Fascinating lists!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Grist For The Mill

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

For a writer, all is grist for the mill, and anyone who has studied Stephen King, for example, or even visited his official website, knows, full well, that he converts many of his personal experiences, large and small, into short stories, novels, or screenplays.

Besides one’s personal experience, another common source for story ideas is newspaper stories. A particularly good source for potential story ideas--or for inciting moments, at least--is the daily column, “Across the USA: News From Every State,” which appears in the national newspaper, USA Today. (Not all of the column’s items will serve a writer’s purpose, but several, with appropriate revisions, may well do so.)

The items are not, by any stretch of the imagination, complete; extremely truncated summaries, they are little more than headlines themselves. Still, in some cases, they are enough (with, occasionally, a bit of adjustment) to serve as germs of stories. Depending upon one’s genre, one can give a twist to the item of the writer’s choice so that the news item is transformed into a springboard for an action-adventure, a comedy, a crime, an espionage, a fantasy, a horror, a mystery, a romance, a science fiction, a Western story, or whatever. (Obviously, for horror fiction purposes, the news item would be given a horrific twist.)

Here, for example, are the first sentence or two of the items that appeared in the Tuesday, March 24, 2009 issue of USA Today’s “Across the USA” column that seem fruitful as germs for possible horror stories. (Our twists are in bold blue font, below the actual, quoted material):

Alaska: Workers at Denali National Park have begun clearing the park road. . . . Working seven days a week, a road crew usually needs six weeks to clear the entire 92-mile road into the park.

In clearing the 92-mile road through Denali National Park, Alaska workers were attacked by unidentified “monsters”; several of the workers were killed.

: . . . Motorists in Arkansas may soon be able to drive the Johnny Cash Highway. Mississippi County justices have set a vote for today to rename Arkansas 297 near Dyess, where the late singer was raised.

Motorists in Wisconsin may soon be able to drive the Ed Gein Highway. Officials have outraged local citizens by setting a vote to rename Interstate Highway 39 near Plainfield Cemetery, from which the notorious killer robbed graves.

: A state lawmaker wants horse slaughterhouses to operate again in the U. S. to deal with the glut of unwanted horses as a result of the recession.

A state lawmaker wants human slaughterhouses to operate in the U. S. to deal with the glut of babies’ cadavers that have resulted from recession-related infanticide.

: The U. S. Mine Safety and Health Administration closed a coal mine in Mousie because of unpaid fines.

The U. S. Mine Safety and Health Administration closed a coal mine in Mousie because of safety issues stemming from baffling cave-ins.

: The search for a new director for LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center has begun.

The search for a new director for LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center has begun. The selected candidate will direct the Center’s clandestine research in genetic engineering.

Maine: A pair of Coast Guard cutters are chugging up Maine’s
Kennebec River, breaking up ice that could otherwise contribute to

A pair of Coast Guard cutters, chugging up Maine’s Kennebec River to break up ice that could otherwise contribute to flooding, encountered a strange creature that is said to resemble the legendary Sasquatch.

: Surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center transplanted the right hand of a Marine hurt in a training accident.

This item could be used as is, perhaps with the Marine and the transplanted hand struggling against mutual attempts to reject the tissues represented by one another. Another possibility that occurred, based upon misreading “hand” as “head” might be: Surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center transplanted the right head of a Marine hurt in a training accident. (Perhaps bicephalic Marines are the military’s latest innovation in regard to the service’s elite warriors.)
The news items of other days may yield additional inciting moments or storylines, and everyone is likely to see different possibilities, fewer or greater, according to the whims and dictates of his or her own personal muse. For example, among the fifty-two items listed in the newspaper’s feature for Thursday, March 26, 2009, three suggested possibilities for yours truly:

Indiana: Anderson University officials are considering disciplining about 25 students who protested the school’s anti-alcohol policy by going to a bar.

University officials are considering disciplining about 25 students who protested the school’s use of animals in scientific experiments by releasing human-animal hybrids, or “humanimals,” from the cages in which experimenters keep them.

South Carolina: A College of Charleston study shows that tourism here took a $40 million hit last year because of the recession.

South Carolina’s tourism industry took a $40 million hit last year because of the rumors of a “monster” that stalks the state’s beaches.

Utah: A book by Thomas Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the final item added to a time capsule to be sealed inside the wall of a new church history library.

A copy of The Satanic Bible was included in a time capsule to be sealed inside the foundation of a new church.

These ideas are but the germs of potential stories, and, as such, need to be developed. For example, concerning the last, one might begin by asking why such a book might have been included in a time capsule to be sealed inside the foundation of a new church. Does its burial inside or beneath the foundation have symbolic significance, suggesting that the church was founded upon such a document, or was it, perhaps the last extant copy of the infamous volume, buried there for safekeeping? If the latter is the case, why wasn’t it simply destroyed? Did the church want it for possible future reference, should certain events begin to unfold--events which, perhaps, its priest had foretold? Maybe it is found, years later, after the church has been abandoned, its stained-glass windows boarded up and its doors locked? (Why was the church abandoned, and just what scenes are depicted in the stained-glass, anyway? Maybe the book in the time capsule explains things better left unknown.)

No doubt better storylines can be developed than these examples, but, hopefully, they get the idea across: all--or a good deal, anyway--truly is grist for the mill.

(The Tuesday, March 24, 2009 issue of the newspaper, by the way, also contains an interesting article concerning developers’ discovery of an unmarked cemetery during their excavation of a construction site in Waco, Texas, the same city and state that brought us the David Koresh incident and Janet Reno’s incineration of the cult’s victims, many of whom were children.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sensory Links

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The size of the sensory homunculus’ hands, tongue, ears, nose, and eyes represents the relative space that human body parts occupy on the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex and the relative sensitivity of each of the senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and vision, respectively.

In first five paragraphs of Monster, Frank Peretti uses sound and sight to link paragraphs, which not only provides transitions that might otherwise not exist, except as chronological associations among the incidents of action represented by the author’s descriptions, but also lends to the action itself a sense of immediacy, creating the illusion that the reader him- or herself is, as it were, on the scene. Whether through auditory, visual, olfactory, gustatory, or tactile sensations, such references to the senses and their perceptions can link paragraphs for any writer, whether Peretti or you, whether the fiction is of the horror or another genre. Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider how Peretti accomplishes this feat, quoting a few paragraphs from his novel. In doing so, we start with the first paragraph and quote the next ten, each in turn, as well, bolding the auditory sensory links in blue and the visual sensory links in green (which are neither bolded nor colored in the novel itself, of course):

The Hunter, rifle in his hands, dug in a heel and came to a sudden halt on the game trail, motionless, nearly invisible in a thicket of serviceberry and crowded pines. He heard something.

