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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.

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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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