, think of Eden, Jerusalem, or, for that matter, Yggsdrasil or the Hellmouth. Just as Grendel and his mother (and, later, the dragon) are alive and well in the fallen world of the Danes’ Heorot (and, later, in Beowulf’s own realm), they are absent in these regained versions of these sacred centers. They have been not banished or exiled, but destroyed, just as, in Buffy, the Hellmouth is destroyed (although, as it turns out, there is another elsewhere).

Paradise shifts from the garden to the Promised Land to the frontier, Nathanson points out, and is, at present “located. . . in outer space.” It is also invaded, or overrun, for a time, and is abandoned in favor of a new paradise or until the pilgrims’ return. The interval of the sojourn is one of maturation if not, indeed, perfection, so that, as the sojourners move into a new paradise or return to their home, it is they, not the sacred center, that has changed. They have become the home that they sought elsewhere, sinners become saints, just as Beowulf earned immortality by his heroic deeds or Buffy passed her powers to hundreds of other “potential” slayers.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Duma Key: The Decline of Horror?

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In recent years, it seems that Stephen King has begun to think of himself as a great American writer who can write simply to please himself. In reality, most of his fiction is apt to be forgotten soon after his demise. One or two books, perhaps, will survive their author. Duma Key isn’t likely to be one, any more than the self-parody that was Lisey’s Story. His latest (and certainly not his greatest) is self-indulgent and pretentious and disappointing as hell.

The protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, loses his right arm and then his wife. He becomes suicidal, and his shrink tells him to seek a change of scenery, which leads him to Duma Key, Florida. Too bad the shrink didn’t tell Edgar to go ahead and end it all. His having done so would have spared readers his endless bellyaching.

At Duma Key, Edgar tries his hand at art. He also meets a lawyer who also wanted to commit suicide (and should have) after his wife and daughter were killed; he did manage to put a bullet in his brain, and although even that didn’t end it for him, at least he made the attempt, which is more than can be said for Edgar.

There’s something supernatural about Edgar’s artistic talent; he can use it to kill or to heal and to paint a mysterious “ship of the dead” that troubles him. From here, the plot, such as it is, sickens further, dying well before the story’s absurd denouement. Suffice it to say that this is another King-size ripoff, involving, this time, a goddess-doll that collects servant-souls and commands the ship of the dead that Edgar spends most of his days trying to paint. After the goddess-doll kills Edgar’s daughter Ilse, Edgar encounters a giant alligator, and--well, who cares, really? Certainly, King doesn’t seem to have.

For the most part, since his own death-defying accident, King’s fiction has become increasing self-indulgent and unnecessarily circuitous, losing any pizzazz, suspense, or horror. They’re just interminably boring. Maybe there’s another book up King’s sleeve that’s worth reading, but he hasn’t written one in the past 10 years or so.

What does this decline mean? If it’s only King’s decline, not all that much, but if his deterioration heralds that of horror fiction per se, then it’s noteworthy--and scary. For many years, King’s name has been more or less synonymous with contemporary horror fiction and with horror fiction that was relatively good. If anything, it’s since become tantamount to wallowing in the slime of narcissism. Dean Koontz, who cut his fangs in the science fiction and horror genres, is pretty much writing cross-genre stuff about as meaningless as Duma Key and Lisey’s Story, recycling the same sad story lines as he’s been using for the last 20 or 30 years. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have discarded everything but Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his tiresome ward, Constance. Dan Simmons has gone over to the science fiction side of the Farce, and his writing has become impossibly self-important, denser than Herman Melville or William Faulkner or Henry James on their worst days. Bentley Little has told the same story, in different settings, nearly a dozen times--and still hasn’t figured out how to end the damned thing. James Rollins’ stories, although not horror per se, are page-turners, but, again, each seems much the same as the next, since he writes, as do so many in the genre, according to a fairly rigid formula. Robert MacCammon hasn’t written anything worth reading in well over a decade. True, there’s Speaks the Nightbird, but it’s not worth reading.

It may not be merely King who’s petering out; it may be the whole horror genre. Maybe a moratorium on horror is needed. Maybe the ingredients need to steep a while or new ingredients need to be brewed.

King’s attempt to pass the torch to his son, Joe Hill, is proof that more of the same isn’t going to work; the best thing about Junior‘s book is its title, Heart-Shaped Box. The rest is of the same quality as an expletive deleted.

Unless there’s an Edgar Allan Poe or an H. P. Lovecraft waiting in the wings, the horror genre’s immediate future seems bleak, indeed.

Bleaker, perhaps, even than Duma Key.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Protagonist's Emotional Arc

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

As we mentioned in a previous post, every story, whether it takes the form of a narrative poem, a theatrical script, a short story, a novel, or a screenplay, involves a character in a conflict which changes him or her for the better or the worse. This character, the protagonist, usually lacks something that he or she values or is burdened with something of which he or she wants to be relieved. There are many ways by which this simple, but effective, dramatic formula may be varied and enriched, as we shall see in this post.

The character’s emotional arc follows the story’s dramatic structure. According to Gustav Freytag, a story has five parts: exposition, rising action, turning point or climax, falling action, and resolution (a denouement in comedy or a catastrophe in tragedy). In the exposition, the writer provides background information, introducing the main character and major supporting characters, establishing the setting, and defining the basic conflict. The rising action complicates the basic conflict, adding a series of successively more challenging obstacles. The turning point, or climax, reverses the direction of the action. The falling action unravels the conflict. The denouement, or resolution, brings about the comedy’s happy ending, or the catastrophe brings about the main character’s ruin. (A comedy is a story in which the main character is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning, and a tragedy is the opposite: the main character is worse off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning.)

The action sequence, or dramatic structure, of the well-made plot is often illustrated by a diagram known as Freytag’s Pyramid:

At the same time, a parallel series of incidents occur within the character’s inner self, or personality. The story starts with the protagonist lacking something that he or she values or burdened by something from which he or she wants to be relieved. In an effort to attain this want, he or she displays increasing competence or incompetence until he or she experiences a moment of recognition in which he or she has an epiphany about him- or herself which equips the character to change his or her course of action. This change in perception, accompanied by a change in behavior, leads to increasing incompetence or competence, which brings about the protagonists’ acquisition of that which he or she had lacked by valued or his or her relief from the burden under which he or she suffered. This sequence of emotional changes can be illustrated by a diagram similar to Freytag’s Pyramid, since the changes parallel the incidents of the plot’s physical and thematic action:


Before we discuss ways by which the moments in the protagonist’s emotional arc may be varied and enriched, let’s look at an example of both dramatic structure, as analyzed by Freytag, and the parallel emotional arc that the protagonist experiences. The film version of The Wizard of Oz offers a familiar instance.
During the exposition, we meet the main character, Dorothy Gale, a nineteenth-century Kansas farm girl, her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, their three farmhands, Ms. Gulch, and a traveling fortune teller, Professor Marvel. We learn that Dorothy feels lonely and neglected. Her only friend, she believes, is her pet dog, Toto. Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home and dreams of going to a more exciting and glamorous place “somewhere over the rainbow.” The exposition introduces the protagonist and other major supporting characters, establishes the setting, and identifies the basic conflict, which is psychological. The inciting moment (the incident that initiates the story’s rising action) occurs when Toto escapes Ms. Gulch’s custody (she had been taking him to be destroyed for having bitten her) and, to save him, Dorothy runs away from home, to be caught in the tornado that whisks her, house and all, off to the strange, enchanted land of Oz that lies “somewhere over the rainbow.”

Almost as soon as she arrives in Oz at the outset of the story's rising action, Dorothy becomes homesick and the story’s rising action introduces a series of more and more challenging obstacles for Dorothy to overcome. When her house lands upon the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy gains the enmity of her victim’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants to recover her dead sibling’s enchanted ruby slippers, which have appeared magically upon Dorothy’s feet, and the which harasses Dorothy along her way to the Emerald City. She also meets Glinda, the Good Witch, the Munchkins, and her traveling companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. They arrive at the Emerald City, hoping the Wizard of Oz, who resides there, may help each of them achieve what he or she lacks but values: a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Cowardly Lion, and a trip home for Dorothy and Toto. However, the Wizard refuses to help them until they have returned with the witch’s broomstick. As the foursome travels to the witch’s castle, Dorothy is abducted by their adversary’s army of flying monkeys. Her comrades infiltrate the witch’s company of human soldiers and rescue Dorothy.

The turning point, or climax, of the story occurs as Dorothy, to put out the fire with which the witch threatens the Scarecrow, throws a bucket of water on the villain, the witch shrivels to nothingness, and Dorothy retrieves her broomstick.