The first rays of the sun flamed over the ridge to the east, knifing through the pine boughs and morning haze in translucent wedges, backlighting tiny galaxies of swirling bugs. Soon the warming air would float up the draw and the pines would whisper like distant surf. But in the lull between the cool of night and the warmth of day, the air was still, the sounds distinct. The Hunter heard his own pulse. The scraping of branches against his camouflage sleeves was crisp and brilliant, the snapping of twigs under his boots almost startling.

And the eerie howl was clear enough to reach him from miles away, audible under the sound of the jays and between the chatterings of a squirrel.

He waited, not breathing, until he heard it again: long, mournful, rising in pitch, and then holding that anguished note to the point of agony before trailing off.

The Hunter’s brow crinkled under the bill of his cap. The howl was too deep and guttural for a wolf. A cougar never made a sound like that. A bear? Not to his knowledge. If it was his quarry, it was upset about something.

Notice that Peretti’s use of these auditory and visual sensory links in these opening paragraphs are approximately equal in number. However, after paragraph six, which is a transition, neutral in terms of sensory linkage, the paragraphs’ visual sensory links become more numerous than their auditory links, thereby emphasizing the hunter’s (and the reader’s) vision over his hearing.

And far ahead of him.

He moved again, quickstepping, ducking branches, eyes darting about, dealing with the distance.

Before he had worked his way through the forest another mile he saw a breach in the forest canopy and an open patch of daylight through the trees. He was coming to a clearing.

He slowed, cautious, found a hiding place behind a massive fallen fir, and peered ahead.
(With but few auditory sensory links, the next paragraph--the first, so far, of any length--is replete with images that appeal to the character’s [and the reader’s] sense of sight; we have identified these images in bold green font.)

Just a few yards beyond him, the forest had been shorn open by a logging operation, a wide swath of open ground littered with forest debris and freshly sawn tree stumps. A dirt road cut through it all, a house-sized pile of limbs and slash awaited burning, and on the far side of the clearing, a hulking yellow bulldozer sat cold and silent, its tracks caked with fresh earth. A huge pile of logs lay neatly stacked near the road, ready for the logging trucks.
Although the next paragraphs also include a few images, the main focus of the descriptions is again on single words--nouns and adjectives, for the most part--which continue to favor sight over sound:

He saw no movement, and the only sound was the quiet rumble of a battered pickup truck idling near the center of the clearing.

He waited, crouching, eyes level with the top of the fallen tree, scanning the clearing, searching for the human beings who had to be there. But no one appeared and the truck just kept idling.

His gaze lifted from the truck to the bulldozer, then to the huge pile of logs, and then to the truck again where something protruding from behind the truck’s front wheels caught his eye. He grabbed a compact pair of binoculars from a pocket and took a closer look.

The protuberance was a man’s arm, motionless and streaked with blood.
The book goes on, for approximately 425 more pages, so we will part company with it here, and see what we can fathom as to the narrative and rhetorical purposes that Peretti’s sometimes simultaneous, sometimes alternating use of mostly auditory and visual sensory links within and among these paragraphs suggests.

Often in the novel, as in its opening paragraphs, sounds precede sights, reversing the order in which human beings normally perceive their environment, for we are much more dependent upon sight than hearing; sight, it could be said, is our preferred sense. It is the one to which we look, if such a pun may be pardoned, before we look to any of the others.

Hearing and touch tell us much, and we are also highly dependent upon them, of course, and less so upon smell and taste (although, once the novel’s protagonist, Rebecca [“Beck”] Shelton, is abducted by the monster of the novel’s title, she is surprised as to how much she becomes dependent upon her sense of smell as well as those of her sight and hearing). In the big pine woods, to which Beck, her husband Reed, and their friends have come to undergo a few days of survival training, sight is greatly reduced by the thick foliage of the dense stands of trees, and normal perception is put, as it were, off balance. (Even the hunter frustrates vision by wearing camouflage.)

Moreover, with the sense of hearing heightened and the sense of sight impeded, the auditory perceives nothing reassuring; far from it, the sounds of the forest are unfamiliar (“He heard something,” but he doesn’t know what, nor do we, the readers), and even the sense of sound, like that of sight, is reduced and obstructed: it is often reduced to a whisper or a lull, or silenced altogether. What is heard distinctly is the terrifying howling of “something” that, as Peretti is careful to inform us, is unlikely to be any familiar forest predator, whether wolf, cougar, or bear. The implication is that, whatever the howling “something” is, it is far worse even than these predatory beasts.

The deep forest makes the use of the senses upon which human beings most depend--sight and sound--problematic at best, increasing their ignorance and subjecting them to more potential menace. As such, the reduction of the senses, referenced within and between the novel’s opening paragraphs by the sensory links of sound and sight, of the auditory and the visual, may be a metaphor for the ignorance of humanity itself, especially in regard to knowledge that is assimilated by means of the senses--in other words, empirical knowledge, the type upon which scientists, including the evolutionary biologists who are the novel’s antagonists as much as the monster of its title, depend.

If the senses are undependable; if they are all but shut down, as it were, at times, then, perhaps, the sciences that are built upon them and its theories, including the theory of evolution, are tentative at best and prone to error. Certainly, this is the view of the creationist scientist Dr. Michael (“Cap”) Capella and his “lovely Coeur d’Alene Native American” wife, Sings in the Morning, or “Sing.” Ironically, both she and the novel’s other Native American character, a tracker, believe in the reality of the monster that abducts Beck; it is the immigrant European, the white man, who disbelieves, despite Caucasian scientists’ attempt to create, a la Dr. Moreau, a hideous new species of human-animal hybrids.

The undependability of the senses, especially those of sight and hearing, seems to reinforce the irony of empirical scientists who are skeptical of divine creation, having neither the eyes, as it were, to see the error of their theory nor the ears to hear the creationists’ criticisms of their fallacious reasoning. If anything, it is faith, not empirical knowledge or even reason, that must save the day.

It is good writing to link paragraphs by the use of words and phrases that appeal to sight and sound, both within and between, paragraphs, but it is superb writing to make such a device thematic as well as merely rhetorical, as Peretti does, creating of such links a metaphor that echoes and reinforces the novel’s very theme, expressed explicitly, several times by Dr. Capella in the course of the novel, and, quite succinctly, by one of Cap’s colleagues, Dr. Emile Baumgartner: “Tampering with DNA is like a child trying to fix a high-tech computer with a toy hammer. It’s always am injury, never an improvement, and we have boxcar loads of dead, mutated fruit flies and lab mice to prove it.”

