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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Man Overboard: Questioning Nature and Its Creator

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

It is not generally known, but Sir Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, not only painted landscapes and other paintings, but he also wrote short stories, one of which, “Man Overboard” (1899), is the subject of this post.



Sir Winston Churchill

The story is similar, in some ways, to Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” and to the 2003 film Open Water. Perhaps we shall consider these other stories in future articles.


Churchill’s first short story, “The Open Boat,” appeared in this magazine.

In “Man Overboard,” the anonymous protagonist falls overboard from a “mail steamer” that is sailing east through the Red Sea. It is “a little after half-past nine,” the omniscient narrator informs us, “when the man fell overboard.” He’d left the ship’s “companion-house,” where a concert was in progress, to “smoke a cigarette and enjoy a breath of the wind,” when, leaning back upon a railing which gave way, he “fell backwards into the warm water of the sea amid a great splash.”

The story’s second paragraph describes sights, sounds, and tactile sensations that could be discerned from either the deck or the sea itself, and is, therefore, ambiguous as to the man’s whereabouts. Is he still aboard at this time or has he already fallen overboard? The story shifts back and forth, between the interior and the deck of the ship and the water:
The night was clear, though the moon was hidden behind clouds. The warm air was laden with moisture. The still surface of the waters was broken by the movement of the great ship, from whose quarter the long, slanting undulations struck out like feathers from an arrow shaft, and in whose wake the froth and air bubbles churned up by the propellers trailed in a narrowing line to the darkness of the horizon.
The painter’s eye is discernable in the writer’s imagery; Churchill paints a clear picture, terrible in its simplicity. This paragraph is an example of something that literature can do that would be difficult, if not impossible, for film to accomplish. Its ambiguity provides a double perspective, allowing the reader to see and hear and feel the sky, the air, and the water both from the ship and from the sea at the same time. These shifts between the cozy comfort of the ship and “the blackness of the waters” heightens the horror of the story, producing uncertainty as to the man’s location and representing both the possibility of his safety as well as that of his peril.

Although his fall produces “a great splash,” the noise is not enough, over the distance and the sound of the musical instruments, to be heard, and the concert to which he’d been listening, mere moments ago, with pleasure now becomes something of a mocking and terrible reminder of his separation from the ship and its passengers and crew. Separated from the group, he is all alone in the sea. His absence goes unnoticed as the band plays “a lively tune,” the first verse of which is, rather ominously, “accompanied” by “the measure pulsations of the screw,” or ship’s propeller.

Churchill employs the passive voice throughout much of his story, an unusual technique, which heightens the impersonal character of the sea and the shock of the protagonist who has fallen overboard. His actions are automatic, desperate, and “inarticulate.” His terror has robbed him of his ability to think or to speak in an articulate fashion:
For a moment he was physically too much astonished to think. Then he realised he must shout. He began to do this even before he rose to the surface. He achieved a hoarse, inarticulate, half-choked scream. A startled brain suggested the word, “Help!” and he bawled this out lustily and with frantic effort six or seven times without stopping. Then he listened.
He listens, but he hears only the chorus of the song that the ship’s distant passengers and crew sing, their very singing proof that they are as unaware of the man overboard as if he didn’t exist.
Nor does the sea respond to his desperate cries for help. Nature has no heart, no mind, no soul; it is utterly indifferent, so to speak, to the fate of the man overboard, and he is more acted upon, both by nature and his own instinctive drives, than he is active. Free will means little when one is alone in an impersonal ocean.

Technology, as represented by the mail steamer--a ship that carries human correspondence, representing connection and communication among men and women--is of no avail in the world of nature. The narrator, stripped, as it were, of humanity’s technological capabilities and armor, is mere flotsam, no better or more valuable than any other detritus afloat upon the seas. Men may value themselves and one another; the sea, a synecdoche of nature as a whole, does not, a theme that “The Open Boat” and Open Water share with Churchill’s story and which is well expressed by Crane in a short poem, “A Man Said to the Universe,” that could stand as the epigraph to any of these stories:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
As the ship continues to steam away from the man, the music and the vessel’s lights dim, the ship seeming to get smaller and smaller in the distance, heightening the horror of the protagonist's situation and the terror he feels, even as the increasing silence and the lengthening gap emphasizes his aloneness, his vulnerability, and his desperation:
The chorus floated back to him across the smooth water for the ship had already completely passed by. And as he heard the music a long stab of terror drove through his heart. The possibility that he would not be picked up dawned for the first time in his consciousness.
As he hears, again, the chorus, he screams again for help, “now in desperate fear,” only to hear, as if it is mocking him, the chorus’ refrain, its “last words drawled out fainter and fainter.”

The instinct for self-preservation is strong within him--at first; however, his desire to live soon weakens as, after setting “out to swim after it [the ship] with furious energy, pausing every dozen strokes to shout long wild shouts,” he stops, as “full realisation” comes to him that he is “alone--abandoned.” This “understanding” of his predicament, the narrator remarks, causes his brain to reel, and he has a second burst of determination to save himself, praying, this time, rather than shouting. Instead of depending upon his fellow human beings for assistance, he has turned to God, pleading for divine assistance.

