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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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