Fascinating lists!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Humor versus Horror

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In the sexist teen sex comedy, 100 Girls, college student Matthew (no last name) has sex with a coed student with whom he is trapped in a dark, stalled elevator. He awakens the next morning, still in the elevator, to find that his anonymous lover has abandoned him, leaving behind, perhaps as a memento of the occasion, a pair of her panties. In a twist on the idea of Prince Charming’s matching the glass slipper left by Cinderella at the masked ball to the foot of its owner, Matthew seeks the bra that he believes will match the panties. He adopts the strategy of posing as a maintenance man for the college’s women’s dormitory, or “virgin vault,” as he calls it, which impersonation provides him access to coeds’ dressers, wherein he can search for the holy grail, as it were, of the matching bra.

That’s how this situation is developed comically--at least in 100 Girls. How might the same storyline be developed in a horror story? Here’s one possibility:

College student Matthew (no last name) has sex with a coed student with whom he is trapped in a dark, stalled elevator. He awakens the next morning, still in the elevator, to find that his anonymous lover has abandoned him, leaving her glass eye behind her. In a twist on the idea of Prince Charming’s matching the glass slipper left by Cinderella at the masked ball to the foot of its owner, Matthew seeks the one-eyed woman, his “Miss Cyclops,” who owns the glass eye. He adopts the strategy of posing as a maintenance man for the college’s women’s dormitory, which impersonation provides him access to coeds’ rooms, wherein he can search for his “Miss Cyclops.”

Admittedly, this is not much of a storyline. It needs work--a lot of work--and maybe wouldn’t work at all. My point, though, is to indicate how a humorist and a horror writer can treat the same idea, each in his or her own way, which is to say, humorously or horrifically.

In a comedy, order gives way to confusion, but the conflict is usually not a life-and-death matter; typically, it is something lighthearted, insignificant, or even absurd, often with satirical overtones, and the story usually ends well. The theme may be meaningful, but the vehicle for its expression, the story itself, tends to be fluffy and fun.

In a horror story, stability likewise succumbs to chaos, but the conflict that ensues definitely is a life-and-death matter. The story may occasionally feature a lighthearted moment, by way of comedic relief, but, overall, the narrative or drama will be suspenseful, even terrifying, and an atmosphere of dread will pervade, right to the end, as a monster or other antagonist relentlessly and pitilessly pursues his or her (usually his) victims, piling up dead (and often mutilated) bodies like cordwood. The theme usually will be significant, although the story is unlikely to end well, even for the protagonist. In a word, comedies treat their subjects humorously; horror stories, horrifically. Even the same basic situation will take a turn for the better (in comedy) or for the worse (in horror), depending upon the writer’s intent and perspective.

For example, in 100 Girls, Matthew ends up with his mystery lover, whereas, in a horrific treatment of the story:

Matthew might be arrested, suspected of being the psychotic butcher who, for weeks, has been collecting women’s eyeballs. In jail, Matthew has no way to stop the real mutilator/killer, who wants to complete his set by collecting his latest victim’s second eyeball as well. Perhaps Matthew’s parents, mortgaging their house, post their son’s bail, and Matthew is able, then, to track down the true psycho, either in time to prevent him from claiming the coed’s other eye or arriving on the scene a few seconds too late to save her from this blinding fate.

Again, this extension of the plot is about as ludicrous as it is horrific, and it could use a lot more work. For one thing, it is derivative, not only of 100 Girls but also of Jeepers Creepers, a horror film in which a stalker collects women’s eyes. (Hollywood would no doubt solve this problem by making the antagonist of such a film a "copycat" killer, just as this sort of story would itself be a copycat of the original movie.) The derivative nature of the storyline, however, suggests that the tale could be not only told but sold, and indicates, further, that, in horror, the absurd is as welcome as it is in humor, provided that it is treated horrifically, rather than humorously, which means that there must be fear and, in many cases, gore, or, as Edgar Allan Poe, more eloquently phrases the same dictum:

That motley drama!--oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot;
And much of Madness, and more of Sin
And Horror, the soul of the plot!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Setting as a Springboard to Other Elements of Fiction

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

When it comes down to it, a story is about persons, places, things, qualities, and idea, which is to say characters, settings, objects, traits, values, and principles. A writer, whether of horror or other fiction genres, can do much to help him- or herself in plotting a novel or a short story (or, for that matter, a narrative poem, a play, or a screenplay) by researching various places on the Internet or at the library. I like to surf the ‘net with this in mind, even (or especially) when I don’t have a definite plot, or even a story, in mind, hoping a particular place will suggest a character, an object, a trait, a value, or a principle that can be brought alive for others in a fictional format through the telling of a story.

In a previous article, I wrote of Stephen King’s use of small-towns and of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s use of New York City as the settings of many of their novels and of how, in the latter duo’s case, the features of Inwood Hill Park seem to have suggested ideas for the story’s plot; certainly the park itself appears in Cemetery Dance as a strongly atmospheric setting for much of the action involving NYPD homicide detective Vincent D’Agosta, the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, and other characters.

Referencing places on the Internet or in library books and other sources also allows a write to visit such locations, from the safety, comfort, and convenience of his or her study, which is especially helpful if the story is set in the fall and it happens, in real-time, to be spring. Even when one grows up in a particular time and place, it is unlikely that he or she knows the location as well as it is described and depicted in reference works, because such works are typically written by experts who are not only intimately familiar with such places, but also with what needs to be identified, described, explained, analyzed, compared, contrasted, classified, divided, exemplified, and illustrated. For example, I grew up near Rock Creek Park, but I could never give as detailed and accurate an account of its flora and its fauna as the National Park Service does, complete with photographs of its history and scenery and multimedia presentations, on its website concerning this natural treasure:

Rock Creek Park provides an oasis within the District of Columbia for a variety of animal and plants, including coyotes, raccoons, owls, deer and many species of trees. In addition it is an important stop of and resting spot for neo-tropical migrant birds on their way south to their wintering grounds or on their way north to their breeding grounds.

Rock Creek Park preserves a Piedmont stream valley in a heavily urbanized area and provides a sanctuary for many rare and unique species. The park is approximately 15 km (9.3 miles) long and up to 1.6 km (1 mile) wide. It extends southward from the Maryland –Washington, D.C., border to the Potomac River along Rock Creek valley.
Photographs on the website treat visitors to an aerial view of the park; Beach Drive, shown at a distance, with automobiles traveling through an immense stone arch; a man bird watching along a trail through the forest alongside of which a profusion of white wildflowers is in bloom; a picture of Boulder Bridge in winter, the trees devoid of foliage, a snowy blanket covering the land, and ice upon the water of a creek; a foot bridge leading into a deep woods, green with springtime foliage; dogwood trees in bloom; the mass of stones forming the arch of Dumbarton Oaks Bridge, an ivy-tangled bank on one side of the leaf-choked stream that flows below and the bank on the opposite side festooned with shrubs, grass, and errant stones; a stretch of Dumbarton Oaks Trail, curving through a majestic stand of tall oaks as it makes its way past woodland plants; a waterfall in Dumbarton Oaks, pouring its rushing, white water over granite stones beside a thick carpet of fallen autumn leaves in a turbulence as wild as nature itself; a meadow of green and gold stretching before a stand of trees wearing leafy autumn coats of the same hues; or the snowy Rapids Bridge, seen in winter, laden with snow, as are the branches of trees, heavy with sleeves of ice and snow.

Some photographs vie with artists’ paintings, challenging the most skillful writers to create, in words, what others have captured on film. Some of these pictures appear to have been painted by impressionistic artists of superb talent, such as this photograph of Boulder Bridge. Its description awaits a D. H. Lawrence, a James Fennimore Cooper, or a Mark Twain on one of his better days as a writer--or you or me.

From the website, one learns not only about the park’s animals and geology, but also about its history and culture:

Rock Creek Park was founded in 1890 as one of the first federal parks. Its establishing legislation, cites the area’s natural beauty and high public value. When the park was established, it was on the edge of the growing city and was already a favorite area for rural re-treat. In the establishing legislation, Rock Creek Park was ‘dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” The park would "provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition, as nearly as possible."

On forested hills surrounding the nation’s capital are the remnants of a complex system of Civil War fortifications. Built by Union forces, these strategic buttresses
transformed the young capital into one of the world's most fortified cities. These forts remain as windows into the past in the midst of D.C.’s urban green space, offering recreational, cultural, and natural experiences.

It seems to me after out experience during this rebellion that a wise foresight will not permit us to allow the seat of government to become again entirely defenseless” (Lieutenant Colonel Barton S. Alexander, Chief Engineer of Defenses 1865).

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander's suggestions went unheeded and this circle of forts, known as the Civil War Defenses of Washington fell into disuse as the city developed and grew. Although many of the fortifications have crumbled away, their intriguing and compelling stories are very much a part of our national history as well as the local history of Washington, D.C.
Sometimes, the history of such places can suggest storylines. For example, what if the use of the “complex system of Civil War fortifications. . . . built by Union forces” was never discontinued after the war ended, but was, instead, taken over by an inbred, mutated family of cannibals or the ghosts of the Rebel soldiers who died at the hands of the forts’ Union defenders? What if the forts are being used to store things unspeakably dangerous? According to the National Park Service, Rock Creek Park was created, in part, to “provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition, as nearly as possible.” To what lengths--or extremes--are the keepers and caretakers of the park willing to go to carry out this mission?

