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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.

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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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