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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Here, the Now, and the Eternal

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Paintings and illustrations are, of course, visual modes, whereas fiction is a narrative form. A painting or an illustration may suggest a story, but fiction must tell a tale. In the process, it will suggest images, through description. However, in doing so, its purpose will be ever the same: to tell a story. Paintings and illustrations are under no such obligation; they may or may not tell a story, as their creators please. For visual artists, the picture is the point; for writers, pictures are means, not ends, and the end that they do serve is to contribute to the tale’s overall effect and theme.

In “The Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe describes, from the point of view of one who has suffered the fate suggested by his story’s title, what it would feel like to be buried alive. In doing so, Poe puts his reader alongside his living corpse, as it were, heightening the horror and the terror of the protagonist’s situation. Before reading his story, one may have dimly understood the horror and the terror of such a situation, but Poe ensures that his reader shall comprehend, in full, the emotional and even the visceral significance of such a situation. The author makes the reader live, as it were, inside the coffin for much of the duration of his story.

The tale is horrific, and its great fear deepens as one returns to the tale when he or she has advanced in years and the story’s potential threat looms larger--or closer. The victim’s struggle inside the coffin seems to suggest the ordinary person’s fear that life may be ultimately without meaning or value, that eternity reduces a life lived in time to insignificance. (Art, as represented by “The Premature Burial” itself, it may be argued, transcends time and, thereby, may give value and significance to temporal human existence.)

A visual artist might depict the living corpse’s situation, as, for example, Buffy Summers’ having been buried alive is depicted in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which, having died, she is brought back to life by a spell cast by her friend, the witch named Willow Rosenberg: the viewer sees Buffy’s somewhat skeletal remains take on flesh, as it were, as her corpse reverts to life, and her eyes, having reformed, snap wide in abject terror.

It’s a disturbing scene, to be sure, but it’s over almost as soon as it begins, Buffy’s reversion to life taking but a few seconds, and, thereafter, we only hear of her sustaining lacerations and bruises to her hands (and, presumably, a few broken nails) as she clawed her way out of her premature grave. In a couple of later episodes, Buffy performs in a mechanical fashion, merely going through the motions of living, before finally confiding to the vampire Spike that Willow’s spell had snatched her out of heaven, returning her to this world, which seems, by contrast to the bliss she’d experienced, rather like hell to her. Nice touches, but they are far removed from her plight as one who has been, as it were, buried alive. Poe keeps the pressure on his reader by focusing his entire story on the trauma that his story’s victim experiences as one who has been buried alive.

A story, as Aristotle taught us, long ago, is a sequence of causally-related incidents which comprise a single, unified action theoretically divisible into a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a destination, in other words; having started somewhere, it goes somewhere, that it might, as it were, arrive somewhere. It moves (as do our eyes, from left to right, as we track the text down the page). A painting or an illustration may suggests a sort of narrative flow, but, of course, it is not going anywhere; it is, even if it does draw and move the eye, a static picture, a snapshot of life, eternally memorializing a moment rather than an experience.

The significance of the painting or the illustration is the moment which it captures in paint or ink. The significance, in fiction, is not in the momentary image, but in the relationships among a series of such images and the incidents which give rise to these images. It is as if the visual artist is saying, “Behold the moment; in it is the meaning of life,” whereas the author is proclaiming, “Behold the experience; in it, is the meaning of life.” One artist is seized by the particular moment; the other, by the relationships among a series of moments in which he or she discerns a cause-and effect or a logical sequence.

For the visual artist, meaning is fragmented and brief, here one moment, in this or that instance, and gone the next. Life is a transitory and temporal affair. For the literary artist, meaning is whole and long-lasting, if not permanent. Life is enduring and eternal. One artistic form is not necessarily better than the other, for painters and illustrators remind us that the here and the now are important, that much of life is lived in the instant, and that what happens today shall happen just this once and, therefore, should be appreciated and, where possible, enjoyed and prized, and writers remind us that it is important to understand relationships among the momentary and fleeting parade of sensations and perceptions, to interpret them together, whenever possible, and to take away from our experience an understanding that transcends the moment and can be recalled again, in some sense, independent of the moments themselves, out of which the understanding arose.

Visual art immerses us in the moment; narrative art lifts us above the present. To remain immersed forever in the present would cause one to tire of the assault of impressions upon his or her flooded senses, but to remain, as it were, on the dock, looking out to sea, would be never to bathe one’s soul in the refreshing ebb and flow of life and to be as much alive as one of the stationary planks or posts of which the pier is built.

In horror fiction, a series of seemingly unrelated incidents of a bizarre and horrific nature occur, and the protagonist seeks to understand the reason or the cause of these incidents. In other words, he or she seeks to fathom their meaning, their significance, their importance. When something--even something horrible--can be understood in such terms, it may remain horrible, but it also becomes consequential; its importance recognized, it becomes known and familiar, and it may also be understood to have some benefit, despite the pain and suffering it causes in the moment, in the here and now. An early narrative of such a theme is the story of Job, who learns, as a result of the horrific and undeserved suffering he undergoes, that “the just shall live by faith.”

But let’s have an example from the horror genre. In The Exorcist, the protagonist, Father Damien Karras, has come to doubt his faith because of the suffering that his dying mother endured before her death. Since, in Christianity, an unbeliever goes to hell after dying, the priest is in danger of losing his immortal soul. According to William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel, it is in the hope of bringing about the priest’s damnation that the demon possesses the soul of young Regan MacNeil.

In doing so, the demon sets up the occasion of the exorcism which involves Father Karras and so now has the opportunity to tempt the priest to renounce his faith by showing him the work of the devil, up close and personal, so to speak, as the demon torments the innocent girl whom it has possessed. Father Karras’ suffering now has meaning. It has importance beyond itself. It has value, for it has become the means by which, in the exercise of his own free will, he will retain or lose his faith and, thereby, his soul.

Other horror stories depict sets of circumstances or series of incidents which also find meaning and value by pointing beyond themselves, to the eternal realm of value, of reason, of faith, of beauty, and, in doing so, point the way to something like the possibility of Platonic forms or (less abstractly) the enduring value of life, or, for the religious reader, the reality of God. (“The just shall live by faith,” as both Job and Father Karras learn.) Along the way, such stories often also criticize many of the fallacies and idols, philosophical, theological, personal, cultural, and otherwise, that we hold in false esteem or false reverence.

The good life, horror fiction suggests, lies not in misery, madness, mayhem, suffering, and sin, but in the significance that such experiences may have beyond themselves, as stories, so to speak, that lead one from the temporal to the eternal. Without the hope of meaning within and beyond the moment, we would be mired only in sensual and perceptual experience; we would be lost among the phenomena of subjective experience, forever an image among images in a painting or a drawing of the here and now.

As Buffy’s Watcher, Rupert Giles, once quipped, concerning his protégé, “Buffy lives very much in the now.” Her philosophy, as Buffy herself tells Willow, is carpe diem, or seize the day--that is, live for the moment--because life is short. The series itself, however, rises above the discrete incidents of pain and suffering, of beauty and joy, that make up the protagonist’s day-to-day existence to show the series’ viewer that the meaning of life lies (as it is understood in the context of the series as a whole) in the acceptance of responsibility and the answer of the call of duty, even when doing so requires the sacrifice of oneself. Life may be short, but the consequences of one’s behavior can have lasting effects on others, including those generations which are yet to come.

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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.

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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