Different genres are concerned with different effects and interests. Many, if not all, of these concerns can be found in most settings, if one has developed the eye to see, the ear to hear, the mind to understand, and the heart to fee, for example, astonishment, amusement, intrigue, wonder, fear, disgust, satisfaction of solving problems or conundrums, romantic love, dominance of one’s surroundings, and justice. Studying settings as they are defined and described online or in books and magazines helps writers to fix, to see, and to experience, if vicariously and imaginatively, what is not otherwise present. Such research enhances description, but it can also suggest plots, characters, and most of the other elements of fiction and drama.

Quick Tip: Offer Readers More Than a Story

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

One of the pleasures of reading is experiencing (or, at least, being introduced to) new sights. Reading is travel by armchair. This is so even when one’s reading doesn’t happen to involve travel books. Stephen King takes his readers inside not only the geography of small towns, but also into their psychology and sociology. He helps his fans see not only what it is like to live in a small town but also what is means to live in such a community.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child show their readers what it is like and what it means to work for a big city museum, for a big city police department, for a big city newspaper; they also, quite frequently, show their readers what it is like and what it means just to live in and get around in a big city, whether by foot, in a taxicab, on the subway, or by bus. In their novels that are set in New York City, they always refer to landmarks, streets, and other physical locations. Some are known to many; others only to locals or the well traveled. For instance, in Cemetery Dance, the authors allude to Inwood Hill Park. Native New Yorkers are no doubt familiar with this park, but I had to look it up, first to see if such a place really exists (it does, as do many of the places to which Preston and Child allude) and, second, to see where it is. As it turns out, Inwood Hill Park is in northern Manhattan, along the Hudson River, west of Broadway and south of Knightsbridge Road. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation describes the park as “a living piece of old New York”:

Evidence of its prehistoric roots exists as dramatic caves, valleys, and ridges left as the result of shifting glaciers. Evidence of its uninhabited state afterward remains as its forest and salt marsh (the last natural one in Manhattan), and evidence of its use by Native Americans in the 17th century continues to be discovered. Much has occurred on the land that now composes Inwood Hill Park since the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, but luckily, most of the park was largely untouched by the wars and development that took place.

The park continues to honor and cultivate its environment. In 2002, the Urban Park Rangers launched a five-year bald eagle release project in the park, in hopes of re-introducing the bird species to New York City. In the summer of 2007, the park's Dyckman Marina was added to New York State's Hudson River Greenway Water Trail, a project aimed at reacquainting city dwellers with natural bodies of water and encouraging citizen stewardship.

Similarly, a hiking trail and the Hudson River Bike Trail offer visitors chances to appreciate large stretches of the park's natural beauty in an environmentally friendly manner.

Also importantly, the park manages to present modern conveniences like athletic fields, playgrounds, dog runs, and a barbecue area, in harmony with its natural assets. The Park stands as a functional, beautiful space, waiting to be appreciated and used.

Inwood Hill Park contains the last natural forest and salt marsh in Manhattan. It is unclear how the park received its present name. Before becoming parkland in 1916, it was known during the Colonial and post-Revolutionary War period as Cock or Cox Hill. The name could be a variant of the Native American name for the area, Shorakapok, meaning either “the wading place,” “the edge of the river,” or “the place between the ridges.”

Human activity has been present in Inwood Hill Park from prehistoric times. Through the 17th century, Native Americans known as the Lenape (Delawares) inhabited the area. There is evidence of a main encampment along the eastern edge of the park. The Lenape relied on both the Hudson and Harlem Rivers as sources for food. Artifacts and the remains of old campfires were found in Inwood’s rock shelters, suggesting their use for shelter and temporary living quarters.

In 1954 the Peter Minuit Post of the American Legion dedicated a plaque at the southwest corner of the ballfield (at 214th Street) to mark the location of a historic tree and a legendary real estate transaction. A living link with the local Indians who resided in the area, a magnificent tulip tree stood and grew on that site for 280 years until its death in 1938. The marker also honors Peter Minuit’s reputed purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape in 1626. The celebrated sale has also been linked to sites in Lower Manhattan.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, colonists from Europe settled and farmed here. During the Revolutionary War, American forces built a five-sided earthwork fort (known as Fort Cock or Fort Cox) in the northwestern corner of the park. It fell to British and Hessian troops in November 1776 and was held until the war ended in 1783. After the Revolutionary War, families returned to the area to resume farming.

In the 1800s much of present-day Inwood Hill Park contained country homes and philanthropic institutions. There was a charity house for women, and a free public library (later the Dyckman Institute) was formed. The Straus family (who owned Macy’s) enjoyed a country estate in Inwood; its foundation is still present. Isidor and Ida Straus lost their lives on the S.S. Titanic’s maiden voyage. When the Department of Parks bought land for the park in 1916, the salt marsh was saved and landscaped; a portion of the marsh was later landfilled. The buildings on the property were demolished. During the Depression the City employed WPA workers to build many of the roads and trails of Inwood Hill Park.

In 1992 Council Member Stanley E. Michels introduced legislation, which was enacted, to name the natural areas of Inwood Hill Park “Shorakapok” in honor of the Lenape who once resided here. In 1995 the Inwood Hill Park Urban Ecology Center was opened. It provides information to the public about the natural and cultural history of this beautiful park. Today the Urban Park Rangers work with school children on restoration projects to improve the health and appearance of the park. Complementing the work of the Rangers is that of dozens of Inwood “Vols” (Volunteers), who assist with park restoration and beautification (“Inwood Hill Park”).

Many of these features of the park are described in Cemetery Dance, both to develop eerie descriptions of atmosphere and to serve the demands of the novel’s plot. In Cemetery Dance, it is very believable as the possible refuge for voodoo priests, devotees of obeah, and zombies that Detective Vincent D’Agosta and Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast investigate.

A couple of other references in their novel, to Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols and Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, were also obscure, although I have heard of Durkheim. An Internet check, sure enough, turned up links to both volumes. One site even features online excerpts of Elementary Forms. In The Forest of Symbols, Turner investigates the function of ritual; in Elementary Forms, Durkheim takes on such topics as “the origin of the sacred,” “totemism,” “effervescence,” “the theory of religious forces,” and “the ambiguity of the sacred,” among others, some of which seems to inform the theories that Pendergast explores, if not embraces, in the novel as he investigates revenants, voodoo, obeah, and the mystical in general.

King’s depiction of small towns and of small town life, like Preston’s and Child’s depictions of their fictitious museum, real places in new York City and elsewhere, and their references to actual scholarly works of interest to their own narrative topics, enhances readers’ experience, offering something more than the stories themselves, which keeps readers satisfied and coming back for more.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quick Tip: Futurological Predictions as Grist for the Mill

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

It is impossible to predict what shape horror fiction will take in the future. As Soren Kierkegaard points out, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The same is true of fiction.

Nevertheless, there are some indications that the horror fiction of the future may address some of the concerns of the futurologist. As the science, or study, of the future, futurology attempts to discern future trends by studying present patterns and causes. Global warming, it might be argued, is an example of futurological thinking. At the heart of futurology are statistics and probability theory, but history, economics, mathematics, and most of the sciences also play key roles in efforts to discern possible and probable future events and to devise possible and probable future scenarios. As one article summarizes the science, “Future Studies is often summarized as being concerned with ‘three P’s and a W,’ or possible, probable, and preferable futures, plus wildcards, which are low probability but high impact events (positive or negative), should they occur” (“Futurology,” Wikipedia).

Of course, such a characterization is simplistic, as futurology also depends upon a nexus of other subordinate, often interrelated, disciplines and approaches, including anticipatory thinking protocols, systems thinking, causal layered analysis, environmental screening, the scenario method, the Delphi method, future history, monitoring, backcasting, back-view mirror analysis, cross-impact analysis, futures workshops, failure mode and effects analysis, futures biographies, futures wheels, relevance trees, simulation and modeling, social network analysis, systems engineering, trend analysis, morphological analysis, and technology forecasting.

The literary equivalents to futuristic societies are, perhaps, the dystopias and utopias of science fiction. In horror fiction, extrapolating from current, known scientific knowledge and theoretical understandings to possible or probable future states of affairs is also a way to anticipate the monsters to come. Some suppose that H. R. Giger’s biomechanical art and the short stories of Ray Bradbury which marry technology and art, such as “The Veldt,” point the direction to at least one likely future topic for horror fiction: mankind’s ambiguous and troubled relationship with the works of his own hands (and mind).

Needless to say, the very concept of futurology is itself very controversial.

Besides, fiction benefits from being fiction; it doesn’t have to be about actual, or real, situations; by nature, it is made up, invented, pretended, even when it is based upon actual events. However, an awareness of the predictions made by futurologists can certainly provide grist for the always-ravenous mill of the creative writer’s imagination.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Quick Tip: Writing Means Reading

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

It seems self-evident that writers must be (not should be, but must, be) readers. Every writer worth his or her salt will tell anyone who wants to write (or, more likely, thinks he or she wants to write), that, to be successful as a writer, he or she must also read.

Stephen King, for example, reads a couple of hundred books or more every year. In fact, his reading has caused him to discover, among others, Bentley Little, a horror writer of no small talent himself. As the many blurbs he has written to help sell other writers’ works indicate, King is as much a fan of other writer’s work as readers are of his oeuvre. His love of reading is shared by his wife and fellow writer Tabitha and their children, one of whom, Joe Hill, has followed in his father’s footsteps, writing horror novels himself.

