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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.)

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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