Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dialogue as Repartee

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

A little of it--more than a page or two--goes a long way, but a bit of it is engaging--dialogue as repartee. Dean Koontz is especially good, when he’s good, at such bantering conversation between characters, as this passage, from his novel Odd Hours, in which the protagonist, Odd Thomas, is conversing with a woman named Annamaria, whom he’s seen in a prophetic dream, indicates:

“Are you originally from around here?” I asked softly.


“Where are you from?”

“Far away.”

“Faraway, Oklahoma?” I asked. “Faraway, Alabama? Maybe Faraway, Maine?”

Farther away than all of those. You would not believe me if I named the place.”

“I would believe you,” I assured her.

“I’ve believed everything you’ve said, though I don’t know why, and though I don’t understand moist of it.”

“Why would you believe me so readily?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you do know.”

“I do?”

“Yes. You know.”

“Give me a hint. Why do I believe you so readily?”

“Why does anyone believe anything?” she asked.

“Is this a philosophical question--or just a riddle?”“Empirical evidence is one reason.”

“You mean like--I believe in gravity because if I throw a stone in the air, it falls back to the ground?”

“Yes. That’s what I mean.”

“You haven’t been exactly generous with empirical evidence,” I reminded her. “I don’t even know where you’re from. Or your name.”

“You know my name.”

“Only your first name. What’s your last?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Everybody has a last name.”

“I’ve never had one.”

To maintain a sense of the passage of time, Koontz occasionally intersperses descriptions of changes in the environment which may or may not be of further significance to the story’s later action. In this exchange of dialogue between Odd and Annamarie, he describes the cold night air, the arrival of a thick fog, and the characters’ foggy breaths, tying their exhalations to the mystery of Annamarie:
The night was cold; our breath smoked from us. She had such a mystical quality. I might have been persuaded that we had exhaled the entire vast ocean of fog that now drowned all things, that she had come down from Olympus with the power to breathe away the world and, out of the resultant mist, remake it to her liking.
Then, Koontz resumes the dialogue between his protagonist and the mystery woman, Annamarie:

I said, “You had to have a last name to go to school.”

“I’ve never gone to school.”

“You’re home-schooled?”

She did not reply.

“Without a last name, how do you get welfare?”

“I’m not on the welfare rolls.”

“But you said you don’t work.”

“That’s right.”

“What--do people just give you money when you need it?”


“Wow. That would be even less stressful than the tire life or shoe sales.”

“I’ve never asked anyone for anything--until I asked you if you would die for me.”

Another way that Koontz makes his dialogue interesting is to suggest that there is a mystery, apparent to one character, but not another, concerning the events at hand. By implying that everyday incidents have a deeper, as-yet-hidden significance, he writes livelier dialogue than he might otherwise and, at the same time, maintains the suspense that keeps the reader turning the pages of his novel. Here is an example of the technique at work, in another, earlier conversation between Odd and Annamarie.

“You knew my name?” I asked.

“As you know mine.”

“But I don’t.”

“I’m Annamarie,” she said. “One word. It would have come to you.”

Confused, I said, “We’ve spoken before, but I’m sure we never exchanged names.”

She only smiled and shook her head.

A white flare arced across the dismal sky: a gull fleeing to land as afternoon faded.

Annamarie pulled back the long sleeves of her sweater, revealing her graceful hands. In the right she held a translucent green stone the size of a fat grape.

“Is that a jewel?” I asked.

“Sea glass. A fragment of a bottle that washed around the world and back, until it has no sharp edges. I found it on the beach.” She turned it between her slender fingers. “What do you think it means?”

“Does it have to mean anything?”

“The tide washed it as smooth as a baby’s skin, and as the water winked away, the glass seemed to open like a green eye.”

Koontz has said that he writes one page a novel and revises it again and again, until he’s satisfied that it is the best he can write and that it accomplishes its purpose both in itself and in the bigger scheme of things. Then, he writes the next page and repeats the process. In doing so, he confides, he pays attention even to the cadence of his words, trying to get his sentences to scan roughly according to the rhythm of iambic pentameter in order that the measure will carry his reader forward.

It’s obvious that he pays a good amount of attention to keeping his dialogue interesting, crisp, pithy, and compelling, using humor, bantering, and mystery. For Koontz, it is not a matter of merely making a scene or a passage of dialogue serviceable to the overall plot that it helps to advance. Instead, like a director concerned with mise en scene, as carefully planning every shot as if he’s storyboarded it, he determines the best possible way to write each scene and each exchange of conversation between characters who are interesting (and usually, in some way, eccentric) and sympathetic in their own way. Dialogue as repartee is one of the secrets of his craft and a reason, no doubt, that his books routinely find the number one spot on reputable lists of bestsellers.

On a not -quite-directly-related, but significant, note, Koontz also sustains readers’ interest by occasionally beginning a chapter with a cryptic paragraph that sounds as if it’s coming from a narrator gone mad. Usually, these paragraphs begin in media res when they are part of the story’s ongoing action or they provide background information that is needed to understand what is presently happening.
The opening paragraph of Chapter Twenty of Odd Hours is an example:

A dove descending through candescent air, a brush bursting into fire and from the fire a voice, stars shifting from their timeless constellations to form new and meaningful patterns in the heavens. . .
The next paragraph explains the significance of these images:
Those were some of the signs upon which the prophets historically had based their predictions and their actions. I received instead two stopped clocks.
The last line of the previous paragraph, concerning the “two stopped clocks” is, of course, likewise intended to motivate readers to persist in reading the novel.
This strategy would become annoying if it were employed too often, and, for the same reason, if it is to be used, the paragraphs that set forth such odd descriptions (and the follow-on paragraphs which explain their significance) should be kept relatively short, as Koontz does.
Here is a second example, which opens Chapter Twenty-Four of the same work; unlike the previous example, this one continues through several short paragraphs, probably for the sake of emphasis, before coming to the point that “the weather was something more than mere weather”:
A universal solvent poured through the world, dissolving the works of man and nature.

Shapes like buildings loomed in vague detail. Geometric fence rows separated nothing from nothing, and their rigid geometry melted into mist at both ends.

Portions of trees floated in and out of sight, like driftwood on a white flood. Gray grass spilled down slopes that slid away as though they were hills of ashes too insubstantial to maintain their contours.

The dog and I ran for a while, changed direction several times, and then we walked out of nil and into naught, through vapor into vapor.

