Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Table of Contents

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Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear

How To Create Monstrous Monsters

Basic Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Plots

Plausible Motivations

What’s So Scary About Horror Movies?

Come On, People, Don’t You Look So Down; the Rain Man’s Coming To Town

Fill in the Blanks (Don’t Panic; It’s Not a Quiz)

Metaphorical Monsters

Understanding Monsters

Why Monsters? Why Metaphor?

Nature and Nurture: Character and Setting as Destiny

The God of Desperation

Dream Monsters

Plotting Horror Fiction: The Invasion Plot

Evil Is As Evil Does

Value as a Clue to Horror


The Horror of Time and Place

The Horror of the Incongruous

Imagining the Monster, Part I

Imagining the Monster, Part II

Imagining the Monster, Part III

Not Everyone Loves A Victim

Beowulf: The Prototypical Monster Killer

Body Horror

Mark Twain’s “Rules Governing Literary Art”

Inner Demons

Writing as a Schizophrenic, Part 1

A History of Hell, Part 1

A History of Hell, Part 2

A History of Hell, Part 3

Evil as a Threat to Social or Communal Values

How To Rob a Grave

Writing as a Schizophrenic, Part 2

There’s Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself: Preying Upon People’s Phobias

The Horror of the Wax Museum

The Underbelly of the Bug-Eyed Monster Movie

The Monsters Within

Describing Horrific Scenes

The Role of the Back Story

Poe and King: Two Unlikely Beauties

The Appeal of the Esoteric

Solipsism, Claustrophobia, Vampires, and Zombies

Everyday Horrors: Gargoyles

Everyday Horrors: Tombstones

Everyday Horrors: Crawlspaces

A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism

Everyday Horrors: Coffins

The Guide to Supernatural Fiction: A Review, Part 1

The Guide to Supernatural Fiction: A Review, Part 2

The Encyclopedia of Monsters: A Review

Everyday Horrors: The Electric Chair

Everyday Horrors: Worms

Everyday Horrors: Giant Animals

Buber, Bosch, Giger, et. al.: The Face in the Mirror

Conversation Partners: Creating Mars and Venus

Foiled Again

Rene Magritte: The Horror of the Surreal

“Hop-Frog”: A Story of Reversals

Everyday Horrors: Frogs

Total Institutions as Horror Settings

Everyday Horrors: Anglerfish

Mad Science

Alternative Explanations, Part 1: Demons and Ghosts

Alternative Explanations, Part 2: Clairvoyants

Alternative Explanations, Part 3: Telekinetic and Levitating Characters

Alternative Explanations, Part IV: Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies

Everyday Horrors: Cornfields

Everyday Horrors: Skeletons

Everyday Horrors: Nightmares

Everyday Horrors: Teenagers and Young Adults

A Sense of Horror

Ideas That Don’t Work

Buffy and Kendra: They Just Slay Me!

Identifying Elements of the Horrific

Everyday Horrors: The Atomic Bomb

Everyday Horrors: Plagues

Everyday Horrors: Gangs

Creating an Eerie Atmosphere and Tone

Everyday Horrors: Autopsies

Horror Movie Remakes

Scream Queens

Early Body Horror

Leftover Plots, Part 1

Free Horror Films, Part 1

Free Horror Films, Part 2

Free Horror Films, Part 3

Leftover Plots, Part 2

Unfinished Plots: The Cliffhanger

Everyday Horrors: Zombies

Visualizing Horror: Movie Posters

Movie Posters: Visualizing Horror

Fear: A Cultural History: A Partial Review and Summary, Part 1

Fear: A Cultural History: A Partial Review and Summary, Part 2

Fear: A Cultural History: A Partial Review and Summary, Part 3

Borderlands: Realms of Gold? Okay, Maybe They’re Realms of Pyrite, But They Still Glitter Pretty Well

Everyday Horrors: Plants

Everyday Horrors: Mummies

Download Free Stories

Everyday Horrors: Castles and Hotels

Everyday Horrors: Bureaucrats

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly, Part 1

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly, Part 2

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly, Part 3

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly, Part 4

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly, Part 4

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly, Part 5

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldy, Part 6

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldy, Part 7

Leftover Plots, Part 3

Leftover Plots, Part 4

The Monster as the Mirror of the Protagonist’s Soul

Paranormal and Supernatural Hoaxes

Buffy: More than Pastiche

Creating Mood in Horror Fiction

Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as a Hermeneutics for Horror Fiction