Writers should read every novel or short story (or see every movie) at least twice (although several times more is actually recommended), the first time for pleasure and to get a sense of the story’s structure, of how it is put together, and of how it attains unity. The second time, readers who would also be writers should read for technique.

How does the writer describe persons, places, and things? How does he or she create and maintain suspense? How are transitions used to tie action and scenes together? Are flashbacks used? If so, why, and, again, how are transitions used to tie past and present together? What figures of speech (metaphors, allusions, irony, symbols, and so forth), either explicit or implicit, are used in the story, and how and why are they used? Why is the action narrated in this, rather than some other, sequence? What can be gleaned from the writer’s choices of words and images? How does he or she fully involve readers in the action of the story? Why is the setting important, if not essential, to the characters, plot, conflict, setting, and theme? What is spicy or memorable about the dialogue? If the novel is a murder mystery or a detective story, what clues does the writer drop, when, where, how, and why? Which are red herrings? If the novel is a horror story, what mythos, legend, historical fact, or scientific discovery or theory grounds the paranormal or supernatural incidents or characters in the everyday world of commonsense realism, and how does the protagonist learn the truth of the monster’s origin or nature so that he or she can banish or destroy it?

Almost every writer has weaknesses as well as strengths, and both aspiring and established writers can learn from both. One of King’s weaknesses is his inclusion of extraneous scenes and exposition in his overly long plots; one of his strengths is his characterization, especially of the young. One of Little’s weaknesses is his novels’ unsatisfying, tacked-on or inconclusive endings; one of his strengths is his ability to create, maintain, and heighten suspense, often through the powers of his descriptions of menacing places. As a reader, learn to avoid the mistakes of writers and to adopt their strengths.

Then, read the novel or the short story or watch the movie again to discover all the wonderful tricks of the trade that you missed the first couple of times you read or watched the story unfold.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Quick Tip: Writing the Short-Short Story

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

A short-short story is a narrative that is under 1,000 words in length, It is often made up of only a single scene, wherein a conflict, usually between two characters, is posed and resolved. There is frequently a twist, or surprise, ending to the story, which is generally effected through dramatic irony, situational irony, verbal irony, or a combination thereof. However, these are not hard-and-fast rules, but sweeping statements. Many times, short short stories derive from situations. In any case, they must be tightly written. Every word counts, adding to the narrative’s development and effect.

My own short-short story, “Finis” illustrates the form. After writing it in full, I changed the second paragraph to provide a stronger motivation for the protagonist’s extreme action. Before this revision, the paragraph supplied enough information to suggest why the actress might do as she does, but not sufficient motivation for her to do what she does; the revision makes her actions more believable.


Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The director asked, “Ready, Amanda?”

The actress thought of her husband and three-year-old daughter trapped inside their SUV, burned alive before they could be rescued; of the doctor’s pained expression when he’d detected something suspicious in her left breast and had, sober-faced, his voice flat, an attempt at a smile faltering at the corners of his lips, telling her that, “just to be on the safe side,” he wanted to order a biopsy; and of the five million dollars she’d been paid for this role and of how the money would finance her institutionalized daughter’s needs, and she nodded. “Ready.”

“I’d like to get it right the first time,” he said, and she nodded.

The production assistant held the clapboard between her and the camera: Snuff, Scene 1, Take 1. He snapped the top lever, the clapstick, down, upon the board, clack!

“Action!” the director called.

The camera dollied in, close.

Blood spurted from Amanda’s left forearm, bright and explosive.

She grimaced, drawing the straight-razor down the vein in her other forearm.

Blood was everywhere. Amanda felt faint. She listed to her left, her head spinning. Dizzy, she capsized, landing in the pool of her own splattering blood. The vital fluid was warm and thick. She moaned.

“Cut!” the director cried. “Perfect. Print it.”

For Amanda, everything went dark, and silence claimed her.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Quick Tip: Narrative Reversals

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Most readers and writers know about plot twists, which usually result from situational irony--setting up an expectation that is later resolved in a manner different from that which one is led to believe is likely. However, writers can, and sometimes do, also upset expectations regarding other elements of fiction, such as character, conflict, setting, and theme.

A character who is established as self-centered and self-serving can turn out to be capable of being altruistic and humane, as Han Solo, of Star Wars, turns out to be.

A conflict that seems likely to end in only one way can end in an unexpected manner, as the conflict between Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler does; all the way to the end of the novel, Rhett is interested in winning the heartless Scarlett’s heart, and, when he finally seems to get his own heart’s desire, well, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” he tells her.

A setting that appears to be dangerous can turn out to be a refuge, as Spike’s crypt is for Dawn when she is being hunted by the goddess Glory (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The opposite can be true, too: a character who seeks sanctuary in a church can find that the holy place is a place of danger, as Nightcrawler does in the X2: X-Men United movie, only to be tracked down and captured by Jean Grey and Storm. A theme can also be inverted through irony.

The apparent theme of a story can be provided, perhaps through the dialogue or the habitual behavior of a character, only to be reversed at the end of the narrative or drama. At the outset of Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski, a racist war hero, avoids young people, members of ethnic and racial groups, religious people, and anyone else who does not measure up to his narrow standards of propriety until he rescues a young Hmong woman from black gang members who seem intent upon raping her. The movie’s theme, which seems to be that it is best to mind one’s own business, adopting an everyone-for-himself philosophy, turns out to be one that affirms the importance of brotherly love and self-sacrifice.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blind Panic, The First 10 Chapters and the Final One: A Study of Technique

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The withholding of the cause of a whole series of unusual or bizarre events until well into the narrative is a familial, yet effective, technique for creating and maintaining suspense, especially when the events involve dangerous, injurious, destructive, and/or fatal consequences to many over a sustained period of time, as they do in Graham Masterton’s Blind Panic. Meanwhile, on a more immediate basis, incidents can sustain readers’ interest by implicitly posing questions that are more quickly--in some cases, almost immediately--answered, only to have other questions arise that are also relatively quickly resolved, as also happens in Blind Panic.

Dangerous, potentially fatal, situations which involve ordinary men, women, and children are frightening and suspenseful, but such emotions are heightened when the characters are of greater than ordinary importance or stature. In Blind Panic, both VIP’s (the president of the United States, for example) and ordinary men and women (a flight crew and airline passengers, motorists, campers, and hikers, among others) are represented as victims.

By heading each chapter of a novel with a tagline that specifies a different location (and, sometimes, time), the narrative implies the great sweep of the story’s action. In Blind Panic, such headings indicate that the story’s catastrophes and other situations occur in such diverse locations as “Washington, DC,” “AMA Flight 2849. Atlanta-Los Angeles,” “Los Angeles,” “Miami, Florida,” “Portland, Oregon,” and many other places. The story’s action takes place on the national stage, involving big cities and points in between, just as it also includes both national leaders and ordinary citizens. These taglines also help readers keep track of the subplots’ characters, because each set of characters is associated with a different setting or settings. Moreover, allusions to actual places can make uncanny incidents seem more believable; such references are also interesting to readers because they locate the action in places that are familiar to them, anchoring the incredible or the unknown in the recognizable and known.

A mysterious character, especially if his or her origin is supernatural, will intrigue readers, keeping them reading, as will a change in the narrative’s point of view or the addition of a subplot. An extraordinary cause of the bizarre series of events will be captivating, especially if the cause is explained a bit at a time, in a piecemeal fashion, throughout the novel. Mysterious characters are even more compelling when they are associated with centuries-old mystical rituals and historical events or with vanished cultures that continue to have present-day consequences.

Alternating among different sets of characters with each new chapter or after several chapters maintains suspense because such alternations parcel out the incidents of the action that involves these characters, offering a piecemeal revelation of the storylines that keeps readers coming back to learn more, first about one set, and then about another set, of the story’s characters.
The alternation between apparently supernatural and natural explanations for the same events or incidents maintains an ambiguity that is fantastic, rather than uncanny (explained by having natural, if unlikely, causes) or supernatural (inexplicable in natural terms), as Tzvetan Todorov explains in The Fantastic. Such an alternation also suggests that even seemingly far-fetched conditions or circumstances (an “epidemic” of blindness, for example) may be rooted in real possibilities and are not, therefore, necessarily as far-fetched as they might first appear to be, which lends verisimilitude to the narrative.

Short, tightly written chapters, comprised of only one or two scenes, in which composed, if not serene, action alternates with fast-paced, sometimes violent, action (and usually a change of setting and characters), also keeps readers reading. The 27 chapters of Blind Panic average 10 and a half pages each, for a grand total of 284 pages.

Writers and readers alike complain about the difficulty of bringing a narrative to an appropriate and satisfying end--one which doesn’t make readers feel as though the writer has cheated them with a convenient, tacked-on, but emotionally unsatisfying and philosophically unrealistic, conclusion. Blind Panic’s final chapter shows an effective way of concluding a story of combined genres, which might be called the horror-mystery-science fiction-thriller.

Note: Bold black font indicates incidents which create or maintain suspense or otherwise keep readers' interest in the narrative; bold red font explains how these incidents accomplish this purpose.