During the falling action, they take the broomstick back to Oz, where the Wizard grants the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion the gifts they’d sought, but is exposed as a charlatan when he is unable to help Dorothy. A moment of final suspense (an instant wherein the audience or reader is left in doubt as to what will happen to the protagonist) takes place when the Wizard leaves her stranded in Oz when the hot-air balloon by which he had arrived in Oz, purely by accident, floats off with only him aboard. Glinda appears and tells Dorothy that, all along the girl has had the power to return home at any time simply by clicking her heels together three times as she recites the phrase, “There’s no place like home.”

After a tearful farewell to her friends, she does so, and, as the story’s denouement occurs, she awakens in bed, surrounded by her family and their farmhands, to whom she relates the lesson she’s learned from her experience (the story‘s theme), concluding “There’s no place like home” and that if one cannot find happiness in his or her own backyard, he or she is not likely to discover it anywhere else.

We can diagram this same story in terms of the protagonist’s emotional arc, which parallels the physical and thematic development of the story:
In the exposition, Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home life, feeling lonely and neglected. She longs for a more exciting and glamorous life “somewhere over the rainbow.”

The inciting moment, during which Dorothy seeks to evade personal responsibility by running away from home, catapults her into the story’s rising action, where she Dorothy, becoming homesick, shows increasing incompetence in resolving her dissatisfaction with her home life by taking upon herself more responsibility for her own fate. The turning point occurs when she matures, taking action on her own behalf, thereby becoming, in principle, if not yet fully, independent and autonomous. During the falling action, she becomes increasing more competent in resolving her dissatisfaction with her home life as she discovers that the Wizard is incompetent and cannot help her to realize her goal. During the moment of final suspense, the audience wonders whether Dorothy will find a way home, now that her hoped-for rescuer has, in effect, abandoned her. The story, a comedy, reaches its denouement as Dorothy realizes that she alone is responsible for making her life satisfying, or “happy,” and she becomes a mature young woman, rather than the girl she’d been at the beginning of the film. Again, the protagonist’s emotional arc parallels the story’s dramatic structure: plot is a means of showing the development of character, and the development of character constitutes, on the figurative or symbolic level, the story’s plot.

Now that we have seen how plot and character are flip sides, as it were, of the same coin (story), let’s consider how we can vary and enrich the formula in which the main character either lacks something that he or she values or is burdened with something of which he or she wants to be relieved.

  1. The protagonist lacks something that he or she values; by the story’s end, he or she either gains or does not gain the desired object. (“Object” is used loosely, for the “thing” that the main character lacks and desires may be something quite intangible, such as peace of mind, love, or respect, rather than a material artifact.)
  2. The protagonist acquires the thing, and still values it.
  3. The protagonist acquires the thing, but values it less than he or she had valued it at first.
  4. The protagonist acquires the thing, but values something else more than it.
  5. The protagonist acquires the thing, but no longer values it at all.
  6. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but still values it.
  7. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but values it less than he or she had valued it at first.
  8. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but no longer values it at all.
  9. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, and values it even more than he or she had valued it at first.
  10. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but values something else more than it.
  11. The protagonist acquires the thing, but he or she loses it (or gives it away or has it stolen), with any of the consequences identified above following the loss--that is, he or she still more or less values it, no longer values it at all, or values something else instead.
  12. In acquiring the thing, the protagonist does not change.
  13. In acquiring the thing, the protagonist changes for the better.
  14. In acquiring the thing, the protagonist changes for the worse.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Home and the Lair, or Heaven and Hell


Beowulf and his men prepare to ambush Grendel when he attacks Heorot.

There are only two ways for, or directions of, action: inner and outer, or to and from. Therefore, if, in a horror story, the monster is to be encountered, it must either come to the protagonist and the other characters or they must go to the monster. I like to think of these two means of egress, the coming to or the going forth, as having one’s home invaded by the monster or entering the monster’s lair. In thinking of the comings and goings of the characters (and, make no mistake about it, in horror fiction, the monster most definitely is a character--usually the antagonist) in these terms allows us to consider what writers, readers, critics, and other interested parties (including the monster itself, it may be) regard as “home” and what they regard as “lair.”

In Alien, Lieutenant Ripley and the others of her platoon enter the monster’s lair, which takes the form of a derelict spaceship in which the xenomorph has taken refuge. “Home,” on the other hand, is human civilization, as represented by a detachment of this civilization, in the form of Ripley and her crew.

In Psycho, Marion Crane enters the monster’s lair. This time, the den takes the form of the Bates’ Motel, where she checks in but she does not check out. The monster is, of course, Norman Bates. “Home” is the office and the relatively respectable, if not actually thrilling, life that Marion, an adulteress, left behind when she absconded with her employer’s money instead of depositing it in the company’s bank account as she’d been instructed (and trusted) to do.

In The Taking, a Dean Koontz novel, the monster invades the home, which is really the hometown of the protagonist, writer Molly Sloan. The monster--or monsters, actually, since they turn out, despite the alien disguises, to be Satan and his hellish horde--want their small town in the mountains, possibly because of its scenic location, and, presumably, the world, which they’ve begun to reverse terraform. Their den? The Inferno, of course.

Freddie Krueger comes from outside, to invade the dreams of the children of parents who’d banded together to burn him alive inside a building after they caught him molesting their kids. Although, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, we never see it, his lair must be somewhere dark and damp and slimy, like his mind.

In The Exorcist, the devil also enters from outside, trespassing upon the sanctity and the soul of young Regan MacNeil, whom he possesses so he can levitate her and fly her around her bedroom like a cheap propeller-driven airplane (the propeller being her head, which spins around in a complete circle, often while vomiting pea soup). It beats flying Delta, one must suppose. His den? The Inferno, of course. (Weren’t you paying attention when we mentioned The Taking?)

Carrie White, of Stephen King’s Carrie, is also a trespasser; she invades her high school, carrying with her all the guilt and shame that her mother, a religious fanatic, has been able to heap upon her during a pitiful adolescence in a den not so much of iniquity as insanity. For some teens, home is hell.

The outcast monster Grendel, of Beowulf fame, motivated by his jealousy at the Danish thanes’ fellowship, slips out of his lake, or marsh, to invade the Danes’ home turf, represented by King Hygelac’s court and the warrior’s mead hall, Heorot.

Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, and their entourage, motivated by greed, enter the monster’s lair, an island jungle (or a jungle island) inhabited by the gigantic ape King Kong.

One more example: Species. In this film, alien deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA for short) is mixed with human DNA in an attempt to create a teddy bear. Well, okay, actually the scientists are trying to create a docile alien-human hybrid, which is only a slightly less silly premise. Instead, they get Sil, whom the scientists’ military arm immediately try to squash or quash or something before she can mate with men and produce more and more of her kind. She has killer good looks, so the threat’s as real as if she were Pamela Anderson instead of a weirdo-alien-rapist-phallic woman-femme-fatale-monster-thing.

We could go on and on, but we’ve made out point. There is the home, and there is the lair. The home is invaded by the monster. The lair is entered by the human. (Since we are the humans, we enter, rather than “invade,” although the monster whose den we’ve “entered” most likely regards our trespass upon its domicile as an invasion, which is one reason that it fights.) This perspective, skewed in the favor of humans though it may be, sheds light on what we consider home (the near, the dear, and the familiar) and what we regard as the monster’s lair (far and worthless and bizarre): according to our brief survey, at least, HOME = civilization, the workplace, a respectable lifestyle, one’s hometown, peaceful night's sleep, high school, the king’s court or the mead hall (today, we’d be more inclined to call it a tavern), human society, and the LAIR = a derelict spaceship, a remote highway motel, an invaded town, nightmares, one’s own mind or home when it's invaded or headed by a nutcase parent, a swamp, a jungle island (or an island jungle), and the nightclubs in which the sexually desperate shake, shake, shake their booties. Sometimes, we don’t even know that our homes are our homes, valued and loved, until they’re threatened. If we survive, though, we are apt to appreciate them. . . for a time, at least.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Nocturnal Suicide: An Almost-Story Born of Mere Description

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


People find treetops, especially when the branches are devoid of leaves, to be eerie. A gray sky, glimpsed through twisted limbs, is rather uncanny. The foliage of a weeping willow, seen against the light of a moon in an otherwise dark night also frightens. Fog, of course, is unsettling as well. For possible explanations of why such images are disturbing to many, we could consult Dr. Freud--but, then, he’s surely bones himself by now. We will have to do the best we can ourselves, it seems.

The thick stands of trees in a forest, blocking the horizon, form a partition of sorts--a barrier that walls us inside the woods, where we do not want to be, trapping us so that we are at the mercy of the animal--the thing--howling in the darkness. The trees shut off the ambient light of the stars and the moon (if there is a moon), blinding us with the inky black of darkness, of, it seems, nothingness. The susurration of the foliage, when the trees are thick with leaves, is unnerving and strange, like unseen giants whispering about us in the dark. Surely, such beings mean us no good, else why would they be whispering? Why would they not show themselves?