The Cliffhanger

More Free Books

Horror by the Slice: “The Lurking Fear”

Masters of the Macabre

The Nature of the Beast

A Catalogue of Vulnerabilities

Everyday Horrors: The Police

Everyday Horrors: Killer Bees

How to Haunt a House, Part 1

How to Haunt a House, Part 2

How to Haunt a House, Part 3

How to Haunt a House, Part 4

How to Haunt a House, Part 5

Psychic Vampirism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”

Horror Art: Attraction and Repulsion

Horror Fiction and the Problem of Evil

“The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Red Room”

“The Hollow of the Three Hills”: Hell on Earth

Everyday Horrors: Forensic Etomology and Putrefaction

The Heart of Horror

Guest Speaker: Edgar Allan Poe on Nathaniel Hawthorne

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Notes on Writing

Flowers of Evil: Horror Film Anthologies

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 1

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 2

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 3

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 4

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 5

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 6

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 7

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 8

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 9

Guest Speaker: H. P. Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature, Part 10

Contemporary Horror Fiction Bookshelf

Going Through the Motions, or the Physics of Fiction

Fictional Stories as Thought Experiments

Tag! You’re It!

Threat Recognition: Keeping It Real

A Certain Slant of Light

Frazetta: Work That Is Beautiful Even When Horrific

Julie Bell:Hard Curves, Soft as Steel”

Everyday Horrors: Abandoned Houses

Purposeful, Frightening Scenes

Beginnings: How Would You Finish the Story?

Middles: How Would You Finish the Story?

Endings: How Would You Finish the Story?

The Feminization of Horror: The Horror! The Horror!

Horror and Magritte’s Visual Loans

Everyday Horrors: Psychopaths

Thinking of Seeing “The Happening”? Save Your Money!

“The Hungry Stones”: An Open-Ended Conclusion

“The Addams Family” Technique

Explanations for Evil, Part 1

Explanations for Evil, Part 2

Horror Is (Undesirable) Otherness

Scientists: Ghosts and Vampires Need Not Apply

Perennial Favorites

The Fatal Flaw, Part the First

The Fatal Flaw, Part the Second

Guest Speaker: Robert Bloch

Verizon’s Version of Horror: The Dead Zone Advertisement

Everyday Horrors: Masks

Subliminal Horror

Sexploitation Horror Films: Sexing It Up

Bases For Fear, Part 1

Bases For Fear, Part 2

Bases For Fear, Part 3

Horrific Poems: A Sampler

Sexing it Up, Part 2

Nothing Gets Between a Monster and Its Genes

Charles Baudelaire’s “Carrion”

The Etymology of Horror

Sex Demons: Incubi and Succubae

“The Birth of Monsters” and Other Poems

The Fine Line Between Humor and Horror: Finding the Vein

Little on “The Collection”

Bentley Little’s “Collection”

Intriguing Chapter Titles

“Heavy-Set”: Learning From the Masters

Tentacles, of Themselves, Do Not a Horror Movie Make

“The Academy”: Learning From the Masters

“The Academy”: Learning From the Masters, Part 2

Femme Fatales

Frustrating Formulaic

Story Deck

Toward a Taxonomy of Horror Fiction

Images of Horror

The Form and Function of the Alien Menace

Hell on Earth

Plot Meets Laws of Motion

The Rhetoric of Emotion

What’s So Weird About Weird Tales?

Nocturnal Suicide: An Almost-Story Born of Mere Description

The Home and the Lair, or Heaven and Hell

The Protagonist’s Emotional Arc

“Duma Key”: The Decline of Horror?

Paradise, Heroism, and the Eternal Return: A Formula for Both Myth and Horror

“Terror Television”

Portals to Hell and Elsewhere

The Vagabond Menace

Learning from the Masters: Robert McCammon, Part 1

Learning from the Masters: Robert McCammon, Part 2

Plot, Character, Setting, and Theme as Narrative Starting Points

It Is Necessary to Suffer to Be Beautiful. . . Or Believable. . . Or Interesting

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger

Write What You Know (But What Does That Mean?)