Chapter 1 (pages 1-2)

Who: President David Perry, First Lady Marian Perry, Dr. Cronin, Doug LatterbyWhat: The president discovers that he has gone blind
When: As he boards Marine One
Where: White House lawn
How: N/A
Why: Unknown at this time
Twist: None

As the president of the United States, David Perry, approaches Marine One, which has set down upon the White House lawn, he discovers that he has gone blind [how? why?]. He asks his wife, Marian, to help him board the aircraft so as to keep his blindness a secret from the everyone else [can his ruse succeed?]. She objects, saying he should go to the hospital, but he says he can have Dr. Cronin, the physician aboard the helicopter look at him first. She helps him board the aircraft, and he tells Doug Latterby to fetch the doctor [what diagnosis will Dr. Cronin make?], get them airborne, and take them to George Washington Hospital [what will be learned at the hospital, and how will President Perry’s blindness be treated?].

Chapter 2 (pages 3-6)

Who: Tyler Jones, Captain Sherman, copilot, navigator, flight attendants
What: Tyler is asked to land an airplane after the flight crew goes blind
When: During AMA Flight 2849, from Atlanta to Los Angeles
Where: Above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
How: N/A
Why: Unknown at this time
Twist: None

A flight attendant awakens Tyler Jones, asking him to accompany her to the cockpit of the commercial aircraft aboard which he is a passenger. He is surprised to find not only the pilot, the copilot, and the navigator, but also three other flight attendants crammed into the cockpit. Captain Sherman informs him that, except for the flight attendants, the whole flight crew has gone blind [again, how? why?], perhaps as the result of “an airborne virus in the flight-deck ventilation system” [is this the true cause of their blindness? If so, what caused the president’s blindness? Are the situations related? If so, how? If not, why not?] They are seeking someone to land the airplane [why would Tyler be able to do this?], and Tyler’s name came up in an LAX search of the passenger list as someone with “flying experience.” However, Tyler objects, saying that he has flown nothing larger than a Cessna 172, but the pilot assures him that he will “guide” him [will he be able to land the aircraft with such limited experience, even with the pilot to help him?].

Chapter 3 (pages 7-13)

Who: Jasmine (“Jazz”), a tractor-trailer driver
What: An accident on an interstate highway leaves Jasmine’s truck hanging over a precipice
When: Morning rush hour
Where: Interstate 101, a mike and a half east of Encino, California
How: A Hummer swerves into a concrete divider in front of Jasmine
Why: The Hummer’s driver has gone blind
Twist: None

As Jasmine presses the speed limit during rush-hour traffic, a mile and a half east of Encino, California, on Interstate 101, a Hummer suddenly swerves “sideways” and strikes “the concrete divider,” [why did the Hummer suddenly swerve into the divider?] causing Jasmine to slam into the vehicle and lunge halfway off the freeway’s elevated off-ramp, where it dangles above a “dry concrete river bed” forty feet below [will Jasmine fall to her death?]. As vehicles crash into her trailer, she climbs out of the tractor’s cab, where she sees a Ford Explorer “pouring out thick black smoke. . . only three or four vehicles away from” an “Amoco truck” [will the Amoco truck explode?] As Jasmine clambers over the hoods, roofs, and trunks of some of the “more than two hundred” wrecked vehicles behind her big rig, some of the cars explode, finally setting off the fuel inside the Amoco truck. Jasmine is blown off, to the right, but she survives. At the center of the wreckage, she hears a woman in a car that is engulfed in fire, holding her baby son out the passenger door and pleading for someone to save him [will the baby be saved? If so, by whom, and how?]. As other vehicles continue to explode and burn, Jasmine rescues the woman’s baby, just before the mother herself burns to death. She walks with the rescued infant down the shoulder of the highway as vehicles continue to explode and burn and fire trucks, impeded by the wreckage, attempt to arrive at the scene of the multiple accidents [what will become of Jasmine and the baby? Will she adopt it? Turn it over to the authorities?] No reason for the Hummer’s swerving is given, but it is implied (because of the sudden blindness of the characters in the two previous chapters) that the driver suddenly lost his or her sight.

Chapter 4 (page 14-19)

Who: Harry (introduces in this chapter merely as “I”), Mrs. Zlotorynski; Mrs. “Zee’s” servants, Emigdilio and Rosita, Marco Hernandez (for whom Harry is house sitting)
What: Harry ingratiates himself with a wealthy, elderly widow, Mrs. Zlotorynski, whom he advises
When: Daytime
Where: The beach outside Delano Hotel, Miami, Florida
How: Flattery
Why: Harry earns his living by flattering rich old ladies
Twist: None

Harry, who earns his living by flattering, advising, and acting as a fortune teller for wealthy, elderly widows, takes time out from house sitting to play on Mrs. Zlotorynski’s vanity be interpreting a recent dream she had as signifying her generosity. He enjoys tweaking the actually stingy social matron by advising her to demonstrate this trait by giving her chauffeur a long weekend off with a bonus and her maid the choice of garments from her own wardrobe. After she treats him to lunch at the “five-star” beach front Delano Hotel” and pays him for the dubious services he’s rendered, he leaves. [This chapter holds readers’ interest by introducing a new character, as yet known only as an “I.” As a charlatan who manipulates wealthy old women who tend to be pompous and full of themselves, he is intriguing, if not entirely sympathetic, and it is fun for readers to witness the display of his charm. In addition, the change of perspective from omniscient third-person to limited first-person is interesting, because unusual.]

Chapter 5 (pages 20-26)

Who: Harry, Amelia Carlsson, Marco Morales (aka Hernandez), Lizzie, Kevin, Lizzie’s children, Misquamacus
What: Amelia telephones Harry with the news that her sister Lizzie and Lizzie’s family have gone blind and asks him to accompany her to the Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Oregon, telling him of a vision she’s seen of a medicine man who seeks vengeance against white men
When: Immediately after Harry leaves Mrs. Zlotorynski
Where: Delano Hotel lobby, Miami, Florida
How: Telephone conversation
Why: Unknown at this time
Twist: None

As he takes leave of Mrs. Zlotorynski, walking through the lobby of the Delano Hotel, Harry receives a telephone call [who’s calling and why?] from Amelia, an old friend, who advises him that her sister Lizzie and Lizzie’s family have gone blind while biking near the edge of a canyon [this incident links the main plot and the subplot, but how are these two plots causally related?]. They were rescued by a ranger and have seen a doctor, but the physician is unable to say why they all suddenly lost their sight. Amelia asks Harry to accompany her to the Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Oregon [why does she want to go to this particular clinic, and why does she want Harry to go with her?]. Lizzie told Amelia that she and her family have “spread the disease,” but not what disease she means [what disease, and why does Lizzie believe it is a disease?]. She insists that everyone is going to go blind because everyone deserves to lose his or her sight [why is blindness “deserved,” and why it is deserved by everyone?]. Despite her being a “genuine clairvoyant,” Amelia is unable to discern what is disturbing her sister or why. Like Harry, Amelia initially attributes Lizzie’s odd talk to shock, but Amelia performs a “bead reading,” using “Navajo misfortune beads” and receives the message that “a great darkness” is coming that would blind “the masters of the world” [what is this “great darkness,” why is it going to blind “the masters of the world,” and who are these “masters”?] and that “a great wonder-worker, The One Who Went And Came Back, is “walking the land of his ancestors” [who is this, where did he go, and why is he back?] Amelia’s assurance that no bead reading has ever been wrong prompts Harry to accept her offer to buy him an airline ticket to Denver, Colorado, where he will join her on another flight to Portland, Oregon. Harry remembers The One Who Went And Came Back as a 400-year-old , extremely powerful medicine man, Misquamacus, who swore vengeance upon European immigrants after they’d stolen Native Americans’ land. He has since struggled to be reborn and has finally accomplished his mission, being reborn in the body of a woman named Karen Tandy [who is Karen, why was she chosen as the medicine man’s mother?], whose mother had appealed to Harry for help. He, in turn, appealed to Amelia, and, with the help of a Sioux medicine man, they’d banished Misquamacus to the spirit world [how did Misquamacus escape and return to this world?].

Chapter 6 (pages 27-42)

Who: Charlie, Mickey, Remo, Cayley, Infernal John (aka Misquamacus), totem-like figures
What: Charlie, Mickey, Remo, and Cayley drink beer and fish in the Modoc County National Forest
When: Afternoon
Where: Modoc County National Forest, North Carolina
Why: Fishing trip
Twist: None

Young adults Charlie, Mickey, Remo, and Cayley are drinking beer, sunning themselves, and fishing in the Modoc County National Forest, North Carolina, when they hear a sound that Remo attributes to a mountain lion [is it really a mountain lion? Is it something harmless or something worse?]. When Cayley becomes frightened, Remo returns to their Winnebago and fetches his rifle [will the rifle protect them?]. They sit around their campfire, have dinner, smoke marijuana, and listen to Charlie tell a horror story. They are interrupted by Infernal John, a strange man with silver eyes who speaks both a foreign tongue and English, telling them that they must pay for having polluted the land [who is this mysterious man, why does he have silver eyes, why does he speak in a foreign tongue, and why does he say the foursome “polluted” the public land of a national forest?] . As he speaks, two “impossibly tall,” masked “totem-like figures” rise out of the ground, wearing “antlers” and “decorated with beads and small bones and birds’ skulls” [who, or what, are these figures, and why are they dressed in such a bizarre fashion?] The foursome retreats to their Winnebago, followed by Infernal John and the two figures, and, after Remo fires a warning shot, Infernal John begins singing, and the figures with him emit a dazzling light that blinds the four friends [are these figures responsible for the blindness of the other characters as well? Why do they blind them?]. He then ties them up and force marches them to the top of a promontory, where he tells them he will order them to walk off the edge of the 600-foot-tall cliff, as their ancestors made his do after they’d massacred and captured them in a centuries-old attack upon his people, Native Americans [do the four young adults actually die in such a horrible manner?].

