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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Sympathetic Character: Intimations of Past Trauma

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Dean Koontz’s villains (who are almost always male) represent fictionalized versions of his abusive, self-destructive, violent, alcoholic father, just as his heroines are imaginary embodiments of his loving, longsuffering, and abused mother. The initial villain, Carl Brockman, and the heroine, Amy Redwing, of one of the prolific Koontz’s latest novels, The Darkest Evening of the Year, are no exceptions to these archetypes, which, like his formulaic approach to fiction, derive from his childhood exposure to good and evil as they were embodied by his mother and his father, respectively.

Once Sarah Michelle Gellar asked Joss Whedon why it was necessary for her character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to cry in yet another installment in the series’ episodes. Whedon’s reply was that it was necessary to make Buffy suffer (and Gellar to cry) in order to sustain his audience’s interest in the character and the show.

Apparently, Koontz is on the same page as Whedon in this regard, for virtually all of Koontz’s heroines are cursed with past trauma that affects their present-day lives, usually in relation to men, whom they often fear and distrust. They are also usually damsels in distress, for whom the appearance of a knight in shining armor rescues them not only from the looming catastrophe of the moment but also from the pain and suffering they endured in the past and continue to experience in the present.

Giving a heroine (or a child) a traumatic past is a splendid way of creating a sympathetic character and of making him or (usually) her more likeable as well, and, since he is especially adept at doing so, Koontz is worth studying along these lines, and, since it is a recent (and therefore, well-rehearsed) example of the techniques that Koontz uses to intimate a heroine’s past trauma, The Darkest Evening of the Year is as good a text as any to consult for this purpose.

We can deduce a few principles for suggesting a traumatic past for a sympathetic character, based upon Koontz’s practice in doing so. The first rule is to indicate past suffering early in the initial chapter, at the very outset, if possible.

After naming his protagonist and briefly describing the general setting, Koontz transitions to paragraphs four through eight of his first chapter, in which he suggests that Amy’s past includes a good deal of suffering. As a consequence, much of the intimation of Amy’s past trauma appears on the very first page of the novel. (Koontz writes newspaper-short paragraphs in a style that also seems to imitate that of the contemporary journalist.)
Amy Redwing did not know her origins. Abandoned at the age of two, she had no memory of her mother and father.

She had been left in a church, her name pinned to her shirt. A nun had found her sleeping on a pew.

Most likely, her surname had been invented to mislead. The police had failed to trace it to anyone.

Redwing suggested a Native American heritage. Raven hair and dark eyes argued Cherokee, but her ancestors might as likely have come from Armenia or Sicily, or Spain.
Amy’s history remained incomplete, but the lack of roots did not set her free. She was chained to some ringbolt set in the stone of a distant year (3 - 4).

Using humorous dialogue between Amy and her friend, architect Brian McCarthy, as Amy drives to a house to rescue a golden retriever (and, as it happens, a mother and her two children) from drunken and abusive Carl, Koontz maintains interest in his protagonist’s current behavior. The contest of wills between Amy and Carl and the potential for additional explosive violence from Carl, whether directed toward his wife Janet, their daughter Theresa (“Reesa”), their son Jimmy, or at Amy and Brian themselves, sustain interest as Amy offers to buy the dog, Nicky, for as much as two thousand dollars. Koontz’s use of humor also contrasts sharply with the violence that follows, thereby heightening the cruelty and brutality when they do occur. While Amy dickers with the sullen, abusive “wife-beater,” Carl, Koontz takes the opportunity to remind the reader of Amy’s past in a short exchange of dialogue between the two characters:
Under his brow, Carl’s eyes were deep wells with foul water glistening darkly at the bottom. “Don’t mock me.”

“I wouldn’t, sir. I can’t. I was pretty much raised by nuns. . . ” (13).
Perhaps afraid that his readers will be put off by the apparent hopelessness of Amy’s life, which is mirrored by the desperate situation in which Janet and her children (and their dog) find themselves, Koontz hastens, at the end of his first chapter, to reassure his readers, in a vague and general way, that things will be all right in the end:
At the core of every ordered system, whether a family or a factory, is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found (18).
At the end of chapter two, having managed to rescue Janet, her children, and their dog (not bad for an evening’s work), Amy drives away, the rescued in her Ford Expedition, and Koontz, once again, now that a lull in the action has been reached, intimates that Amy has herself experienced trauma in her past, about which, readers may be sure, they will hear more in the upcoming pages of Amy’s story:
Amy remembered a winter night with blood upon the snow and a turbulence of sea gulls thrashing into flight from the eaves of the high catwalk, white wings briefly dazzling as they oared [sic] skyward through the sweeping beam of the lighthouse, like an honor guard of angels escorting home a sinless soul (25).
Thereafter, until the moment comes to reveal the nature of the past trauma in detail, usually during a flashback that is related to, or inspired by, the story’s present action, an occasional reminder as to the protagonist’s traumatic past is all that is needed, and these reminders can be tucked into the narrative where it is appropriate and effective to do so. For example, in enquiring of Janet whether Reesa has any paranormal or supernatural powers beyond her ability to speak and sing in other languages, such as Celtic, which Reesa has merely heard without having learned, Janet asks what Amy means, which prompts this expository information from the novel’s omniscient, third-person narrator, at the end of chapter six:
To explain, Amy would have to open door after door into herself, into places in the heart that she did not want to visit. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I meant by that” (44).
What, exactly, is the trauma that Amy experienced in her past that continues to haunt her in her present-day life and to motivate and to otherwise affect her current behavior?

Her secrets won’t be revealed here; one will have to buy or borrow Koontz’s novel to learn the dirt concerning the protagonist. However, no doubt, the desire to know all the juicy details is there; in fact, it may seem as overwhelming as a need (in which case, another copy of Koontz’s novel will surely be sold or checked out at one’s local library).

And that’s just the point, of course. By intimating that his story’s main character has experienced a traumatic past that continues to haunt her today, Koontz makes his readers want to learn more about Amy. She has become interesting and sympathetic, someone whom readers want to get to know better, someone with whom, readers feel, they could be friends. By suggesting that Amy has a pain-filled past that continues to affect her behavior today, Koontz has made his readers care about her, thereby transforming her, as it were, from a simple cardboard character into a flesh-and-blood person, as it were, about whom readers can wonder and contemplate and for whom they can feel compassion and empathy and affection.

Koontz has also related past to present, making the former the prelude to the latter, imparting order and unity and coherence to his novel’s plot, and he has motivated his readers to continue to read, that they might, in the process, satisfy their curiosity concerning Amy’s past, see how and why her past affects her now, in the present, and get to know her better as a likeable and sympathetic character.

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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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