Literature: A Communal Ceremony

Motivation as Explanation

Unworthy Books

Secondary Antagonists

Borrowed Malice

Aphoristic Horror

Write What You Know (But What Does That Mean?), Part 2

Music Hath Charms to Evoke the Savage Beast

What’s So Scary About?. . .

Fallacious Horrors

Some Thoughts on Horror

“Christabel”: The Prototypical Lesbian Vampire, Part 1

“Christabel”: The Prototypical Lesbian Vampire, Part 2

Making a Scene

Generating Horror Plots, Part 1

Generating Horror Plots, Part 2

Generating Horror Plots, Part 3

Generating Horror Plots, Part 4

Generating Horror Plots, Part 5

The Fill-in-the-Blank Guide to Writing Fiction

Writers’ Considerations: Readers’ Likes and Dislikes

What Scares Me May Scare You, Too (Or Not)

Presto! You Have a Plot!

The Hyperfeminine Monster: What Does She Look Like?

Stephen King’s Horrific Fairy Tales; Dean Koontz’s Variations on a Formula

Horror Story Formulae

Horror Story Survival Tactics

Surrealism and Horror

The Calm Before the Storm

The Horror of the Double

Green Graves

Imagining Hell

Demons Old and New

The Here, the Now, and the Eternal

Location! Location! Location!

Monster Mash, or How to Create a Monster, Part 1

Monster Mash, or How to Create a Monster, Part 2

Syntactical Storylines

Small-Town, Rural, and Urban Horrors, or There Goes the Neighborhood!

Reversals of fate and Fortune

The Monsters and Heroes of Fiction (Are the Monsters and Heroes of the Self)

Mapping the Monstrous

Sensory Links

Grist For the Mill

Building Horror and Suspense Tobe Hooper’s Way, Part 1

Building Horror and Suspense Tobe Hooper’s Way, Part 2

Famous Writers’ and Directors’ Quotes With More or Less Direct Application to the Theory and Practice of Writing Horror http://writinghorrorfiction.blogspot.com/2009/04/famous-writers-and-directors-quotes_10.html

Anaphoric Allusions

The Sympathetic Character: Intimations of Past Trauma

Dean Koontz’s Techniques for Engaging Readers and Advancing Plots

“Man Overboard”: Questioning Nature and Its Creator

Revisiting the Numinous

The Value of Literature

Categories of Horror

Horror As Allegory

“Summer Morning, Summer Night”: A Review

Ray Bradbury’s “Love Potion”: Learning From the Masters

Characterization via Emotion

Ghosts: An Endangered Species?

Modern Monsters

Reading, Writing, and Plotting

Dialogue as Repartee

Possible Worlds of the Fantastic: A Review

Bodies in Pieces: A Review

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

We fear countless things.

Things that wait in ambush . Bizarre incidents. Crowds and mobs, flocks and swarms. The close proximity of gigantic things. Darkness. Fog. Cemeteries, graves, morgues, mortuaries, tombs, and other places of the dead. Attics, basements, closets, crawlspaces, and other little-used places. Caves. Underground places. Castles. Mansions. Remote locations. Isolation. Foreigners and foreign lands. Strangers. Men, women, and children. Figurines and statues. Toys. Clowns. Dungeons, prisons, and torture chambers. Disease. Famine. Hunger. Thirst. Death. Dismemberment. Disfigurement. Rape. Pain. Grief. Loss of control. Madness. Sex. Wild animals. Wilderness. Swamps. Deserts. Mountains. Forests. Jungles. Islands. The open sea. Frozen wastelands. Becoming lost. Perversions. Skeletons and skulls. Suddenness. Doctors and dentists. Indifference. The unknown. Natural catastrophes--avalanches, blizzards, droughts, earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, landslides and mudslides, lightning, pestilence, plagues, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, whirlpools.

“Misery is manifold,” as Edgar Allan Poe observed.

We fear loss--the loss of life, limb, mind, senses, sanity, but we also fear that we may lose whatever we value: self, certain (but not all) others (spouses, children, siblings, pets), home, job, dignity, liberty, truth, financial security, independence, safety, security, freedom from need, luxury, beauty, intelligence, happiness, health, strength, power, talent.