Chapter 7 (pages 43-50)

Who: President Perry; Drs. Cronin, Schaumberg, and Henry, First Lady Marian Perry, Vice-President Kenneth Moran, Russian Federation President Gyorgy Petrovsky, Doug Latterby, Secretary of State George Smirnotakis, Director of the FBI Warren Truby, a White House butler, Sergeant (the Perrys’ dog), Russian criminals Lev Khlebnikov and Viktyor Zamyatin
What: A meeting between U. S. President Perry and Russian President Petrovsky When: Uncertain
Where: The White House, Washington DC
How: Face-to-face dialogue in the Oval Office
Why: Securing of Russia’s assistance in curbing Russian criminal activity in the United States
Twist: The Russian president is insulted by the American president

The president learns that he has 100 percent “corneal opacification; in other words, the transparent lens covering” his “iris is no longer transparent.” None of the doctors know whether the condition is permanent [the reader wonders whether it is], and they want to run more tests at another facility, the Washington National Eye Center, but, against doctors’ orders and their warning that the condition could become incurable unless treated as soon as possible [will their prediction come true?], he insists upon meeting with Gyorgy Petrovsky, the president of the Russian Federation concerning “Russian criminal activities in the United States.” Doug will coach him through the meeting so that it seems that President Perry is sighted rather than blind [can they get away with such an unlikely deception?]. During the meeting in the Oval Office, President Perry asks President Petrovsky to prevent two Russian criminals who have immigrated to the United States from laundering money they’ve collected as a result of their criminal activities through Russian banks and to seize all the men’s assets in Russia. If President Petrovsky refuses, President Perry says, then he will order the suspension of ten billion dollars in American foreign aid to Russia for every billion dollars the Russian criminals launder through Russian banks. [Diplomacy between two heads of state concerning a significant matter is, buy nature, intriguing, and these men are the heads of two of the world’s most powerful countries.] President Petrovsky promises to consider President Perry’s request and shows him a picture of his two children. Unable to see the photograph and thinking it shows the two Russian criminals, President Perry unintentionally insults his guest by saying, “I already know what these two bastards look like” [will the last-minute insult, at the close of the meeting, destroy the chance of cooperation between the two countries?]

Chapter 8 (pages 51-59)

Who: Tyler Jones, Captain Sherman, Copilot George O’Donnell, Learjet pilot Norman Rossabi, Tina Freely, LA Times reporter
What: Tyler lands the 747
When: 3:25 AM (according to news report in Chapter 9)
Where: Runway 7L, LAX, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California
How: Guided by blind pilot’s instructions
Why: Aircrew is blind
Twist: A second aircraft, also piloted by a blind pilot, crashes into 747 after 747’s successful landing

Tyler lands the 747 jumbo jet successfully, but, as the passengers and crew try to evacuate the aircraft, another airplane, a private jet piloted by a blind pilot, [was the pilot blinded by the same “totem-like figures” who blinded President Perry, the motorists on Interstate 101, the foursome camping and fishing in North Carolina?] lands on the same runway, crashing into the first airliner, and several people are killed, including Captain Sherman [does Tyler die? How many others die, besides the captain?].

Chapter 9 (pages 60-71)

Who: Jasmine, Amadi (Jasmine’s “Auntie Ammy”), rescued baby, Misquamacus
What: Four airliners crash near LAX; the baby shows the women a vision of Misquamacus
When: The morning of the 747’s crash at LAX
Where: Ladera Park, Los Angeles
How: Clairvoyance and magic
Why: Revelation
Twist: The women decide to keep the baby

Jasmine takes the rescued baby to her “Auntie Ammy” to baby sit until Children’s Services personnel can arrive to claim the infant. They hear on the news that a 747 airliner was involved in a runway crash with another aircraft at 3:25 AM at LAX. Auntie Ammy, a devotee of Santeira belief, suspects that both the freeway and the runway “accidents” are deliberate. The baby starts crying and points at the ceiling. A rumbling sound occurs, and Jasmine thinks an earthquake is happening, although “she had never heard an earthquake like this before.” An Airbus 380 flashes overhead, stripping tiles from the roof of Auntie Ammy’s apartment, and crashes into the intersection of West Centinela and La Tijera Boulevard, near Ladera Park. Cars then crash into the wrecked aircraft, and many explosions occur. Auntie Ammy suspects that the baby might be clairvoyant, since he seemed to sense the impending crash before it happened. Auntie Ammy also senses a thickening of the air and believes that they are under attack by a powerful enemy. Auntie Ammy prays to Oya, the Santeria goddess of storms, lightning, and cemeteries. The baby points to a protective magic mirror on Auntie Ammy’s wall, one that can show what is wrong. The room in the mirror grows darker and darker, and Jasmine, Auntie Ammy, and the baby are visible in it only as silhouettes; as they watch, another figure joins them in the looking-glass--Misquamacus. Auntie Ammy realizes that the baby is showing them a vision of the person who is responsible for the death and destruction that has befallen American citizens. The image in the mirror is not a reflection of anyone who is actually in the room, and it is transparent; Auntie Ammy believes it to be a projection of what the baby sees in his head. As the women and the baby watch, the ghostly figure chants an incantation, and beetles scurry from the horns and headdress that he wears. Auntie Ammy’s apartment is full of cockroaches. Jasmine tries to turn the mirror to the wall, but it is too heavy to more than budge, and the figure in the mirror, scowling, steps toward her in the glass. She lets go of the mirror, and it falls from the nail that holds it, shattering upon the floor, and all the cockroaches vanish. Auntie Ammy believes that the mirror shattered to protect her, preventing the figure from entering her apartment. Auntie Ammy wants to keep the baby instead of turning him over to Children’s Services. As she discusses this possibility with Jasmine, the baby murmurs, and three more aircraft crash into South Central Los Angeles, within a mile of Auntie Ammy’s apartment, on their approach to LAX. [The appeal of this chapter is rooted in its references to unusual religious traditions such as those of the Santeira and Algonquin faiths, which suggest a conflict between two different understandings of the spiritual world and the cultures that originated them, African-American and Native American, respectively, and broadens Misquamacus’ concern for vengeance beyond just European [i. e., Caucasian] immigrants. The mirror’s ability to protect the women and baby from the medicine man also suggests that he can be blocked, if not stopped [as does the Sioux medicine man’s earlier banishment of Misquamacus to the spiritual realm]).

Chapter 10 (pages 72-83)

Who: Harry, Amelia, Lizzie Amelia’s sister) and family, airline passengers, a taxicab driver, doctors, a nurse
What: Amelia and Harry visit Amelia's sister
When: After Lizzie and her family are blinded
Where: Portland, Oregon
How: Flight and taxi
Why: To determine how Lizzie and her family were blinded
Twist: None

As Harry and Amelia, aboard a flight from Denver, Colorado, to Portland, Oregon, approach Portland International Airport, they see wrecked airplanes on the tarmac below, and a nearby passenger receives word on his cellular telephone of the several airplane crashes that have occurred all over the country [the widespread nature of the threat is indicated, which increases suspense]. The passengers believe that the nation’s airlines are victims of terrorist threats by “Ay-rabs” [a possible explanation for the bizarre events adds a note of verisimilitude to the story]. Their airplane lands safely, just as Amelia, a “genuine clairvoyant” predicts it will do. As they take a taxi to the University of Oregon’s Portland campus, to visit the Casey Eye Institute, the cab driver repeats the airline passenger’s suspicion that the country is under an attack by the Arabs. Updates about the crashes continue to come in via television; the latest number is 39 commercial airline crashes and two crashes of Air Force fighters. The Secretary of Homeland Security, John Rostoff, appearing on a news show, informs the public that the crashes were caused by the airliners’ pilots’ sudden and complete blindness. The agency is investigating the cause of the blindness, to determine whether it is natural or “the result of terrorist activity.” Doctors watching the newscast offer various possibilities for medical causes of the “epidemic” of blindness, which include “a virulent form of CMV. . . spread by human contact” and a “contaminated food product.” As Harry and Amelia meet with Lizzie, she tells them that the doctors have still not diagnosed the cause of her and her family’s blindness, although, at one time, they thought that it might have resulted from “a rare. . . infection” they “caught in the woods” [these possible causes of the “epidemic” of blindness add to the plausibility of a natural origin of the condition, making such an “epidemic” believable]. Lizzie mentions the strange man that she and her family saw at the site at which they lost their sight, saying, in an “oddly flat and expressionless” tone, “as if another woman were reading her words from a cue-card,” that they “deserved” to go blind. When Amelia asks her to clarify herself, Lizzie seems to come to herself and denies having said that she and her family deserved such a fate [is some other entity in possession of Lizzie?]. She mentions the two totem-like figures that stood on either side of the stranger and, reverting to her unnatural voice, again says that she and her family deserved to lose their sight because they “spread the disease.” Lizzie tells Harry and Amelia that the stranger identified himself both as The One Who Went And Came Back and Thunder Rolling In The Mountains [it seems eerie that the same figure would be known by a plurality of odd names, as such a device often indicates a divine origin or nature]. She also tells Amelia, “He knows who you are. He knows that you have come to see me. He knows that--this time--you will be ground into dust,” to be remembered no more [suspense increases as a sympathetic character is threatened by a powerful, supernatural entity]. When Amelia asks Lizzie if the stranger’s name is Misquamacus, Lizzie screams--and keeps screaming, even after a nurse injects her with a “dose” of tranquilizer that “would have dropped a horse” [the supernatural being’s power is demonstrated before Amelia and Harry--and the readers]. As she is about to be injected again, Lizzie relaxes, and says the name of the medicine man: “Misquamacus.” The nurse reassures Amelia and Harry that Lizzie’s “fits” might have resulted from nothing more than “delayed shock,” although the patient’s failure “to react to ethchlorovynol” has never happened with any other patient and should have rendered Lizzie unconscious “on the count of three” [from a scientific point of view, a medical expert confirms the unusual nature of what has just happened]. As Amelia confides to Harry, she has another theory by which to account for her sister’s strange behavior: In delivering her message, Lizzie was responding to a “post-hypnotic suggestion,” addressed specifically to Amelia and Harry, which is why Misquamacus chose to strike Lizzie blind: “She’s my sister. She was bait [this obvious note of foreshadowing maintains the increased level of suspense as readers take note of the narrator’s prediction of a crises in conflict to come].