At some point I became aware that the weather was something more than mere weather. The stillness and the fog and the chill were not solely the consequences of meteorological systems. I began to suspect and soon felt certain that the condition of Magic Beach on this night was a symbolic statement of things to come.
Makes me want to read further!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reading, Writing, and Plotting

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Other writers won’t write your stories for you, of course, any more than they’re apt to outline a plot for you. It’s challenging enough to do so for oneself, after all. However, a careful reading of a writer’s paragraphs and a little brainstorming can suggest storylines to readers which can then be developed into full-fledged plots.

Let me demonstrate, using paragraphs from the first chapter of Dean Koontz’s novel, Odd Hours, which, its flyleaf informs readers, is about “a fry cook named Odd” who’s “rumored to have the extraordinary ability to communicate with the dead.”

This paragraph, the fifth of the opening chapter, itself sounds like the opening paragraph of a novel’s first chapter:
Overnight, according to the radio, an airliner had crashed in Ohio. Hundreds perished. The sole survivor, a ten-month-old child, had been found upright and unscathed in a battered seat that stood in a field of scorched and twisted debris.
The dramatic situation described by this paragraph raises many questions, the answers to which could well start a reader on the way of becoming a writer of a story involving such a child.

Although some of the questions that this situation suggests are obvious, your answers to them need not be: Why was the airliner over Ohio? What had been its itinerary? What caused it to crash? How many “hundreds” actually “perished”? Who were these passengers? Were there any famous persons aboard? If so, why were they flying on this route? What business were they conducting? Whom were they meeting? Why did the child survive when “hundreds” of other passengers “perished”? Is the child a boy or a girl? Why was the child “unscathed” after being involved in such a horrendous crash? Was some power--perhaps God--looking out for the child? If so, why? Was the child to have been given a mission in his or her later life? Were aliens involved in the crash? Monsters? Demons? Psychotic killers? Terrorists? Government agents? Military personnel? (Incidentally, Koontz did write a psychological thriller called Sole Survivor.)

This paragraph, number six in the first chapter of Odd Hours, could also start the first chapter of its own novel:
Throughout the morning, under the expectant sky, low sluggish waves exhausted themselves on the shore. The Pacific was gray and awash with inky shadows, as if sinuous sea beasts of fantastical form swam just below the surface.
Imagine that the “sea beasts” are more than the effects of odd shadows; imagine that they are real. Why do the “sea beasts” have a “fantastical form”? Did they suffer bizarre birth defects? Are the biologically engineered? Are they specimens from another planet? If so, how did they come to inhabit Earth’s oceans, and why? Where are they going, and why? Does anyone know of their existence? If so, who? If not, why not? Will they be discovered? If so, how, and by whom? If not, why not?

Paragraphs seven and eight of the same chapter could also open the first chapter in a separate novel:
During the night, I had twice awakened from a dream in which the tide flowed red and the sea throbbed with a terrible light.
As nightmares go, I’m sure you’ve had worse. The problem is that a few of my dreams have come true, and people have died.
The red tide seems to allude to the flood of blood in the story of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, as told in the book of Exodus. Is this allusion intentional? If so, what is its significance to the current story? If not, what caused the red tide? What is the “terrible light” with which “the sea throbbed”? What is it origin? What is its purpose? Who is the narrator and why does he have prophetic dreams? In which ones did people die? Who were these people, how did they die, and why did they die?
The next paragraph could also head its own opening chapter in a completely different novel:
While I prepared breakfast for my employer, the kitchen radio brought news that the jihadists who had the previous day seized an ocean liner in the Mediterranean and were now beheading passengers.
Answers--especially unexpected ones--to similar questions could generate a storyline that could be developed into a full-scale plot for a novel about these jihadists and the forces which are assembled to defeat them. (Remember to use the journalists’ favorite questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? You may also want to add How many? Or How much? Answers to these questions tend to cover the basic elements of any story and can, therefore, help you to devise a good basic storyline as a basis for a fully developed plot.)
There are several other paragraphs in the first chapter (and others) of Odd Hours, but the point has been made: a careful reading of a writer’s paragraphs and a little brainstorming can suggest storylines to readers which can then be developed into full-fledged plots.

Koontz’s opening chapter also demonstrates another technique for creating an interesting situation, through characterization, via action, narration, and dialogue, that becomes a springboard to producing interesting storylines. Initially, the novel’s protagonist (who also happens to be its first-person narrator) seems like a likeable, if rather pedestrian, run-of-the-mill kind of guys whom everyone knows as an acquaintance, friend, neighbor, brother, nephew, or son, the male equivalent of the girl next door: wholesome, shy, perhaps a bit naïve. He has a sense of humor and an engaging manner, and he sounds altogether rational and sane--at first. However, as he continues to chat, readers soon discover that he is not as he seems. There is something not quite right about his patter, something a little off about his chitchat, something a bit eerie, in fact, about his conversation. Here’s an example of this technique:

My experience at the Pico Mundo Grill served me well. If you can make hash browns that wring a flood from salivary glands, fry bacon to the crispness of a cracker without parching it, and make pancakes as rich as pudding yet so fluffy they seem to be at risk of floating off the plate, you will always find work.

At four-thirty that afternoon in late January, when I stepped into the parlor with Boo, my dog, Hutch was in his favorite armchair, scowling at the television, which he had muted. . . .

I left by the front door, through which Boo had already passed. The dog waited for me in the fenced yard.

An arched trellis framed the gate. Through white lattice twined with bougainvillea that produced a few flowers even in winter.

I closed the gate behind me and Boo passed through it as for a moment I stood drawing breaths of the crisp salted air.

Boo and I followed the concrete boardwalk. He was a German shepherd mix, entirely white. The moon traveling horizon to horizon moved no more quietly than did Boo.

Everything seems perfectly ordinary, even idyllic, and the reader is likely to like Odd, thinking him the very epitome of normality--until he informs the reader that
Only I was aware of him, because he was a ghost dog.
The everyday topics about which Odd has been chatting, his demeanor, and the reaction of his employer, to whom he’d been speaking before going for a walk with his dog, like the physical description that he offers of his canine companion’s breed, coloration, and quiet walk, all make the reader think of Odd as being quite as sane as Boo is real. It’s something of a shock, then, to discover that he believes not only in ghosts but in a “ghost dog” that accompanies him everywhere he goes! An even greater shock is in store for the reader, however, as Odd now divulges a secret that may cause his confidant, the reader, to suppose Odd to be not merely eccentric, but mad:

I see the spirits of dead people who are reluctant to move on from this world. In my experience, however, animals are always eager to proceed to what comes next. Boo was unique.

His failure to depart was a mystery. The dead don’t talk, and neither do dogs, so my canine companion obeyed two vows of silence.