Anything we value can be damaged, destroyed, killed, or taken away.

Anything can happen. To anyone. At any time.

We fear what can threaten any of these persons, places, things, qualities, or ideas. We also fear those who have themselves experienced such losses, for they are reminders that we may suffer similar fates. The one-armed man or the man with a glass eye or a woman with a disfigured face are objects of fear and revulsion because we could be in their places.

Against threats, we erect defenses, physical and emotional, social and otherwise intangible: militia, psychological defense mechanisms, law and social institutions, police forces, firefighting and rescue organizations, philosophy and religion. Threats to these defenses are also threats to us as individuals and communities, nations and a world. War, humiliation, criminality, political corruption, dishonest police, inept firefighters or rescue personnel, new ideas, idolatries and heresies--all are threats to personal, social, national, and universal wellbeing and survival. On a lesser level, baldness, cellulite, hearing loss, diminished vision, impaired mobility, arthritis, wrinkles, reductions in energy, strength, and stamina--these are signs of deterioration, loss of vitality, and approaching or encroaching death.

The cosmetics and fashion industries are built upon the suppression of the effects of aging and the denial of death. Police organizations and prisons exist to protect the public from predatory criminals, the military to defend the country against aggressive nations.

The pharmaceutical industry exists to prevent, treat, and cure disease (and, more and more, it seems, judging by televised commercials, to remedy men who experience erectile dysfunction).
The Roman Catholic Church sees everything but reproductive sex as sinful because non-procreative sexual activities do not support the continuance of the human species. From this standpoint, non-reproductive sex is a threat to human survival, and many horror stories, novels, and movies introduce homosexuality, fornication among teenagers, or other perversions of the heterosexual drive to reproduce as heralding eruptions of the demonic or monstrous into society. Usually, the couples who are involved in such practices meet doom at the hands of the monster or other threat that menaces the characters in the story.

Many offenses can also be defenses. One may hiding to ambush or to avoid being captured or killed. One may organize to defend a family, a community, a nation, or a world, or to attack and defeat the same. Statues may be erected to commemorate, to protect, or to shame--or, possibly, to warn.

Threats can be literal (a monster hiding in ambush) or figurative (arcane or occult knowledge is knowledge that is hidden from others).

“There is nothing to fear,” Franklin Roosevelt assured fearful Americans, “but fear itself,” and yet he, a polio victim, feared that the public he led would regard him as unfit for such responsibility if the all-but-paralyzing effects of the disease he’d suffered were known to the people and took pains always to appear as vigorous and robust as e could.

There is always plenty to fear, and, as long as there is, horror fiction will continue to thrive--and writhe.

When the Center Does Not Hold

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep were
vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

In “The Shopping Mall as Sacred Space,” Ira Zepp, Jr., states his belief that shopping malls represent contemporary and secularized “sacred spaces” that energize human beings. Although his thesis may strike one as highly unlikely, he does mention several points that are worth considering, taking them, for the most part, from the ideas of Mircea Eliade Paul Wheatley. One of these ideas is that human architecture features centers--town squares, or “parks, groves, or recreational centers”--that reflect their archetypal “heavenly counterpart.”

These mystic centers, often circular in design, are separate from the ordinary world surrounding them and are, therefore, potentially sacred, integrating “space at several significant levels,” including “global (cosmic), state (political), capital (ceremonial), and temple (ritual).”

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Jerusalem is an example: “The heavenly Jerusalem, the historical Jerusalem, and the coming Jerusalem are all reflections of a city already found in the mind of God.”

When religious faith declines, religious centers are replaced by secular surrogates, a point made by Zepp in his quotation of Eliade: “To the degree that ancient holy places. . . lose their religious efficacy, people discover and apply other geometric architecture or iconographic formulas.” In the larger community, that of the nation, such surrogate centers include Washington, D. C., the political center, New York City’s Wall Street, the economic center, and New York City’s Broadway and Los Angeles’ Hollywood, as prominent cultural centers.

In addition, various other centers, universities, sports arenas, national and state parks, military bases, state capitals, town halls, railway stations--are scattered, as it were, around the country, at regional, state, and local levels. Many of these serve the general public, but some are more or less the exclusive provinces of those who work in them or frequent them--trucks stops, shopping centers, research laboratories, factories. Zepp lists several such centers in his essay, identifying facilities for conferences, civics, medicine, agriculture, shopping, senior citizens, recreation, and students, all of which incorporate the term “center” as part of their designations.