The trees of the forest conspire with the forces of darkness, shutting us in and shutting other men and women out. We are not only trapped, but we are also alone--apart, that is, from others of our own kind, from our fellow men and women, from human company. Judging by the sounds we hear--the hoots and fluttering and rustling and howling--other things are present. Ethereal entities, perhaps, as well as wild animals, which mean us harm. Attacks can come from behind, from either side, from before, or even from above--or below! There could be anything in this dark, close forest of thick trees: owls, bats, snakes, wolves, even, perhaps, werewolves! Something, certainly, is howling in the distance--and the cries seem to be getting closer each time they sound.

Deprived of vision, our hearing seems to sharpen, and even the hairs on our heads and necks and arms seem able to feel the evil in the air. Something threatens us, we are sure, something hideous and bestial and fierce. A twig snaps, and our hearts faint. We tremble, fighting the urge to run, the feeling of panic that surges forth, for, if we run, we might stumble; we might fall, and then--

--it might be all over, except the pain and the seizure of terror and the bursting of our hearts.

We stand, immobilized with fear.

Overhead, the trees begin, again, to whisper, and we despair.

In the morning, when day breaks, they will come.

Seeking us.

They will find our dead bodies, stiff and cold, staring at the sky, dead of heart attacks.

They will know, at least, that no one killed us.

They will know we’ve killed ourselves.

That, at least, is what they will say. . . .

Friday, October 17, 2008

What’s So Weird About Weird Tales?

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

A pulp magazine of horror and the supernatural, Weird Tales has had an on-again, off-again publication history that spans from 1923 to the present. In its tumultuous career, the magazine has published many authors whose names have subsequently earned fame in a variety of fiction genres.


Weird Tales cover art by Hannes Bok.

Among the names that one can drop in relation to Weird Tales are those of Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Theodore Sturgeon, and Tennessee Williams. (Yes, the Tennessee Williams.)

During its history, the magazine also has provided opportunities for a number of illustrators to showcase their artwork, both on its covers and within its pages. Included among their number are Margaret Brundage, Virgil Finlay, and Hannes Bok.


Weird Tales cover art by Margaret Brundage.

A selection of Weird Tales’ current stories includes Jay Lake’s “Thomas Edison and His Telegraphic Harpoon” (“The steam ram City of Hoboken moved like a drunken bear in all weathers, pistons groaning with the pain of metal as the great machine walked the prairies”); Karen Heuler’s “Landscape, With Fish” (“He never actually saw the fish take off — he always caught them flying, instead — but he had to assume they did a kind of leap first, so he put up a higher fence”); Mikal Trimm and Marcie Lynn Tentchoff‘s “In the Company of Women” (“Seamus stared down into the grave, shaking from more than just the frost-tinged air. She’d been pretty once, true, but not now, surely not now”); and Lisa Mantchev’s “Six Scents” (“Men find it hard to fall in love with a dead girl. They tell her it’s a turn-off that they take her hand at the movies and a finger lands in the popcorn”).


Weird Tales cover art by Virgil Finlay.

The genre’s writers, it seems, are increasingly women, and the stories’ tone has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Weird Tales’ stories have stopped taking their own genre seriously, a fact which marks the passing of a once-great source of superior pulp fiction of the horror kind. Today, unfortunately, that’s about all that’s weird about Weird Tales.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Rhetoric of Emotion

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In one of his novels, Mark Twain, at the outset, swears off the use of weather to indicate or symbolize his characters’ emotional states, referring those who feel a need for such effects to the appendix of weather conditions descriptions he’s added for this purpose. As always, Twain wrote this notice with tongue firmly planted in cheek. However, his irony does call attention to screenplays’ dependency upon this cliché to accomplish the same effects as the writers in (and well before) Twain’s time--namely, to represent characters’ feelings. Seldom seen is the horror film that doesn’t feature, along with its creature, at least one terrific thunderstorm to make viewers tremble, and lightning remains the primary means, perhaps, by which revelation is indicated.

However, there are other, more subtle, ways by which to indicate terror and its fellow feelings. One is to use an emotive character. He (or, more often, she) will be not only sensitive and reactive but also very emotional. She will scream at the sight of a shadow, weep at the death of a fly, shriek at a drop of anything that even resembles blood, and gasp at the sudden appearance of anything from a moth or a bat to a ghost or a vampire. By keeping the reader apprised of this character’s emotional responses, the writer suggests that the reader should feel the same way about whatever has seized her attention at any given moment as she is said to feel.



There is no music in books. The best they can do is mention that there is music playing and maybe list the lyrics to a song, real or imagined. Therefore, the use of melodies to suggest sorrow, joy, and all the sentiments and passions between these two extremes is impossible for the writer of fiction that depends upon the page rather than the screen for its display. The writer of fiction that appears upon the printed page must adopt subtler and more difficult tactics.

Symbolism is used. Metaphor is employed, and simile. Allusion is used. Description is employed. Juxtaposition is used. Contrast is employed, and comparison. Parallelism is trotted out. Ambiguity is unleashed. Readers are shown, rather than told, although, at times, they are told as well. Repetition is employed. Irony is made to strut the page. It is rhetoric to the rescue in service of the portrayal of perception, interpretation, and emotion. Anyone who wants to depict emotion in fiction, whether on the screen or on the page (but especially on the page) must master these rhetoric techniques. To start, one is well advised to know the meanings of these terms, which is the purpose of this post:
  • Symbol = “any object, typically material, which is meant to represent another.”
  • Metaphor = “The use of a word or phrase to refer to something that it isn’t, implying a similarity between the word or phrase used and the thing described, and without the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’”
  • Simile = “a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another, generally using like or as.” Allusion = “Indirect reference; a hint; a reference to something supposed to be known, but not explicitly mentioned; a covert indication.”
  • Description = Concrete illustration of a person, place, or thing by an appeal to one or more of the five physical senses.
  • Juxtaposition = “A placing or being placed in nearness or contiguity, or side by side, often done in order to compare/contrast the two, to show similarities or differences.”
  • Contrast = difference.
  • Comparison = similarity
  • Parallelism = “agreement or similarity; resemblance; correspondence; analogy; likeness.”
  • Ambiguity = “something liable to more than one interpretation, explanation or meaning, if that meaning etc cannot be determined from its context.”
  • Repetition = “the act or an instance of repeating or being repeated.”
  • Irony = “a statement that, when taken in context, may actually mean the opposite of what is written literally; the use of words expressing something other than their literal intention.”

Note: Except for the definitions of “contrast,” “similarity,” and “description,” these definitions are taken from Allwords.com, an “English Dictionary - With Multi-Lingual Search”



Of course, it is one thing to know the meanings of words; it is another thing entirely to learn to master the concepts to which they point. A dictionary cannot teach us to do that. To learn the techniques, we must apprentice ourselves to the masters and learn from observing them at work. For example, to learn to use symbolism effectively, we might study the works of Stephen Crane, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain. Ambiguity might be best learned from the example of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Proverbs can teach more than morality; Proverbs can also teach us how to employ parallelism, both complementary and antithetical. Poe is a master of symbolism, too, but he is also gifted in the art of juxtaposition and repetition. There are many masters from which to learn. We have already learned a preliminary lesson, however: a knowledge of the meaning of words is merely a beginning. To become adepts, we must become students of the adept.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Plot Meets Laws of Motion

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Since writers tend to look for metaphors everywhere, they’re apt to find some of them in the strangest places.

How strange?

Think Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion. Then, think plot. Now, there are a couple of strange bedfellows, to be sure.

Nevertheless, the metaphor seems to work, and, for writers, being the pragmatic souls they are, that’s all that matters.

To wit:

1. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

In fiction, the external force is the plot’s inciting moment, which is the launch pad, so to speak, that launches the rest of the story’s action. However, in fiction, the inciting moment can be either internal or external and, in fact, is often likely to be both, as is Dorothy Gale’s decision to run away from home and her subsequent leaving, which results in her being caught in a tornado and whisked off to Oz. Once he or she is set in motion, the main character will continue to overcome obstacles (see the third law of motion, below) until he or she succeeds or fails in realizing or attaining his or her goal.

2. The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F=ma. Acceleration and force are vectors, and the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector.

This law corresponds to the pacing of the story’s action. The bigger the threat that the protagonist encounters, the faster the story’s pace becomes; lesser threats or absent threats slow the pacing.

3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The protagonist is locked in a dance with the antagonist. Every time the former attempts to realize or attain his or her goal, the latter acts to block or otherwise frustrate the protagonist’s effort or other obstacles appear to oppose the main character. These series of antagonistic reactions to the protagonist’s actions represent the story’s rising action (that part of the plot wherein the story’s basic conflict is complicated, prior to the climax, or turning point).