Empirical science, sense-based, as it is and must be, has its limitations, even aided by reason, for the senses are limited, often inaccurate, sometimes deceived, and cannot penetrate beyond mere appearances. To pretend to understand the origin of the universe and the consequences that flow from the uncaused cause of the Big Bang is not only absurd, but it is also dangerous, Peretti suggests--as dangerous as being alone in a dense forest in which there be monsters that one cannot see or hear--until, perhaps, it is too late.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mapping the Monstrous

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In Monster (2005), Frank Peretti includes a map of his novel’s setting, which he updates at the end of each chapter. His use of this device accomplishes several narrative purposes. It orients the reader as to what takes place, when, where, and to whom, even as characters’ actions and narrative events change. It thus reinforces the idea that something is happening, that actions and events are unfolding. The map also adds verisimilitude, or a sense of reality, to the story, for its narrative landscape is charted, just as a real-world stretch of territory might be. The map also implies that the action of the narrative is significant, because only important events are recorded on a map.

The publisher of Monster notes, in a word to the reader, that the novel’s “custom maps,” updated “at the end of each chapter,” are included “to help you keep track of all the action.” So much action occurs between the novel’s covers, the publisher’s statement suggests, that the reader will need a visual representation of the setting just “to keep track” of it all. However, the publisher also suggests that, “even with maps. . . you will still find it hard to guess where things are headed.” The map, in other words, may orient the reader, but it will certainly not inhibit the plot’s imaginative meanderings, and, the maps notwithstanding, one should expect the unexpected: “Just when you think you have things figured out, Peretti’s imagination takes you down an unexpected route. . . and you realize there are more layers to the story than you imagined.”

A map, as Wikipedia observes, “is a visual representation of an area” which emphasizes “relationships between elements” that share a common space. Of course, there are many types of maps--aeronautical charts, contour maps, political maps, nautical charts, road atlases, pictorial maps, and others--but each is a depiction of a region, often terrestrial. That is, they enclose a space, thereby framing it, as it were, and making it special.

Maps cannot show every feature of the territory to which they correspond, so the mapmaker must select those features that the map will include, meaning, of course, that others must be excluded. In including some, while excluding other, features of the environment, the cartographer creates an image of the true world, and, of course, the mapmaker could be honest and straightforward or devious and duplicitous in depicting the terrain, its features, and their relationships to one another. A map is only as reliable as its maker. In other words, a map, like a storyteller, can be, as it were, an unreliable narrator.

Maps are often (but not always) scaled, so that an inch of map surface represents a much larger, corresponding surface of the actual terrain that the map represents. The map in Monster is scaled such that one inch of map surface equals ten miles of terrestrial surface. (Unfortunately, Peretti does not always honor his map’s scale.)

As the story progresses, more and more features are added, such as would not appear on any ordinary map of the area in which the story takes place--the deep forests of Idaho--suggesting that the novel’s maps are, indeed, as the publisher describes them, “custom maps.” The features that most maps include--highways, a river, creeks, a lake, forests, dry creek beds, trails, a resort, a dangerous “rock face”--are all present and accounted for, forming the relatively stable background, so to speak, against which foreground objects are added, subtracted, and rearranged as the story’s action progresses (although some settlements, towns, and directions to cities that do not themselves appear upon the maps are occasionally added as well). The stable landscape features are the relatively permanent, the more-or-less fixed, the comparatively reliable.

The foreground features, which are mostly technological or manmade, change; they appear, vanish, or reappear in other locations. Against the relatively permanent backdrop of nature, human and technological activities, temporary and tentative, shift and move. Like the scale--and, indeed, the map itself, as a mere “visual representation” of reality--the human attempt to chart the previously unknown--the difference between background and foreground features seems to represent the difference between the fixed and the determinate and the fluid and the free, or between fate and the freedom of the human will, just as it also suggests the gap between the known and the unknown and the monstrous and the human.

The shifting of the symbols on the map suggests that it’s not easy--and it may not even be possible--to truly represent reality, for, despite the stability of the known and the understood and, indeed, of the given features of nature, so to speak, there are always changeable and changing features which represent human freedom and behavior, including the products of
both--technological artifacts.

It would be unfair to divulge the secrets of Peretti’s impressive novel by describing the changes that occur with regard to the foreground objects that his ever-changing “custom maps” depict, for they both offer clues as to the story’s action and the direction that the plot takes. However, for the sake of further elucidating our idea as to the narrative significance of the map in mapping the monstrous, we shall address a couple of these shifting features.

One is the campsite of a young couple, Ted and Melanie, which, represented by a symbol of an Indian teepee in silhouette, doesn’t make its debut on the map until the end of chapter six, at the end of Service Road 19, which makes its first appearance along with the campsite. Both the service road and the teepee remain on subsequent maps, but the label, “Ted & Melanie’s campsite” vanishes, never to be seen again (until the final map, that is, representing, perhaps eternity), signifying that the couple is gone and that their campsite is now merely an abandoned location, not even marked, or labeled, as such anymore (until, again, the last map).

Likewise, at the end of chapter eight, Sing’s mobile lab appears on the map, parked, as it were, alongside the north shoulder of Highway 9, near the settlement labeled “Three Rivers.” On the map at the end of chapter nine, however, the settlement of Three Rivers, represented by a cluster of buildings in silhouette, remains, as does the text that labels it, but Sing’s satellite-dish-equipped van, labeled “Sing’s Mobile Lab,” has been relocated to the east of Road 228, west of Lost Creek and north of Abney & Tall Pine Resort, reflecting the character’s drive south.

Other, more critical objects are also represented, both on previous and subsequent maps as well as this one, but, again, it would be unfair to identify or discuss many of them for fear of spoiling readers’ pleasure in discovering these clues for themselves.

What is clear, however, even without an exhaustive detailing of the symbols’ appearances, disappearances, reappearances, and relocations or removals, is that the use of these “custom maps” adds interest, on several levels, to a novel that is exciting throughout and thrilling at times. The maps seem to help the reader to pin things down, but, as the publisher rightly observes, Peretti, nevertheless, succeeds in surprising the reader, time after time.

