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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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