The shock is almost and eerie as powerful as the one that results from reading Theodore Kaczynski’s treatise, “Industrialism Society and Its Future,” in which the Unabomber demonstrates impeccable logic, despite his dubious assumptions, until the moment that he writes, in as matter of fact a tone as he has used throughout his essay and continues to employ after his astonishing confession, in laying out his arguments as to why industrialism is destroying American independence and individual freedom: “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people.”

This technique--having a narrator of apparently sound mind abruptly say something that leaves no doubt that he is insane after speaking in a normal manner at some length about everyday topics--could launch an entire novel. In Odd Hours, however, Koontz chooses literally to mean what Odd Thomas says: the short-order cook isn’t mad; he really does see dead people.

The next time you pick up a horror novel, by Koontz or anyone else, apply the principle we’ve outlined in this article. Carefully, read the writer’s paragraphs and do a little brainstorming to imagine storylines that you can then develop into full-fledged plots.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Modern Monsters

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

“We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” -- Pogo

Before Christianity, paganism supplied humanity’s monsters. Initially, many were hybrids of wild animals and humans, among which were the centaur, the harpy, the lamia, the mermaid, the minotaur, the satyr, and the Sphinx. Most of them represented natural forces.
Christianity contributed the devil and his legions of lesser evil spirits, the demons.

Now that Christianity and other worldwide religions are in eclipse--in agricultural and progressive nations, at least--writers of horror fiction have had to find their monsters elsewhere.

Science has been a major source of modern horror fiction’s nightmarish creatures. Other worlds have supplied writers with menacing demons, extraterrestrial diseases, and a variety of paranormal threats including clairvoyants, telekinetic travelers, time travelers, homicidal cyborgs, and rampaging robots.

Psychology has also been a source for many of the inner demons that haunt the world of the self. Sigmund Freud contends that modern monsters are aspects of ourselves which we have, as it were, cut off and cast out. They are embodiments, in other words, of those elements of ourselves that we repress.

As a species, we have gone from the Other as a duality of the bestial and the human to the Other as a supernatural seducer, tempter, and deceiver to the Other as the rejected elements of a would-be self--from natural to supernatural to psychological. In the process, the monster has gone from the general to the specific.

Edgar Allan Poe showed us the way, substituting the madman for the demon, ghost, vampire, werewolf, or other paranormal or supernatural threat. However, there is another source for the modern monster: the Self--or, rather--the wannabe Self which we repress. At first, such a source might seem too finite for the task we have set it, which is nothing less than that of being the maker of all things destructive, menacing, destructive, evil, and lethal. We need not worry, however, about whether our supply of monsters will peter out. There are as many inner demons as there are individual men, women, and children.

Just the list of inner demons which have found expression as objective Others in the work of Stephen King suggests the breadth of the range of possibilities for such embodiments of iniquity. His novels have depicted demons of child abuse and religious fanaticism (Carrie), narcissistic self-indulgence and hypocrisy (Needful Things), alcoholism and psychosis (The Shining), spousal abuse (Rose Madder), adultery (Cujo), government abuse of its citizenry (Firestarter), and a host of other Others.

To develop the modern monster, one must become adept at seeing the repressed Other in oneself and in other people, for, today, the repressed is the monstrous.

Two clues are rationalization and hypocrisy. We want to be perfect, even though we know that we are not, and cannot be, without fault. Therefore, we tend to deny what is obviously true to others about behaviors which we may do but certainly not want to admit that we do them.

Instead, we lie to ourselves about our behavior, make excuses for our conduct, and deny that we have acted in anything but an admirable and proper manner. What we would condemn in others, we accept, or even celebrate, in ourselves. By identifying behaviors which we rationalize or would condemn in others but approve in ourselves, we can identify the inner demons both of ourselves and others.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ghosts: An Endangered Species?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Figure 1. Double exposure
Source: The Skeptic's Dictionary

For various reasons, from humanity’s earliest days, the spirits of the dead, or ghosts, are alleged to have visited the living. Some return to avenge the murder, other to warn loved ones of impending catastrophes, and still others to assuage guilt so powerful that it has survived the grave. If one can believe the stories associated with ghosts, they have haunted everything from ancient graveyards and medieval castles to modern mansions and hotels. Short story writers, novelists, and screenwriters would have their readers and audiences believe that some ghosts have a sense of humor while others are somber, indeed. They have appeared in literary works as diverse as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,” Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Mark Twain’s “A Ghost Story,” Stephen King’s The Shining and Bag of Bones, and Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Ghosts have appeared as guest stars, so to speak, in such movies as Topper, Poltergeist, Beetlejuice, Ghost Busters, The Sixth Sense, The Others, An American Haunting, and many others, and in episodes such television shows as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ghost Hunters. There’s no doubt about it: ghosts have not only been reported throughout history, but they have also enjoyed plenty of airtime. The virtual omnipresence of ghosts is curious when one considers that such entities may not actually exist. Although men and women who believe in the existence of ghosts offer such evidence for their existence as eye-witness reports, photographs, electronic voice phenomena, abrupt temperature drops, and sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation, this evidence can be explained without reference to the entities that are supposed to cause them, which makes the actual existence of ghosts questionable at best.

Since the beginning of time, people have claimed to have seen ghosts, and believers in the existence of spirits of the dead declare that so many people couldn’t be deceived or lying in providing eye-witness testimony. It does seem likely that some--perhaps many--such eyewitnesses really do believe that they have seen ghosts. Seeing isn’t believing, though, or shouldn’t be. Scientists regard eyewitness testimony, or anecdotal or testimonial evidence, as they prefer to call it, as being notoriously unreliable. In “anecdotal (testimonial) evidence,” an Internet article concerning such evidence, Robert T. Carroll points out that “anecdotes are unreliable for various reasons,” including the distortion that occurs as accounts are told and retold, exaggeration, confusion regarding “time sequences,” “selective” memory, misrepresented “experiences,” and a variety of other conditions, including the affect upon their testimony that “biases, memories, and beliefs” have. Carroll also suggests that gullibility, “delusions,” and even deliberate deceit also make such testimony “inherently problematic and usually. . . impossible to test for accuracy.”