A map is not a journey, but it can suggest, at least, the terrain and its features, both relatively permanent and comparatively dynamic, and it can, when it involves a monster, suggest that there may be a disconnect between appearances and reality, between the known and the unknown, between the certain and the dubious, between fact and fiction. The maps in Monster are part of its fictional universe, and they both satisfy and frustrate the reader’s search for meaning and certainty. There is more to life than meets the eye, these maps suggest, and more to be taken upon faith than can be ascertained by reason.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Monsters and Heroes of Fiction (Are The Monsters and Heroes of the Self)

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. -- James 4:7

Anything goes wrong in one’s life, from birth to death, can, if properly represented, become a monster, for horror fiction, as we explain in a previous post, is really about suffering and, usually, surviving, loss:

  • The death of a baby = horror; what kills the baby = the monster.
  • The loss of a limb = horror; what causes the loss of the limb = the monster.
  • The loss of an eye or another organ = horror; the cause of the loss of the eye or other organ = the monster.
  • Starvation = horror; the cause of starvation--maybe it’s bulimia or anorexia nervosa--or, more specifically, the emotional roots of such a disease = the monster.
  • Loss of self-esteem = horror; the cause of the loss of self-esteem (abuse, abandonment, rejection?) = the monster.

A monster can produce offspring, many of which will not look like or act as their parents. The monster that kills a baby may cause a mother or a father--or both--to go insane, perhaps transforming a loving parent into a murderer or a suicide--or both. If the monster was a killer, perhaps the parent or parents will become a monster who takes the law into his, her, or their own hands.

The abusive mother or father, or the parent who abandons or rejects his or her child may produce a serial killer when the abused, abandoned, or rejected child him- or herself becomes an adult and starts to slaughter and destroy. Perhaps, such a child will become an arsonist instead, or a sadist, or a master manipulator whose violence is subtle and psychological and all the more devastating because unexpected and unperceived.

The sins of the father (and mother), the Bible tells us, are visited upon the children, unto the fourth generation. Monsters have parents; they also have progeny.

But monsters can be overcome; they can be defeated; sometimes, they can even be killed. Eventually, they meet their match, and they are neutralized or destroyed.

The destroyer of monsters is the hero within, the self that is bold enough and strong enough to meet the monster on his, her, or its own terms, on its home turf, and, single-handedly or aided by friends, go hand to hand and toe to toe against the beast. Gilgamesh is such a hero. Hercules is such a hero. Beowulf is such a hero. King Arthur is such a hero. Frodo Baggins is such a hero. Luke Skywalker is such a hero. Buffy Summers is such a hero. Fiction is replete with such heroes, as is life itself, for we--you and I--are potential heroes, just as it is you and I, as often as not, who are also the monsters.

The monster is overcome by the hero’s gaining what he or she lacks. The acquisition of this need constitutes his or her transformation, and this transformation indicates his or her victory over the monster.

There is no chance of victory for the murdered baby, but there is for the surviving parents; if they resist the temptation to become monsters themselves, they have, despite the loss of their beloved child, defeated the monster.

If a person lives the fullest life possible, without self-pity, seeking his or her own welfare and happiness and the welfare and happiness of others as well, despite the loss of a limb, this person has overcome the monster that has lain in ambush for him or her and is a hero rather than a victim. The same is true of the man or woman who loses an eye or another organ. Resisting the demons of despair and self-pity, of helplessness and bitterness means defeating them.

Starvation--which can be spiritual or emotional as well as physical--can be defeated if one is able to find the nutrients, whether of the soul or the flesh or both, that he or she lacks or can find the strength of character and will to defeat the monster of bulimia or anorexia nervosa, whatever hell their emotional roots may be planted in.

Learning to love and trust others--and oneself--despite having been abused, abandoned, or rejected means overcoming the monster.

There are many monsters. They are everywhere. There are many heroes, too, though, for the monster’s nemesis, its slayer, resides within.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reversals of Fate and Fortune

By Gary L. Pullman

People--and, therefore, their images and likenesses, fictional characters--seek to acquire that which they lack. This is the basic motive in all fiction, for all characters, whatever their more specific, momentary motive or motives may be.

Biologists tell us that organisms, including people, seek to maintain homeostasis, or balance. If they experience a depletion of nutrients, they become hungry and eat, thereby replacing the nutrients they’ve lost. If pressure builds upon the bladder, they seek to relieve this pressure by urinating. If they feel anxious, they seek to find whatever they need to make themselves feel safe and secure. Writers, whether of horror fiction or otherwise, should make sure that, whatever other, more immediate and specific motive with which a character is blessed or cursed causes the character to act, he or she does so to acquire whatever he or she lacks or perceives him- or herself to lack.

Here are a few examples of what characters may lack and seek to acquire; there are many others. Some are not emotional, but material, physical, or social in nature. Often, the basic motive (the acquisition of something that one lacks) is related to a character’s more immediate and specific motive or motives, as we shall see in a moment, when we consider the motives of Marion Crane, of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho fame.

As Psycho opens, we learn that Marion is having an affair with Sam Loomis. However, she is dissatisfied with seeing her boyfriend on only an occasional basis, and she pressures him to marry her. He says he is unable to do so, because he owes his ex-wife alimony payments and is also otherwise in debt.

After she leaves Sam, she returns to work, where her boss’ latest client, an oilman, has brought the $40,000 in cash as the payment for a house he is buying outright for his daughter, who is getting married. The oilman’s daughter’s imminent marriage and happiness contrasts sharply with Marion’s unhappy, single state, perhaps worsening it in her eyes. The fact that she works for an employer who cares little for her comfort or needs, as is clear when he tells a client that his office is air-conditioned, but the outer office that Marion shares with a coworker is not, makes it easier, perhaps, for her to make her decision to abscond with the money that her boss asks her to deposit in the bank. With this money, she thinks, she can finance her own marriage and happiness. On the surface, the immediate and specific motive for Marion’s stealing of her employer’s money is to make it possible for her and Sam to wed. On a more basic level, she is seeking to acquire the love and companionship that she lacks. The basic, general and the immediate, specific motives mesh.

What is true of Marion is true of other characters--especially protagonists--as well. What about Norman Bates, the protagonist of Hitchcock’s movie? What is the basic, general need that he lacks, and how is it related to the immediate, specific motives for his actions? Toward the end of the film, a psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Richmond, explains all: Norman feels guilt for having killed his mother, who dominated him while she was alive, and seeks to “erase the crime”--that is, to make amends--by impersonating her, by becoming her. He killed his mother after she took a lover following her husband’s death; since he was jealous of his mother’s boyfriend, the psychiatrist explains, Norman believes that his “mother” would also be jealous of any woman for whom Norman feels an infatuation, which is why, dressed as his mother, he kills Marion (and, presumably, two other women who have disappeared in the vicinity of his motel).

Obviously, Norman lacks innocence, which motivates him to seek to acquire forgiveness by atoning for his crime, matricide, even if, in doing so, he must kill again, to maintain the act by which he seeks to acquire forgiveness--the impersonation of his mother.