Of course, the laws, which may be sufficient to account for motion, don’t exhaust the mechanics of plot, but they are a memorable way of summarizing at least some of the important elements of this element of fiction and kind of cool and interesting in a nerdy sort of way to writers, readers, literary critics, and other geeks and nerds.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Blue Mountain Detour


Synopsis

A veteran with a guilty secret plans to spend some time with his family at a plush mountain resort tucked away in the splendid beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It will be great, Nathan Henderson thinks. But this is before they run into the detour that directs them into the heart of a human wilderness that’s more savage than the forest and darker than the falling night. Nathan alone stands between death and his loved ones, but, for a man like him, one chance in hell may be all he needs!

Sample

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Prologue

Nathan Henderson was sweating profusely, despite the chill autumn air that drifted in through the open bedroom window, fluttering the curtains. He tossed and turned, thrashing about beside his wife, Naomi. She muttered, turning away from him.

The enemy was a young man, hardly out of his teens.

He wore the black pajamas and the flip-flop sandals of the Viet Cong.

He had ambushed them from their hiding place in the bamboo hut on stilts with the thatched roof that stood at the end of the muddy road that led through the village, wounding two of their number before fleeing.

Troops on the periphery of the area of operations had captured him, along with several of his comrades. They were to be sent to the rear for interrogation, but Nathan’s commanding officer, Captain Preston, had intervened, and now they were Captain Preston’s prisoners. He had separated this young man from the others.

The enemy soldier squatted on the ground, surrounded by a trio of guards who kept their M16’s trained on him. They had tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him with his own shirt. Now, on Captain Preston’s orders, a rope was placed around the young man’s neck.

It was a long rope.

The airplanes that were spraying Agent Orange had not reached this location yet, and the jungle that surrounded this isolated village was impenetrably thick on every hand. A single, narrow trail meandered through the dense undergrowth. Tree limbs and heavy foliage obscured one’s vision.

They had called in air support upon encountering the enemy, but it was entirely possible that Viet Cong soldiers remained hidden along this trail, awaiting their opportunity to ambush the company as it resumed its march to its objective. It was also likely that the trail itself was mined or booby-trapped.

Some of the men in Nathan’s outfit were setting fire to the village’s huts. The heavy, dry grass of the roofs caught fire easily, and in minutes the huts on either side of the muddy road were blazing. Nathan could feel the heat on his face as the flames danced in his peripheral vision.

They had brought the bodies of the dead villagers outside, laying them in the mud along the side of the road to be collected for burial later, after the area had been captured and secured.

As usual, it was a sultry day, and Nathan sweated profusely.

“All right,” Captain Preston said, “get the bastard up on his feet.”

A guard reached below each of the enemy’s armpits and lifted him to his feet.

“Start him walking,” Captain Preston ordered.

One of the guards placed the sole of his heavy boot in the prisoner’s back and shoved his foot forward.

The Viet Cong soldier stumbled forward, tripped over his own feet, and sprawled onto the ground.

Captain Preston, the guards, and the other soldiers watching the incident laughed, some of them, like Nathan, nervously. The other Viet Cong prisoners also wore their shirts as blindfolds, but they had no doubt heard their captors’ dialogue and some, at least, understood English well enough to know what had just occurred. They were very still, very quiet.

Sweat trickled into Nathan’s eyes, stinging him. Sure, Nathan told himself, the boy had killed two American soldiers, but what Captain Preston and the rest of them were doing wasn’t right. The Geneva Conventions, as well as common human decency, censored this sort of behavior. Nathan thought, I should intervene; I should say something.

“Get him on his feet,” Captain Preston commanded. The guards bent forward, each gripping an arm, and lifted the Viet Cong soldier. Captain Preston reached up behind the prisoner’s head, and unknotted the makeshift blindfold, pulling the shirt away.

The enemy soldier blinked at the bright sunlight. Like Nathan, he was also sweating profusely.

“Let’s move out, ladies,” Captain Preston ordered.

One of the guards poked the muzzle of his rifle into the prisoner’s back, and the young man marched forward.

The others stood watching, waiting until he reached the end of the rope. Then, they followed their point man.

They all knew that, at any moment, rifle fire might erupt from the bush, and they were on their guard. They were tense, and their eyes moved continuously as they scanned the thick underbrush, eyeing the gaps between the dense thickets and close-standing trees. The only sound was their own footsteps. Like everyone else, Nathan was frightened, and his fear was a lump in his throat he couldn’t swallow. His jaw was clenched, and his finger was taut on the trigger. He was prepared, at any moment, to dive for cover and fire at any enemy, seen or unseen, that might ambush them.

Nathan had given no more thought to the Viet Cong soldier ahead of them on the trail. The morality of using him in this manner nagged at Nathan’s conscience, gnawed at it like a dog worrying a bone, but staying alive was all that mattered to him at the moment. If he got out of this jungle alive, he could occupy himself with the luxury of contemplating good and evil, right and wrong.

The explosion was a terrible shock, even though they had been expecting it--or something like it.

Their prisoner screamed and fell to the ground.

A column of dust, like smoke, wound into the sky.

Their human minesweeper had found a mine.

“You!” Captain Preston said, nodding toward Nathan and grinning, “go get that rope off him!”

Nathan swallowed.

“Now!” Captain Preston ordered.

I should refuse, Nathan thought. There’s no way I should be part of this. He glanced nervously at his fellow soldiers. Their faces were hard and inexpressive. Their eyes showed nothing.

Nathan ran toward the fallen enemy.

This is wrong! he told himself. Don’t do it!

The young man’s face was flushed. His body was awash in sweat. His lower right leg was gone, and the broken-off bone showed through the mangled flesh of the stump. His blood was a red pool in the dry, scorched soil of the narrow path. He moved from side to side, moaning and groaning through clenched teeth.

Nathan reached out, untying the rope.

He hurried back to his own men.

“Tie it around the next one,” Captain Preston commanded.

A replacement for the wounded minesweeper had already been shoved forward. He was another terrified, thin, young man. His blindfold had been removed, and the prisoner stared in horror at his fallen comrade. He struggled between the guards on either side of him.

“Hold him still, damn it!” Captain Preston barked.

Nathan slipped the noose over the prisoner’s head. Let it drop around his neck, and tightened it.

“Move out!” Captain Preston ordered the terrified youth.

The prisoner refused to budge.

One of the guards hit him between the shoulder blades with the stock of his rifle, and the enemy soldier staggered forward.

The guard hit him again.

The prisoner stumbled forward, taking one slow step after another, scanning the ground before him for tripwires, disturbed earth, or any other sign of a booby trap or a land mine.

“No,” Nathan moaned, “no, no, no! It’s not right!”

“Nathan,” his wife called, awakened by her husband’s plaintive objections to whatever nightmare was unfolding for him this time.

“It’s wrong!” Nathan wailed.

Naomi shook his shoulder, and his eyes snapped open as he reared up in bed beside her. His face was a mask of horror.

“Nate?” she cooed. “You were having a nightmare.”

His eyes darted about the room, seeing a chair against a thicket of brush, a lamp on a dresser in front of a stand of trees, a wall beside the bloody, legless man on the forest trail. One of them had shot him, Nathan remembered, as they filed past the wounded prisoner.

“It’s all right,” Naomi said. “It was just a dream.”

The nightmarish figure writhing on the ground dissolved. The jungle disappeared. Vietnam vanished again--for the moment, at least.

He breathed deeply, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“You okay?” she asked.

He nodded. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she answered. “Go back to sleep.”

He almost chuckled at the suggestion; it was so absurd.

“I think I’ll have a nightcap,” he said.

“A drink?”

Her tone, disappointed and concerned, touched him. It also irritated him. He had lived through hell, and sometimes, when the demons revisited him, he needed a drink. Why couldn’t she understand that? Why did she have to be so disapproving of him for wanting to drown the memory of that bloody young man whose leg had been blown off when they’d used him as a human minesweeper? For a moment, Nathan saw the enemy soldier again, writhing on the ground, wailing through clenched teeth.

“I need something,” he explained, “to relax.”

She sighed, looked at him for a long moment. “All right, then, a drink, but just one. Please.”

He tossed back the blankets and rose, making his way around their bed.

When he reached the doorway, she said, “I love you.”

He swallowed. “I love you, too,” he replied softly.

Vietnam had come to symbolize the terrible incidents that had made up his life during the war. The country’s name or even a map of the land made him remember the cruelty of human beings toward one another and how, so many years ago, a young man himself, he had participated in such cruelty. For him, Vietnam had come to mean the worst that was within humanity and the worst that was within him.