Almost immediately, as if Churchill intends his story’s theme to be that God helps those who ask for his help, after the steamer’s having become nothing more than “a single fading light on the blackness of the waters and a dark shadow against the paler sky,” the ship seems to stop so that it might return. His prayer, it seems, has been answered. God, it appears, has heard him, and “a surge of joy and hope” flashes “through his mind” as he gives thanks to the deity.

A moment later, his hopes are dashed, and he despairs as he sees the ship’s light become “gradually but steadily smaller,” and, where, before, he’d given voice to his gratitude, he now curses his fate: “Beating the water with his arms, he raved impotently. Foul oaths burst from him, as broken as his prayers--and as unheeded.” It seems clear that, whether he pleas for deliverance, gives thanks, or curses God, neither nature nor its Creator hear or respond. They are as indifferent to his gratitude as they are to his need and his thanksgiving. As he becomes exhausted, his “passion” gives way to “fear,” and after only “twenty minutes” have “passed,” he resigns to his fate. Rather than attempt to “swim all the way to Suez,” he decides to drown, and he throws “up his hands impulsively,” sinking, only to find that his instinct to survive takes over, preventing him from committing suicide:
Down, down he went through the warm water. The physical death took hold of him and he began to drown. The pain of that savage grip recalled his anger. He fought with it furiously. Striking out with his arms and legs he sought to get back to the air. It was a hard struggle, but he escaped victorious and gasping to the surface.
He has fought the sea and won. Nature has been vanquished. Even without God’s help, he has managed to escape the “savage grip” of “physical death,” but his is a short-lived, hollow victory, for, as he bursts through the surface of the water, “despair awaited him.” He realizes that it is futile for him to struggle, that his fate is sealed. He pleads, once more, to God, praying, “Let me die.”

The narrator describes the appearance of a shark, a maritime angel of death, as it were, as beautiful and awesome as any other terrible messenger of God. The creature’s beauty seems, from a human perspective, incongruous and inappropriate, but the story is being told from the omnipotent point of view, as if it were God himself who tells the tale of the man overboard, and human attitudes are irrelevant. As the moon drifts out from the cover of the night’s cloud, symbolizing divine revelation, an epiphany occurs, for the reader, if not for the man overboard, courtesy of the narrator’s concluding observation concerning the significance of the shark’s appearance:

The moon, then in her third quarter, pushed out from the concealing clouds and shed a pale, soft glimmer upon the sea. Upright in the water, fifty yards away,was a black triangular object. It was a fin. It approached him slowly.

His last appeal had been answered.

Significantly, it is the man’s “last appeal” that has “been answered.” He had made an earlier appeal, praying that God would deliver him, but those pleas had fallen, as it were, upon deaf ears. Only his prayer that he be allowed to die is answered. He will be allowed to die, but not by drowning. Instead, he will be ripped apart, alive, and devoured. The moon, shedding the light of revelation, as it were, upon this final incident of the story, suggests that, if God is not altogether indifferent to man’s fate, he is, if anything, a sadist.

Just as the ship is a synecdoche for technology; music, for art and the pleasures it brings; the mail, for human contact and communication; and the sea, for nature itself, the anonymous man is a synecdoche for humanity itself. Not only is the nameless, faceless man of the story alone and abandoned by God in an uncaring and impersonal universe which is equally indifferent to the man’s happiness and welfare, but, in him, all humanity is overboard, awash in a sea of cosmic unconcern and disregard.

Is the tone of the story (and, therefore, of the narrator’s final observation, that “his last appeal had been answered”) sincere, ironic, or cynical? There is some ambiguity in the story’s wording, as there is in its structure and its incidents--and enough uncertainty, perhaps, to make all three interpretations of the tone possibilities. The answer to the question of whether the tone is ultimately sincere, ironic, or cynical is up to each reader to decide, and his or her answer will be determined by the views that he or she holds concerning nature and its Creator.

The Christian might consider the shark’s appearance, in answer to the man’s prayer that he be allowed to die, to be a sincere response on the part of God; the Deist might suppose the shark’s appearance to be mere coincidence, since God, although he exists and did create the universe, takes no current interest in his creation; the atheist might consider the shark’s appearance also a matter of nothing more than mere blind chance, since there is no God to hear or respond to the man’s--or anyone else’s--prayer.

The story is marvelously short, just as it is marvelously uncanny. Despite its brevity, it presents amazingly complex questions concerning the character of nature, the problem of evil, and the nature of God. Although one opinion concerning the story’s tone and the narrator’s final observation may seem more likely than others, each remains a possibility, and God may not be the sadist he at first appears to be. Death by shark would be horrible, to be certain, but would drowning be any quicker, more merciful, or dignified? On the other hand, if God exists, maybe he is as capricious and even as sadistic as the story can be interpreted to imply. For that matter, why did the man fall overboard?

To universalize the question, we might ask, instead, Why did humanity, in the Garden of Eden, take a similar fall? Is there a grace behind both “falls,” discernable only to the eye of faith, as Job suggests? Is the fall overboard a test of one’s trust in God, even when one faces his own mortality? Is the story a repudiation of the very idea of a merciful and loving God? Is he, instead, merely just and inscrutable? Does he exist at all?

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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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