What is true of Marion Crane and Norman Bates is true of other characters as well. By making sure that your characters’ basic, general needs, or motives, and their more immediate, specific motives mesh, you will create more fully realized and believable characters than you would if you were to motivate their behavior by only the momentary and particular desire to acquire something that is truly but a means to the end of gaining that which, on the more inclusive and permanent (often emotional or spiritual) level, they lack.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Small-Town, Rural, and Urban Horrors, or There Goes the Neighborhood!

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Among other topics in his generous introduction, “Contemporary Horror Fiction, 1950-1998,” to Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet, Stefan Dziemianowicz describes several subgenres of the genre, including dark fantasy, or “quiet horror”; small-town horror; urban horror; and various modern monsters (the child, the mad scientist, ghosts, the werewolf, the vampire, psychopaths and serial killers), giving insightful overviews of the use of each in the horror of the day.

The topic of this post is Dziemianowicz’s perceptions concerning “small-town horror,” “the tale of rural horror,” and “the tale of urban horror.” All quotations are directly from Dziemianowicz’s introductory essay:
The small-town horror story--which encompasses. . . suburban. . . and. . . rural horror--. . . characterized life in postwar America. . . . In the typical suburban horror story, a small community serves as a microcosm of the world.

People of the community live in harmony, or at least a tentatively peaceful coexistence, until an external threat causes social disintegration along the lines of smoldering prejudice or social preferment. . . . Although in a small number of these stories. . . the values that tie the members of a community together prove instrumental to defeating the external threat, the basic small-town horror story offers a paranoid vision of something gone rancid at the core of small-town American life (213).
As examples of such horror stories, Dziemianowicz cites Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon, Stephen King’s Needful Things, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Charles L. Grant’s The Hour of the Oxrun Dead, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, King’s The Regulators, and Robert McCammon’s Stinger (213). These stories follow the storyline of the invasion, which I outlined in an earlier post, the prototypical one of which is Satan’s invasion of the Garden of Eden.
According to Dziemianowicz,
The tale of rural horror takes a more traditional tack, evoking a world of savagery outside the boundaries of the civilized city and suburb. . . . In the modern rural horror story, visitors or new residents find a heart of darkness beneath the quaint and charming darkness of rustic life. The milieu is either home to legendary monsters that terrorize old and new townsfolk alike. . . or hostage to primitive customs and rituals that have preserved its unique character. Frequently, . . . the rural menace embodies the hostility of the community to outsiders, and of the country to the city (213).
Among stories of this type, Dziemianowicz includes in his list of examples “H. P. Lovecraft’s tales of Arkham, Dunwich, and other insular New England communities whose degenerate inhabitants are linked to ancient primal forces”; Owen Brookes’ The Gatherer, Alan Ryan’s The Kill, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, Rob Hardy and Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man, Jack Ketcham’s The Off Season, T. E. D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, and Phil Rickman’s Crybbe (213).
Concerning “the tale of urban horror,” Dziemianowicz observes,
The small-town horror story’s counterpart, the tale of urban horror, tends to make much of the incongruity of primitive horrors taking root in a symbol of modern civilization [i. e., the city]. . . . Even more innovative are those stories that present the city itself as a monstrous incarnation of moral decay, human indifference, and brutal violence. . . . Horrors grow out of the grime, crime, and squalor of the urban landscape. Characters in these stories find themselves in danger of engulfment or absorption by their surroundings (213-214).
This type of horror story, Dziemianowicz says, is exemplified by Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Ken Eulo’s The Brownstone, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Whitney Strieber’s The Wolfen, Ray Garton’s Live Girls, Thomas Monteleone’s Night Train, and Klein’s “Children of the Gods” in the Dark Gods anthology (213-214).
Much contemporary horror fiction is set in small towns, rural communities or locations, and urban centers because these are the places that contemporary people live, and each is a source of horrors characteristic, if not always unique, to itself. One of the sources of enjoyment in such fiction is its insertion of the reader into a world that is familiar, but one in which strange and bizarre incidents occur, seemingly at random, either drawing the folk together or driving them apart or, conversely, allowing the reader a glimpse into life as the other half (or third) lives it.

The country bumpkin can get a peek at the lives of city slickers, or vice versa, or the suburbanite can see how things go among his or her city or country counterparts. It may be reassuring to know that others, elsewhere, live problematic lives in which horror and terror are omnipresent possibilities. Maybe the place where one lives is not all that bad, after all, readers, whether urban, rural, or suburban, may conclude after reading about the lives of their counterparts who have chosen or who are forced to live elsewhere instead of next door. Life may not always be better in the pasture on the other side of the fence, after all.

A well-written story in one of these subgenres, if such subtypes they be, also offers a bit of solace to the reader who does occupy the real-life counterparts to one of these fictional settings. The city resident may face serial killers, rats in the sewer, and the inhumanity of man (and woman) to man (and woman) up close, as it were, and personal, but so does everyone else who lives in New York City, Los Angeles, or Detroit. Misery loves company, and, in cities, large, medium, and small, there are anywhere from several thousand to several million other people in the same boat, as it were (to mix a couple of metaphors).

The same is true, of course, of the city residents’ rural or suburban counterpart; the farmer who tends a hundred-acre farm is isolated, to a degree, perhaps, but there are others of his kind across the country and, indeed, around the world; even a far-flung community, the members of which are separated by acres and miles, is still a community, similar or identical values and practices, concerns and hopes, fears and dreams holding them together. The suburbanite has neighbors--sometimes, one too many (and usually the one next door).

In the “What’s My Line” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the protagonist, Buffy Summers, having encountered Kendra Young, a second vampire slayer, like herself, as the result of a once-in-a-million-years’ accident of sorts, tells Kendra, “I’m a freak,” to which declaration, Kendra replies, “Not the only freak.”

These two teenage girls, saddled with the responsibility to keep humanity safe from demons, vampires, and other monsters, natural, paranormal, and supernatural, take comfort in the knowledge that they are no longer alone, that they are “not the only freak” any longer. The same is true of the reader of horror stories set in cities, in rural areas, and in suburban housing tracts across the country and around the world, thanks, in large measure, to the sort of fiction that Dziemianowicz cites, “the small-town horror story,” “the tale of rural horror ,” and “the tale of urban horror.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Syntactical Storylines

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The adjectival subject verbed its object adverbially.

(Example: The old man ate cake quickly.)

The above sentence reflects the basic, normal syntax (word order) of the English language, which can be modified by additions of words, phrases and clauses, as necessary or desirable.

