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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

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.

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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.

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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