Most people who investigate reports concerning the presence or appearances of ghosts also seek to photograph them. It has been said that cameras do not lie, but the problem with photographic evidence is that it is easy for photographers to doctor film. In his Internet article concerning “spirit photography,” James Randi gives an example of a rather crude attempt by some spiritualists to fool folks into believing they’d captured the apparition of the deceased author of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as himself a spiritualist, was a frequent focus of “spook-snappers” who “claimed to summon him up after his death in 1930.” The problem, Randi says, with their evidence is that it is “apparently a cut-out of a reversed photo placed in what appears to be cotton wool”; otherwise, the spirit photograph “agrees in detail, lighting, and expression with the original” photograph of the Doyle which was taken in the author’s “prime” (“spirit photography”). In other words, the photograph is a fake. A favorite technique among those who create fake spirit photographs, Carroll points out, is the “double exposure,” an example of which appears on the article’s webpage (see Figure 1). A double exposure occurs when the same film is exposed to first one, and then another, object, with the result that the image of the second object overlays or overlaps the image of the first object; both images appear to have been photographed together, at the same time and in the same place. However, pictures of supposed ghosts sometimes result from the photographer’s own incompetence or “natural events,” rather than deliberate deceitfulness, Carroll concedes, including
various flaws in camera or film, effects due to various exposures, film-processing errors, lens flares (caused by interreflection between lens surfaces), the camera or lens strap hanging over the lens, effects of the flash reflecting off of mirrors, jewelry. . . light patterns, polarization, [or] chemical reactions.
When deliberate deceit occurs, photographers may also use graphic art software or computer graphics software to deliberately manipulate photographs that are uploaded from the camera, into a computer.

If neither eyewitness testimony nor photographs prove the existence of ghosts, perhaps electronic voice phenomena, or EVP, do so. A sophisticated term for tape-recorded voices, EVP demonstrate the presence of ghosts, some contend, since sensitive instruments have recorded the disembodied voices of apparitions. However, as Carroll indicates, in his Internet article, “electric voice phenomenon,” skeptics point out that such sounds may not be voices at all, but may be nothing more than the results of “interference from a nearby CB [citizen’s band radio] operator or cross modulation”--one radio station transmitting over another station’s broadcast. Likewise, EVP may be nothing more than a listener’s interpreting “random noise” as the statements of a disembodied voice or voices. In the same Internet article, Carroll cites the explanation for this tendency by Jim Alcock, a psychologist: “When our brains try to find patterns, they are guided in part by what we expect to hear. . . . People can clearly ‘hear’ voices and words not just in the context of muddled voices, but in a pattern of white noise in which there are no words at all.” It seems that, for these reasons, EVP is just as problematic as the proof of ghosts’ existence as eyewitness reports and photographs have been shown to be.

Perhaps the abrupt drop in temperature that some ghost hunters have both felt and recorded will prove more convincing evidence of the existence of the spirits of the dead. According to an anonymous “paranormal researcher,” who writes, in answer to a question posted on Yahoo! Answers, it is believed that such “cold spots” result from ghosts’ draining of energy sources, such as electricity, as a means to produce sounds or to speak. Supposedly, the energy they draw from the environment heats their own energy, but this heat is then dissipated by the sound effect the ghost produces with this borrowed energy. Neither this researcher nor any other seems able to explain how a disembodied spirit--that is, an entity that has no lips, teeth, tongue, vocal cords, or lungs--can speak, even if it does help itself to ambient energy sources. Once again, Carroll finds such evidence to be less than persuasive. In his Internet article, “ghost,” he notes that “many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds” and agreeing that such people “are not imagining things,” he, nevertheless, discounts the notion that ghosts are responsible for these phenomena. Instead, he says,
Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding physical sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans.
Sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation is “produced by such things as power lines, electric appliances, radio waves, and microwaves,” Carroll observes, in his Internet article “EMF (EMT).” Therefore, he adds, the idea that ghosts somehow cause such radiation seems unlikely, and, indeed, “some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience” (“ghost”).

Occasionally, as a Halloween feature, some newspapers or television shows spotlight a supposedly haunted house. The ghostly phenomena are described, and then a natural explanation is provided for each of the supposedly supernatural elements of the tale. One such account, by Cathy Lubenski, appeared under the title “When your house has spooks, who are you going to call” in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Her story included reports of slime oozing from walls, cold spots, lights flashing on and off, doors opening by themselves, knocking inside walls, foul odors, and howling. Were one living in a house in which such phenomena were occurring, it might well seem that the residence was indeed haunted. Instead, each of these phenomena had a natural cause, not a supernatural origin. The slime was from a bee’s nest in the attic; the cold spots resulted from an air-conditioner unit’s return airflow; the stench was an effect of dead rats in the wall and trapped sewer gas; the howling was the wind, blowing down a vent. Philosophers advise people to adopt the principle of Occam’s razor, which says, essentially, that one should never consider more possible causes than the number that are necessary to explain why something happens. As Carroll points out, “Occam’s razor is also called the principle of parsimony,” and “it is usually interpreted to mean something like ‘the simpler the explanation, the better’” or “as most people would put it today, ‘don’t make any more assumptions than you have to.’” To demonstrate the principle, Carroll offers this example: “[Erik] Von Däniken could be right: maybe extraterrestrials did teach ancient people art and engineering, but we don't need to posit alien visitations in order to explain the feats of ancient people.” Therefore, according to Occam’s razor, one should not attribute “art and engineering” to the human intelligence and ingenuity that men and women develop as the result of their evolutionary, genetic and environmental inheritance. The same applies, of course, with respect to ghosts. The fact that eye-witness reports, photographs, electronic voice phenomena, abrupt temperature drops, and sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation that have been cited as evidence for the existence of ghosts can be explained without reference to these supernatural entities, making which are supposed to cause them makes the actual existence of ghosts questionable at best. Therefore, one can conclude that it is more likely that ghosts do not exist than to suppose that they do. Nevertheless, some are likely to believe in them because they add mystery to the everydayness of ordinary life, they suggest that there is some sort of existence after death, and they make interesting literary and dramatic characters that enliven short stories, novels, and movies. Likewise, they are convenient symbols of such emotional and psychological states and experiences as guilt, the memory of traumatic past experiences, and of actual historical events. In the sense that human beings are, to some extent, products of their own previous experiences and of historical affairs, they are haunted, after all--by the ghosts of their pasts.

Works Cited

Carroll, Robert. "anecdotal (testimonial) evidence." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009

---. "electronic voice phenomenon (EVP)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009.

---. "EMF (EMR)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009

---. "ghost." The Skeptic’s Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009

"I believe spirits use energy to communicate with us. But which energy sources?." Yahoo! Answers. 2009. Yahoo!. 22 May 2009

Lubenski, Cathy. "When your house has spooks, who are you going to call." The San Diego Union-Tribune 29 Oct 2000: C6. Print.

