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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review of "American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction"

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

One’s home is not only one’s castle, it has been argued, but one’s self. Writers of horror fiction from Edgar Allan Poe (“The Fall of the House of Usher”) to Jay Anson (The Amityville Horror) have capitalized upon this metaphor. Both the house itself, whether Roderick Usher’s ancestral mansion with its “vacant, eyelike windows” or the Lutzes’ Dutch Colonial with its own eyelike windows, glinting with obvious madness, and its inhabitants are haunted. Indeed, the spirits which afflict the residents’ domiciles are the very demons (the situations or the conditions) which torment the denizens of the houses themselves. In horror fiction which involves a haunted house as its setting, the setting is the destiny of the residents, and, whatever they do, whether they escape or are doomed, their actions constitute their working out of their fates.

In “Middle-Class Nightmares,” a chapter of Dale Bailey’s excellent critical assessment of American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, the protagonist of Robert Marasco’s novel Burnt Offerings, dreams of what she can make of the apartment into which she moves. The novel critiques, Bailey notes, what “historian Daniel Bell” calls “a consumption society” which is “undermining the traditional value system with its emphasis on thrift, frugality, self-control, and impulse renunciation”:

Her glossy apartment is a virtual shrine to consumption, simultaneously mirroring her aspirations and their failure. . . . Marian simply loves to buy things, good things— not a buffet but a “French Provincial buffet,” not a desk but a “mahogany and bronze dore desk”. . . not an ashtray but a Belleck astray, not chairs but Bergere chairs (72).
This equation of material wealth to personal worth is reinforced and, in fact, made explicit in subsequent passages of the novel. Whereas Marian’s husband Ben sees, in “the Allardyce estate,” into which Marian wants to move, in order that she might, at last, fulfill her dreams, “a house disintegrating into decay,” Marian herself perceives “a house that might be made perfect again.” The mansion represents a new chance at realizing her version of the American Dream:

If the apartment suggests the failure of Marian’s dreams and aspirations, the Allardyce estate embodies her desires come to fruition. . . . She no sooner walks in the door then [sic] she begins to catalog the Allardyce’s possessions—Waterford crystal
chandeliers. . . an Aubusson carpet, a Chippendale mirror. . . . She assumes a proprietary air. . . . and she blushes when Roz Allardyce recognizes her state of mind: “you’re thinking of what you could do with it, aren’t you?” Roz asks her, and Marian cannot help asking herself, “Did she look that hungry?”. . . She does, of course, for she desires nothing more than to live in such a house— to be the kind of person who could possess (and be possessed by) such a house (73).

However, as Bailey points out, there is an insurmountable problem, of course, with such an attempt to validate one’s personal worth:
If Marian’s conception of the American Dream reminds us of the kitschy bumper sticker— Whoever has the most bumper stickers when he dies, wins— Marasco’s novel reminds us of that bumper’s subversive subtext. All the toys in the world don’t change one central fact:

Dead is dead (73).
Marasco himself likewise points out the futility of Marian’s desire to express her value as a person through her acquisition of the material wealth, as represented by her possession not merely of things, but also of valuable things, of the right sorts of things. As if a “wall of photographs” in the mansion’s parlor were the pesky “subtext” of the bumper sticker to which Bailey earlier alludes, the images they contain likewise undermine the text about one’s collection of toys’ making one a winner (or a loser) in the competitive game of contemporary America’s “consumption society.” As Marian and Ben examine a set of framed photographs on a wall of the palatial home’s parlor, “Marian is quick to rationalize” an eerie, potentially revelatory fact: “none of the faces was smiling, not one of them. The expressions were uniformly, and chillingly, blank. And one of the faces, an old man’s, was looking at her with what had to be outright terror. Like that boy’s. And the child near the edge” (73).

In part 2 of my six-part series of articles concerning “How to Haunt a House,” I argue that not only the house itself is a representation of the inner state of its occupants, but that each room— and, indeed, even the furniture— of a haunted house can represent the resident’s own thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and values:

The furniture and décor in a haunted house also often reflect the resident’s state of mind. Bizarre images in a mirror which are seen only by one character suggest that these images are not real. Rather, they are likely to be but the contents of his or her own mind, projected onto his or her environment--the looking glass sees within, rather than reflecting that which truly exists.

Therefore, only the one who sees such images can perceive them. The mirror mirrors his or her own thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. If a character ascends a staircase (or, for that matter, descends one), what type of revelation does he or she experience as a result? What happens at the top or the bottom of the stairs is indicative of what this character believes, feels, or thinks, and it is likely to be either transcendent or reductive in nature, depending upon whether the stairs lead upward or downward. An ascent into the attic is apt to represent an elevation to consciousness and knowledge; a descent into the basement is likely to symbolize a decline into the subconscious and the unknown.
Rooms can also represent specific roles that characters play and their thoughts and feelings about these roles. For example, the kitchen may represent one’s capacity for, and interest in, nurturing, since it is the room in which meals are prepared. Likewise, the bathroom is apt to suggest one’s attempts to cleanse him- or herself not only of the dirt that one has accumulated as a result of going about the day’s business, but also of the spiritual “dirt” with which one has soiled his or her soul, either during this same period of time or throughout his or her lifetime. In such cases, problems with the stove, the sink or the shower, or even the toilet can be telling, indeed! The smoke that pours from the oven, the black goo that drips down the walls of the shower stall, the serpent that emerges from the toilet bowl, as representations of the protagonist’s problems, real or imagined, with one or another of the roles that he or she plays, as either a single person or as a family member, are nasty enough in themselves; they are nastier still because of what they may represent in philosophical, psychological, sociological, or other terms that relate to the inner man or woman— or, rather, to his or her inner demons.

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH. Bowling Green University Popular Press. 1999. Print.

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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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