For years after he had hung up the green beret forever, he’d drunk himself into a stupor every night.

Then, one evening, he’d met her, and she’d seen what she’d called the “goodness” in him. He had smiled ruefully at that. “There’s no goodness in me,” he’d replied, and he’d told her about Vietnam.

She had saved his life.

She had allowed him, if not to forgive himself, to go on, at least, and he had stopped drinking, mostly, and enrolled in college. Five years later, he’d earned a degree in engineering. Ever since, he’d helped to rebuild civilization rather than destroy it; he’d made sweet love to her, fathering two children; and he’d almost stopped drinking.

He went down the hallway and opened the first door on the right, looking in on his fourteen-year-old son, Henry.

The boy slept the sleep of the innocent, dead weight under the blankets. His eyes moved rapidly beneath their lids, signifying that he was in dreamland, and Nathan thanked God that his son was smiling instead of thrashing about, screaming.

“Sleep tight,” he whispered to his son, closing the bedroom door.

The next room on the left was Julie’s bedroom. He opened it, and saw his sixteen-year-old daughter slumbering soundly as well, dreaming, perhaps, of dancing in a long, formal gown with a handsome suitor under a full moon.

He hoped that neither of his children knew anything of his nightmares or of his cowardly behavior in Vietnam, but he knew that kids often knew more than their parents supposed. It was possible--hell, it was likely--that they had heard his screams in the night. They might even know about the human minesweeper. They might also know about the other incidents, his other nightmares. If so, it was another of the many sins he sorely regretted.

Downstairs, Nathan filled a glass with brandy, and he took a sip of the dark, bitter liquor. It burned its way down his throat and spread its warmth through his stomach.

Tomorrow, he and his family would leave their suburban sanctuary and, for two weeks, anyway, return to nature. They’d rented a cabin deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Nathan was determined that he, Naomi, Julie, and Henry were going to have a good time while strengthening the ties that bound them.

Too frequently of late, his daughter and son had argued. The family was beginning to drift apart, it seemed to Nathan. Their places at the dinner table were vacant more times than he liked, and neither Julie nor Henry ever seemed to be home much anymore. When they were home, they lived in their rooms, in front of television shows that depicted premarital sex and drug abuse as normal behavior or lay abed with headphones blaring obscenity-laden music into their heads.
Nathan hoped that getting back to nature, even if only for a couple of weeks would--

He shook his head.

Their two-week trip wouldn’t so a damned thing, he knew, except make his kids whine more than usual and his wife even more committed to the conveniences of suburban living.
Well, it would be a change of scenery, anyway. It would be a way to relax without alcohol. It would be a way to get away from it all, with just his family around him.

He lifted the glass to take another sip of the brandy, but decided against it, setting the glass aside, and crept up the stairs to the room he shared with his mate.

She was still awake.

As usual, she had waited up for him.

“You’re back sooner than I had expected,” she told him.

He climbed into bed beside her.

“Yes,” he answered, snuggling against her warmth.

She kissed him.

He smiled in the darkness, appreciative of his wife’s love and devotion, grateful for his children’s love and affection, thankful that, in Naomi, he had found a woman whose heart was bigger than Vietnam.

For more, visit Blue Mountain Detour

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Madhouse


The Madhouse

Synopsis

Emily Coldwater was horrified to learn that her late parents’ estate was built with blood money. She is terrified to have discovered that the spirit of the place is alive and seeks vengeance for the terrible deeds of her father. Can Emily's own extraordinary powers protect her and her guardian aunt from the malevolent mansion that threatens to destroy the sole surviving link to her family--Emily herself? For readers who have graduated from R. L. Stine but aren't quite ready for Stephen King, this novel is a perfect read!

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Sample

Prologue: The Body in the Cellar

Palm Acres stood amid the shade of broad oaks and towering pines, surrounded by a vast variety of other trees-mimosas, maples, hackberries, sycamores, birches, goldenrains, pears, maples, Eastern redbuds, crape myrtles, Washington hawthorns, Bechtel crabapples, and, of course-palms. There were royal palms, Pauroutis palms, pygmy date palms, cabbage palms, Chinese fan palms, Christmas palms, fishtail palms, key thatch palms, queen palms, Macarthur palms, jelly palms, sentry palms, Washington palms, windmill palms, and yellow butterfly palms.

Flowers grew in banks that divided the estate into various sections or “lawns,” which were designated by reference to the points of the compass as the north lawn, the northeast lawn, the east lawn, the southeast lawn, the south lawn, the southwest lawn, the west lawn, and the northwest lawn.

Shrubs and hedges, ponds and fountains, statues and mosaics decorated the lawns and gardens and marble walkways. Beyond the towering hedge that surrounded the magnificent Tudor mansion that stood at the heart of the estate, looking down upon its lush surroundings from its hilltop vantage point, the dark blue-green sea with its white, crashing breakers relentlessly assaulted the golden sands that comprised the estate’s private beach.

The house boasted over a hundred and twenty rooms, including the great hall, parlors, studies, bedrooms, a conservatory, a library, an indoor swimming pool, a kitchen, a pantry, and a dining room. Some were paneled in oak, others were papered in silk, and still others were plastered with ornamental effects, all under a slate roof of many chimneys, steep gables, arches, and towers behind brick, half-timbered walls and mullioned windows.

The huge house was more than ample for its four residents, their dog and cat, and the servants who tended the family’s every need.

Abner Coldwater had been a rogue. He had done unconscionable things to acquire the fabulous wealth that had paid for this estate. Palm Acres, despite its great beauty and tranquility, was bought, envious relatives in the extended family were fond of observing-if in whispers only, at a distance-with “blood money.” These same relatives pretended to be scandalized by Abner’s deeds, but their indignation never prevented them from attending one of the formal balls or the many dinner parties that Abner’s wife Phoebe sponsored each year.

Quite the contrary was true! These same indignant relatives practically leaped at the opportunity to make an appearance at Palm Acres. At their vilified relative’s home, the sparkling wine flowed freely, the rich food was in endless and constant supply, and luxury was everywhere at hand, both with regard to the landscaped grounds and the elegant furnishings within the lavish rooms. To Abner’s and Phoebe’s faces, they were eminent and distinguished champions of society and culture whose millions were a boon to admirable and charitable efforts to aid the less fortunate. It was only behind their backs that they were rogues and scoundrels who had amassed wealth at the expense of others’ welfare.

Preston never gave any thought whatsoever to any of his distant relatives’ gossip, slander, and abuse. To him, it meant nothing. They could say whatever they wished, in whispers behind his back, as long as, to his face, they remained fawning fools who exuded false politeness and charm. It was enough-far more than enough-that he had inherited Palm Acres from his late parents.

For Lana, the unkind remarks stung, even if she knew of them only second-hand, from those who hoped to curry favor with her by apprising her of the very things about which she would gladly have remained blissfully unaware. Like her husband, Lana took refuge in the vast luxury and deep comfort of the estate, content to have such a fabulous home, a wealthy husband, and a lovely child. Her two-year-old daughter was an angel on loan from heaven, she often told others. Little Emily had made their family complete.

Tonight’s dinner-soup and salad, homemade bread, roast squab, potatoes au gratin, spinach, and cream corn, topped off with chocolate pudding with whipped cream-had been, as always, a delicious, if late, finish to a long day. Afterward, Preston slipped into his silk pajamas, smoking jacket, and leather slippers, taking a seat in the overstuffed armchair opposite Lana’s position on the scalloped loveseat’s velvet cushions. There were a few business papers to review, and then he would retire. To help him to sleep, he would relish a glass of champagne from the family’s wine cellar.

“Damn it!”

Lana looked up from her latest Regency romance, a slight frown of concern on her lovely face.

“I wish I hadn’t given the servants the night off,” Preston complained. “I would love to have a glass of champagne just now, but--”

Lana set her book aside, closing its gilt edges upon the red ribbon bookmark to hold her place. “I’ll get a bottle,” she volunteered.

Preston smiled. “Thanks, darling, but I don’t want to bother you.”

She returned his smile. “It’s no bother, dear. I’ll be just a moment.”

He nodded, embarrassed. She knew of his childish fear of the dank, dark room in the basement. Even as an adult, he loathed the underground wine vault. It was disagreeably damp and dark even when the dim bulb was illuminated. Retreating from the sudden light, the shadows, it seemed to him, just waited for a chance to leap forth from the niches and alcoves and crevices to which they’d momentarily retreated. They bided their time, waiting to plunge the clammy room into impenetrable darkness so that whatever monsters lurked within the walls could assault him, kill him, and devour him.