Chapter 27 (pages 283-284)

Who: President Perry, Harry, Amelia, Belinda Froggatt
What: Amelia and Harry debrief the president about Misquamacus’ attack upon America
When: The last day
Where: Belinda Froggatt’s house
How: Dialogue
Why: Brings completion to the story
Twist: None

After Amelia explains to the president how and why the Algonquin medicine man attacked the United States (to effect vengeance against the European, African, and other immigrants who destroyed his people’s culture and faith), the president assures them that he will do what is necessary to put the pieces of the nation back together and to repair the rift in foreign policy that his unintended insulting of President Petrovsky caused [the president’s reassurances restore the order and security that Misquamacus’ assault on the nation jeopardized]. After breakfast with Brenda, Harry asks Amelia to divorce her husband and marry him, but she refuses [her refusal is honorable and maintains readers‘ respect for her; Harry is already a cad, but a loveable rogue, in spite of his amoral ways, and her refusal suggests the novel’s theme], that civilization is built upon individuals’ remaining true to the choices they make, in being committed to their promises: “Sometimes, Harry, when you’ve made a choice in life, you have to stick with it. Where would we be, if we didn’t?” she says, before adding, “Let’s get back to civilization.”

According to the novel’s flyleaf, “It appears that the Algonquin medicine man Misquamacus has come back to life to seek a final devastating revenge against the white man who massacred his people, and tried to eradicate their religions and culture forever.” By withholding the cause of the mysterious and bizarre events that comprise the beginning chapters of the novel, Masterton maintains suspense and readers’ interest in why the plot’s incidents are happening and what ties them together. (Unfortunately, the revelation of the cause on the novel’s flyleaf undermines this source of suspense, of course, but at least readers will want to learn how the medicine man seeks to accomplish this purpose.)

If, in reading how Masterton advances the plot of Blind Panic and creates and maintains his readers’ interest in continuing to read their novel, you would like to know the outcome of the action, this writer has done a good job in generating and continuing your suspense.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cemetery Dance, The First 10 Chapters and the Epilogue: A Study of Technique

By Gary L. Pullman
The use of situational irony; the introduction of new or recurring characters; the planting of clues; the descriptions of violent encounters which could be injurious or fatal to sympathetic characters; the teasing of readers by the raising of questions, large or small (especially those which concern motive or cause), which are then answered incorrectly or partially, either immediately or in the future; the creation of ambiguous situations which themselves give rise to questions in readers’ minds which are also then answered incorrectly or partially, either immediately or in the future; the inclusion of unusual or bizarre incidents, characters, settings, or objects; the piecemeal revelation of character; and the allusion to bizarre beliefs and rituals, especially with the suggestion that they may be true and real, are all ways by which to generate the suspense by which readers’ interest in a story is created or maintained.

These elements are often about significant incidents, but even small matters can, and do, sustain suspense (at least for a short time) and, therefore, readers’ interest in the story. Those which are more significant than others might be mentioned more than once, often in dialogue between different characters.

Short, tightly written chapters, comprised of only one or two scenes, in which composed, if not serene, action alternates with fast-paced, sometimes violent, action (and usually a change of setting and characters), also keeps readers reading. Most of the chapters of Cemetery Dance are five or six pages long, but there are 85 chapters and an epilogue, or 435 pages, total.

Writers and readers alike complain about the difficulty of bringing a narrative to an appropriate and satisfying end--one which doesn’t make readers feel as though the writer has cheated them with a convenient, tacked-on, but emotionally unsatisfying and philosophically unrealistic, conclusion. Cemetery Dance’s epilogue shows an effective way of concluding a story of combined genres, which might be called the horror-mystery-thriller.

Note: Bold black font indicates incidents which create or maintain suspense; bold red font explains how these incidents accomplish this purpose.

Chapter 1 (pages 1-7)

Who: Bill Smithback, his wife Nora Kelly, and Colin Fearing
What: Fearing kills Smithback after Nora leaves on an errand; Fearing also attempts to attack Nora
When: Smithback’s and Nora’s first anniversary
Where: Smithback’s and Nora’s apartment in New York City
How: Knife
Why: Unknown at this time
Twist: None

Contrast is used to effect situational irony [readers’ expectations are overturned] as New York Times reporter Bill Smithback, a character who has appeared in several previous novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, anticipates, on his first anniversary, an intimate evening with his wife, Nora an archaeologist with New York City Museum of Natural History who has just received the news that her expedition to the “Southwest” to analyze “the spread of the Kachina Cult” has been approved [is this cult somehow important to the story, and, if so, how and why?]; instead of the intimacy that Smithback anticipates, he is brutally killed by a knife-wielding assassin identified by eyewitnesses and surveillance video as his neighbor, “out-of-work British actor” Colin Fearing. In addition, Smithback’s fight for his life [will he survive?] helps to maintain readers’ interest, as does Fearing’s attempted attack upon Nora [will she be injured or killed?] as she returns home from having run an errand. The motive for the murder, which is not known [what is the motive?] at this time, also maintains readers’ interest in the story, as does Smithback’s reminder to Nora to be careful as she embarks upon her errand, especially since they have been receiving “weird little packages” [what is in the packages, who has been sending them, and why?].

Chapter 2 (pages 8-13)

Who: Detective Vincent D’Agosta and Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast
What: D’Agosta and Pendergast investigate the crime scene
When: Morning of Smithback’s murder
Where: Smithback’s and Nora’s apartment in New York City
How: Knife used in murder; crime-scene analysis performed; Pendergast performs own tests
Why: Murder is thought to have followed an attempted rape gone wrong
Twist: Pendergast eliminates suspect

The introduction of two other recurring characters, Detective Vincent D’Agosta and Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast [for new readers, who are they; for regular readers, what are they up to this time around?], maintains readers’ interest in the story, as does the discovery of clues at the crime scene [which, if any, are important to the case, and why?], the identification of the suspected motive for the crime [is this the true motive?], hints that the murder is not “open and shut,” [why not?], as D’Agosta believes it to be, the disclosure that “a star witness” awaits interrogation [what will the interview disclose about the case?], and the situational irony that results from the twist ending to the chapter, wherein Pendergast informs D’Agosta that the suspect is dead [readers’ expectations are overturned].

Chapter 3 (pages 14-18)

Who: Detective D’Agosta, Special Agent Pendergast, “star witness” Enrico Mosquea (doorman), and Pendergast’s driver, Proctor
What: With D’Agosta present, Pendergast interviews Mosquea
When: The morning following Smithback’s murder
Where: The lobby of Smithback’s and Nora’s apartment building; the interior of Pendergast’s 1959 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith
How: Interview; surveillance tape
Why: Pendergast questions a witness and views a surveillance tape for clues
Twist: Pendergast observes that it is curious that Fearing, just after he has committed a murder, would look into a camera he knows to be present

With D’Agosta present, Pendergast interviews Mosquea [what will the interview disclose about the case?], who swears, most adamantly, that the killer is Fearing, maintaining his belief even after Pendergast tells the doorman that Fearing has been dead for 10 days; in Pendergast’s car, D’Agosta and Pendergast review the surveillance tape [what will the tape disclose about the case?], showing Fearing entering and exiting Smithback’s apartment building, bloody upon egress, and Pendergast thinks it curious that Fearing, just after he has committed a murder, would look into a camera that he knows to be in the lobby [why does Fearing do so?]. The authors provide three possible explanations for the killer’s resemblance to the dead actor [which, if any, is correct?]: Fearing has a twin, there are two men named Colin Fearing in New York City, or the medical examiner’s office has “made a terrible mistake” in misidentifying Fearing as the dead man.

Chapter 4 (pages 19-23)

Who: Caitlyn Kidd, obituary writer Larry Bassington, “a bald, heavyset man” and Heidi, the latter two of whom were Smithback’s neighbors
What: Caitlyn responds to a police scanner’s report concerning Smithback’s murder
When: Morning following Smithback’s murder
Where: Interior of Caitlyn’s car, as she eats breakfast and monitors her police scanner; exterior of Smithback’s apartment building
How: Monitoring of police scanner; driving of personal automobile
Why: Caitlyn seeks her next news scoop
Twist: None

The introduction of another recurring character, West Sider reporter Caitlyn Kidd [for new readers, who are they; for regular readers, what are they up to this time around?], maintains readers’ interest in the story, as does Caitlyn’s scanning of the police monitor in her car [will she hear an important lead?], and her interviewing of witnesses outside Smithback’s apartment building [will she learn anything significant about the murder?]. A minor incident--the possibility of her getting a ticket for illegal parking (next to a fire extinguisher) also maintains readers’ interest (she does get a ticket).