Randi, James. "spirit photography." An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural . 2007. James Randi Education Foundation. 22 May 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Characterization via Emotion

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Characterization operates by means of depicting emotion. Literary characters are, in fact, embodiments of emotion. Some emotions may be negative, either in the sense that they are unpleasant or in the sense that they cause problems, personal, social, or otherwise. Emotions can also be positive because they are pleasant or because they alleviate or resolve problems, personal, social, or otherwise.

Characters’ responses to incidents--that is, their feelings concerning events--motivate their actions. In other words, characters are often reactive: they respond to internal or external stimuli. Internal stimuli are their own attitudes, beliefs, desires, fantasies, hopes, thoughts, and, of course, emotions, such as fear, love, and self-respect. External stimuli are persons, places, things, qualities, and ideas that elicit characters’ passions, and can include threats, money, beauty, and death.

The overall, consistent pattern which underlies and is discerned in an individual’s behavior over an extended period of time suggests his or her basic personality traits and causes him or her to be regarded as just, wise, kind, ruthless, arrogant, vain, or whatever. However, many lesser, secondary traits also comprise most fictional people at any time of his or her literary life.

Hamlet is driven by his sense of duty to avenge his murdered father, but he is also hesitant, wanting to make sure that he acts justly in killing his father’s true killer--if, indeed, his father was killed, as the spirit who alleges to be the ghost of his father contends the late king was. These traits are the primary ones that motivate Hamlet, both to act and to refrain from acting. Therefore, he can be said to be a dutiful and just, but hesitant, character. In short, we might regard him as being a man of valor.

His antagonist, who is also his uncle and his step-father, King Claudius, is shown to be cold, calculating, and unrepentant, and he is driven by lust, both for power and for sex, having married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, shortly after Hamlet’s father died. Therefore, Hamlet can be read as a dramatization of a conflict between these two sets of emotions: Hamlet’s dutifulness, justice, and hesitation collide with Claudius’ coldness, calculation, unwillingness to repent, and lust for power and sex.

Horror fiction is primarily about fear, but its characters are motivated by other emotions as well. Beowulf’s hero wants to prove his mettle as a warrior. Although The Exorcist’s Father Damian Karras has begin to doubt and, perhaps, to lose his faith, he remains a man of God who loves humanity, as it is represented in the possessed soul of young Regan MacNeil, enough to risk his own life in an attempt to exorcise the devil’s victim. Many of Stephen King’s characters are motivated by their need to bond and by their need to belong to a community, or by brotherly love, one might say.

Not only the protagonists of horror fiction are motivated by their emotions; their antagonists are as well. In Beowulf, the monstrous outcast, Grendel, attacks the Danes because he envies their camaraderie. In The Exorcist, the devil possesses Regan in an attempt to get Father Karras to renounce his faith and thus be damned. Many of King’s villains (‘Salem’s Lot’s Barlow, Andre Linoge in Storm of the Century, and the protean monster of It, for example) prey upon the weaknesses of small communities and their residents, motivated by their narcissistic desire to perpetuate themselves. The emotional conflicts in Beowulf, The Exorcist, and ‘Salem’s Lot can be represented this way:
Valor vs. Envy
Love vs. Condemnation
Brotherly Love vs. Narcissistic self-perpetuation
By motivating your characters to act according to their passions, you will make your fiction seem more realistic, and you will show what’s at stake, on a personal level, as it were, in the struggle between the story’s protagonist and antagonist. The nature of the struggle, in turn, may suggest your stories’ themes. For example, The Exorcist suggests that love casts out condemnation, just as Beowulf implies that valor vanquishes envy and King's novels indicate that brotherly love is more important than narcissistic self-perpetuation.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ray Bradbury's "Love Potion": Learning from the Masters

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Ray Bradbury’s “Love Potion,” one of the flowers of evil in his Summer Morning, Summer Night anthology, is a deceptively simple tale, the unexpected twist at the end of which not only horrifies, but also delights.

Reclusive sisters, “large as sofas. . . and stuffed with time,” Miss Nancy Jillet and her sister Julia take “the air at four in the morning,” when there is no one in the sleeping town in which they live to see them except the policeman walking his beat. While the two old ladies are rocking in the chairs on their front porch at two o’clock in the morning, eighteen-year-old Alice Ferguson, unable to sleep, “happened upon the Jillets.”

The women, after identifying their visitor, both by name and by age, tell her that she’s in love but that “he doesn’t love you,” which is why Alice is “unhappy and out walking late.” Nancy, however, assures her that she has come “to the right place.” Alice says that she “didn’t come,” but the woman shush her, saying that they will help her by giving her a “love potion.” They give her a green bottle, the contents of which Nancy describes as harmless ingredients:

“White flowers for the moon, summer-myrtle for the stars, lilacs for the rain, a red rose for the heart, a walnut for the mind. . . . Some clear water from the well to make all run well, and a sprig of pepper-leaf to warm his blood. Alum to make his fear grow small. And a drop of white cream so that he sees your skin like a moonstone.”
When Alice asks whether such a potion will “work,” Nancy assures her that it will; she and Julia have spent many years determining “why we never courted and never married,” and the results of their long investigation into these matters “boils down to” the potion they’ve given to her. Alice will be the first ever to try the potion, Nancy assures their visitor, because “it’s not just something you give to everyone or make and bottle all the time.” The sisters have too many interests, Nancy implies, for them to spend all their time on any single pursuit, even the manufacture and bottling of a love potion:

“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
It was while they were gardening, in fact, that they’d first seen Alice, “looking sad,” and had surmised that she was so “because of a man.” That was the moment that the sisters had resolved to try to help Alice, and they’d straightaway picked flowers from among the plants of their garden. All Alice needs to do to win her beloved is to add three drops to a beverage, “soda pop, lemonade or iced-tea.”

Visiting the man of her dreams, he tells her, “I do love you.” Alice replies, “Now I won’t need this,” and shows him the green bottle which contains the sisters’ love potion. Perhaps she has already mentioned the topic, in a joke, to him, because he is not surprised by her production of the bottle and even advises her to “pour a little out. . .before you take it back, so it won’t hurt their feelings.”

She does so, returning the rest to the Jillet sisters, assuring them, in answer to their question, that she administered a dose to her beloved. The women surprise Alice by announcing that they themselves will sample the potion, so that they will “have beautiful dreams and dream we’re young again.”