Reducing this syntax to one of subject-verb-object, and appending to it a final phrase or clause that identifies or explains its cause, motivation, or reason can suggest a storyline that can then be developed into a plot. Here are some examples, based on summaries in Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet, edited by Neil Barron:

Most writers can come up with the subject (protagonist or antagonist), the verb (incident or action), and the object (which may or may not be the antagonist). The explanation as to why the incident or the action occurred is what often troubles authors--and it is upon just this item that the whole story hangs, for without a cause, a motive, or a reason, a sequence of incidents or a chain of actions (behaviors) has no meaning. Consequently, the story has no consequence or value. It is merely a meaningless succession of pointless happenings unrelated to one another except by chronology.

One of the beauties of a syntactical approach to creating storylines is that, in compiling a list of examples of the process, such as the one that we have complied here, based upon stories’ summaries in Fantasy and Horror, one can obtain, as it were, a bird’s-eye view of causes, motives and reasons--of the explanatory origins or consequences--of a plot’s incidents or a protagonist’s or an antagonist’s actions, which allows the writer to give significance and understanding to such incidents or actions.

Motivated actions, or behaviors (which, unlike incidents, which are caused, rather than motivated) have ends, or purposes; such actions are goal-directed. They may be directed toward self-satisfaction or the satisfaction of another. In either case, they fulfill various needs that psychologists have identified. Some needs can be fulfilled by oneself; others needs must be fulfilled by someone or something other than oneself; and still other needs may be fulfilled by either oneself, may be fulfilled by another, or may or must be fulfilled by both the self and another who act together, in cooperative interaction, with one another. (Abraham Maslow identifies classes of universal basic human needs that energize, or motivate, human behavior: physiological needs, safety need, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs, and other psychologists identify still other types of universal needs with which writers should be familiar.)

In horror fiction, the past often affects the present, and the present often affects the future. Sometimes, these effects are intended; they are set up by a character on purpose, to initiate future incidents. Other times, they seem to be merely the workings of chance. They may be caused by a character’s performance of a ritual by which he or she hopes to impart a supernatural status to a natural object, process, set of circumstances, condition, or event. They may result from the contact of two points in the space-time continuum that are usually separate. An action may be the result of hubris, or they may be intended to effect catharsis, or a venting of powerful emotion.

The explanation for the incidents that occur or the actions that the protagonist or the antagonist performs may also suggest a back story--or, at least, elements that should be developed and, eventually, explained in the back story. For example, if an architect is motivated to perform ritual murders as a means of “baptizing” the cathedrals he designs or builds, in order to cause later repetitions of these initial killings, the reader, at some point, will want and expect to know why--in other words, what motivates this character to do want to do such a thing to begin with? The character’s immediate purpose, or motive, is to cause later repetitions of the original killings; his or her motive for wanting the initial murders to be repeated might be called the final motive. Learning the immediate cause, the reader will be content to read further, but he or she will expect to be told the final cause as well, at some point in the story, or the character’s actions will, despite the immediate cause having been identified, remain baseless and incredible. Withholding, but ultimately disclosing, the final cause as well is a good mean of maintaining suspense--as long as, at some point, the final cause is also revealed.

Note: All summaries are quoted directly (except where modifications are indicated) from Alan Frank’s The Horror Film Handbook.

The storyline, or premise, of a narrative should normally follow the subject-verb-object syntax that is typical of English sentences and include any necessary articles:

A bishop unleashes a demon.

Usually, the subject identifies the story’s protagonist; the verb, his or her action; and the object the recipient of the protagonist’s action.

The storyline may add words, phrases, or dependent clauses to provide additional information about any or all three of these elements. However, the additional details should be necessary and minimal, at this point. For example, Since this story (Abby) (1974) is set in an African country (Nigeria) and, in fact, the demon itself is a native, as it were, to this country, the bishop’s race may be regarded as significant; therefore, it is mentioned; otherwise, it would not be:

A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon.

If it is pertinent to the plot of the story to further describe any of these elements, additional words, phrases, or clauses can be added. For example, the type of demon can be indicated; in our example, based upon the movie Abby, the demon is one “of sexuality,” so this phrase is added, after the noun “demon”:

A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing. . . .

This sentence comprises the setup of the story; it is the inciting moment--the one incident in the action of the story that sets everything else in the narrative in motion, the spark, or catalyst, that ignites the remaining actions of the plot. To identify this moment as the cause of the actions which follow, rather than merely their antecedent, many writers convert the sentence into an adverbial clause by adding “When” to the beginning of the group of words:

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing. . . .

What was formerly an independent clause (“A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing”) is now a dependent clause (“When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing”), and an adverbial one, at that, which will modify the as-yet non-existent independent clause that will follow it, completing the sentence. The independent clause (underlined in the example, below) will identify the effect, or consequence, of the cause that the dependent, adverbial clause identifies:

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law becomes possessed.

As before, if it is pertinent to the plot of the story to further describe any of these elements, additional words, phrases, or clauses can be added. For example, the location in which the daughter-in-law lives may be deemed relevant; if so, it should be identified (as it is here, underlined):

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed.

The consequence that follows from the storyline’s initial cause can itself become the cause of a subsequent consequence, as in the extension of the premise (in which the added consequence is underlined):

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed and he has to perform an exorcism.

This is a fairly well-written summary of Abby’s basic plot, or storyline, although the phrase “and evil-doing” possibly could be omitted. As such, it specifies the three parts of the story, in a cause-and-effect sequence, thereby representing the germ of a logical, coherent, well-structured, three-act premise:

Beginning (Act I): A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing.

Middle (Act II): His daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed.

End (Act III)
: He has to perform an exorcism.

A storyline can also state or suggest the protagonist’s motive, as this one does, in summarizing the plot of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), in which, here, underlining has been added to indicate the motive:

A wealthy musical genius, the horribly disfigured Dr. Phibes, plans to murder all the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life and uses methods of death based on the ten curses of [i. e., on] Pharaoh.

In other words, Dr, Phibes is motivated by revenge. This premise could be improved:

A wealthy musical genius, the horribly disfigured Dr. Phibes uses methods of death based on the ten curses of [i. e., on] Pharaoh to murder all the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life.

Notice that this summary, in addition to suggesting the protagonist’s motive (revenge), also identifies an unusual twist: Dr. Phibes will employ “methods of death based on the ten curses on Pharaoh.” If a story contains such a twist, the storyline should indicate it, as this one does, because it is such unusual twists that add interest to a storyline. However, a writer is still well advised to start with the simplest subject-verb-object method of delineating the original germ of the plot and then add such words, phrases, or clauses that seem justified to present all pertinent details, whether of character, setting, unusual plot twist, motive, or otherwise:

A genius murders surgeons.