Chapter 5 (pages 24-27)

Who: Nora, a bloody man, three nurses
What: Nora dreams that a bloody man is attacking her
When: The night after Smithback’s murder
Where: Nora’s hospital room
How: Dream
Why: Dream, perhaps resulting from trauma
Twist: None

Nora awakens from a drug-induced sleep, alone in her hospital room, the privacy curtain drawn around her bed, but, when she hears moans from the bed beside her own and sees a “silhouette” through the curtain, she assumes another patient has been admitted who needs help [is this person another patient; Smithback, who has somehow survived; the killer, come to murder her; or someone else who is sinister?]; then, the other person seems bent upon attacking her [is she actually being attacked or does she only believe she is being attacked and, if she is being attached, why?], and she jabs the call button. A trio of nurses arrive, one giving her an injection, another righting the intravenous stand Nora has knocked over, and all of them helping her back into bed, assuring her that she has had a nightmare [are they telling her the truth, are they mistaken, or are they part of a conspiracy?], which is not uncommon “after a concussion” and showing her that the other bed in the room is not only empty but well made [was the while thing a dream or was it real, and if it truly happened, why is the adjacent bed still made?].

Chapter 6 (pages 28-32)

Who: Detective D’Agosta, Nora Kelly
What: D’Agosta interviews Nora about Fearing’s murder of Smithback
When: The morning after Smithback’s murder
Where: Nora’s hospital room
How: Interview
Why: To elicit information that can help to find and convict Fearing
Twist: None

During D’Agosta’s interview, Nora supplies a list of suspects [will one or more of them turn out to have been Smithback’s killer?] in her husband’s death by telling the detective of several enemies who may have wanted to kill Smithback, including Lucas Kline, who “runs a software development company” and was exposed by her husband as someone who sexually harasses his female employees; Kline (and others) sent Smithback “threatening letters”; she also tells D’Agosta about the “strange packages” she and Smithback received, filled with dolls, animal bones, moss, and sequins” [who sent the packages, why, and why do they contain such bizarre objects?]. She asks why Fearing would have armed himself with only a knife, rather than with a gun [D‘Agosta admits that this is a “good question,” as readers are likewise apt to do], asks why Fearing neither disguised himself nor avoided witnesses and the lobby’s surveillance camera [this echoes Pendergast’s comment about Fearing’s looking into the camera, again implying that the killer’s doing so was intentional and making readers wonder what the killer’s motive for doing so might be], and asks whether she can return to her apartment after her release later in the afternoon (she can).

Chapter 7 (pages 33-35)

Who: Special Agent Pendergast, Miss Kyoko Ishimura (Pendergast’s deaf mute housekeeper)
What: A tea party inside Pendergast’s apartment teahouse
When: Unidentified, except as after Smithback’s death
Where: Pendergast’s apartment
How: N/A
Why: Pendergast bids farewell to Smithback
Twist: None

Pendergast enters the furthest extension of his Dakota’s apartment on West 72nd and Central Part West Streets, where he has a teahouse beyond a garden; therein, he drinks tea, remembering the times he’s had with Smithback and the deeds they’ve accomplished together, bidding farewell to the murdered reporter, using a foreign tongue (waga tomo yusurakani) to do so. [This chapter’s interest for readers is in the curious nature of Pendergast’s abode and his unusual behavior in drinking tea in memory of his deceased friend. It is also a lull, as it were, before the dramatic storm to come. This chapter also suggests that Smithback really is dead; Pendergast is too good a detective to be fooled into supposing Smithback dead when he is not.]

Chapter 8 (pages 36-42)

Who: Detective D’Agosta, Special Agent Pendergast, security guard, secretary, Dr. Wayne Heffler (assistant medical examiner)
What: D’Agosta and Pendergast interview the assistant medical examiner, who autopsied Fearing
When: Noon (of the day following Smithback’s death?)
Where: New York City’s medical examiner’s office
How: Interview
Why: To request that an autopsy on Smithback’s body and DNA tests be expedited
Twist: None

With Pendergast in tow, D’Agosta interviews Dr. Heffler, the assistant medical examiner who autopsied Fearing; they learn that Fearing’s sister, Carmela Fearing, identified the body, Fearing having committed suicide (his body was discovered in the Harlem River). They learn that Fearing’s identity was also collaborated by his birth mark, which was described on his birth certificate, and the tattoo parlor that had tattooed Fearing lately, but Pendergast’s questions disclose the facts that there is no record of Carmela’s proof of her identity, that no one witnessed Fearing’s suicide, and that no “forensic examination” of the suicide note was performed “to ascertain” that the note “was indeed in Colin Fearing’s handwriting.” When Heffler denies D’Agosta’s requests to expedite the autopsy on Smithback’s body and tests on the DNA in the blood obtained from the crime scene and Smithback’s hair samples and on the blood of Fearing’s mother “for comparison,” Pendergast threatens the assistant medical examiner by threatening to expose the legal, but disturbing, practice of his office’s selling of organs harvested from the city’s indigent dead to support its work. There remains only one matter to which to attend: collecting the DNA of Fearing’s mother, which could take months to do using lawful procedures. To this end, Pendergast informs D’Agosta, they will “be paying a visit to one Gladys Fearing,” who, although she is institutionalized as mentally incompetent, Pendergast believes will “prove surprisingly eloquent.” [This chapter’s interest to readers lies in its setting up the possibility that Fearing is not dead, after all, and in the revelation that Pendergast is both innovative and unwilling to be bound by petty bureaucratic procedures or by petty bureaucrats. Pendergast’s reference to a future visit with Fearing’s mother also foreshadows this event, thereby creating suspense as to the visit’s nature and outcome.]

Chapter 9 (pages 43-46)

Who: Nora Kelly, anthropology curator Primus Hornsby
What: Hornsby, implying that Smithback may have been killed by a zombie, explains how Nora should bury her husband’s body, lest Smithback now be one of the living dead himself
When: 2:00 PM, two days after Smithback’s murder
Where: Nora’s office in the New York City Museum of Natural History
How: Dialogue concerning special chemicals and rituals by which to bury the dead
Why: To prevent the return of the dead as a zombie
Twist: None

Having gone straight from the hospital to work, instead of home, Nora takes refuge in her laboratory from her well-meaning colleagues. She logs onto her computer and catalogues specimens of potsherds, trying to forget her memory of the stark nightmare she’d had of the attacker in her hospital room. Primus Hornsby, the anthropology curator, visits her, showing her the latest West Sider headline: “TIMES REPORTER KILLED BY ZOMBIE?” Hornsby, implying that Smithback may have been killed by a zombie, explains how she should bury him, in case Smithback, too, is now one of the living dead: embalmed with Formalazen, mixed with rat poison, instead of formaldehyde, with his mouth sewn shut, and facedown, with a “long knife in one hand,” as they do in Dessalines, Haiti, where Hornsby did his fieldwork. [This chapter’s reference to bizarre beliefs and rituals and its implication that Smithback may be a zombie who was himself killed by another zombie intrigues readers.]

Chapter 10 (pages 47-52)

Who: Detective D’Agosta and Special Agent Pendergast, Mrs. Gladys Fearing, Jo-Ann (desk clerk at Willoughby Manor Extended Care Facility)
What: The detective and the FBI agent obtain a DNA sample from Fearing’s mentally incompetent mother
When: Shortly (perhaps two days) after Smithback’s murder
Where: Willoughby Manor Extended Care Facility, Kerhonkson, New York
How: Pendergast’s automobile; interview
Why: To obtain a DNA sample
Twist: None

After interviewing the desk clerk, Jo-Ann, about how often Gladys Fearing’s son (Colin) and daughter (Carmela) visit their mentally incompetent mother at Kerhonkson, New York’s Willoughby Manor Extended Care Facility (Colin seldom, and most recently eight months ago; Carmela, never) and extracting from Jo-Ann a promise to notify him if anyone visits the patient, Pendergast, asking Gladys about her first teddy bear, gets her to cry and to blow her nose into a tissue that he offers her, thereby obtaining her DNA (in the mucus). [This chapter shows, once again, how unconventional and resourceful Pendergast is and how adept he is at manipulating others, and advances the plot by overcoming an obstacle that would set the narrative back by weeks or months. Readers enjoy seeing character traits revealed and may wonder whether Pendergast’s encouragement of Jo-Ann to stay in touch with him may result in future revelations which are helpful to the case and, if so, what and why.]

Epilogue (pages 433-435)

Who: Nora Kelly
What: Nora disposes of her cremated husband’s ashes
When: a “day in early April”
Where: Lake Powell, Arizona
How: Powerboat
Why: Nora bids adieu to her late husband
Twist: None

To explore the offer of becoming the curator of the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute in New Mexico, Nora stays with her brother Skip, revisiting places she’d been with Smithback during their first encounter with one another, including a channel of water near a waterfall beyond Lake Powell, Arizona’s Serpentine Canyon, where she’d begun to fall in love with Smithback. Here, she shakes the ashes of her cremated husband into the water, wishing him “good-bye.” [The epilogue brings an appropriate closure both to the story and to Nora’s grief, bringing about a sense of completion to the narrative. For readers, it is also a way to allow them to bid farewell to a friend, as it were, whom they have either gotten to know for the first time in reading this novel or have known and liked for many years as returning readers of the Pendergast series.]