The next morning, sirens awaken Alice, and she runs to her window, looks out, and sees “Miss Nancy and Miss Julia Jillet sitting on their front porch, not moving, in broad daylight, a thing they had never done before, their eyes closed; their hands dangling at their sides, their mouths gaping strangely.” They have about them the look of death, and the green bottle is set before them:
There was something about them, something that suggested sheaths from which the iron blade is gone. This, Alice Ferguson saw, and the crowd moving in, and the police, and the coroner, putting his hand up for the green bottle that glittered brightly in the sunlight, sitting on the rail.
Because of the apparent kindliness of the aged sisters and their seemingly sincere desire to “help” their beautiful, young, lovelorn neighbor, Bradbury deceives his reader, as it were, into believing the elderly sisters to be harmless. Reclusive spinsters, the may seem a bit eccentric, believing, as they do, in love potions, but they are also apparently harmless, even lovable, old women. However, the reader’s realization that the “love potion” that they gave Alice was really the same poison that they drank as a means of committing suicide shows that the women were anything but the kindly old ladies they appeared to be. Believing themselves to have committed murder, by killing the young man for whom Alice mooned, but who did not love her in return, the women next kill themselves, apparently to put themselves beyond the reach of the law.

Bradbury’s story ends upon an eerie note, and the shock of the ending makes the reader reread the short story for clues as to what would motivate two seemingly nice old ladies to take their own lives after attempting to murder a stranger.

It would be disappointing if Bradbury had taken the cheap way out by leaving the story a mystery, but he is too good a writer to rely upon a dues ex machina. His story does, indeed, contain clues that make the sisters’ monstrous deeds intelligible. The women are reclusive. They avoid others, keeping company only with one another. When they go outside their house, it is early in the morning, when the town is “undercover.” Upon meeting them, “in the milky dark of 2 a.m.,” Alice recalls “the tales of their solitary confinement in life,” a phrase which suggests not only isolation, but also punishment.

If their self-imposed isolation from others is a form of punishment, for what offense are they enforcing it? Their intuitive understanding of the cause of Alice’s unhappiness is a clue. Upon seeing Alice walking past their garden, “looking sad,” they recognize the cause of her unhappiness, as being “a man,” perhaps because a man, in their past, had caused one or both of them to feel similar sorrow. They have spent a good many years, Nancy tells Alice, trying to “figure out why we never courted and never married,” and, having done so, they have concocted their “love potion.” Although it may be “too late” for them to “help” themselves, they can “help” Alice, who seems to suffer from the same heartache that had such a devastating effect upon their own lives.

Whatever the reason for the failure of romance in the days of their youth, it seems that the spinsterish sisters blame themselves, for they have, as it were, sentenced themselves to “solitary confinement in life,” becoming recluses whose only company they keep is one another’s. They have spent the long years, “since 1910,” as they confide to Alice, when, possibly, their hopes for love were dashed, in activities that seem to have been designed to sublimate their sexual drives:
“We’ve done a lot of things in our life, the house is full of antimacassars we’ve knitted, framed mottos, bedspreads, stamp collections, coins, we’ve done everything, we’ve painted and sculpted and gardened by night so no one would bother us.”
Possibly to spare Alice such a lonely and unfulfilling life as theirs has been, despite the many hobbies and pastimes with which they’ve attempted to fill their lives--lives which, nevertheless, the narrator characterizes as “stuffed with time and dust and snow”--they gave her a potent poison to administer to the object of her unrequited love. It is a gesture of kindness that is anything but kind, but the spinsters have apparently long since passed beyond rationality, supposing that the murder of the young man who doesn’t share Alice’s love would be justifiable if it brings Alice relief after her initial grief.

Believing themselves to have accomplished their mission, they drink the poison themselves, thus adding the crime and sin of suicide to that those of murder. Their own unrequited or failed love, it seems, has twisted them, and, over the years, the lonely spinsters, unable to find fulfillment in one another’s company or in the many activities they have tried to pass the time over the years during their self-imposed “solitary confinement,” have come to see their young neighbor’s own unrequited love as a long-lasting torment which may give some purpose to their lives if they can deliver Alice from the hell that they have had to endure since 1910.

Instead, they would have caused Alice untold grief by such an action, since, as the young man confides, he already does love Alice. Their romance, which could lead to marriage, almost ended before it began, in the death of the man of Alice’s dreams, and, blinded by their own torment and grief, neither of the sisters were capable of imagining that their reading of Alice’s unhappiness and its cause was a result not of special insight, as they might have supposed, but of a projection of their own experience onto the life of another person. Their solipsistic self-exile from life and the irrationality that preceded and follows from such “solitary confinement” is the horror that makes them monstrous and villainous, despite their appearances as harmless old ladies to the contrary.

Bradbury’s masterful writing allows the horror and the delight that rear, shockingly, at the end of this compact, deceptively simple story of heartache, madness, and seclusion. By emulating Bradbury’s technique, other writers can accomplish similar results.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Summer Morning, Summer Night: A Review

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Ray Bradbury has made quite a career out of nostalgia, and his affectionate respect for the past continues to serve him well in Summer Morning, Summer Night (2008), a collection of short stories unified by the common setting of Green Town, Illinois. Not altogether unlike Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which Bradbury admits influenced the structure, if not the contents, of The Martian Chronicles, this anthology is gentler and more sensitive than Anderson’s gallery of the grotesque tended to be. The characters, however, are often eccentric in their own ways, and most are, like their author, sensitive and understated, even in their eccentricity.

The first story in the collection, “End of Summer,” concerns a sexually repressed schoolteacher, thirty-five-year-old Hattie, who lives with her grandmother, aunt, and cousin, who are equally straight-laced and no-nonsense. Although Hattie fears being found out by one of them, she also defies their narrow, emotionless, sexless lives. She has repressed her own sexuality, but, in this story, she throws caution to the winds. In fact, she has apparently taken some risks even before the story proper commences. She is a voyeur; in this tale, she becomes, also, a seductress. She seems to delight in outraging her family’s stern sense of propriety, even if she does so in secret. It is enough for her, it appears, that she knows that she has violated their taboos.

As the story opens, she lies awake in her room, counting “the long, slow strokes of the high town clock” (9). Judging by her count, it is two o’clock in the morning, and the streets are deserted. She rises from her bed, applies makeup, polishes her fingernails, dabs perfume behind her ears, casts off her “cotton nightgown” in favor of a negligee, and lets down her hair (9). Gazing into her mirror, she is satisfied with the image of herself that meets her gaze:

She saw the long, dark rush of her hair in the mirror as she unknotted the tight schoolteacher’s bun and let it fall loose to her shoulders. Wouldn’t her pupils be surprised. She thought; so long, so black, so glossy. Not bad for a woman of thirty-five (9).
Having donned the uniform of a literal lady of the evening, Hattie sneaks past the closed doors of her grandmother, aunt, and cousin, anxious that one or more of them might choose this moment to exit their bedroom, but, despite her nervousness, nevertheless pauses to stick “her tongue out at one door, then at the other two” (10).