Horror fiction and other genres of literature, especially those which feature an element of the supernatural or the fantastic, frequently contains such centers, which may be narrative or thematic or both, so it is illuminating to discern what attacks these centers and how and why they are attacked. The enemy without (or within) tells us much about both that which a society holds to be sacred and that which it sees as threats against what it values most as the focus and center of communal life.

Much of Stephen King’s fiction takes place in American small towns. In some of these towns, the church is still active as a sacred center. In Needful Things, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Cycle of the Werewolf, the church, in its Catholic or Protestant version (or both versions) is active, if relatively ineffective. The Catholic and Protestant churches in Needful Things are both unable to resist the temptations of the devil, as he appears in the person of Leland Gaunt, and, in fact, literally take arms against one another in a riot of violence, death, and gore. In ‘Salem’s Lot, Father Callahan’s religious faith is so weak that the priest is easily overcome by the vampire Barlow, who transforms him into one of his followers, a member of the brotherhood of the evil undead, and, in The Cycle of the Werewolf, the local Baptist pastor, Reverend Lester Lowe, is the story’s antagonist from the very beginning of the story.

In other of King’s stories, the church, if there is one in the town in which the tale takes place, is not mentioned at all. Instead, other places have taken upon themselves the function that such sacred places served in previous, more religious times. However, places that have, in mainstream society, typically taken the place of the church, the temple, the synagogue, and other religious centers, seem to be defunct. Groves, recreational centers, universities, sports arenas, national, state and city parks, military bases, state capitals, town halls, railway stations, trucks stops, shopping centers, research laboratories, and factories may exist, but there is nothing set apart, or “sacred,” about them.

Indeed, as in Bentley Little’s University, The Resort, The Academy, The Store, and similar works of horror, such secular surrogates for sacred objects which have lost their holiness are apt themselves to be centers for demonic or chaotic forces rather than for divine and healing powers. If the sacred center does not hold, neither, horror writers suggest, will their secular surrogates.

King, like Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, and other contemporary horror writers, tends to relocate the sacred center not in surrogate places, but rather in the solitary holy individual or the consecrated few. In some cases, these individuals are not religious in the traditional sense; other times, they are. In Desperation, David Carver is the religious protagonist whose faith carries the day against the demo n Tak. In Koontz’s The Taking, Molly Sloan and her husband Neil fend of the onslaught of Satan and his minions. In Simmons’ Summer of Night, altar boy Mike O’Rourke leads his peers against the ancient evil that attacks his hometown. In William Peter Blatty, Father Damian Karras exorcises the legion of demons who have possessed pre-pubescent Regan MacNeil. These characters are more or less religious in the traditional sense.

In other novels, however, the holy one is him- or herself secular in nature and outlook, although he or she occupies the novels’ surrogate sacred centers and drive the action forward against the evil figures or forces which menace their society, sometimes despite the presence of an active, if ineffective, institutional church. Father Callahan of ‘Salem’s Lot, Sheriff Alan Pangborn of Needful Things, and writer Bill Denbrough of are the secular leaders who lead the forces of a secular society against the menaces that threaten to annihilate them; their religious counterparts prove as ineffective against the antagonists as the churches that they lead.

What about the forces of darkness themselves which attack these surrogate and secular “sacred centers”? What do their natures tell us about the forces which contemporary horror writers view as threatening contemporary secular society? Desperation’s demon, Tak, threatens the community by tempting people to sin and by attempting to destroy their faith in the true God. Therefore, Tak is a threat to the righteousness that results from obedience to the divine will and a threat to faith itself. ‘Salem’s Lot’s Barlow sows seeds of fear and distrust among the small town to which he, an ancient European evil, comes, causing mother to turn against son, wife against husband, and neighbor against neighbor. He is a menace to the moral values and brotherly love that makes a community of a town’s populace, instead of their remaining nothing more than a collection of suspicious and uncooperative residents. Needful Things’ Leland Gaunt likewise pits neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, family member against family member, and lover against lover, disrupting the tie that binds, whether the tie is one of love, friendship, or faith and fellowship. As a man of the cloth turned bestial, Cycle of the Werewolf’s Reverend Lowe is literally a wolf in sheep’s clothing, violating the trust of the flock over which he has been assigned the responsibility for the welfare of their souls. In King’s fiction, as in that of Koontz and many others who mine fiction’s horror lode, the major threat of antagonists, human, monster, and otherwise, is to the community and its individual members and to the spiritual and social glue, so to speak, that hold them together--their faith, respect, concern for moral goodness, personal sacrifice, and romantic and brotherly love.