If, in reading how Preston and Child advance the plot of Cemetery Dance and create and maintain their readers’ interest in continuing to read their novel, you would like to know the outcome of the action, these writers have done a good job in generating and continuing your suspense.

Quick Tip: Theme As Lesson

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The theme of a story is frequently defined as the point, meaning, or moral of the story, the lesson that the story imparts, explicitly or (more often) implicitly. This definition is true enough, and helpful, but I prefer to think of the story’s theme as the lesson that the main character, or protagonist, learns as the result of his or her experience as this experience is related in the story.

For example, the theme of The Wizard of Oz, which Dorothy Gale learns as a result of her being whisked off to Oz, encountering the enchanted land’s various residents, and defeating the Wicked Witch of the West, is “There’s no place like home.” The theme of The Exorcist is similar to that of the book of Job, that true faith in God persists despite the existence of evil and human suffering. The theme of ‘Salem’s Lot is that, by banding together, a community can defeat a force far greater than any single individual.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Quick Tip: Relate the Turning Point to the Moment of Recognition

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

To ensure tighter unity between plot and character, make sure that the former’s turning point is the vehicle for the latter. The turning point, or climax, of a story is the point at which the protagonist’s fortune changes for the better or the worse or goes from good to better or from bad to worse. (If the story is a comedy, the main character’s state of affairs will improve by the story’s end; if the story is a tragedy, the main character’s state of affairs will worsen by story’s end.)

The turning point, as part of the tale’s action, is an element of the plot. The moment of recognition occurs when the main character learns or realizes something significant about him- or herself.

For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the turning point happens when Dorothy, sent by the wizard to seize the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, throws water on her (trying to extinguish the fire the witch has set upon the scarecrow), thereby destroying her and obtaining the broomstick. Until this moment, Dorothy has been a dependent child who has not appreciated fully the responsibilities of adulthood or her family and her home life. Now, she takes responsibility for herself, acting on her own behalf, and matures. She is able to appreciate the responsibilities of adulthood and her family and home life. The act is the means by which she changes (for the better).

This same principle works in other stories, too, including horror stories. For example, in The Exorcist, the death of Father Merrin not only places the responsibility of the exorcism squarely and solely upon the shoulders of Father Karras, but it also becomes the vehicle for the younger priest’s recovery of his faith, which enables him to sacrifice himself to rescue the possessed girl, Regan MacNeil.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Horror as Image and Word

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

What’s scary? Deprivation. No, I don’t mean missing a meal or not being able to buy an outfit. I mean not being able to see. Or hear. Or missing an eye, an arm, or a leg. Of course, physical injury or mutilation can deprive a person--or a fictitious character--of such body parts and the physical abilities associated with them, but the deprivation can be subtler. A thick fog, maybe rolling across a cemetery, darkness, or an impenetrable forest or jungle can deprive one of sight, in effect rendering him or her blind. A waterfall that’s so loud that it blocks out all other sounds in effect deafens anyone nearby.

What else is scary? Being isolated, which means being cut off--from society, from civilization, from help. There are no police or fire and rescue personnel or stores or hospitals or friends in the Amazon rain forest, on a deserted island, or atop the Himalayan mountains. However, there could be an undiscovered predatory beast, a tribe of cannibalistic headhunters dedicated to human sacrifice, or a Yeti. With nowhere to run and no one to help, the isolated character is on his or her own.

Being at the mercy of another person or group of persons, especially strangers, who not only intend to do one harm, but may well enjoy doing so, is scary. A relentless torturer or killer who just keeps coming, no matter what, is terrifying. Sleeping with a serial killer might be, too, especially if he or she is given to nightmares or sleepwalking.

Typing “scary,” “eerie,” or “uncanny” into an Internet images browser will turn up hundreds of pictures that other people consider frightening, giving a writer the opportunity to analyze what, in general, is scary about such images. Completely white eyes--no irises or pupils--are scary, because they suggest that the otherwise-normal--well, normal, except for the green skin and fangs--is inhuman. Bulging eyes can be scary because they suggest choking, which suggests the possibility of imminent death. Deformity is sometimes frightening, because it suggests that what has befallen someone else could befall you or me. Incongruous juxtapositions--a crying infant seated upon the lap of a skeleton clad in a dress, for instance--can be frightening because incongruity doesn’t fit the categories of normalcy. Blurry or indistinct images can be scary because they deprive us of clear vision and, therefore, represent a form of blindness or near-blindness. Corridors, alleyways, and channels can be frightening, because they lead and direct one, compelling him or her to travel in this direction only--and maybe trap the traveler by leading him or her into a dead-end terminus or into the jaws of death. Many other images, for various reasons, are scary, too; I will leave the “why” to your own analyses.

We think we know the meanings of terms, but when we’re considering words that are supposed to mean more or less the same thing, it’s easy to overlook distinctions that could make a big difference in writing horror--and in understanding just how and why things are scary. It makes sense for a horror writer to keep handy a glossary of terms related to horror, possibly with an account not only of the terms’ definitions but also of their origins and histories, or etymologies.

These, lifted from Online Etymology Dictionary, will get you started:


O.E. fær "danger, peril," from P.Gmc. *færa (cf. O.S. far "ambush," O.N. far "harm, distress, deception," Ger. Gefahr "danger"), from PIE base *per- "to try, risk, come over, go through" (perhaps connected with Gk. peira "trial, attempt, experience," L. periculum "trial, risk, danger"). Sense of "uneasiness caused by possible danger" developed c.1175. The v. is from O.E. færan "terrify, frighten," originally transitive (sense preserved in archaic I fear me). Sense of "feel fear" is 1393. O.E. words for "fear" as we now use it were ege, fyrhto; as a verb, ondrædan. Fearsome is attested from 1768.
“Ambush,” deceive, trial--these meanings of the word suggest movies like Saw.


1786, "fear, horror, aversion," Mod.L., abstracted from compounds in -phobia, from Gk. -phobia, from phobos "fear," originally "flight" (still the only sense in Homer), but it became the common word for "fear" via the notion of "panic, fright" (cf. phobein "put to flight, frighten"), from PIE base *bhegw- "to run" (cf. Lith. begu "to flee," O.C.S. begu "flight," bezati "to flee, run," O.N. bekkr "a stream"). Psychological sense attested by 1895; phobic (adj.) is from 1897.
“Panic” suggests the movie Panic Room, which, although a thriller rather than a horror movie per se, certainly presents elements of the horrific.


great fear," from O.Fr. terreur (14c.), from L. terrorem (nom. terror) "great fear, dread," from terrere "fill with fear, frighten," from PIE base *tre- "shake" (see terrible). Meaning "quality of causing dread" is attested from 1520s; terror bombing first recorded 1941, with reference to German air attack on Rotterdam. Sense of "a person fancied as a source of terror" (often with deliberate exaggeration, as of a naughty child) is recorded from 1883. The Reign of Terror in Fr. history (March 1793-July 1794) so called in Eng. from 1801.

O.E. words for "terror" included broga and egesa.
Critics usually distinguish terror, as a formless fear that results from the perception of an unseen menace, from horror, which is comprised of both fear and revulsion and derives from the perception of a clear and present danger, a distinction that many horror writers find invaluable.


c.1300, north England and Scot. variant of O.E. earg "cowardly, fearful," from P.Gmc. *argaz (cf. O.N. argr "unmanly, voluptuous," Swed. arg "malicious," Ger. arg "bad, wicked"). Sense of "causing fear because of strangeness" is first attested 1792.
Here is a reminder that the weird in itself may occasion fear, as it does in countless horror stories.

Some of the words that one encounters in tracking through the lexicon of horror may themselves suggest stories (or themes). Consider the term “Luddite,” for example:


1811, from name taken by an organized band of weavers who destroyed machinery in Midlands and northern England 1811-16 for fear it would deprive them of work.
Supposedly from Ned Ludd, a Leicestershire worker who in 1779 had done the same
before through insanity (but the story was first told in 1847). Applied to modern rejecters of automation and technology from at least 1961.
Couldn’t this word have inspired The Terminator series or, for that matter, the mad computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the antagonist of Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed or the “I Robot, You Jane” or “Ted” episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?


1596, "mischievous;" 1773 in the sense of "associated with the supernatural,"
originally Scottish and northern English, from un- (1) "not" + canny.
Okay, this is Poltergeist sand its sequels, right?


absurdity 1520s, from M.Fr. absurdité, from L. absurditatem (nom. absurditas)
"dissonance, incongruity," from absurdus "out of tune, senseless," from ab- intens. prefix + surdus "dull, deaf, mute" (see susurration). The main modern sense (also present in L.) is a fig. one, "out of harmony with reason or propriety."
The attack of the birds in The Birds is scary because it is “out of harmony with reason.”

There are many, many other words related to horror that could be listed, but, again, you get the idea. Language itself, as a repository of ideas and understandings, can suggest stories to the imaginative reader, and a good dictionary can be as fruitful as an Internet image browser in suggesting ideas for novels and short stories, or even screenplays, in the horror mold.

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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