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Friday, April 24, 2009

Revisiting the Numinous

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Through images and emblems associated with a vanished craft or practice, a writer of fantasy or horror fiction can, as it were, visit another, mystical and magical world. Such a trip can help him or her to envision, and, therefore, to create an otherworldly setting in which to place historical, fantastic, or horrific characters who, as the mad scientists of their day, ply secret trades.There are several sources of such images and symbols, including alchemy, demonology, Gnosticism, heraldry, Masonry, Rosicrucianism, and various Tarot decks. Links to some of these sources are included at the end of this post, for those who are inclined to step, as it were, into a different time, when a vastly different, pre-scientific mindset held sway.

This article discusses alchemy’s imagery in general. However, much of what is said could apply to any other occult enterprise.

Images of alchemy capture the romance of a medieval enterprise, wherein adepts sought to transmute base metals into gold. Quaint laboratories, equipped with preposterous apparatuses of all kinds, including furnaces and forges, kilns and fireplaces, both with and without chimneys; stocked with flasks and beakers, bottles and vials; and operated by men in rich capes and robes, recreate a world--and a worldview--that is now long gone.

Woodcuts carved with figures and symbols similar to those of the Masons or those on Tarot decks also romanticize the practice: the hermaphrodite, the dragon, the bare-breasted Gorgon, the demon, the angel, the caduceus, the serpent, the lion, the microcosm and the macrocosm, Artemis with her tiers of supernumerary breasts, personified suns and moons, and hundreds of other images as bizarre and wonderful are catalogued in groups as fanciful as they are fascinating, suggesting secrets long forgotten if, indeed, they were ever really known. These emblems, like the fully equipped and functional laboratories, suggest the popularity of the craft and the devotion to which its practitioners practiced it.

Viewing such images, it is almost impossible not to see the appeal that alchemy had, promising gold, promising moral and spiritual perfection, promising the otherworldliness of both fabulous wealth and spiritual wellbeing, and promising a wonderful and magical, if laborious, time of it along the way. Alchemy promised a better world, both internally and externally, if one persevered, worked hard, and stayed dedicated to the task at hand. It did deliver, of course, on both its pledges, but not the way alchemists believed it would; it gave us chemistry, instead of lead’s magically becoming gold.

It also influenced literature, along the way. According to David Meakin’s Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel, alchemy is featured in such novels as those by Emile Zola, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Gustav Meyrink, Lindsay Clarke, Marguerite Yourcenar, Umberto Eco, and Michel Butor. Some believe that L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might also be predicated upon alchemy.

Familiarizing oneself with such an outmoded and, indeed, long abandoned, view of the world, both physical and metaphysical, renews one’s appreciation of the modern world, reminding us that our own systems of knowledge and belief have not been the only ones people have embraced and that, indeed, ours may, one day, seem quite as quaint as those we’ve left behind. If one can recreate a sense of the reality in which alchemists (or any other esoteric group) believed in his or her story, when it is appropriate to do so, he or she will, in doing so, have already escorted the reader into another, enchanted world.

But becoming acquainted with alchemy--or demonology, Gnosticism, heraldry, Masonry, Rosicrucianism, or various Tarot decks--also pays other dividends to writers of historical romances, fantasy, or horror. Mostly, these benefits are intangible, but they are no less genuine for that. Revisiting the past, to see the world as it was seen in a time antecedent to our own, helps us to get a sense of what Meakin calls “the sacredness of the living Mother-Earth, in whose womb minerals grow and mature like embryos” (15).

What’s more, according to Carl Jung, steeping oneself in the images and ideas, the attitudes and beliefs, the symbols and concerns of such an enterprise can help to generate a sense of the mysterious, or even the eerie and the sublime. “Any prolonged preoccupation with an unknown object,” Jung says, “acts as an almost irresistible bait for the unconscious to project itself into the unknown nature of the object” (quoted in Hermetic Fictions, 19). Meakin adds, “The alchemical penchant for contradictory images serves to intensify this sense of amazement” (19).

Surely, this is similar to what little girls do in investing their dolls with their own thoughts and emotions in order to give to these inanimate objects, as it were, a bit of personality and life. As children, we are adept at such projections of the self onto external objects, but, as adults, many of us tend to become less adept at doing so, or to forget altogether how to do so (unless, perhaps, we are alone on a dark road or in a cemetery at night). Moreover, such projection recreates the intent of the alchemist himself, for, as Meakin observes, “to project life into things is to invest them with magic” (19).

None of us is intelligible in and of ourselves, but we must seek to explain ourselves in terms of external things, by projecting ourselves onto the objects of the environment, and thereby incarnating the world, as it were, a process which would seem to be have been the origin of pantheism. We spiritualize the world, making it a fellow to ourselves. Then, we use it to explain our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. In doing so, the horror writer, seeing the monster within, projects his or her own, inner demons upon cloud, mountain, forest, plain, desert, or sea. These phantasms then, in turn, return, as it were, to haunt us. The horrors that haunt the dark roadway or the nighttime cemetery haunt these places only because they haunt us.

According to Meakin, alchemy is especially adept as a means by which we can project ourselves onto the cosmos, because it is open not only to the objective world, but it is also open to other “symbolic systems” of thought and belief; its “archetypal centrality,” he says, “is reflected in the breadth of diffusion, the adaptability of alchemical doctrine, and its power to annex other doctrines and symbolic systems: its essential syncretism, in short” (21).

Christianity has proven at least equally adaptable, if less syncretistic, as many have observed, including Camille Paglia, who writes, in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson: “Christianity has made adjustment after adjustment, ingeniously absorbing its opposition. . . and diluting its dogma to change with changing times” (25). Any great system, past or present, must have this capability, if it is to not only survive but also thrive. Paglia believes that Christianity is in peril, due to “the rebirth of the gods in the massive idolatries of popular culture,” so much so that it is “facing its most serious challenge since Europe’s confrontation with Islam in the Middle Ages” (25). Christianity seems likely to survive this “challenge,” as it survived that of its encounter with Islam (a “confrontation” that has arisen anew in our own time), in which case it will continue to inspire art, including horror fiction.

However, Christianity lacks the dynamic, numinous character that it had for the Swedes, Danes, Anglo-Saxons, and other Germanic and European worshipers of the Norse deities who were, in their time, as Beowulf suggests to us, themselves confronting the church’s faith during the early Middle Ages. To them, Christianity must have seemed as awesome and strange as alchemy might to modern men and women who acquaint themselves with alchemists’ strange and, indeed, astonishing beliefs, thoughts, hopes, fears, and feelings.

In other words, alchemy (or, again, any other esoteric tradition, especially if it is distanced by time as well as by doctrine) can help the writer of historical romances, fantasy, or horror regain a sense of the numinous, of the uncanny, of the eerie, of the sublime, thereby enriching his or her own bizarre, perhaps supernatural, fictional worlds, much as C. S. Lewis, in his coming to the Christian faith, like Beowulf’s readers, from the pagan world, saw, in the cold Northern wastes of Teutonic mythology, the shadow of joy he was to experience more fully in “mere Christianity,” enriched the world of Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien enriched the world of Middle-earth.

For those who’d like to visit such a world, here are a few links that will take you there:

Bon voyage!


Meakin, David. Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel. Bodmin, England: Keele University Press, 1995.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

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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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