To discern the nature of the threats in other horror writers’ fiction, first ask what the “sacred center” is that brings the characters together, that unites them, that makes them care for one another, and then ask yourself what is the nature of the beast that attacks this center. Everyone seeks a center to his or her life, as do villages, towns, cities, states, nations, and the world, and, although these centers differ somewhat from time to time and place to place, the ties that bind them are often the same, even if the monsters also sometimes change.

The Monster’s Lair: Setting As Psychology

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The monster’s lair is the antithesis of home sweet home. It is the home turned inside out and upside down. For most people, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. A refuge from the callous indifference of others, from petty tyrants with petty agendas, from malicious coworkers who will do anything to get ahead (as they conceive the climbing of corporate and social ladders to represent), and a place where one can, without apology or pretense, be one’s true self, unmasked and undressed, home has long been the closest thing to paradise left on earth. The monster’s lair destroys all that is home, concerting it into a hell on earth wherein monsters, not loved ones, dwell.

As is often the case with horror fiction, Beowulf, which, in many ways, is the prototypical horror story, provides a superb example of the monster’s lair as the antithesis of home sweet home. A foil, as it were, to the Danish warriors’ mead hall, Heorot, Grendel’s lair is remote. It is isolated. It occupies land that is inhospitable and undesirable. The Danes’ hall, on the other hand, is central to the community, a place of camaraderie, a place where each warrior is respected and accepted by his peers.

Grendel, a descendant of the exiled, murderous Cain, lives apart from human society. A monster who is sometimes described as a demon and sometimes as a troll, he is fierce, fearsome, fearless, and ferocious. He is quick and powerful, and he is motivated by his envy of the fellowship of the Danes, from which he and his kith and kin have been excluded. Ostracism and banishment have taken their toll upon his soul, and he seeks to avenge his having been denied even the possibility of society and friendship by taking from the Danes that which they (and God) have denied to him.

The Danes, on the other hand, live in a society that is based upon courage, strength, fellowship, kinship, and a sharing of the spoils of war taken in victorious battle. Headed by a king, the Danish society operates by sharing the wealth captured from defeated tribes; in return for a share of the spoils of war, the Danish warriors, or thanes, are loyal to their liege. Therefore, their society is as much based upon sharing wealth as it is upon the attributes of the warrior, a warriors’ code, and the bonds of family relationships and friendships. The sharing of the wealth allows all fighting men a stake in the fortunes and the affairs of their state and, as such, is a symbol of respect and honor extended by the king to his followers who make it possible for his kingdom to exist and for him to acquire booty through battle against neighboring, hostile tribes.

The characters’ beliefs and behaviors reflect their treatment by others. Grendel, who is ostracized, becomes vengeful and murderous; the Danes, who enjoy fellowship among themselves, are loyal and sociable and supportive--at least to one another. Exile is the basis of Grendel’s anti-social destructiveness; family and friendship are the bases of the Danes’ sociability, constructiveness, and culture.

The poem describes both Grendel’s lair and Heorot; the descriptions themselves demonstrate the vast differences in monstrous Grendel’s stark, barren haunt and the bright, warm hall of mead in which the Danes enjoy friendship and fellowship.

Grendel’s abode is described in the following lines of the poem, when Beowulf, having killed Grendel earlier, now enters the monster’s lair to fight his vanquished foe’s mother:

. . . They dwell apart
among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags
and treacherous keshes, where cold streams
pour down the mountain and disappear
under mist and moorland.

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
Is pitched towards the heavens. . . .

[Beowulf] . . . discovered the dismal wood.
mountain trees growing out at an
angle above gray stones: the bloodshot water
surged underneath. . . .