Outside, she pauses to enjoy the sensations of the “wet grass,” which is “cool and prickly,” and, after dodging the “patrolman, Mr. Waltzer,” surveys the town from the vantage point of the courthouse rooftop before sneaking from house to house to eavesdrop and spy upon their residents (10).

One of the men upon whom she spies follows her, and she seduces him--or perhaps it is he who seduces her. In the night, when darkness and shadows rule, passions are abroad in the darkness, and it is difficult to say, sometimes, who is the predator and who the prey. It may be that both are seducers, just as both are seduced.

After the assignation, Hattie returns to the house she shares with Grandma, Aunt Maude, and Cousin Jacob, no longer wearing cosmetics, dressed primly, and behaving properly, except for the smile she seems unable to shed, even in the austere presence of her repressive kinsmen, who chastise her for being late to rise and tardy to work. She leaves their company, still smiling as she runs out of the house, the door slamming behind her.

In this story, the monster is not the typical bogeyman, but the strict propriety of the prim and proper family of which Hattie both is and is not a member. A synecdoche of society itself, the rigid demand for conformity and the repression of personal passion of which has a debilitating effect upon the individual human spirit because it represses the fleshly aspects of human existence, Hattie’s family and its unyielding demands for steadfast respectability, at the very cost of one’s soul, suggests that it is inhuman to deny one’s physical appetites.

In demanding that these vital elements of their personalities be repressed, her relatives become more like machines that saintly souls, whereas, because of her covert rebelliousness, which allows her to remain true to herself, including the passions and appetites of her fleshly existence, Hattie shows the monstrosity that hides behind the familial and social demands for sexual repression and emotional rigidity. Ironically, her behavior, which would, no doubt, scandalize her family, as it would her community, is the salvation, rather than the ruination, of her soul. Her actions stand as a silent, even secret, rebuke to the harshness of an overly restrictive and conventional lifestyle. Hattie dares not disturb the universe--or even her own household--but, in private, she finds the sexual release that is denied to her in the public arena of her life, and these nocturnal assignations, brief as they may be, are enough to bring a smile to her lips that does not fade. The private life is all we have, Bradbury suggests, but it is enough when one finds another with a similar attitude and similar needs with whom to share it. Sometimes, heroism is as quiet and as passive-aggressive as the rebellious, but discreet, protagonist of this gentle tale of gallantry and pluck.

This story is itself a synecdoche, as it were, for the entire anthology of which it is the first flower. The other stories are just as delicate, just as beautiful, just as perfumed with the scents of joy and sorrow, reminiscence and lament, magic and wisdom. Most of all, they are instances of poetry, prose poems which assert, each one, in its own way, the enchantments and mysteries of life, as they manifest themselves in things both small enough to go unnoticed by all but the most sensitive and discerning and large enough to shake children and adult alike with laughter or with tears. A slender volume, Summer Morning, Summer Night is as deep and broad as the gray-haired man who, in writing it, packed every page and paragraph with as much Green Haven, Illinois, as would fit. The book shows why Ray Bradbury remains a treasure as much today as he was when he first broached the enchanted wonderland of modern middle America, well over half a century ago.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Horror As Allegory

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Why do we need allegories? Why, instead of beating around the bush, don’t we just come right out with what we mean to say? Why don’t we just say it? One reason might be that allegories allow readers (and writers) to broach subjects that are not discussed openly in polite company. By suggesting that one thing (say, child abuse) is another (say, demonic oppression or possession), horror writers can bring up the issue in disguise, so to speak, making the matter palatable enough to consider without cognitive indigestion, so to speak, among men and women who, otherwise, might prefer not to entertain the topic at all.

In an interesting twist upon the Aristotelian notion of catharsis, Edward J. Ingebretsen, the author of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King argues that the horror genre serves just such an allegorical function. In ‘Salem’s Lot, for example, Ingebretsen contends, the presence of the vampire Barlow supplies the scapegoat that both the townspeople and the reader need; they can blame the vampire for the wickedness that they themselves do, witness, or imagine--wickedness which is very wicked, indeed:

After about a hundred pages of King’s novel [‘Salem’s Lot], an alert reader asks, how do the predatory and brutal intimacies offered by Barlow the vampire differ from the brutalities exchanged between husband and wife (Bonnie and Reggie Sawyer); between boyfriend and girlfriend (Susan Norton and Floyd Tibbets); between mother and the child she beats (Sandy and Randy McDougal); or, finally, the brutalities implicitly exchanged between author and reader? There is little difference. People feed upon each other routinely for business (like Larry Crockett), and for perverse pleasures (like Dudley). The townspeople are vampiric in the most real of ways. . . consumption is intimacy, and power, rather than love, shapes human relations. . . .

Fantasy gives readers an excuse not to see what they will not face. For example, Reggie Sawyer’s vicious male-rape of Corey, the telephone installer he finds in dalliance with his wife--and then the subsequent brutalizing rape of his wife--is just
a diversion, after all. . . .

King’s readers. . . engage the text much the same way that the townspeople of 'Salem’s Lot engage each other--in vampiric, voyeuristic ways. . . . So long as Barlow could be identified as the vampire, the townspeople--and King’s readers--can consider themselves free of taint (182-184).

In Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim makes a similar claim, from a psychoanalytical point of view.

Those who outlawed traditional folk fairy tales decided that if there were monsters in a story told to children, these must all be friendly--but they missed the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be, and which also sometimes persecutes him. By keeping this monster within the child unspoken of, hidden in his unconscious, adults prevent the child from spinning fantasies around it in the image of the fairy tales he knows. Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it (120).

Writers are important, even in--or, perhaps, especially in--an age of looming illiteracy, because it is they who find the words and the images in which and by which to convey the meaning, in human terms, of the perceptions and events that the society of their day experiences. Whether interpreted from a pagan, a Christian, an evolutionary, a materialistic and empirical, an existential, or some other perspective, facts do not speak for themselves. They are mute spectacles, as it were, until the poet, or, in our time, more often, the novelist or the screenwriter, gives them voice. Writers do so by suggesting that “this” can be understood as a new example of “that” (whether “that” turns out to be the world view of the pagan, the Christian, the evolutionist, the materialistic empiricist, the existentialist, or the adherent of some new model of reality).

