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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

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.

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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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