. . . The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
serpents and wild things such as those that often
surface at dawn to roam the sail-road
and doom the voyage. Down they plunged,
lashing in anger at the loud call
of the battle-bugle. An arrow from the bow
of the great Geat-chief got one of them
as he surged to the surface. . . .

. . . [Beowulf] dived into the heaving
depths of the lake. It was the best part of a day
before he could see the solid bottom.

. . . A bewildering horde
came at him from the depths, droves of sea-beasts
who attacked with tusks and tore at his chain-mail
in a ghastly onslaught. The gallant man
could see he had entered some hellish turn-hole
and yet the water there did not work against him
because the hall-roofing held off
the force of the current. . . .

The lair is also described in a prose version of the poem:

They occupy a secret land, wolf-haunted slopes, windswept crags, dangerous swamp tracks where the mountain stream passes downwards under the darkness of the crags, water under the earth. It is not far from here, measured in miles, that the lake stands; over it hang frost-covered groves, trees held fast by their roots overshadow the water. There each night may be seen a fearful wonder--fire on the flood. No one alive among the children of men is wise enough to know the bottom. Although the trong-antlered stag, roaming the heath, may seek out the forest when driven from the field, hard pressed by hounds, he will sooner yield up life and spirit than hide his head there. That is not a pleasant place! From it a surging wave rises up black to the clouds when the wind stirs up hostile storms, till the air grows dim, the skies
weep. . . .

Then the son of princes advanced over the steep rocky slopes by a narrow path, a constructed route where only one could pass at a time, an unfamiliar way, precipitous crags, many a lair of water-monsters. . . . Suddenly he found mountain trees leaning over a grey rock, a cheerless wood; below lay the water, gory and turbid.

The troop all sat down; they saw then upon the water many of the serpent race, strange sea-dragons exploring the deep, also water-monsters lying on the slopes of the crags, such as those that in the morning-time often attend a miserable journey on the sail-way, serpents and wild beasts. They fell away, fierce and swollen with rage; they understood the clear sound, the war-horn ringing. With an arrow from his bow the prince of the Geats parted one of them from life, from its battle with the waves, when a hard warshaft stuck in its vitals; it was slower swimming on the water when death carried it off.

. . . The water’s surge received the warrior. It was part of a day before he could catch sight of the level bottom.

. . . A vast host of weird creatures harried him in the deep; many a sea-beast tore at his battle-shirt; monsters pursued him. Then the hero realized he was in some sort of enemy hall, where no water could harm him at all, nor could the flood’s sudden grip touch him because of the vaulted hall. . . .

Terrible in itself, Grendel’s lair is made all the more appalling by its sharp contrast with the comfortable, well-lighted splendor of the Danes’ mead hall, Heorot, from whose walls the monster, his mother, and their kin are banned:

[King Hrothgar] handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room
and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old--
but not the common land or people’s lives.
Far and wide through the world, I have heard,
orders for work to adorn that wallstead
were sent to many peoples. And soon it stood there
finished and ready, in full view,
the hall of halls, Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table.
The hall towered.
its gables wide and high. . . .

So times were pleasant for the people there. . . .Again, the same scene is described in the prose version of the poem:
[King Hrothgar] would instruct men to build a greater mead-hall than the children of men had ever heard of, and therein he would distribute to young and old everything which God had given him--except the public land and the lives of men. I have heard then how orders for the work were given to many peoples throughout this world to adorn the nation’s palace. So in time--rapidly as men reckon it--it came about that it was fully completed, the greatest of hall buildings. He who ruled widely with his words gave it the name Heorot. He did not neglect his vow; he distributed rings, treasures at the banquet. The hall rose up high, lofty and wide-gabled. . . .
If we are most at home in our homes, our homes reflect most completely and honestly who we are. However, a home is not built entirely by the homesteader. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a community to build a home. The motive for Grendel’s attack upon Heorot is clearly given in the poem:

Then, a powerful demon,
a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance.
It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall,
the harp being struck
and the clear song of the poet
telling with mastery
of man’s beginnings,
and how the Almighty had made the earth. . . .

Nor was that the first time
he [Grendel] had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar’s dwelling--
although never in this life, before or since,
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
And arrived at the bawn. . . .