The following summary (of The Abominable Snowman) also indicates the movie’s three-part plot structure, the character’s motive, and the setting:

An expedition travels into the Himalayas [Beginning (Act I), which constitutes the inciting moment and includes an identification of the setting as “the Himalayas”] in search of the legendary Yeti [Middle (Act II), including the characters’ motive] and discover the creatures to be monstrous but friendly [End (Act III)].

Notice that this summary could be recast in the “when-this, that” format:

When an expedition travels into the Himalayas in search of the legendary Yeti[,] [the team] discover the creatures to be monstrous but friendly.

Even a classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) can fit this format:

[When] a young woman steals $40,000 from her employer and stops over at an isolated motel . . . she is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.

[Beginning (Act I)]: A young woman steals $40,000 from her employer.

[Middle (Act II)]
: [She] stops over at an isolated motel.

[End (Act III)]
: She is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.

Although this summary doesn’t state or suggest her motive, the movie itself does, and the summary could easily be adapted to do likewise:

[When] a young woman steals $40,000 from her employer to finance a new life with her boyfriend before stopping over at an isolated motel . . . she is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.


Barron, Neil, ed. Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet.

Frank, Alan. The Horror Film Handbook. Barnes & Noble Books: Totowa, NJ. 1982.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Monster Mash, or How To Create A Monster, Part 2

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In the introductory chapter of Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains the theses upon which he believes the “understanding” of “cultures through the monsters they bear” should rest. In doing so, he provides, inadvertently, perhaps, a framework upon which writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction may construct monsters of their own.

These are his seven theses, which, in this post, we shall explain and modify to fit our own purpose as monster makers:
Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body.
Thesis II: The monster always escapes.
Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis.
Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.
Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible.
Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.
Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold. . . of becoming.

Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body.

Cohen’s first thesis is that the monster represents an existential concern--“a fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”--of a particular time and place.

Thesis II: The Monster always escapes.

According to his second thesis, such concerns change from time to time, so the monster that represents them must be protean, altering its appearance as necessary so that it might continue to embody the latest of its culture’s ever-shifting, real-life fears, desires, anxieties, and fantasies. Its shape-shifting character makes its essential nature a mystery.

Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis.

The monster also heralds (and, therefore, warns) of a “crisis” regarding its culture’s categories of understanding the world, including itself and the societies and individuals who comprise the culture. It defies the neat scientific pigeonholes into which a culture would group all things under the sun--for example, as mineral, plant, or animal--resisting “compartmentalization” and inviting new explorations of the world and new understandings of existence. Neither fish nor fowl, it doesn’t fit its culture’s categories of understanding, and, therefore, its meaning is ambiguous and open to interpretation: “A mixed category, the monster resists any classification built on hierarchy and binary opposition, demanding instead a ‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response (differences in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration” (7). In sum, as Cohen argues,
The monstrous is a genus too large to be encapsulated in any conceptual system; the monster’s very existence is a rebuke to boundary and enclosure; . . . it threatens to devour. .. any thinker who insists otherwise. . . . It breaks apart bifurcating, “either/or” syllogistic logic with a kind of reasoning closer to “and/or,” introducing what Barbara Johnson has called “a revolution in the very logic of meaning” (7).

Sometimes the tiny helps us to grasp the much larger, so a real-life example of a categorical crisis might help to elucidate Cohen’s third thesis. To this end, ladies and gentlemen, I introduce the lowly Euglena. Scientists had long argued that all things are divisible into three broad categories: minerals, plants, and animals. Then, one day, they happened to catch sight of the Euglena under their microscopes. A one-celled animal, with a cell wall and the ability to move under its own power, by thrashing a flagellum, it was an animal--except for the chloroplasts that allowed it to photosynthesize--organelles that animals lack and an ability that animals do not have. The Euglena was neither animal nor plant, but a whole new sort of organism that defied their neat scientific pigeonholes and led to a crisis, of sorts, in the culture of their discipline, until they were swept into a new category, specially made for them alone, that of the Protista. The tiny Euglena was a monster of the microscopic world, creating in microbiology the same “rebuke to boundary and enclosure” that the monster, in general, creates on the much larger level of cultural understandings of the world. (think of what Swamp-Thing might accomplish!)

Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.

The monster is the eternal Other, the Not-Me of its culture, the culture’s rejected self, envisioned as an outsider who dwells in the land beyond one’s own. As such, “the monster,” Cohen observes, “is difference made flesh” (7), whether the monster of the day represented “the aboriginal inhabitants of Canaan” who were “envisioned as menacing giants to justify the Hebrew colonization of the Promised Land,” the Muslims whom medieval French crusaders pictured as “demonic caricatures whose menacing lack of humanity was readable from the bestial attributes,” Native Americans considered “as unredeemable savages” and threats to “Manifest Destiny” which sought to “push westward with disregard,” or “an alien culture. . . within vast communities dedicated to becoming homogeneous and monolithic” against whose very existence a “Final Solution” was required (7-8). Many monsters, both ancient and modern, Cohen says, are the products of “race” as much as cultural and other biases: “From the classical period into the twentieth century, race has been almost as powerful a catalyst to the creation of monsters as culture, gender, and sexuality” (10). The monsters that such biases help to spawn are such as supposedly inferior ethnic groups, “hermaphrodites,” homosexuals, and other “marginalized social groups”; quoting Rene Girard, Cohen reminds his reader that--
Monsters are never created ex nihilo, but through a process of fragmentation and recombination in which elements are extracted “from various forms” (including--indeed, especially--marginalized social groups) and then assembled as the monster, “which can then assume an independent identity” (11).

As that which is different and Other than the status quo, the monster, which cannot be pigeonholed according to the reigning culture’s categories of understanding, including those of its own understanding, the monster is a reminder of the arbitrary nature of the culture itself and of its categories of understanding and “threatens to destroy not just individual members of a society but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed” (12).

Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible.

Although the monster invites exploration of the unknown (the body of potential knowledge that lies outside the “boundary and enclosure” of the culture’s categories of understanding), it also repels such exploration, because one of its purposes is to guard and protect the borders that a culture erects to defend itself against the absurd and against challenges to its own system, or, as Cohen says, “The monster of prohibition exists to demarcate the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, to call horrid attention to the borders that cannot--must not
--be crossed” (13), the fact that some of these “relations” are, of themselves, “horrid”:

Primarily these borders are in place to control the traffic in women, or more generally to establish strictly homosocial bonds, the ties between men that keep a patriarchal society functional. . . (13).