Such fears were stupid and childish, he knew. Such fears were unmanly. They were also quite real to him, despite his embarrassment. Except in response to an emergency, he would not-could not-step foot into the wine cellar. It was to that dark, dank place that his father had exiled him time and again, locking him within the close, clammy space, alone and trembling in the darkness. Such was his punishment for any infraction, no matter how small, of his father’s countless rules, and such was his father’s means of ridding his son of the boy’s “foolish” fear of the dark.

The effects of such callous “punishment” were to establish within Preston a lifelong dread of the wine cellar and any other small, dark places as well as bitter self-loathing and mortification toward his childish fears and senseless timidity. Even now, he had to rely, in his servants’ absence, on a woman to fetch his wine for him, and he cursed again his unmanly fear of the dark.

Lana knew the arrangement of the bottles in the racks, where the ports, sherries, and brandies were kept and where the amontillados and champagnes were stored. Selecting a dusty bottle of Dom Pérignon, she smiled, knowing how much her husband enjoyed the delicate white wine. She turned, to ascend the narrow stone stairs, and the heavy, blunt object struck her hard in the back of the head. Lana gasped in pain and surprise, falling to her knees. The Dom Pérignon crashed against the stone floor, bursting in a spray of glass and wine. Darkness engulfed her. Lana’s last sensations were the pain in her head and the fine bouquet of the world-famous champagne.

“Preston!” Lana’s attacker cried, the voice shrill and loud over the house’s intercom speakers.

Upstairs, Preston hastily extinguished his cigarette in the smoke stand’s crystal ashtray and hurried toward the elevator that would take him to the feared and hated cellar.

“Preston!” the voice cried again.

When the elevator doors parted, he sprinted from the car, down the subterranean corridors, to the dank, dark room.

Lana lay face down on the wine cellar’s stone floor, atop the broken champagne bottle and the spilled wine.

Preston’s confederate, Natalie Martin, said, “Don’t just stand there. I can’t move her by myself.”

Preston bent over his wife’s corpse. Taking Lana’s body by the wrists, he pulled, grunting, and managed to turn the cadaver onto its back. Lana’s beautiful blue eyes stared sightlessly into his own. He shuddered. The sight of her dead body was more horrible than he had imagined, especially in the close confines of this damp cellar. Together, he and Natalie wrapped the corpse in a heavy plastic bag and sealed the bag with duct tape.

“Take her ankles,” Preston instructed his partner in crime.

The lovely, dark-haired woman with the dark eyes took an ankle in each hand and, together, Preston and she were able to drag Lana’s corpse over the rough, stone floor to a niche behind one of the wine racks.

Waiting on a low table beside the niche was a trowel and a bucket of mortar. Beside the table, there was a pile of bricks.

They stood Lana’s bagged body up against the back wall of the narrow alcove. Preston’s murderess held the corpse erect while her accomplice set the bricks in place, added a layer of mortar between each successive tier, and walled up his late wife inside the alcove.

His partner rewarded his labors with a kiss. “I love you, Preston Coldwater,” she proclaimed.

“I love you, too, Natalie Martin,” he replied, returning her kiss.

She withdrew her lips, stepping back. “You mean Natalie Coldwater, don’t you?”

Preston smiled. “Of course,” he answered, “as soon as a decent interval of mourning has passed.”

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” she demanded.

“I think we’ll have to wait at least a year.” He glanced nervously around the damp wine cellar that had just become his late wife’s tomb.

“There’s no way I’m waiting twelve months!”

“How about six months, then?”

She nodded, the smile returning to her face. “Are you asking me to marry you?”

He grinned. “I’ve already asked, and you’ve already accepted.” He again hazarded a glance to his left, a quick look to his right, and a peek behind.

She was distracted by his furtive, darting glances. “What are you looking for?” she demanded.

He swallowed. “You know how nervous this place makes me.”

She snorted derisively. “It was your idea to entomb her body here.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it.” He started toward the arched doorway.

“Wait,” Natalie said.

He stepped into the hallway outside the wine cellar. Looking into the dank, dark room, he asked, “What is it?”

“The brat,” she said, “and Lana’s sister, Cecilia. “What do we do with them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Wouldn’t it be convenient if they were to take up residence beside darling Lana?”

Preston blanched. “You mean that we should kill them?”

Natalie’s eyes swam with amusement at his discomfort. “Why not?”

“No!”

“We don’t need them underfoot all the time, getting in our way.”

Preston shook his head. “I won’t do it. I won’t hear of it.” He hastened down the corridor.

Natalie hurried to catch up to him. “At least let’s talk about it. We don’t need a brat and her nanny. We don’t need anyone but ourselves.”

In the end, however, Preston was adamant. Needed or not, two-year-old Emily would be allowed to live, as would her Aunt Cecilia.

After all, if they were going to keep the child, they would need someone to mind her.

For more, visit The Madhouse

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Mystic Mansion: A Sequel to Saturday's Child



copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Synopsis

Mystic Mansion: A Sequel to Saturday’s Child

Crystal Fall and her friends discover that the horrors of Nazi Germany didn't end with Adolph Hitler. An ancient artifact, which he believed empowered him and his Third Reich, has been discovered, and its awesome power has been unleashed in a mysterious mystic mansion. Can Crystal Fall and her friends save the world. . . again. . . even if, as Fran Newell believes, God is not on their side? For readers who have graduated from R. L. Stine but aren't quite ready for Stephen King, this novel and its prequel, Saturday's Child, are perfect reads!

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Sample

Prologue

The blonde-haired woman sat hunched against the concrete wall of the underground bunker.

The bunker was one of many in the two-story complex fifty feet below the Chancellery Building. She had the run of the complex, but she preferred to be wherever her soul mate led. At the moment, he was here, planning the army’s defenses.

Now thirty-three years old, she was considered a handsome woman. Only ten years ago, she had been strikingly beautiful, but the last decade had been expensive. It had cost her not only her beauty, but also her youthful lust for life and, very nearly, her sanity.

Now, as she sat in the dank subterranean shelter, she studied her life’s companion, the odd-looking man with the odd-looking mustache who sat hunkered over a table, surrounded by Army officers and staring at maps.

How different life had seemed when, at twenty, she’d met him at Heinrich Hoffman’s photographic studio! He’d struck her, even then, as somewhat odd-looking. She’d mentioned to her sister Isle that he wore a “funny mustache and carried a big felt hat.” At the same time, though, she’d been struck with the air of authority that virtually radiated from him. Even then, he had carried himself with an arrogant pride. He had seemed a man of destiny.

When he’d asked her to become his domestic partner, she’d left Heinrich’s employ. Over the years, she’d gone from living in an apartment in Munich to a villa in the same city, and her lover had provided her a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. Life for the former photographer’s assistant was good. Her perception, it appeared, had been correct. Her paramour seemed to be a man destined for greatness, indeed.

Nevertheless, during the next decade, although her material existence continually improved, her emotional and spiritual health declined. She read cheap novels, watched romantic films, and alternated between exercise and brooding inactivity. Her appearance became increasingly a concern to her, and she assured and reassured her mate that she would stand by him, even unto death.

To her, he would confide his most intimate fears and concerns. One was that he would lose the source of his power, the Spear of Destiny, as he called it.
As a youth, long before he had come to power, he’d stood in the Hofburg Treasure House, where the holy relic was on display, staring intently at the wondrous weapon—the spear that the Roman soldier Longinus had used to pierce the side of the crucified Christ.

According to the lore associated with this spear, it was imbued with Jesus Christ’s passion. It was steeped in the very agony and ecstasy that Christ had experienced while hanging on the cross. Consequently, the spear was said to equip its possessor with enormous power to do good or evil.

Now, it was 1945, and their enemies had surrounded them, forcing them to retreat to this last refuge.

Leaving the conference at the table, he came to her. “It is still not too late,” he said, passionately. “You can save yourself, my darling. I have yet within my hands the power to secure your life, your future. I have ordered you to go. Now, I beg you.”

“Have you accepted your advisors’ counsel that you should flee to the mountains around Berchtesgaden?” she asked.

Without hesitation, he replied, “My place is here.”

“As is mine,” she declared.

“No, you must save yourself!”

Eva Braun smiled at his thoughtfulness, at his love. “It is better that ten thousand die,” she replied, “than that you be lost to Germany!”

She had said this when she’d heard that millions of Jews were being tortured and exterminated and that millions more were scheduled for such a fate. It was necessary, he had explained to her, to feed the demons with which he was in allegiance. They thrived on misery and human suffering. Under his regime, the demons had fattened and had rewarded him accordingly. His rise to power had been meteoric.

He averted his gaze, not wishing for her to see the emotion that her words had engendered within him. Her fierce devotion was moving.

“Then you will not go?”

She shook her head. “My place is at your side.”

“This is no game,” he told her bluntly. “This is the end. We will die.”

“Then,” she said defiantly, holding his gaze with hers, “we will die together.”