--or, as the prose version phrases the same passage:

Then the powerful demon, he who abode in darkness, found it hard to endure this time of torment, when everyday he heard loud rejoicing in the hall. . . .

Then out of the wasteland came Grendel, advancing beneath the misty slopes; he carried the wrath of God. . . . That was not the first time he had sought out the home of Hrothgar. Never in all the days of his life, before nor since, did he have worse luck in meeting thanes in hall. . . .

The creature, bereft of joy, came on, making his way into the
hall. . . .

Exiled Grendel feels “spurned and joyless”; he envies the Danes their free and easy camaraderie. In addition, the poem suggests that it is God’s having exiled Cain, the ancestor of Grendel’s monstrous and demonic race, that has created them, perhaps as unwilling servants of the divine will:

He [Grendel] had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

--or, as the prose version phrases the same passage:
Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monster race after God had condemned them as kin of Cain. . . . Providence drove him [Cain] away far away from mankind for that crime [the murder of his brother Abel]. Thence [i. e., from the exiled Cain] were born all evil broods: ogres and elves and goblins--likewise the giants who for a long time strove against God; he paid them their reward for that.
Jumping from the medieval world of Beowulf to that of the early twentieth-century world of Ed Gein, we see that the same principles apply, despite the passing of centuries and the crossing of hundreds of miles. Although Gein lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, rather than in Denmark, centuries later than Grendel is alleged to have lived, Gein is as much a product and a reflection of his small town community’s indifference to him as Grendel is of the Danes’ disregard for Grendel. Their homes reflect their respective ostracism, as do their crimes against the very humanity that spurns them.

His house was as jumbled, cluttered, disorganized, and full of bizarre artifacts as his mind was full of muddled, confused, and insane thoughts and impulses. The disarray is so extreme as to be all but indescribable. Piled with magazines, boxes, crates, papers, litter, newspapers, garbage, and other materials, the house was also the repository of much grimmer and more gruesome artifacts: soup bowls carved from human skulls; chairs upholstered in human flesh; lampshades fashioned of human skin and (in, one case, at least) equipped with a pull-chain to which a pair of human lips were attached; boxes of noses and labia; women’s faces, stuffed and mounted, hung upon the wall as decorations, a “mammary vest,” complete with female breasts; human organs inside the kitchen’s refrigerator; and the decapitated head of Bernice Worden, whom Gein had murdered.

Gein murdered women. He robbed graves. He cut skin from the faces of the dead and, stuffing them with paper, hung them upon his walls, as decorations. He kept a collection of noses and a collection preserved labia. He dressed in his victims’ clothing--and in their faces, worn as masks, and in a costume of “mammary vest,” gloves, and leggings, all obtained from women’s corpses. He most likely cooked and ate some of his murdered victims’ organs. He would have had sex with the cadavers, he admitted, were it not for the repulsiveness of their stench. He did all these despicable acts and more, and, yet, so little did they know the fiend in their midst, that Gein’s neighbors and acquaintances regarded him as nothing more than an eccentric, perhaps slightly mentally handicapped loner who was, they said, a good laborer and handyman. One neighbor even entrusted her children to Ed to baby sit. Such disregard is not only monstrous in itself, but, it seems, it also succeeded in helping to create a monster. Had the community truly made an effort to befriend Gein, it may have been that he would never have felt the need to find a replacement for his domineering, fanatical mother, Augusta, after her passing. Gein had no friends, though, and even the few acquaintances he made had no genuine interest in him as a human being.

The same ostracism and disregard of the community for one of its own is evident in Stephen King’s Carrie (and most of his other works); in many of Dean Koontz’s novels, particularly with regard to his female protagonists; and in the novels of many other contemporary authors. In fact, as we have pointed out in previous posts, individual, social, and even cosmic indifference is a major theme in the contemporary horror fiction. Like the headlines of newspapers around the world, a callous disregard for others who are different, powerless, difficult, or even insane produces monsters at least as much as does the sleep of reason.

Disenfranchisement, whether on an individual or a social or a national basis, breeds monsters. The beast may live in his lair, but, more often than not, it was his community, his society, or his nation who both built his hellish abode and made the bed in which he lies, plotting his revenge. A home away from home is no home at all, and such a home--or monster’s lair--may be the place in which one hangs not his hat, but another’s head.

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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