The curse (and, perhaps, the blessing) of the human species is that we are unintelligible in terms of ourselves, for we are both part of nature and, at the same time, partly transcendent to nature. To attempt to explain ourselves in terms of ourselves would be tautological, not to mention solipsistic. Attempting to explain ourselves in terms of ourselves would be, in effect, to explain ourselves away.

Language is metaphorical; so is thought. We cannot grasp the meaning of a “this” without a contrasting “that” or of a “that” without a contrasting “this.” Therefore, to make sense of our experience, and of ourselves, we need people who can discern relationships among things, who can recognize relationships between things and ourselves, and who can help us to see such relationships. In horror fiction, the relationships are between the Self and the Other, between the hero (or the monster) within and the monster (or the hero) without. Experience changes, but the process of allegorizing what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, and feel remains the same, providing what unity we can wrest from the multiplicity of perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Upon the basis of such a unity, we built--and forever rebuild--our world.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Categories of Horror

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

There are at least four distinctive categories of horror: the ominous, which features an unseen menace, such as a stalker; the eerie, which features that which is strange, such as a monster; the ghastly, which features the gory, the gruesome, and the deformed, such as a hunchback; and the frightening and shocking, which frightens by shocking.

Each category can be referenced by a cluster of synonyms that, perhaps, give a better idea of their meaning; some of the more common synonyms for each category are provided below, along with a few examples of each category, mostly from horror films.

Ominous, threatening, warning, worrying, gloomy, portentous, menacing, boding evil, ill-omened, unpromising, disquieting, unsettling, nerve-racking, distressing, frightening, alarming, bullying, intimidating, looming, startling, harassing, daunting, overwhelming

Ominous scenes include:

  • The gathering of blackbirds in The Birds: Out of the blue, birds gather from miles around, many of them perching along a power line across the street from the local grade school, awaiting their opportunity to attack the young coeds and their teachers.
  • Freddie Krueger stalking Nancy in the high school boiler room in A Nightmare on Elm Street: After staying awake all night, Nancy falls asleep in class. In her dream, she follows Freddie downstairs, into her high school’s boiler room, where the claw-handed pedophile stalks her in a horrific nightmare.
  • The little girl saying “They’re back!” in The Amityville Horror.
  • Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest”: As discussed in a previous post, this whole story is extremely ominous because of Stoker’s manipulation of his anonymous protagonist’s consciousness so that it is uncertain as to whether he is hallucinating or actually experiencing the bizarre incidents in which he seems to become involved during a hike in the countryside outside medieval Munich.
  • Buffy and Faith walking down a dark alley in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Bad Girls” episode: The alley’s darkness, awash in crimson, suggests death and blood, and the flashing amber light atop the nearby construction sawhorse warns of danger. A moment later, sure enough, vampires attack!

Eerie, creepy, uncanny, strange, weird, peculiar, unnatural, supernatural, ghostly, ghostlike, paranormal, spine-chilling, frightening, sinister, alarming, mysterious, odd, bizarre, unusual, outlandish, extraordinary, irregular, abnormal, atypical, curious, eccentric, aberrant, perverted, twisted, deviant, mystical, ethereal, wraithlike, vaporous, indistinct, spectral, remarkable, surprising, astonishing, nonstandard, uncharacteristic, malformed, nonconforming, different, uncommon, intriguing, unconventional, anomalous, distorted, misused, tainted, altered, warped, cruel, bitter, unwholesome, numinous, otherworldly, unearthly, alternative, avant-garde, quirky, jarring, contaminated, stained, spoiled, soiled, infected, unhygienic, polluted, fouled, corrupted, changed, misrepresented, bent, deformed, pitiless, mean, unkind, nasty, brutal, malicious, spiteful, vindictive, merciless, heartless, ruthless, vicious, harsh, callous

Eerie scenes include:

  • As A Nightmare on Elm Street opens, little girls, jumping rope, sing an eerie rhyme in a singsong fashion: “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you;/ Three, four, better lock the door;/ Five, six, get a crucifix;/ Seven, eight, better stay up late;/ Nine, ten, never sleep again.”
  • The backs of a kid’s parents’ necks in Invaders From Mars: The sign that one has been possessed, as it were, by invading aliens, is a round wound in the back of the neck; a young boy, aware of this, is horrified to see the injury in the backs of both his parents’ necks.
  • In The Shining, Jack, the caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel during its off-season, appears among guests in decades-old photographs posted in the lobby.
  • A deranged family of misfits hosts a dinner for terrified captives in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • A dog with a human head races past the camera in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Ghastly, terrible, frightening, appalling, horrifying, grisly, awful, dreadful, terrifying, horrendous, unspeakable, atrocious, shocking, gruesome, sickening, horrid, repugnant, macabre, hideous, outrageous, vile, deplorable, wicked, disgusting, beastly, revolting, nauseating, repulsive, gross, abhorrent, loathsome, ghoulish, ghastly, chilling, morbid, deathly, shameful, contemptible, despicable, evil, depraved, low, bad, wrong, immoral, iniquitous, sinful, impious, heinous, nefarious, fiendish, hateful, detestable, odious, unnerving, morose, gloomy, dark, melancholic, stony, dishonorable, malevolent, demonic, unbearable, unendurable, dissolute, dishonest, dissipated, decadent, debauched, unjust, irreverent, monstrous, scandalous, sleazy, agonizing, excruciating, insupportable, painful, degenerate, self-indulgent, profligate, unfair, unreasonable, impertinent, grotesque, ugly, wasteful, reckless, unwarranted, ill-tempered, impolite, brazen

Ghastly scenes include:

  • The exploding head in Scanners.
  • The aliens that burst through a human host’s chest in Aliens.

Frightening/shocking, startling, surprising, amazing, astonishing, astounding, staggering, disquieting, unsettling, alarming, fearsome, upsetting, worrisome, unexpected, unforeseen, unanticipated, unpredicted, remarkable, out of the blue, incredible, miraculous, wonderful, beyond belief, confounding, troubling, distressing, disquieting

Frightening/shocking scenes include:

  • Jack hacks down the bathroom door with an axe to get at his wife in The Shining.
  • A skull appears, superimposed, on Norman Bates’ face in Psycho.
  • The viewer is shocked by the abrupt appearances of the monster in Jeepers Creepers.

The writer who uses these categories, in an appropriate fashion, will generate horror as surely as such individuals as Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Stuart Rosenberg, Bram Stoker, Douglas Petrie, William Cameron Menzies, Stephen King, Don Siegel, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, and Victor Salva have done in using these same techniques in their movies or novels.

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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