The prototypical example of a monster that threatened the culture of its day is that of the Cyclops, Cohen says, whose anarchistic society, bereft of tradition, represented a threat to classical culture by the lawless and uncultured barbarian. The monster, Cyclopean or otherwise, threatens because it is potentially deconstructive:
The monster’s destructiveness is really a deconstructiveness: it threatens to reveal that difference originates in process, rather than in fact (and that “fact” is subject to constant reconstruction and change) (14-15).

Not only does the Greek myth concerning the threats of the Cyclops to its culture, but such science fiction films of the 1950’s as She and Them! also reflect the “deconstructiveness” of the monster and its theme of cultural relativism. She is a movie about “a radioactive virago from outer space who kills every man she touches” and Them! is about “giant ants (really, Communists) who burrow beneath Los Angeles (that is, Hollywood) and threaten world peace (that is, American conservatism)” (14). As such, both movies reflect the tendency of their makers, white men, to cast women and nonwhites as “monsters” and reflect taboos against incest and miscegenation, two threats that white men see as incompatible to their continued supremacy within, and control of, their society and culture (17).

Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.

Notwithstanding its threatening nature, the monster is, paradoxically, an object of desire, Cohen argues, in the same way that the forbidden fruit attracts the appetite. Confined to the limits of the silver screen (or, one might add, the page of a novel), the monster offers a means of venting the impulses an audience has which, otherwise, are forbidden and subject to social sanctions. The monster is cathartic. Besides, sooner or later, a hero will arrive to chop off its head:
When contained by geographic, generic, or epistemic marginalization, the monster can function as an alter ego, as an alluring projection of (an Other) self. . . . We watch the monstrous spectacle of the horror film because we know that the cinema is a temporary place. . . . King Arthur will ultimately destroy him. The audience knows how the genre works (17).

What is true on the individual level, Cohen argues, is apt to be true on the cultural level as well. If the individual can see him- or herself as the monster, his or her culture can also project onto the monster those aspects of itself that it officially rejects, creating a sort of mirror self of the damned:
What Bakhtin calls “official culture” can transfer all that is viewed as undesirable in itself into the body of the monster, performing a wish-fulfillment drama of its own; the scapegoated monster is perhaps destroyed in the course of some official narrative, purging the community by eliminating its sins. The monster’s eradication functions as an exorcism and, when retold and promulgated, as a catechism (18).

Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold. . . of becoming.

“Monsters are our children,” Cohen contends, for it is we, out of our own “fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy,” create, and, when they reenter our world “from the Outside,” from the outer darkness, as it were, into which we have cast them, which they invariably will do, they come bringing gifts of a sort: “not just a fuller knowing of our place, but. . . self-knowledge, human knowledge” (20). Moreover, they fulfill a critical function, asking “us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place”:
They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perceptions of difference, our tolerance toward its expression. They ask us why we have created them (20).

During her stint as television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah Michelle Gellar said, tongue in cheek, that she knew that vampires exist, because she saw them every day. Near the conclusion to his chapter, Cohen asks a similar question, but offers a serious, rather than flippant, answer. “Do monsters exist?” They do, he insists, “for if they did not, how could we?”

For the monster maker, monsters are a means both of critiquing the existing order and for supporting it. They are paradoxical creatures in this, as they are by nature. They show us the germs, some of them pathogenic, in the baby’s bath water, but they retain the baby, at the end, rather than tossing it out with the water in which it has bathed. The baby is the individual self, but as it exists in the greater context of a specific culture located here and now. The Other which threatens the self and its culture exposes horrors within both, but, in so doing, it exposes these threats as diseased tissues, as it were, that must be excised--or exorcized--if the body itself is to survive. After the dragon is loosed upon the earth for a time, King Arthur will arrive to chop off its head. Meantime, the monster will target the vices and sins of the ruling elite itself, against whom King Arthur is both the sire, the defender, and the conqueror, all in one.

As we saw in the previous post in this series, In developing his taxonomy, David Williams, perhaps inadvertently, offers twelve ways by which writers may create monsters:

Hypertrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be enlarged, to produce a giant of some kind. Example: Giants.

Atrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be shrunk, to produce a pygmy of some kind. Example: Pygmies.

Excrescence: Abnormal outgrowths may appear upon the face, the body, or both, disfiguring a person and giving him or her a monstrous appearance. Example: Elephant Man.

Superfluity of body parts: One or more superfluous body parts--arms, breasts, eyes, legs, nipples, teeth--may form on (or inside) the body, often in unusual locations. Example: Multicephalic (many-headed), tricephalic (three-headed), or bicephalic (two-headed) creatures, such as the hydra, Cerberus, and Janus, respectively.

Deprivation of parts: There may be an absence of one or more body parts that would normally appear on (or inside) the body. Example: One-eyed Cyclops.

Mislocation of organs: There may be a mix of human and animal body parts. Examples: Centaurs, mermaids, satyrs.

Animal births by women: In a means of creating monsters that implies bestiality, women may give birth to animals. Example: Mixture of human and animal parts.

Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).

Disturbed growth: Normal growth may be “disturbed” in some way. Example: Premature aging, as with Rip Van Winkle.

Composite beings: A creature may result from a composite of various body parts, animal, human, plant, mineral, and otherwise. Example: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ents, griffins, Gorgons, Pegasus, vegetable lambs.

Hermaphroditic birth: Both sets of genitals may occur in the same individual. Example: Hermaphrodite.

Monstrous races: The existence of “monstrous races” may be posited. Examples: Dog-headed Cynocephali or the Astomori, who lacking mouths, live on the upon the odors of apples.

To these twelve, we added a couple more:

The monster should exist, but “far away, not here,” so that its existence cannot be easily confirmed, if at all.

Monsters must be metaphorical.

Based upon a modification of Cohen’s seven theses, as indicated by paraphrases that reorient some of his insights, we can now add seven more principles to consider in the creation of monsters:
The monster is an embodiment of its culture’s peculiar concerns.The monster always escapes.

The monster indicates a dissolve of a culture’s ways of understanding itself and its world.

The monster represents that which is different from accepted truths.

The monster protects the interests of the status quo.

The monster allows an audience to vent pent-up antisocial desires.

The monster both critiques culture and also tells us who we are, thereby helping us to become what we are not but may want to be.

In our final installment in this series, we will consider how these ideas and principles, and some others, apply to the creation of more monsters that inhabit horror fiction that has Christian interests and themes but which is not necessarily marketed as “Christian” fiction per se.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature. London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.

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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