He kissed her hand before returning to his generals.

Eva thought of the sacrifices that he had made in leading his country to its glorious destiny as the Third Reich.

The First Reich had lasted for well over two hundred years, from 700 to 936, from the time of the Merovingian kings to the time that the Vikings threatened to tear the empire apart. The First Reich had blossomed under Charlemagne, who had also possessed the Spear of Destiny. It was not until long after his death that the First Reich was divided into the five duchies of Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine and a long period of weak kings ruined the glory that had been the First Reich.

By 1860, Germany had been divided into the German Confederation of thirty-nine states. The Second Reich began when Kaiser Wilheim I was crowned. Thereafter, through warfare and political machinations, a succession of leaders established the Weimar Republic at the end of World War I, and the Second Reich came to its end.
Some time between or during the first empires, the Spear of Destiny passed into the hands of the Hapsburg family, who displayed it in a kind of museum, the Hofburg Treasure House, in Vienna, along with their other regalia.

In 1933, the German Reichstag burned down, and the communists were blamed, giving the Nazis the opportunity to capitalize on the German people’s fears and limit their rights under the Weimar Constitution. Wondrously, Hitler then secured the authority to enact laws without parliamentary action, and the beginnings of his rise to power began as the Nazi Party became the only legal political organization in the state and the rights of other groups were methodically repressed through the Gestapo’s brutal tactics. Now, Hitler was able to pursue his dream of a Master Race exercising world dominance.

Behind the scenes at every turn, Hitler had wielded the Spear of Destiny. Always, the miraculous weapon had inspired visions in which Hitler had seen his dreams unfold. Even as a youth, he’d visited the Hofburg Treasure House to see the wonderful artifact, standing for hours before the ancient weapon, spellbound by it.
As soon as he’d risen to power, Hitler had taken the spear as his own, and it had both guided and empowered him ever since.
Now, however, something was wrong.

The enchantments were failing.

Hitler himself had lost faith in his glorious dream of the worldwide rule a pure Master Race.

Eva Braun shook her head in disbelief. Despite Der Führer’s words, she could not believe that the end had come. She could not believe that they would die.

How could their dream end this way?

The Spear of Destiny assured her paramour’s success, had it not? For years, the spear had led him to victory after victory until his dominion over the entire world seemed inevitable.

Nevertheless, the Russian army had done the unthinkable, forcing them to retreat to this subterranean bunker.

She looked at the spear, which Hitler had set against the wall near his seat at the head of the table. Its point glowed blood-red, as bright and glorious as ever.
They would not be defeated—not now, not ever!

Had not the Reich created an elite force of commandos, the Werewolves, to disrupt the enemy? No less a personage than Goebbels had vouchsafed the sanctity of the
Werewolves’ mission, asserting in his radio messages that “Satan has taken command."
He had sworn, further, that “"We Werewolves consider it our supreme duty to kill, to kill, and to kill, employing every cunning and wile in the darkness of the night, crawling, groping through towns and villages, like wolves, noiselessly, mysteriously” to wreck vengeance on the Reich’s would-be conquerors.”

The bunker shook. The bare light bulb in the suspended fixture swung madly back and forth as a thick cloud of earth and concrete dust billowed within the close confines of the chamber that, Eva believed now, for the first time, might actually become their tomb.

“My Führer, you have received a telegram,” an aide announced, presenting the message to Hitler.

Hitler slit open the sealed communiqué and read the text:



My Führer!

In view of your decision to remain in the fortress of Berlin, do you agree that I take over at once the total leadership of the Reich, with full freedom of action at home and abroad as your deputy, in accordance with your decree of June 29, 1941? If no reply is received by 10 o'clock tonight, I shall take it for granted that you have lost your freedom of action, and shall consider the conditions of your decree as fulfilled, and shall act for the best interests of our country and our people. You know what I feel for you in this gravest hour of my life. Words fail me to express myself. May God protect you, and speed you quickly here in spite of all.

Your loyal
Hermann Göring



Hitler flung the telegram aside, color rising through his neck and reddening his face. His countenance was transformed. Where moments before had appeared the features of a man, there was now something indubitably demonic about the twisted visage. He pounded the table with his fist, glaring at the officers surrounding him.
“This is treason!” he cried. “This outrage will not be brooked!”

The officers looked fearfully at one another or averted their gaze altogether, glancing at the tabletop or the floor.

Eva also averted her gaze.

She hated to see him like this, during one of what she had come to regard as his “fits.” Lately, it seemed, he was having more and more of these fits.

During such moments, he was transformed, and the inner, hidden beast within came to
the fore in all its savagery.

He turned to his top aide. “Borrman, send a reply at once! I want Göring to understand that I regard his message as an act of treason for which he deserves no less than death. However, in deference to his previous long-term loyalty and service to the Reich, I will spare his life, provided that he resign immediately.”
Martin Bormann nodded. “It will be done, Führer.”

As the aide started to turn, Hitler stopped him. “I want him arrested at once! See to it that the S S receive the order.”

“Yes, my Führer.”

Another artillery shell struck near the Chancellery Garden. The bunker filled with
a thick, choking dust.

The point of the spear seemed just as bright and luminous, Eva thought.

They could weather the Russians’ assault.

Their elite Werewolves would prevail.

The Spear of Destiny, after all, was still in the hands of the Reich.
She consoled herself with the thought that the spearhead still shone as brightly as ever.

Didn’t it?

Then why, she wondered, had Hitler earlier allowed all but essential personnel to leave the bunker complex?



A few days later, Eva and her beloved took time to marry.

“I wish that I could be a proper bride for you,” she apologized.

Hitler held her face in his hands. “I wish that I could have given you the world.”
The officiating officer awaited Der Führer’s command. There was little time to waste on pleasantries. More and more of the Russian’s artillery had been striking closer and closer to the Chancellery.

Without taking his eyes off his bride, Hitler gave the official permission to begin, and he and Eva were wed. In death, if not in life, they would be married, at least.

“I regret that we cannot have a proper honeymoon,” the groom said.

“My entire life with you has been a honeymoon.” She replied.

“I am sorry, my darling, but I must return my attention to—“

“There is no need to apologize,” she said, shushing him.

Yesterday, he had sent for Luftwaffe General Ritter von Greim, who had arrived through a barrage of Russian ground fire, landing his plane in the street near the bunker complex. In the process, the general’s foot had been injured, but he was here, now, and that was all that mattered for, today, Hitler would name Greim as Göring's successor, and the general would become the field marshal in command of the Luftwaffe.

Yesterday, Hitler had performed a more unpleasant duty. Word had reached him that S S Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler had resorted to treason as well, attempting to negotiate with the accursed Allies. Himmler had even offered to surrender some of the Reich’s western armies to the American general, Eisenhower!

Hitler’s rage had frightened even Eva. He’d ordered Himmler’s immediate arrest and, to make an example of what would befall such traitors, he’d had S S Lt. Gen. Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s personal assistant in the bunker, taken to the Chancellery Garden and summarily executed. When she’d heard that her brother-in-law had been shot on Hitler’s command, Eva supported her paramour, repeating what had become almost a mantra. “It is better that ten thousand die,” she had sworn, “than that he be lost to Germany!” It was, perhaps, this expression of her uttermost devotion to him that had persuaded Hitler to marry her.

Hitler, however, had not been the same since the disastrous defections of Göring and Himmler. The latter’s treason affected Hitler more than anything in his late career. Himmler had been a trusted confidant from the beginning. “Faithful Heinrich,” Hitler had dubbed him. Next to Eva, there was no one in whom Hitler trusted as much. He had allowed himself to put his faith in this one man above all others, and Himmler had sought to betray that trust in the end, when he perceived his own life to be endangered. Hitler had meant nothing to the coward! The Reich had meant nothing. Only the worthless life of Heinrich Himmler had counted in the end.

It was Himmler’s betrayal that made Hitler understand that, Spear of Destiny or no Spear of Destiny, the Reich would fall and he would die.
All that remained within his power was to determine the manner of his death. It was unthinkable to allow his enemies to execute him.

If die he must, it would be by his own hand.

“Bring me Blondi,” he ordered.

“Yes, Führer,” Borrman replied, fetching Hitler’s favorite dog. Hitler commanded that Blondi be administered a lethal dose of poison. When the animal died a few minutes later, Hitler and the others in the bunker knew that the toxin was effective, and he handed capsules to each of his female secretaries. “I wish that I had better parting gifts,” he said. “At least these will allow you to die with dignity, rather than at the hands of our accursed enemies.”

By now, it was common knowledge that the Russians were only blocks away from the Chancellery. Their artillery fire had begun to score direct hits.
To her horror, Eva had seen that, at last, the bright spearhead was dimmer—much dimmer than it had been even days before.

Along with her groom, she had come to accept the inevitability of the loss of the war and the failure of the Reich. She did not wish to live in this world any longer if her husband could not rule it absolutely. She was prepared to die. Taking her husband’s hand, she walked with him through the gloomy bunker, into their private chamber, having bid farewell to Bormann, Goebbels, Generals Krebs and Burgdorf, and the other staff.

Soon afterward, those outside the couple’s chamber heard a gunshot.

Bormann and Goebbels entered their room.

Hitler’s body lay sprawled upon the couch. He had shot himself in the right temple. Blood ran from the wound, streaking his cheek with its crimson stain.

His bride was also dead, but she had died from having swallowed the same poison that had killed Blondi.

Outside, Russian artillery rounds continued to rain down upon the Chancellery Garden.
Bormann and Goebbels ordered the bodies of Hitler and Eva carried to the Garden, saying “Douse them with gasoline.”

Nazi soldiers poured the fuel on their bodies, and the corpses were ignited. The fire raged, dancing furiously. The roasting corpses blackened in the blazing inferno. The air filled with the sickening stench of burning flesh.

Bormann and Goebbels presented stiff-armed Nazi salutes.

From time to time, the soldiers poured more gasoline onto the fire. The blackened bodies crackled and sizzled in the flames.

“I think they’re done,” one of the officers observed dryly.

The soldiers removed the blackened corpses, wrapped them in a tarpaulin, and buried them in a shallow grave.

The Third Reich had fallen to the combined might of the Allied forces.

In the subterranean bunker, the Spear of Destiny rested against the wall. Its head no longer glowed. It had the dull, lackluster appearance of flint.



Fran Newell tossed and turned.

A full moon was high in the star-studded heavens, peering through the tangle of twisted limbs that the mimosa tree outside her bedroom window stretched into the sky.

Fran’s heart beat fast, and she panted for breath. Her arms flailed.

Shadows shifted in her bedroom as the night breeze gently lifted and tossed the mimosa branches. The soft fragrance of the pink powder-puff blossoms wafted through Fran’s open window.

Fran opened her mouth to scream—but, then, she saw him—the white-robed figure stood before her. A dazzling white light emanated from within him; he was its source.

Fran slunk backward, frightened.

She heard his voice. It was gentle, peaceful, full of love. Fear not.

What frightened Fran even more was that she hadn’t seen his lips move. The light
was so bright that she could not see his face clearly; it was like a sun—so brilliant that it hurt her eyes to look at it directly. Somehow, she knew that his lips hadn’t moved—yet he’d spoken to her; she’d heard his voice.

“W-who are you?” she stammered.

I am Alpha and Omega, he said, the Beginning and the End.

Wasn’t that a verse from the Bible? Fran thought. Wasn’t that something that Jesus was supposed to have said? What would Jesus want with an atheist like me?

Your time has not yet come, the voice informed her. You shall live to serve me. Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall see.

Fran frowned. What was that supposed to mean? She wondered. There was nothing wrong with her vision. I see just fine, she thought.

You shall see visions; you shall prophecy in my name.

Okay, Fran thought, this is all too weird. I’m going to wake up now!

Abruptly, the dazzling figure was gone, and Fran felt an enormous pain in her head.

She heard another voice. We have a pulse!

Fran gasped, sitting upright in her bed, the disheveled counterpane in tangled mounds. The moonlight shone through her window. Her teddy bear lay beside her, and she clutched it to her chest. “It was a dream” she told the plush animal, “just a dream.”

It was a dream inspired by a reality, though. Unknown to her best friends, Crystal Fall, Dee Dee Dawkins, and David Lewis, Fran hadn’t merely suffered a concussion during their battle with Dr. Trask and his hypnotized servants in their bid to take control of Edgar Allan Poe High School and its students’ minds. When Randy Sheffield had shoved her headfirst into that bank of lockers, Fran had sustained injuries that had actually killed her—if only for a few moments. At first, she’d attributed her strange dream about the brilliant figure in white to a “near-death experience,” but research showed that, whatever had happened to her, she hadn’t had such an experience, even if she had been clinically dead.

No, her research showed that, other than seeing a shining figure in white, she’d experienced few of the common characteristics associated with a near-death experience. Fran had felt no calmness (she’d been frightened). She had heard no buzzing sound, and she had felt no tingling sensation. There’d been no awareness before the dream that her soul had separated from her body (Fran believed, in fact, that there was no soul). She’d fallen through no dark tunnel. She’d felt no ecstasy. She hadn’t met bewildered spirits. She hadn’t seen a beautiful garden.
She hadn’t watched a filmstrip of her life that highlighted missed opportunities to lend others a hand. She’d met no deceased friends or family members. There’d been no sightings of celestial cities of light.

Yes, she had encountered a Being of Light and, yes, she had been sent back to this world with a mission—but, to her mind, two out of more than a dozen possible characteristics did not constitute a near death experience.

It had been only a dream, induced by the powerful sedatives she’d been administered in the emergency room.

It had been just a dream.

Then, the emergency room team had revived her.

Thereafter, she’d lain in the hospital for a week, recovering.

Except that she hadn’t recovered—at least, not completely.

The dream or vision or whatever she’d had while she’d been clinically dead continued to haunt her.

There was no God.

Jesus had been only a great teacher and a superior moral leader. Certainly, if there were no God, Jesus couldn’t have been the Son of God. That was just a myth.

So how did she explain the figure that had said, I am Alpha and Omega?

Obviously, it had been a hallucination, the effect of chemicals in her brain, or misfiring synapses, or something. There was no reason to think that it was actually Jesus Christ who’d appeared to her in another realm somewhere beyond this world.
Ockcam’s razor, she reminded herself, was the sensible position to take with regard to such a dubious hypothesis as her being visited by God in the flesh: “Never needlessly multiply hypotheses.” The simplest explanation was to be preferred.
There was no need to bring in the supernatural to explain something for which natural causes could account.

Sure, she’d been dead—for a few minutes—and she’d seen a brilliant, shining man in a white robe that had quoted the Bible, but it had been her own mind creating the imagery and the words, just as her mind created dreams during sleep.

Again, Fran frowned. Why should I, an atheist, dream about Jesus Christ? The question was unsettling, and Fran shivered. Perhaps, she thought, she wasn’t as immune to superstition as she’d supposed. Maybe part of her—a deep part beyond logic and emotion—believed despite her disbelief. What was it that Blaise Pascal had said? “The heart has reasons that reason does not know?”

Even if hallucination could explain the figure in white, what about the other visions—those that she’d had while she’d been wide awake—those that had been of future events—those that had come to pass?

She had tried to repress the memory of these visions, had tried to deny them, but she couldn’t.

The little boy who’d fallen from the tree house in his back yard—he had fallen, just as she’d foreseen. It had been in the newspaper. Wasn’t she responsible for his injuries, his paralysis? After all, she had known—or had seen, at least—and she had done nothing to report the impending catastrophe. Now, the boy had lost the use of his legs forever.

A week later, she’d had a vision of the hornets’ nest in the woods near Eureka Creek—and of the girl taking a shortcut home being stung by the hornets—stung and stung and stung. How many times had the newspaper article said? “Over a hundred.” Luckily, the girl had lived but, again, couldn’t Fran have prevented the calamity? Hadn’t the shining, white-robed figure told her as much?

Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall see.

Fran’s denial had resulted in a boy being paralyzed and a girl being stung nearly to death.

That was absurd!

There was no God.

She was sure of it.

God couldn’t exist—not in a world of suffering and pain, not if God was, as Crystal Fall had assured her, omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent. How could a loving God countenance starving babies and famine and pestilence and railroad accidents and tornadoes and disease and insanity and paralyzed boys and hornets stinging girls and teenage girls dying because they’d been shoved by a brainwashed, hypnotized zombie into a bank of high school lockers? If God existed, he’d have to be a sadist, not a loving God.

On the other hand, what if there is a God? she asked herself.

What if Job had been right in his answer? What if, despite evil, pain, and suffering, God is good and all-powerful and has reasons for allowing bad things to happen to good people? To a cat, it may seem evil that its master won’t let it out, but its owner may know that this apparent evil could save the pet from being squashed to death beneath a car’s tires or from being torn apart by a pack of wild dogs. Maybe God, being all-knowing, knows a thing or two that people don’t. Maybe people should trust him, as Job had argued, saying, “The just shall live by faith.”

Fran thought of the latest vision she’d had. The vision had involved Crystal’s discovery of a dead body in the park they called “The Swamp.”

What if that happened, too?

“It won’t,” she told her teddy bear. “There is no God.”

She recalled her visions of the paralyzed boy and the bee-stung girl.

Coincidence, Fran decided.

The high, full moon seemed to grin at her from its vantage point among the stars.

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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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